On the Jaipur Literature Festival and other festivals of ideas

I returned from the Jaipur Literature Festival on Monday after midnight. This year’s festival was intense – the weather had suddenly turned gloomy and rainy halfway through the week, but still there was an unprecedented footfall of people, and everything was just overwhelming, chaotic but also beautiful in a certain way. It was just what the JLF loves people to remind about itself – it’s the largest free literary festival in the world. Just the week before, Kindle finally published the article on the JLF and other literary festivals, for which I had interviewed the fantastically talented and generous William Dalrymple, in Edinburgh, way back in summer. And then I had gone to attend the mini-edition of the JLF in London. Here’s the unedited version of the article:

jlf-london002
William Dalrymple tells a tale about Bahadur Shah Jafar from The Last Mughal at the JLF in London, summer 2014

I caught up with William Dalrymple the week before the first edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre in London. …

In May, when the weather in London is as balmy and pleasant as that of winter in Jaipur, the new JLF was a one-day celebration of Indian literature and culture that was strongly reminiscent of home. In September, there will be the first American JLF in Boulder and Denver, Colorado, and there may be another version at a third location in the upcoming years.

But a Jaipur Literature Festival so far away from Jaipur? Isn’t the idea incongruous? Not so much when we observe that the Hay Festival, named after the remote, bookish town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales where the original festival is held, now takes place in several locations of the world, including but not limited to Beirut, Belfast, Dhaka, Nairobi and Thiruvananthapuram. It is not the location but the specific ambience and aesthetic of the literature festival that makes it transferable from its primary location to elsewhere in the world.

When asked why he organised the JLF back in 2008, Dalrymple says that it was as much to bring the biggest international authors to India as to bring India to the world. I take this idea of “bringing” as the central point of my discussion. When your favourite international author travels to New York or London for a book tour, the question of “bringing” does not arise. But for the same author to come to India – even to Delhi, the capital of the country and the location of the only growing English-language publishing industry in the world – evokes the idea of a specially arranged additional tour, far away from the traditional centres of the literary world.

The reasons why this is such is better understood when we take a look at The World Republic of Letters (2007) by Pascale Casanova. In this book named after a theory originally proposed by Pierre Bourdieu, Casanova identifies a “universal aesthetic quality” that may attributed to literary works from anywhere in the world, by the means of which they transcend their local themes and become representative of the human condition. For many of us in India, the Booker and the Nobel prizes are our introduction to foreign writers we have never read, belonging to countries and literary cultures from which we have not read anything before. (For instance, Orhan Pamuk was the first contemporary Turkish writer for many of us, or Patrick Modiano the first contemporary French writer.) Clearly, there are certain agents upon which we depend to prescribe the highest – global, transcendental – standard of literary value for us. And even though the writers and their publishers may be located anywhere in the world, the agents are almost always located in the Anglocentric West.

This global, mostly Anglocentric system that negotiate literary value and reach to works of literature is often independent of actual book sales. For instance, Chetan Bhagat may be a massive bestselling phenomenon in India, but few people outside India have even heard his name. In the same way, India may be the largest English-language book-buying nation in the world for the sheer size of its population (by percentage of literacy or reading habit it is still quite low), but in the role of an agent that confers universality to a work of literature it is still quite insignificant. Casanova’s book, written in French, is largely Eurocentric, in which she identifies Paris, New York, London, Berlin and so on as the dominant centres of the international literary space, which makes it possible to connect “James Joyce, an Irishman, with Arno Schmidt, a German, or with the Serb Danilo Kis and the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges; or Umberto Eco, an Italian, with the Spaniard Arturo Perez-Reverte and the Serbian Milarad Pavic”. On the other hand, in the essay “The Rise and Rise of Writers’ Festivals” (from A Companion to Creative Writing, ed. Graeme Harper, 2013), Cori Stewart observes that none of the major literature festivals of the world take place precisely at these dominant centres, with the exceptions of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto and the International Literature Festival in Berlin.

