Archives For Chaucer

Publishing Troubles

June 23, 2015 — 7 Comments

chaucerDespite C.S. Lewis’ vast experience as an author, even he was abused by publishers to the point where he could simply echo Chaucer in saying, “Flee from the Press!”

Print on demand technology has delivered a stout, but not debilitating, blow to traditional publishers. They still possess a significant amount of influence.

And—like all power—that which is wielded by publishers can be used for either good or evil.

We can thank many different publishers for making the works of Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and their fellow Inklings available to us. We would be wrong, however, to assume these relationships were without their stresses.

John H. McCallum was an American editor with whom Lewis worked. McCallum worked at Harcourt, Brace & World.

A piece of correspondence from 1960 reveals how complex the publishing world remained even to a veteran such as Lewis.

McCallum had sought permission to publish Lewis’ latest work, and the Cambridge professor had sought to accommodate that request. Unfortunately, he had negotiated a contract that restricted him from doing so. He begins his letter of explanation with an apology for having taken so long to respond.

Dear Mac

‘Why the heck can’t C.S.L. have the civility to answer a letter?’ I don’t blame you, but it wasn’t exactly my fault. Like a fool, I dealt direct with C.U.P. [Cambridge University Press] for Studies in Words instead of working through [his regular literary agent] Curtis Brown: chiefly because I regarded this book as too academic to be of any serious commercial value.

And like a double fool I’ve let them take it up so that I’m not free to arrange for an American edn. with anyone else.

The delay in answering you is due to the fact that I’ve been all this time trying to get out of them whether this is exactly what my contract with them means. It is. But of all the impenetrable block heads! Their answer—the correspondence was long and infuriating—dealt with every question under the sun except the one I had asked (besides being unintelligible and contradictory).

I am sorry about all this. How well Chaucer advised us ‘Flee fro the Presse’!

Yours Lewis, C.S.

Dealing with publishers today remains challenging. They are, in a sense, gatekeepers. One of their roles is to prevent undeserving works from seeing print. Unfortunately, because literary tastes are utterly subjective, they bar many worthwhile manuscripts as well.

For that reason, we can be thankful that digital publishing allows quality works that would formerly have been overlooked to find their audience. The price of that boon, however, is that we must sometimes wade through major quantities of dregs to savor fine writing.

The majority of writers, given the opportunity, would prefer to be published by traditional publishing houses. There is no way around the fact that this adds a degree of status to most books. A recent poll supports this notion. It found among those published traditionally, “32% of respondents said the prestige of having a deal with a traditional publisher was important to them, while a further 54% said it was one of the appealing aspects of a traditional publishing deal.”

If we should ever seek “publication” for our own work, it is good to remember that the publishing business could puzzle even as gifted a writer as C.S. Lewis. If the author of so many impressive books could be mystified by it, it’s no wonder it seems labyrinthine to the likes of us.

Perhaps Chaucer’s advice, offered more than 500 years ago, really does ring just as true today.

Navy Nerds

May 19, 2014 — 7 Comments

nerdEvery once in a while, the military has a good idea. Sure, they have a knack for technological breakthroughs in warfare . . . but what about other fields? The NAVY NeRD answers that question in the affirmative.

NeRD stands for Navy eReader Device.

Well-informed readers of Mere Inkling are already aware of the growing intensity of international cyberwarfare. It is no joke, and lives are at stake.

Draconian policies are in place to avoid the contamination of the military computer system by innocently transferred viruses. Since virtually all digital platforms allow for the transfer of data, they are potentially dangerous.

Because of that, even ereaders have been off limits in certain environments. Now, however, someone has thought outside the proverbial box and come up with a solution to that problem.

The United States Navy has devised a novel ereader that comes loaded with 300 titles, but has no ports or wireless connectivity to allow for inadvertent viral transfers.

The selection of books sounds pretty well rounded. Some public domain classics, and a number of contemporary best sellers like A Game of Thrones. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien will be delighted to know the readers also include The Lord of the Rings.

Reading is a productive way to spend one’s free time during a lengthy period at sea. Even for those not prone to opting for it when faced with all the distractions ashore.

During WWII, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a former student who was serving in the Navy, “out of reach of libraries.” It acknowledges the perennial problem of sailors—lack of space for personal property. The letter was written in response to a request from Michael Rayner Thwaites for reading recommendations. Thwaites was an Australian poet and military intelligence officer.

