© Greg Ory 2018, Announcement: An introduction to the Carolingian series, by Gregorius Vatis Advena, putting forward the concept of circular books.
The Internet has brought easier forms of communication, but one of its effects is the lack of focus and clarity. Where all contents are mingled together, it becomes difficult to stand out and reach any public. Is the Internet getting in the way of our cultural life?
Until recently, it went without saying that there must be an intermediary between the writer and the reader: the publisher. This notion went unchallenged since the late Middle Ages when the modern book arose, and probably rightly so, since this printed medium was needed to communicate any thought. Editing and printing a book required a craft of its own.
When the levels of literacy were lower, the demand in the publishing market was clearer and manageable. Slowly, publishing houses became overburdened. At such a time, the trade had established itself as a business, prioritising submissions that promised the greatest sale. It turned literature into a business model. Writers were encouraged to approach their work as a business career. Finally, literature was divided into commercial genres like the departments of a company: crime, fantasy, historic novel, science fiction etc. Readers became conditioned to expect this kind of writings in the shelves of book stores.
It is not a coincidence that hardly an author from this commercial setting won a Nobel Prize. Derek Walcott, Thomas Mann, Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Eliot, William Yeats, none of these wrote in pre-conceived genres to please the ambitions of a publisher, because a true writer writes out of ambitions higher and nobler than money. It becomes evident, therefore, that publishers and the new branch of agents, far from rendering a service to literature, are playing quite an illiberal role: They take advantage of their position as intermediaries between writers and readers to alienate all literary production by unbearable commercial requirements and, at the same time, alienate the taste of readers by a disproportionate supply of doubtful writings.
The advent of the Internet made many believe that, for the first time, it would be possible to break the spell of vulgarity that the publishing business cast over literature. Direct contact, debate and interaction suddenly appeared possible and feasible. We saw the rise of websites and forums as a potential haven. Ideally, writers would acquire their own domain and build a free and unique place to share their writings and explore a different kind of contact. A wide net of authentic literary pages would lead to a cultural effervescence. It would emancipate literature from the shackles of commercial interest. Yet by 2010 it had become clear that the Internet was being engulfed by social media. The trend has stifled most of the creative potential online. Instead of a wide net of free and authentic websites, we see everybody opening an account at the same network. Only a few acquire the tools to take the progress of a culturally powerful Internet in their own hands.
Thus, we reached a point where little is left for writers who still look for serious interaction online. Their spaces are losing traffic for networks where pictures and numbers take precedence over debate. Independent thinkers are struggling to find resonance. We can hardly think of a strategy that would enable writers to find a public online and provide interaction beyond the petty ambitions of commercial publishers and alienating networks.
It would be foolish not to acknowledge the contribution of publishers for the transmission of many a classic. A publishing house is not less worthy of respect on account of not having won a Nobel Prize. We have just presented a list of most deservingly awarded writers who were published by established houses. The point is that none of them wrote in any of the genres which fill most of our bookshops. We have misgivings about publishers that encourage the massive production of these genres. We condemn this attitude. We affirm that it is below the standard of the uncompromising freedom of creativity that true, good and beautiful literature requires. This technocratic and alienating behaviour is a major problem in the current publishing world.
Is self-publishing the alternative? Most works of so-called self-publishers are deplorable. In a world where every third person deems himself or herself a writer, it is difficult to distinguish what is good and bad. We are not convinced that contemporary publishing houses have enough aesthetic authority to single out the best writers, since too many commercial criteria play a role in their decisions, unless you rank books like Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey and other best-sellers as artistically refined. Even from those with enough discernment it would be naive to expect that, receiving thousands of manuscripts in a short period of time, they were able to make the best possible decision. It would be unreasonable to expect that any conscientious writer should expose his or her work to the slush pile of a money-driven publishing house. Note that the derisive expression slush pile is not ours, it was coined by publishers.
Self-publishing is not the solution. Yet it is important to distinguish different contexts: The reason that most self-publishers do a disservice to literature is not that they avoid publishing houses, but that they write with a trivial view to become rich and famous. They regard literature as a business model. Sadly, publishing houses and self-publishers, other than being opposed to each other, have in fact too much in common: Both seek the cause of literature as a means of quick enrichment and applause. They are competing for the same goal, and this is the reason that they reject each other. Both seek from literature what they should seek from the lottery.
A writer should neither approach any publishing house nor be his or her own commercial publisher. If you believe in art as a sacrifice for something higher, you spend your means to produce copies of your work in a small number, which you will distribute free of charge among friends of the cause. This is how Plato and Aristotle circulated their writings. They did not place their works on a shelf to try to bargain as someone who will only let us read his books if we pay. Success is not about turning literature into a contest of best-sellers. Aristotle would have paid for his manuscripts to be copied and discreetly circulated. He lost more money than he won, and this should be the spirit of anyone who believes what he or she has to share is true or good or beautiful. The payment is the intrinsic benefit of the work, which in return will benefit the author. This is an argument put forward at the end of Plato’s Gorgias and which makes the business of publishing houses look like an imposture, although this is too harsh a word for a serene spirit to employ.