The Hay Festival and the Edinburgh Book Festival, two of the world’s most celebrated literature festivals which also worked as Dalrymple’s model for the JLF, both take place in what Stewart calls “peripheral locations”. Unlike the international festivals at Toronto and Berlin which concentrate almost exclusively on literary discourse and try to transcend their locations, the peripheral festivals are defined by their locations, ambience, engagement with local writing, culture and other forms of art – more than strictly literature festivals, they are, as Dalrymple calls the JLF, “festivals of ideas”. Both the writers and the readers who change two trains from London, followed by an hour-long drive through forests and hilly farmlands to quirky Hay-on-Wye and spend two weeks in Victorian houses turned into bed-and-breakfasts or camping tents pitched under the sky – in this place which has hardly any international literary power or presence through the rest of the year – do not merely go there for the sake of literary discourse. They go for the entire experience, which is meant to be both intellectually stimulating and fun, a break from their day-to-day routines. The same can be said of hordes of students and publishing professionals who take a night bus, train or a quicker flight to Jaipur for the festival that usually takes place around the Republic-Day weekend.

The entire experience is the reason why more and more literature festivals in India are springing up at exotic locations, rather than at major urban centres. The Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival, the Kochi International Book Festival and the Goa Arts and Literature Festival are held in the mild winter months of November and December. The CALM Festival in Shillong takes place in May, when the hot summer in the major cities makes a literary retreat to the north-eastern hills seem highly desirable. What these locations lack in international literary power, they make up for with the peripheral attraction of travelling to iconic tourist destinations in India. With this they attract both local and international writers, as well as a great number of audiences looking for a entertaining vacation tinged with a literary flavour.Of course, there are also book launches, readings, discussions, exchanges of ideas, media and publishing-community socialisation in situations that are not accessible to everyone, but the peripheral attractions are equally important for the larger public culture of the festivals. The festivities, so as to say, serve the other important function of bringing writers and their works to the readers.

The JLF has been at the forefront of this diverse offering right from its inception. Originally conceived in 2004 as a part of the Jaipur Virasat Festival – an event that displays the works of the traditional performers, craftsmen and artisans of Rajasthan – the JLF has always included ticketed evening performances by acclaimed Indian and international music artists. The time at its signature series of debates is always kept by a nagara drummer onstage, who starts performing each time a speaker crosses their allotted time limit. The festival takes place at the Diggi Palace, an opulent eighteenth-century Rajasthani haveli-turned-hotel, its grounds and trees teeming with flocks of parrots and the occasional peacock, where the guests are lodged and so can members of the audience. Dalrymple said he particularly enjoys the non-ticketed nature of the festival, which encourages schoolchildren to come and interact with well-known writers.

Yet another point of significance emerged from my conversation with Dalrymple in May. “There’s been throughout history a tradition of the public performance of literature,” he reminded me. “Shakespeare’s plays are not written to be read in a schoolbook, they are designed for the bawdy London playhouse of the sixteenth century. Homer didn’t write to be read. And, in India, this tradition of performance has been particularly rich. You read Mirza Ghalib’s poetry in a book today, but it is written to show off and beat Zauq in a poetry competition in the Lal Quila. I think the fact that India has a performance tradition gives it a different dynamic. There is a particular cachet in being a good performer.”

Literature and storytelling as they exist beyond the page are a tradition closer to the surface in India and many other non-Anglophone communities, which probably makes them a fertile ground for literature festivals like the JLF. Gathering in a public place to watch and listen to stories or conversations resonates with more people than merely reading, the reason why cinema and television have penetrated more easily to remote parts of India where books are still unpopular. The act of imparting and receiving literature live is also a step against the seclusion of the written word, and feels like a more intimate, irreplaceable act. The way Dalrymple sees it, while books may continue to be the basic unit of conversation between the writer and the reader, events like literature festivals are here to spread that act of conversation further and among diverse ranges of people, and can only do good to the entire process.

***

This is the link to the article as it was published in Kindle.

