Archives For Press

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.

pressIf the devil has used the printing press so effectively to advance his purposes, one can only imagine how easily the internet can be twisted to his purposes.

Whether or not you believe Satan is an actual (fallen angelic) person, we all recognize the web provides a ready conduit for unimaginable evil. Recent discussions of the traffic that occurs on the Dark Web is sobering. Actually, not “sobering,” but frightening.

While a small fraction of the data is innocent, the majority deals with criminal and dehumanizing material. Some investigators suggest more than half of the data transfers involve pedophilia.

I’ve been doing some personal research into parallels between the advent of the printing press and the rise of the internet. I’m approaching it from the perspective of how each has provided access to competing faith claims.

Martin Luther viewed the “recent” invention of Gutenberg’s press as divinely appointed to coincide with what would come to be known as the Reformation.

Roman Catholics also published treatises and pamphlets opposing the calls for institutional change within the church. The persuasiveness of arguments aside, one reason for their lack of success against the evangelical leaders was simple.

Rather than writing for the German people in their own tongue, they directed nearly all of their initial energies at writing for the elite, in Latin. While only a minority of sixteenth century Germans were literate, only a small percentage of these were able to read Latin.

During the first half century of the existence of movable type for the press, the majority of published titles were religious. Only later did popular and secular titles eclipse them.

However, they did. Many were wonderful. Scientific and literary knowledge blossomed.

Foremost among the good fruits disseminated by the press, we would have to include the works of the Inklings, especially C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. (Consecrated imaginations are capable of wondrous creations!)

Eventually, of course—given humanity’s imperfect nature—this neutral device was harnessed to baser purposes.

This would lead a nineteenth century minister to write an essay with the title of this column, “The Devil’s Printing Press.” Thomas Green described the dilemma vividly.

The first book printed in Europe had six hundred leaves, and it took nearly ten years to make it. Now books are written, printed, sold, read and forgotten in one-fourth the time. A single century ago, and a man well to do, thought himself fortunate if he had one book in this wild western world.

Today there are books in well kept rank upon almost every cottage shelf It is little wonder that the powers of evil should have invaded the province of the influence of the book shelf and bound up in attractive colors and insidious page the poison of wickedness and sin.

Later in his address, available to read at your leisure here, he contrasts the noble and corrupt purposes for which the press (or internet) might be used.

There are papers of every shape and for every use; daily, tri-daily and almost hourly, weekly and semi-weekly, monthly and quarterly, and filled with everything. You have no idea unless you have given it especial attention, of the magnitude and wondrous dimensions of the newspaper as a factor in civilization. You have little idea, unless you have studied it, of the influence, the formative power of this outwardly ephemeral agency upon human life.

You have little idea, unless you have sought it, of the labor, the enterprise, the energy, the talent, the outlay necessary to plan and execute this gigantic result. You have little conception of the influence of the printing press, as an enlightener, as a pioneer of civilization, as a promoter, a creator, a conservator of purity and virtue; and you have little idea of the magnitude of the devil’s work through this mighty agency, as in a thousand ways he uses it for pollution and ruin.

Green’s florid and dated verbiage may weaken the impact of his argument. Likewise the revivalist tones of his message. Still, as the existence of the dark web reminds us, even the good can be touched by corruption. Perhaps our vigilance can reduce this danger.

We will close now with another description by the author of the lurid material which preceded the pornography which abounds today. Would that our dulled sensitivities remained innocent enough to “blush” at explicit material, as he says.

But the devil has a channel by which he ruins life and character, in a specialty in the newspaper line that panders to the low and more bestial part of man’s being. Broadcast over the land there are sown every day almost countless thousands of papers filled with the corrupt, lascivious, the impure, gathered from all the fact and fancy that a filthy mind can contrive.

Facts that transpire often in the lowest slums of life are here placarded with all the embellishment of illustration and seductive coloring; language and recitals no man would read without a blush are hidden in its folds. It is a slimy, salacious mosaic of filth and wickedness, and yet go up and down the city streets and in every news-dealer’s window and on every corner stand they are spread out for inspection and sale.

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The woodcut illustration above comes from a book entitled The Dance of Death, and is the first representation of a printing press. The point being made was not to associate death with printing, but to reveal how death comes to all, unanticipated, regardless of who they are.

Our Personal Libraries

December 20, 2012 — 13 Comments

printing lettersWhat a blessing it is to live in an age when even the most modest home can treasure its personal library. Public libraries are a community boon, but because of the printing press, books are no longer restricted to the homes of the wealthy.

Books—or, more properly the reading of books—has a direct correlation to human intelligence, knowledge and (occasionally) even to wisdom itself.

In 1905, at the age of seven, C.S. Lewis moved with his family into a large home in the countryside. It was so spacious, in fact that in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis says, “to a child it seemed less like a house than a city.”

Lewis proceeds to describe the “mansion,” and its most notable feature . . . the profusion of books.

The New House is almost a major character in my story. I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.

I am a product . . . of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.

I’m privileged to own a large library. It’s not a matter of pride. It’s a matter of joy. Like Lewis, and most readers of Mere Inkling, I love books. And, like most bibliophiles, I am fascinated by numerous things related to books.

While attending college I worked for a small publisher. I was able to do a bit of writing, but most of the job involved using an enormous Linotype Phototypesetting machine and pasting up the projects. It was an interesting process, which is now long obsolete.

letterpress

Nevertheless, due to my love for books, reinforced by my own experience as a “printer’s devil,”* I have an affection for items related to publishing. I recently purchased several items from a family business called Type-tiques.

They offer a wide range of reasonably priced letterpress printer’s blocks which look wonderful on bookshelves and literary desktops.**

I also recently accepted an offer for ten free letterpress bookmarks from Peach Farm Studio. You can read about their promotion here. (Since my comment there is still awaiting “moderation,” I’m unsure of the status of the project, but I’ll keep you posted.)

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* Just a note that, should you be unfamiliar with the term “printer’s devil,” it’s simply trade parlance for the shop’s apprentice or flunkey.

** When my wife proofread this, she asked if I literally meant “literary desktops.” Then she motioned towards my own book-laden desk and queried, “and where will you put them?” Fortunately, I have lots of shelves!