GREGORIVS VATIS ADVENA
– a series of circular books –
The Internet has brought us the benefit of easier forms of communication, but one of the effects of mass communication is the lack of focus and clarity. Where all contents are mingled together, it becomes difficult for any particular content to stand out and reach its target public. Yet is the Internet really getting in the way?
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 was invented, and probably rightly so, since any thought needed this printed medium to be communicated and not every thinker and writer had his or her own printing house and the means to finance the edition, printing and distribution of a book. This required a craft of its own, and thus the publisher arose.
When the levels of literacy in the world were low, the demand in the publishing/printing market was clearer and manageable. Yet slowly, publishing houses became overburdened with demand. At such a time, this trade had already established itself as a proper business and, obviously, prioritised only the submissions which promised the greatest sale. It transformed literature into a business model. Writers were encouraged to approach their work as a businessman pursuing his career. To crown the trade, literature was finally divided into commercial genres like the departments of a company: crime, fantasy, historic novel, science fiction etc. Conversely, readers were conditioned to expect this kind of genrified writings in the shelves of book stores.
It is not a coincidence that hardly an author from this commercial setting won a Nobel Prize, for which I still have great regard. 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 any valuable service to literature, are playing a rather illiberal role: They take advantage of their privileged position as intermediaries between writers and readers to alienate the literary production by unbearable commercial requirements and, at the same time, to alienate the taste of readers by a disproportionate supply of doubtful writings.
The advent of the Internet and new forms of communication made many believe for a while that, for the first time, it would be possible to break the spell of illiberality and vulgarity that the publishing business put over writers and readers. Direct contact, debate and interaction suddenly appeared possible and feasible. We saw the rise of websites as a potential haven for writers, as well as forums of discussion and other platforms. Ideally, writers would soon acquire their own domain and build their website, a free and unique place to share their writings with readers and explore a different dimension of interaction. A wide net of small but authentic literary pages, all interconnected, would lead to a new cultural effervescence. It would emancipate literature from the shackles imposed by commercial interests. Yet by 2010 it was clear that the whole project of the Internet was being engulfed by social media. The trend became only worse and has now stifled most of the creative potential online. Instead of a wide net of free, small and authentic websites, we see almost everybody quickly opening an account at the same social network and spending their days in trifling pursuits. Only a few learnt HTML and acquired the tools to take the progress of the Internet, this huge and beautiful project, in their own hands. Most let themselves be carried away.
Thus we reached a point where, despite all hopes, little is left for writers who still look for serious ways of interaction online. Their spaces are losing traffic for networks like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where pictures and numbers take precedence over debate. Independent thinkers are struggling to find any resonance. At this moment, I can hardly think of any strategy that would enable writers to find a public online and provide a freer interaction beyond the petty and pernicious ambitions of commercial publishers and alienating networks. Yet whether the Internet be a disaster for critical debate is a difficult thing to say. Without such a medium, the very interaction of this circular letter, however discreet and unnoticed, would not be taking place, and a discreet interaction is still better than none.
I have great respect for publishing houses as for any useful organisation. It would be foolish not to acknowledge their contribution for the written transmission of many a classic. I am not stating that a publishing house is less worthy of respect on account of not having won a Nobel Prize. I have just presented a non-exhaustive list of most deservingly Nobel-awarded writers who were all published by established houses. My point is that none of them wrote in any of these doubtful genres which fill most of contemporary bookshops. I do have misgivings about publishing houses that appear to encourage the massive production of these genres (so-called) for commercial purposes. I condemn this attitude. I affirm that it is below the standard of the uncompromising freedom of creativity that true, good and beautiful literature requires as does any other art. It is a technocratic behaviour that leads to alienation both of readers and of authors. In my perception, this is a major problem in the current publishing world.
A screenshot of The Carolingian circular letter in English
The times where I indulged in inflammatory rhetoric are now behind me, not much because of my age but because I read and pondered over Plato's Gorgias more than once. I agree that most of the work of so-called self-publishers is deplorable. In a world where every third person deems himself or herself a writer and wants to publish something, it is difficult to distinguish what is good and bad and, if Plato is right in Euthydemos, in any trade or art you consider, most people are mediocre, the truly good ones are only a few. Regarding literature, I am not convinced that contemporary publishing houses have enough aesthetic authority and refinement to single out the best writers, since too many commercial criteria play a role in their decisions, unless you rank books like Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey and many other best-sellers as literarily 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 always to make the best possible decision, overloaded with work as they are. It would be unreasonable to expect that any conscientious writer, whether published or not, should expose his or her work to the slush pile of a money-driven publishing house. Note that the expression "slush pile" is not mine, it was coined by publishers themselves.
On the other hand, I am not convinced that the solution for this is for anyone who wrote whatever writings to resort to self-publishing. Yet it is important to distinguish different contexts: The reason why most self-publishers do a disservice to literature is not that they avoid publishing houses, but that they produce their work with a view to become rich and famous and not from a spirit truly enlightened about the noble cause that art and literature should always serve in order to be good and valuable both in aesthetical and in ethical terms. They regard literature as an end in itself or as a business model (which attitude they share by the way with publishing houses), while genuine art and literature serve a cause much higher than themselves, in my view at least. 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 main reason why they reject each other. Both seek from literature what they should seek from the lottery.