Some people REALLY don’t like Wendy Doniger, right?

The first was the book called The Hindus: An Alternative History from Penguin Books India, published nearly four years ago. I hear that the organization called Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti has been campaigning to pull it down ever since then, and in February 2014 they succeeded. SBAS (and its representative Dina Nath Batra) has promptly gone and petitioned against On Hinduism, another book by Doniger, this time published in India by Aleph Book Company. Not being in India, not even being at any particular city centre where conversation about Indian writing goes on (say London), not having any particular resource into the Indian publishing scene any more, besides having been physically ill for a long time, I have not participated actively in the discussion. More knowledgable, more experienced people were speaking, so I kept quiet and read. I also read a lot of comments by the public on the Internet – in the comment section of the Change.org petition, on Reddit and other places. Someone also put up The Hindus for download on a blog, making it accessible for everyone who wanted to read the book before they talked about it.

I downloaded the book from the blog but haven’t managed to read it. Hinduism is not my area of scholarship. I was born into a Hindu family and haven’t changed my religion, but most of my knowledge about Hinduism come from mother and grandmother, the occasional temple visit, a Sunday column on the Mahabharata written by Nrisinghoprosad Bhaduri in Bartaman in the late 1990s… all in all, nothing that makes it an expert opinion. Reading one book out of the blue wouldn’t have made my opinion relevant in any larger scheme of things. I may be Hindu, but I’m not an expert on Hinduism. Notice the difference.

Who is an expert on Hinduism that you should listen to? Unlike people under different sects of Christianity or Islam, most Hindus I know seem to be brought up under very different traditions. Wedding rituals vary in detail from family to family, besides varying widely from community to community, usually to gentle confusion and overall amusement. In Calcutta, where I grew up, no one was vegetarian, not even the Brahmins. (Pledging to sacrifice a goat at Kalighat if a wish was fulfilled was quite a common practice among the faithful.) We all gave aaroti at Durga pujo – the biggest religious event on the calendar – and we all did Lakshmi pujo and Saraswati pujo at home. Some of my friends’ parents also did Biswakarma Pujo at home, and Ganesh pujo during Haalkhata in April, but my mother had explained to me that you only did those if you were into business, for Biswakarma was the god of craft and Ganesh presided over industry. (Both of my parents were into professions.) That was Hinduism enough for them, and for most people around whom I grew up. They never thought of themselves as anything but faithful Hindus. Growing up, I never felt encouraged to defy Hinduism, proclaim atheism or any other kind of thing that the conservatives decry. We were conservative, even though that was not the primary agenda of our lives.

This is the reason why I have always felt profoundly alienated by the uniform model of Hinduism that has steadily grown in strength over the last couple of decades. These radical, adrenaline-dripping, violence-threatening men in saffron. (In my childhood, the only men in saffron around were the monks of the Ramkrishna Mission, who ran schools and charities. The only ‘role model’ in saffron was Swami Vivekananda, who seemed to have written more or less reasonable things.) This whole controversy about the Ram Mandir, these demands for an apparently idealistic Ram Rajatya. (Ram was not even a deity we actively worshipped in Bengal. I’ve never stepped into a Ram Mandir.) These TV shows that build such huge deals out of Karva Chauth or Shiva Ratri, neither of which I have seen any of the women in my family celebrate, even though they were sufficiently religious and devoted to their husbands, probably to extents that a feminist wouldn’t approve. The condescending vegetarianism, the refusal to even touch a utensil that a non-vegetarian has eaten in. The caste distinction. This Hinduism has very little to do with my Hinduism. How much does it have to do with yours?