The texts of the classics survived to this day because medieval monasteries sacrificed their means to acquire and reproduce copies. If the classics were to depend on businesses moved by profit, they would not have survived. For the Church did not copy the classics in the hope that they would sell, but in the belief that they were good. Later, when these texts gradually acquired the status of “classics”, publishing houses started selling editions, possibly in the belief that they were good, but more probably because they knew that buying the “classics”, whoever they be, is a sign of status, so that there will always be a superficial demand for whatever be called a “classic”.
The modest disruption that the Internet has caused in the publishing business will have positive effects. It will help literature to become more independent. It is known that, until the Reformation, the priest was regarded as an intermediary between man and God, indispensable in his office. We hope that literature will become emancipated from an element that, for far too long, has been trying to impose itself as a priest between the writer and the world. There has to be a movement of emancipation. Free thinking cannot compromise with commercialism. If you are looking for a means of enrichment, you do not approach literature, neither as a writer nor as a publisher. As a matter of principle, first you procure the means to support your life elsewhere, in order for your art or patronage of art to be truly free from any concern.
The Renaissance is full of inspiring examples: The publisher is a patron; a person who can afford to lose money to support not what will sell but what is good, because losing money in this way is a noble loss, while the gain which is based on selling what is mediocre is a vulgar gain – and it is vulgar to be concerned, as a publisher, with the question as to whether or not a book that is good will also sell. A patron enables the circulation of books in all circles that are appropriate to the book. Yes, the work of the true publisher is patronage, yet in terms of money patronage is not a gain, but rather the most expensive sacrifice. This is the only spirit in which literature should be approached.
Such is the aim of The Carolingian, both in the online journal and in this series of books. The title is a reference to the Carolingian Renaissance: At Charlemagne’s time there was only a small circle of literati at the Emperor’s court and very few literate people beyond the clergy. In that circle, members circulated their writings among each other, which was the only way of cultivating literature at a time in which no wide readership could be expected. Yet the difficulty of finding an audience is faced by any independent thinker and writer. For them, the Dark Ages will hardly come to an end and they will be always in need of a Carolingian Renaissance to leave a discreet yet lasting impact on a small audience.
The Carolingian is a series of circular books – books that wander from reader to reader within a circle that begins and ends with the author. They belong to the circulator and are circulated free of charge. After perusal, readers will give it back or pass it over to friends, who in their turn will give the circular book back to the circulator, who in his turn will circulate it in another circle and so on. The Carolingian concept is useful for the environment: It allows a small number of books to be printed and each copy to be perused by many different readers. Anyone can order a circular book and it will be posted free of charge. The reader must only pledge to return the book. This is not a practice we are inventing. This is a genuinely Carolingian approach to the cultivation and circulation of literature.
While the Carolingian series contains the books that are circulated, the online journal also raises awareness about them. The Carolingian is not proposing an elitist approach to literature: Although the printed books circulate within a select and private circle, online versions are available for whoever wishes to read them, and whoever wishes can order a printed version from anywhere. Why are the books sent free of charge? If you believe in the intrinsic value of what you write, you assume that the work will bring a benefit from which you will profit yourself at last. Yet if on top of this you need to charge money as a reward for your work, then you are not really convinced of it. Circulating a book free of charge does not mean that readers are bound to agree with any views simply because they did not pay. Yet even those who may disagree with or dislike the content will acknowledge that, at least, they had no financial damage on top of their frustration; and that a conscientious thinker is under no moral obligation to write what will please the susceptibilities of those who are paying to be flattered and entertained. Our moral contract with readers is conditioned only by true commitment to literature and knowledge as well as free and respectful debate.
The Carolingian approach is a third way, an ethical middle way between and beyond the practices of publishing houses and self-publishers. Thus, we are now happy to print and circulate a lyric anthology as the second title of the series, adding to it an introduction that would have been premature in the very first book. Future titles include a philosophical dialogue on good livelihood, as well as writings in Latin and other languages.
We hope to able to show, with Fortune’s help, that a combined initiative of virtual and printed elements can lead to a concrete cultural benefit. Even though it may not be in the foreground of social perception, it will lay the foundations for greater things to arise as the actual Carolingian Renaissance did, hidden in the background yet enough visible for all who look for depth and enlightenment: a steadfast beacon showing that, despite all confusion and fears of war, culture and erudition will remain.
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