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Knopf Quotes, Or, The Truth is Out There

In looking things up for yesterday’s post, we came across some interesting quotes from Alfred A. Knopf, Sr., the founder of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., on  the Wikipedia page devoted to him here. The presentation here will consist of the quote—and a comment that ties the quote to yesterday’s riff on commercialization.

Too many books are published, and they are overpriced.

The statement implies that books not worthy of wide circulation are glutting the market; and the fact that they are overpriced indicates, indirectly, why it is that they are published. This reminds us of the perennial problem of newspapers, particularly dailies. In his book The Image (1961), Daniel J. Boorstin pointed out that publishers discovered that not enough happens, in the way of genuine news, to fill the “news hole.” Therefore pseudo news had be recruited to fill the void. And pseudo books to keep up annual sales, especially growing sales?

In the early days, things were quite simple. The books came in; we published them as written. . . . A publisher was regarded—and so, in turn, was the writer—as a pro. A writer’s job was to write a book and give it to you.

Here we’d emphasize the phrase “in the early days”—thus in the days before publishing became a kind of manufacturing industry. Implicit in the last quote and in this one is the suggestion that real talent is rare. Comments Knopf made elsewhere indicate what happened as publishing became a production system rather than, as earlier, a service by which humanity’s limited creative insights were given visibility.

I guess business became more complicated and publishers less literate. It ceased to be the fact that publishers publish and authors write. Today authors submit manuscripts and editors write books.

Knopf goes on, elaborating on the role of the editor—who is hired to acquire books:

… and if he can’t get good books, he usually takes what he can get—books that are not so good. And then he sometimes wrecks himself trying to make a silk purse out of what can never become anything but a sow’s ear.

Here we see the interplay between limited talent and a great demand to publish or economically to perish. The presumption is that talent is limitless—but it isn’t. And therefore the “shaping of the product” emerges and eventually develops into a kind of production system in which the creative artist is shouldered aside and replaced by craftsmen guided by editorial supervisors.

Here, finally, Knopf’s devastating view of the “new author”:

Frequently . . . our American author, whatever his age, experience in life, and technical knowledge, simply can’t write. I don’t mean that he is not the master of a prose style of elegance and distinction; I mean that he can’t write simple straightforward and correct English. And here, only an exceptional editor will really help him.

Knopf is equally sour about the new European author. — Now we permit ourselves to suggest that such factors not only play a role in the development of publishing but that they entirely define it. Hidden beneath this is a perhaps unwelcome truth. Not only are talented writers few in number—so are genuine readers. And much of the brouhaha about publishing isn’t really about writers and readers but about producers and sellers of commodities the purpose of which is either to transmit information or to sell conventional emotions.


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