I can’t say I like The Hindus or any of Doniger’s work, not even read her ever. There is very little definitive that I know about Hinduism. I’m not sure if there is much definitive to know. If I judged solely by what my family has taught me, hey, even not giving aaroti at Durga pujo is offensive. (That’s the first step towards atheism, don’t you know?) But we don’t get offended if our friends from other communities don’t follow rituals that are absolutely essential in ours. We didn’t get offended by The Immortals of Meluha, filled with so much inaccuracy about history and religion, and read by such a large number of people who were gullible enough to take its narrative for truth. (This might not have been the author’s plan or intention, I agree.) Surprisingly, nor did these purveyors of eduction and religious correctness. On the other hand, how many of us had read The Hindus before this controversy broke out, even though it’s been around for nearly four years? How many of our religious feelings have been outraged? How much enmity promoted between different groups on the grounds of religion, etc?

You see, it’s really not a concern with the quality of a book, or the amount of misinformation in it, or the extent of its possible impact. That’s not the concern of the bringer of the petition, and that shouldn’t be yours when you choose to respond to it. It’s not about whether you like or dislike a certain book. It’s about resisting people who call it their right to dictate other people’s actions. If you’re not absolutely similar to those people (as most people in India, even Hindus, are probably not), one day they may object to one of your beliefs, and then you will be required to get rid of it. How would you like to stop eating your meat? What if one day Durga pujo or Pongal is declared to be incongruous with ‘mainstream’ Hinduism? (Kali pujo has already fallen out of favour. Everyone celebrates a sanitized, vegetarian, laddu-eating kind of Diwali now; there isn’t much craze for that dark, bloody, rapidly exoticizing form of goddess worship.)  Section 377 has been reinstated. Raped woman are being officially accused of ‘having asked for it’. Is it so difficult to see the country fast being driven into a kind of militant, hardlined ‘Hindu’ dark age? Is it so far-fetched to be afraid of it?

*

The other conversation about Wendy Doniger’s books has been how easily the publishers have yielded to the threats. Both Penguin Books India and Aleph Book Company have withdrawn the books, without going to court or standing up to the threats in any other way. Criticism has been levelled especially against Penguin, which has a glorious history of supporting its controversial books, whether it was Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Satanic Verses. A couple of years ago (and obviously on a different context), Chiki Sarkar, the publisher of Penguin Books India, had issued a statement about banned books. According to her, in India it’s possible for anyone to bring an injunction against a book, and from any part of the country, which would be effective nationwide; and which makes it that much harder to fight them.

I somewhat understand where Chiki is coming from. Book-publishing over the last decade or so has become a far more difficult business than it used to be. The cultural authority of publishers has diminished a great deal. This whole matter is another can of worms, but suffice it to say that increasing literacy, Internet and social media access mean that a lot more people today find it possible to call themselves authors, experts, critics, publishers etc without having arrived through the conventional channels. This makes the mix much more democratic, which means it also adds a lot of factors – both positive and negative – which makes it several times more complicated. Penguin Books India publishes more than 200 books a year. Aleph publishes fewer, but its parent company Rupa publishes nearly as many. As physical commodities, books are fragile, inflammable, easily destructible in several ways. Both companies have to depend on mass-market sales to survive, and the mass market is easily influenced by populist Hindu nationalism. The profit margin of books is low. Publishing houses, even the large ones, are nearly always short on manpower. Where are the time, money, people to fight these difficult legal battles?

It’s not as if legal battles were easier in an earlier generation. But they were somewhat more tenable because they still added to the image of the publishing house, and image was the cultural capital that converted to profit. These days, when the biggest profits of Rupa possibly come from the sales of Chetan Bhagat and the biggest profits of Penguin Books India possibly from Ravinder Singh, that old theory of cultural capital does not strictly hold true. (In simpler terms, the people who spend the most money on these publishers’ books are probably not the same people who would like to see/support the publishers in fighting for Doniger’s books. What’s worse, they may even lose some of these buyers if they choose to stand by her.)

On the other hand, I wonder if this wide reach of the social media can’t be used to the greater good in more innovative ways. We have already seen how more people downloaded and read The Hindus last month than they did in the last four years of its existence, even as Penguin Books India was recalling stocks from the bookstores. As of today, the Change.org petition has over 4,000 signatures. If each of these signatories could be persuaded to contribute a small amount of money – if we crowdsourced the funds, if one or more people with the legal expertise volunteered their time and skills – would Penguin or Aleph agree to contest these injunctions? Could that be done?