A man who has already your linguistic training might well, I think, begin the Anglo Saxon on his own. You will need E. Wardale Old English Grammar. . . . For texts, the ordinary beginning is first Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer and then his Old English Reader. But you, being a classic might well, after a dip in the Primer go on to King Alfred’s trans. of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiae . . .

Whether you can begin O.E. poetry on your own I don’t know. But try getting . . . Beowulf: and with it Clark Hall’s trans. ed. by Wrenn with preface by Tolkien . . . This edition is essential for it is Tolkien’s part of metre wh. is essential. (O.E. verse uses both quality and accent, and your ear is prob. ruined, as mine was, by the false way they teach Latin metre at schools–drastic re-education is required. . . .

As to modern literature. You must not start out to study it ‘as it reveals man’s hesitant advance to the idea of a God-created world’. Don’t you see you are laying down in advance what a phenomenon is to reveal before you have examined the phenomenon? It may reveal that: it may not. You have to find out. I don’t think I can lay down any v. definite course of reading.

All I can point out is that while you are in the navy and out of reach of libraries and new publications, this is the proper time for solid reading through the big (i.e. long) authors, critical works and histories of lit. can come later. Now is the time for Chaucer, Malory, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Fielding, Richardson, Cowper, Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, Dickens etc etc.

If you usually keep two books of widely different period and type going together (e.g. Faerie Queene & Tom Jones) you won’t get bored. I myself always index a good book when I read it for the first time noting (a) Linguistic phenomena. (b) Good & bad passages. (c) Customs: meal times, social classes, what they read etc. (d) Moral ideas.

All this reading, tho’ dedicated ad Dei gloriam in the long run must not be infected by any immediate theological, ethical, or philosophic reference. Your first job is simply the reception of all this work with your imagination & emotions. Each book is to be read for the purpose the author meant it to be read for: the story as a story, the joke as a joke.

Back to the NeRD

The Navy is making 385 devices at first, with more to follow, with five being sent to each submarine in the Navy to be shared among the crew.

That’s only the start, of course. One would anticipate that even for a military crew (for example, 155 personnel on a Trident sub), a mere five mini-libraries would prove insufficient. (No offense intended; yours truly is a veteran himself.)

BonnevilleAs an American, I find there is something distinctive about British programs. When my family lived in the United Kingdom we enjoyed access to all the offerings of the BBC and the commercial network or two that existed twenty-two years ago.

Returning to the States, we had to become content with viewing the occasional British import, mostly through the auspices of PBS. Since I watch far less television than I used to, I haven’t seen one of the current offerings that’s become quite popular.

Downton Abbey is essentially a soap opera which examines the lives of a noble family, and the myriad servants who attend to their needs. Contrasting their culturally different lifestyles is doubtless quite intriguing.

The reason I’m mentioning a program I’ve never seen, is because I read an interview with one of its co-stars, Hugh Bonneville. His response to the question “Did you make a New Year’s resolution?” was wonderful.

I’ve had the same resolutions for about 20 years, which is to read The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, and I’m only on about book number three. I’m a terrible reader, which is a great shame because literature is the lifeblood of everything, really, in terms of inspiration and nourishment of the soul.

C.S. Lewis often speaks about the value of reading the “classics.” One benefit he describes in “The Reading of Old Books,” is that they provide us with a grounded perspective in a rapidly shifting world. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Lewis apparently enjoyed Dickens. Below are a couple of passages where he refers to him in very good company. In his essay “Sir Walter Scott,” he writes:

. . . there are two things of which I feel certain. One is, that if we do overvalue art, then art itself will be the greatest sufferer; when second things are put first, they are corrupted. The other is that, even if we of all generations have first valued art aright, yet there will certainly be loss as well as gain. We shall lose the fine careless, prodigal artists. For, if not all art, yet some art, flows best from men who treat their work as a kind of play. I at any rate cannot conceive how the exuberance, the elbow-room, the heart-easing quality of Dickens, or Chaucer, or Cervantes, could co-exist with that self-probing literary conscience we find in [Walter Horatio] Pater or Henry James.

And, again, in  Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature he praises Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Princess, saying:

From the time of its publication down to about 1914 it was everyone’s poem—the book in which many and many a boy first discovered that he liked poetry; a book which spoke at once, like Homer or Shakespeare or Dickens, to every reader’s imagination.

Ironically, Lewis’ own writings have become classics, to which many of us return over and over. And, even though a month has passed since the traditional day for making New Year resolutions, I can’t think of a better one than planning to read the “complete works” of C.S. Lewis himself.