A conscientious writer should neither approach any publishing house nor be his or her own commercial publisher. What I suggest is that they do what any respectable writer did originally: If you believe in art as a sacrifice for something higher than art, then 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 and the subject. This is how Plato and Aristotle circulated their writings. Plato did not place a dialogue like Republic on a shelf to try to bargain as someone who will let us read his books if we pay, but not if not. Success is not about turning literature into a doubtful contest of best-sellers. Rather, Plato made the sacrifice to pay for his manuscripts to be copied and carefully (and discreetly) circulated among a select group of people. He lost more money than he won, and this should be the spirit of anyone who believes what he has to share is true or good or beautiful. The payment is not money, but the intrinsic benefit of the work for the readers, which in return will benefit the author. This is an argument put forward at the end of Gorgias and which makes the usual business of publishing houses look like an imposture, although this is too harsh a word for a serene spirit to employ, and I am sure Plato does not have the last word in this debate.
The minuscule, one of the fruits of the Carolingian Renaissance
The texts of the classics survived because in the Middle Ages monasteries sacrificed their means to acquire and reproduce copies of these texts. If the classics were to depend on businesses moved by a spirit of profit, they would not have survived. Why, the Church did not copy the classics in the hope that they would sell, but in the belief that they were good. Much later, when these texts gradually acquired the status of “classics”, publishing houses started selling editions thereof, possibly in the belief that the texts were good, but more probably because they knew that buying the “classics”, whoever they be, is a sign of status for many readers, so that there will always be a superficial demand for whatever be called “classic”. It is easy to sell and continue selling what is already branded as “classic.” Buying the “classics” becomes a fetish for a number of readers.
The modest disruption that the Internet has caused in the publishing business will have positive effects. It will help literature to become more emancipated from the commercial discretion of publishing houses. It is known that, until the Reformation, the priest was regarded as an intermediary between man and God, and indispensable in his office. I hope that literature will be emancipated from an element that, for far too long, has been trying to impose itself as an intermediary, a priest between the writer and the world. There has to be a movement of literary Emancipation. Free thinking cannot compromise with the needs of money-driven publishers. 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 commercial concern, as it should be. The Renaissance is full of inspiring examples: The true 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 publisher who needs to be concerned about how he will finance the circulation of good books should not be a publisher; he should leave it to someone who can afford not to be concerned about such matters. A patron does not sell a book, he enables the book to be circulated in all circles that are appropriate to the book, regardless of quantity. Yes, the work of the true publisher is a kind of patronage, yet, at least in terms of money, true patronage is not a gain, but rather the most expensive sacrifice. This is the spirit in which publishers should approach literature.
Such is the aim of The Carolingian, both as my circular letters online and as my series of printed 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 this circle of literati, 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 truly independent thinker or any writer who does not write commercial main stream. 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 and modest, yet lasting impact on a small audience.
The Carolingian is a series of circular books, which means, books that wander from reader to reader within a circle that begins and ends with the author. They belong to the author as their editor and are circulated free of charge. Readers will give it back to the author or pass it over to friends after perusal, who in their turn will give the circular book back to the author, who in his turn will make it circulate in another circle and so on. The Carolingian concept is also 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 from the author, who will post it free of charge. The reader must only pledge to return the book. This is not a practice that I am inventing. This is a genuinely Carolingian approach to the cultivation and circulation of literature. I do not regard the printing and circulation of these books as a publication, but simply as private presentation to and direct interaction with the public.
While the printed version of The Carolingian contains the books that I circulate privately, the online version is a newsletter that raises awareness about the work that is being circulated and is also available online. For this reason, 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 on my website for whoever wishes to peruse them, and whoever wishes can also order a printed version from anywhere in the world. I gladly repeat myself: The books are sent free of charge, because charging does not fit the spirit in which these books were written. If you truly believe in the intrinsic worth of what you write, you assume that the work will bring some kind of benefit to the world, 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 its intrinsic value. As we live in world pervaded with commercial sophistry, circulating a book free of charge does not mean that readers are bound to agree with your views simply because they did not pay. Yet even those who will disagree with or dislike the content of my writings (and there will be many) 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. The moral contract between my readers and myself is not conditioned by money but only by true commitment to the cause of literature and knowledge as well as free and respectful debate.
The first title of The Carolingian series of circular books, a "Carolingian book"
The Carolingian approach is an attempt to find a third way, an ethical middle way between the commercial arbitrariness of publishing houses and the conspicuous greed of self-publishers. Under this and all the above premises, I am happy to announce that the first title of The Carolingian series of circular books has just appeared in a limited, private edition and is now open for orders from the public. "An Essay on Existence" is a literary enquiry on the concepts of being and existing, relation and isolation, causality and non-causality, which will appeal to readers interested in ontology and metaphysics. It also treats the problem of universals (so-called) with implications in theological and cosmological fields of study. It is composed of sections in prose and dialogue in alternating order (ca. 80 pages). Future titles include a lyric anthology and a philosophical dialogue on livelihood, as well as writings in Latin and other languages. Today, I also had the opportunity to present a major epic poem to the public, for which I thank God for the existence of the Internet.
Is the Internet getting in the way of our cultural life? I hope to able to show, with fortune's help, that a combined initiative of virtual and printed elements like The Carolingian can lead to a Carolingian Renaissance which will benefit the culture of our time both online and offline. It will not be in the foreground of social perception, as neither the actual Carolingian Renaissance was, but it will lay the foundations for greater things to arise as the actual Carolingian Renaissance did, hidden in the background and 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, and the world will not go under.
Petersfield, 15th September 2017
© Greg Ory 2017, Nulla Dies Sine Linea. Website by Greg Ory at The White Carolingian Office, Flat 7, 18 High Street, Petersfield, Hampshire GU32 3JL, United Kingdom; mobile +44 7821355575, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org