[unfinished]

Weekend Writing: Commercial Publishing vs Self-Publishing

This started out because a friend linked me to an article with author John Green’s opinion on self-publishing. He said it would bring a smile on my face. He knows me well.

I have not yet read John Green’s literature, although I’ve heard good things about him and have been curious for a while. But he seemed beautifully expressive in the article, and I agree with everything he says, and it made me want to add a few things of my own.

Of course, I work in the commercial (‘trade’) publishing industry, so my opinion is likely to be biased. I chose to do this job. I had the privilege to choose. People who buy and read trade books also have the privilege to make those choices. (I’m yet to meet a real-life person who forsakes a day’s meal to buy and read a book, although let’s assume for the argument’s sake that these people exist. They’ll still be a painful minority.) They have the privilege of having acquired a certain kind of leisure and a certain taste. They have the privilege of literacy. They have the privilege of a functioning eyesight. Like any other form of entertainment or art, reading is a kind of privilege, a step of improvement over the indispensable roti-kapda-makaan (which, hey, are also things a lot of people are doing without!). It’s all essentially a circle of privilege. You are inside it as much as I am. Let’s not delude ourselves about that before we get to the ‘particular’ privilege of being commercially published.

So… this thing about commercial publishing being the oppressive monstrosity. And about self-publishing being its wonderful, magical alternative that will free the world in all its expressive glory. There are many levels of approaching this debate, so let me start from a random point (not the best or the only point to start, obviously). Commercial publication, as we know, is a long and many-step process. Usually, if you are starting out:

  • You have to write a work that is of a certain length, and fits into a certain recognizable genre
  • You do some research on which publishing houses are in existence, and how you can contact them
  • You send them your work
  • Someone, often a junior editor or intern, goes through your work initially and pronounces it to be of any merit at all
  • This is forwarded to a senior editor, who examines your work more comprehensively, envisions where it stands vis-a-vis other existing works in the market (and in history), checks for plagiarism and so on, basically thinks of it as a book
  • If s/he likes it, a discussion happens with the sales department to consider the profitability of the book to the company
  • And if all these people share a good vibe about your work, the publishing house gets back to you and your work is accepted.

There are other, later, equally important steps involved, but let’s consider these initial few. Your work can get stalled from being commercially published at any of these levels, without having been entirely worthless. Let’s say you’re a brilliant innovator of genre and subject matter, and none of these editors quite understand your work and none of these sales people can figure out who will buy it. This has happened. They give birth to historical mistakes (and publishing-class legends) like J.K. Rowling or Chetan Bhagat, to name two.

On the other hand, what people on the other side of the table often seem to forget, is that this is extremely rare. People in big publishing houses are not idiots. The bigger the publishing house, it’s likelier that their staff are highly qualified individuals who occupy their positions for a reason. They are rigorously selected by other highly qualified individuals and paid well enough to stay there, or head-hunted away to bigger, more lucrative jobs. Basic ignorance or lack of farsightedness does not, usually, stand that level of competence. These people do understand books. They bring out intellectually and commercially successful books all the time. They have probably judged, approved of and published the books you love. Till now, you have admired and agreed with their judgement. (That’s why you sent them your work in the first place, didn’t you?) They’re not the brainless, soulless, sold-out monsters that they have suddenly turned into in your eyes.

However, yes, a big publishing house has to make a great deal of profit to survive, and an uninterrupted flow of profit, and sometimes (but only sometimes) a work that some people liked is rejected because the effort of processing and publishing it will be much greater than the profit it’s likely to make. (Usually so great that it will neutralize the profits made from other books, because believe it or not, big publishing houses bring out more non-profit books than you have any idea. They balance them out against the more profitable books, which is a liberty a big publishing house may take, and it does so as much as possible. So your work has to be really, really, incredibly unprofitable to get rejected despite being liked.)

