Debate: The Poems of Czeslaw Milosz

23 08 2011

In this regular weekly event under the Legends of Modern Literature series at the book festival, participants are invited to analyse two poems by specified poets in a discussion that is aimed at dissecting the poets work in front of them, as well the broader issue invoked within the prose.

Hosted by Scottish Poetry Library Director Robyn Marsack, we heard two poems, first in Polish, read by Polish poet Agata Maslowska, and then in English, before a group discussion about the meanings of the poems and the issues the poet was attempting to throw open.

The best poems, it is often said, are those that are left open to interpretation and that is exactly what one gets with Milosz and the two poems we looked at: The Song on the End of the World and Dedication.

Not one for the casual poetry fan, these sessions are strictly for the dedicated poetry buff, and while one did not need to know about the poet being discussed, it definitely helped if you did.

Debate: The Future of Independent Publishing with André Schiffrin

22 08 2011

Andre SchiffrinRenowned New York publisher André Schiffrin left Random House many years ago in order to work for Pantheon. But today came to Edinburgh to describe what he believes to be a developing crisis in Western publishing. In The Business of Books, he demonstrates how the American corporate model has extended its reach across the globe.

Schiffrin had a lot of interesting things to say and took up most of the hour working through pre-pared notes, that transferred to the audience as a gentle guide through the world of publishing and the state we found ourselves in. “The Adam Smith concept that good things will sell,” he began, “isn’t necessarily the case in publishing; a lot of good books have lost money.”

And from here the story he painted only looked bleaker, as he cited a couple of interesting titbits. For example, “during the first Iraqi war, no books were published from American publishing houses that were critical of Bush of the White House at that time. This proves the big publishing houses were influenced by the political landscape of the nation and how it applied to their profit expectations.”

Another thing that worked against the system was the Mars Bar Index: “Mars was comparing their price increases with everyone else, and the same thing is happening now. Penguin did this so they could increase their growth and profitability by 15%-20% instead if the 6% it was before.”

Schiffrin seemed to argument more for the benefits of having not-for-profit publishing houses as opposed to the conglomerates model of maximising profits (or increasing their return to shareholders). They way of doing this is would be “to drop massive author advances and then pay authors and staff a consistent rate.”

When asked about the impact of Kindle on book stores, he commented: “publishing only means you make something public, you still have to put in the same level of marketing whether you are on Kindle or not. However, when I worked in New York as a lad there were over 300 good independent book stores, but now there are only 30.” He continued: “Small books won’t make it through the barrier any more thanks to Google and Amazon.”

Hinting that it might be beneficial to introduce a law to prevent the current model of heavy discounting, which only served to create fake cover prices of books and devalue the cost of a novel, Schiffrin’s allotted time came to a close far too soon—it was just getting interesting when time ran out.

Debate: The Joy of Literature

20 08 2011

Joseph Brooker and Ray Ryan
Mid-afternoon and I fond myself in Peppers Theatre for a discussion between a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman. No joke, and nor was the discussion.

The event had been billed especially for bibliophiles, in which Brooker’s analysis of British literature since the 1980s in a collection of essays called The Good of the Novel, co-edited by Ray Ryan, which “brings together some of the most strenuous and perceptive critics of the present moment, and puts them in contact with some of the finest novels of the past three decades.”

Chaired by the literary editor of The Scotsman, Stuart Kelly, we had the potential for a really interesting discussion. Brooker and Ryan provided a new angle on publishing, with the latter relating how “each novel sets its own constitution; the truth of fiction cannot be rendered in any other form.”

Ryan remains convinced that “small presses take chances on making reputations of authors whereas large ones are more cautious,” and I have to agree with him. In my experience this has been important in opening the door  to the proliferation of self-publishing.

On the question as to whether Shakespeare is a great writer, Brooker argued that “It’s far too early to say—maybe in another 400 years or so but how are we supposed to guess that now?” And bringing the discussion back (or forward) to the 21st century and the introduction of e-readers, Ryan commented that he was “amazed that these things still only display mainly text, and that even in the 21st century with all the technology available to use, people who use them still only want them for that sole reason.”

As for hyperlinks within text to websites and informative articles, “these things are a distraction,” says Ryan. “But for the publisher and critic alike,” explained Brooker, “they mean much more work!”