Which is what brings me to small, independent publishers.
So these are publishing houses which are still commercial or profit-making enterprises (and therefore ‘trade’), but they operate on a smaller scale, have fewer employees (and therefore fewer steps before your work gets selected or rejected), and usually specialize in themes not well represented in the ‘mainstream’. Sometimes this may be a social cause (feminism, caste equality, LGBT equality etc.), or it may be a generic or subjective preference (poetry, philosophy, SFF, comics, romance and so on). Usually, the people working at these publishing houses are passionate about their specialization and less concerned with profit (which does not make their counterparts at the bigger publishing houses any less sincere or more brilliant, but that’s the topic for another discussion), so if your work is a dazzling instance of non-mainstream literature, go find yourself the right independent publisher and you’re golden. This will come with a like-minded person (or a small bunch of like-minded people) who will intimately enjoy your work and share your vision, and bring you the kind of readers who do so in turn. You will probably get a smaller distribution or visibility, but believe me, even if a big publisher brought out your work and it was a commercial failure, the result would be more or less the same after the initial month or two. Not all Penguin books are on the front shelf of Starmark or the homepage of Flipkart. Not every book gets launched in five cities. And even though you get to keep your advance, honestly, it won’t pay your bills for a very long time. Books don’t make you rich, whoever you publish them from, unless you are, I suppose, J.K. Rowling or Chetan Bhagat. (Are you J.K. Rowling or Chetan Bhagat? Please feel free to leave your number in my message box. Big fan! Ah well.)

***

Therefore, if you’re even a remotely well-informed or commonsensical person, you’re not thinking of publishing as something that will make you a millionaire. What else might commercial publishing deprive you of when it refuses to publish your work?
Respect.
A sense of legitimacy.
An ISBN number.
An entry into most libraries and bookstores.
So on.
This (finally) brings me to the point of my note.

It is an excellent thing, on principle, that self-publishing exists. It would never be a truly democratic world where it didn’t. My knowledge of literary history is not quite impressive… but hey, William Blake? You take my point.

My problem is with the suggestion that self-publishing is the only thing that should exist, and that it should dismantle the hierarchy of the commercial publishing establishment, until everything is equal and free.
Sorry, but no.

Commercial publishing, more than anything, is a system of peer review. Even when they are judging your work for profit, it’s a bunch of well-trained and experienced individuals deciding whether this work will be liked enough by a projected group of people to spend their money on. The ‘projected group of people’ may vary. I’m the only person I know who enjoys both Umberto Eco and Ravinder Singh, but these ‘well-trained and experienced individuals’ usually present both Umberto Eco and Ravinder Singh to the people who will buy them, and they have a fairly accurate idea if either of these groups will buy your work next. (Or, in case of an independent publishing house, they know one group of people very well, and again, can predict whether this group will buy your work.) Think of the way you buy a book, especially if you’re a frugal buyer. You will probably borrow a book you’re not very sure you’ll like. You only buy a book when you’re sure it will be great. It’s not an accurate system of judgement and there’s often a considerable margin of error, but give me a better one.

And the reason why this peer review is indispensable is that ‘basic writing’ is so easy. Unlike music or filmmaking or dance or even painting, writing is not a specialized or expensive skill. Anyone can write, as long as they are literate and have ten rupees (five rupees?) to buy a notebook and a pencil. Anyone can ‘publish online’ as long as they have an Internet connection — starting a blog is free. (Typesetting or making a PDF needs a little more skill, but that is not essentially literary skill. And if you have the skill, it doesn’t take much effort.) A sufficiently self-contained individual can ‘write a book’ without any interference from a second person or any imposition of quality control at any stage. All this sounds excellent and liberating. What is my problem?

My problem is this — I associate a certain kind of sincerity and seriousness of intent with the effort of having to cross a hurdle, which I believe will entirely disappear if (god forbid) self-publishing becomes the norm. The necessity to prove your worth to a bunch of fairly knowledgable people (us hard-hearted publishing professionals, hi!) is also the drive to improve your work until it meets their standards. It is what has gone out of poetry in my time. Poetry books don’t sell > pretty much everyone vanity/self-publishes > no one is quite sure what’s good or bad poetry any more. The entire discipline of criticism seems to have decayed. All the time I find people ‘publishing’ poetry books that should be allowed to exist in no possible universe, and a lot of these people aren’t underprivileged or the subaltern in any sense, so there’s no reason (or none that I can see) why their rampant travesty should be allowed to flourish… except that, hey, no one’s doing the ‘allowing’ there any more. (Of course, the reasons why poetry has come to this are long and convoluted, and right now, not entirely relevant. I’m just interested in what happens once that dystopia descends.) There’s absolutely no impetus on the writer to come back heartbroken from a rejection and re-read their work, introspect on where exactly it is failing to fit the bill of the people who have just declared they could live without it. (The introspection can lead to many possible conclusions, but first there needs to be the bill that triggers it.) There isn’t even — no more — that all-important tug at the purse strings, which effectively sets so many priorities straight for our (morally depraved, alas) race. I’m not buying a piano because I don’t know if my half-hearted playing will ever justify the price. I won’t waste money on a car because my driving is shaky at its best. But hell, I’ll write a novel and I’ll publish it on my blog; and I’ll rail against the commercial publisher who rejected it, and the friend whom I forced to read who didn’t quite ‘get’ it, and the non-existent reader who never stops by my blog, and fate for not giving me my rightful share . . . and somehow, I am the person who’ll be completely correct and justified and non-delusional in each of these circumstances. I am the misunderstood genius. The ‘system’, as usual, is wrong.

That, precisely, is the difference between today’s self-publishing and the self-publishing of yore. Blake didn’t click the ‘publish’ button on a blog — he painstakingly engraved each of his poems, illustrated and relief-etched them, coloured them individually, bound them and probably peddled them as well. He definitely spent a great deal more money than he was comfortably making. That kind of complete and relentless dedication means you’re either a certified genius or a certified madman, but nothing more casual or in-between. Just like buying the piano or the car, a lot of today’s rampantly self-publishing authors would probably make the run for it if that level of relentlessness was demanded of them, and the world would almost certainly be better for it.

Besides, while Blake didn’t have a publisher, he was not working in complete isolation and rejection of other people’s opinion. It’s just that commercial publishing options were fewer in his time. In stark, stark contrast, commercial publishing options are so many these days that I’d be actually surprised if any work of even the tiniest amount of real value goes unappreciated any more. (And if they do, I’m fairly sure they are being written at the very far, inaccessible margins and almost certainly not being lazily blogged.) While the bigger publishers have always favoured the more ‘mainstream’ literature, I believe independent publishers of today are the reincarnations of those relentlessly dedicated, pathbreaking, revolutionary people, constantly striving to meet the similar kind of work halfway. They begin their publishing houses while working other day jobs to make ends meet, without knowing whether they’ll ever recover the costs. Most of them multitask at insane levels and keep at it for years, day in and day out. And as long as the ‘matter’ is what they want, they are willing to work with all kinds of deficiencies in language, expression, imaginativeness, obscurity — any kind of obstacle to literary conformity at all. These days, if no publisher, big or small, mainstream or specialized, is willing to give you the time of day — even if you pay them money to produce your book — then maybe it’s time you sat down and did some serious, serious rethinking.

And all the processes of award-giving, syallbus-making, canon-building, shoulder-rubbing, acquisition of successful authors by bigger publishing houses and so on — while they have their own internal mechanisms, not always the noblest — are necessary precisely because of the maintenance of this standard, without which this entire system will collapse. The system must exist, so that people fight it hard both fit in and stand out, whichever suits their tastes, but to make sure that they do fight it hard. The system must exist so that every randomly strung together sequence of words is not a ‘work of literature’. If you went to the same school as I did, happen to have an Internet connection and a blog, aren’t being persecuted by your government or generally cut off from the rest of civilization, please don’t bother to self-publish. It’s likely to be trash.