The Quickly Changing World of Publishing Part 3: Canonical Literature and Publishing

Click here for Part 4


It is becoming more and more evident as time goes on that if traditional publishing houses wish to survive, they will have to compromise.

The vital question used to be one that was put to the writer by the publishing house: ‘What do you have to offer that is both interesting and marketable?’ (Note here that ‘interesting’ is either subjective or interchangeable with any number of other localized values).

The vital question is quickly becoming one that the writer puts to the publishing house: ‘What can you do for my book better than what I could do on my own and how will that benefit my vision in the long run?’

This last question is not at all a sneering, sarcastic question, but a very real one that publishers must consider and one I believe they will benefit from.

If it was up to me, I would like to see traditional publishing exist alongside indie-publishing and with both successful in their respective businesses.

I believe that the collaborative vision of making art—the desire to be a publisher or an agent—is by no means an ‘unnecessary’ or ‘extra’ feature of publishing that we should just as soon do away with.

There is a long and very different direction I could go with the subject of books that aren’t necessarily ‘art’ per se—in other words, textbooks, history books and science books—but I wish to speak, for now, strictly of books as ‘art’—novels, poetry, stories, narratives—since this represents a large feature of the big changes happening in publishing.

I would view traditional publishing this way. The communicability of all forms of art is culturally contingent. Text has a lineage that predates its existence as a commodity. Story has a lineage that predates text.

For a long time, stories were told orally and those who heard them had to remember them and embellish or fill in details where they didn’t remember.

For a long time, scribes copied a particular text over and over and distributed it to the people considered worthy of reading it, whether that was priests, kings, prophets, seers or nobles.

It wasn’t until some time after mass print that books, as objects of artistic value, became commodities around which we could build commercial systems to the degree that we see it today.

Through wide-spread education and with the help of mass-print, kings, seers, prophets and noblemen were no longer the chiefs of knowledge in the position of preventing the people from having access to texts considered sacred.

The idea of a ‘literary canon’ descends from The Torah—from the idea of a particular text representing divine revelation. The west continued to treat its texts with reverence even when no one claimed they were divine or sacred.

The canonical process is a long and complicated one that may immortalize a book for any number of reasons. The hypostasis of certain images, values and themes which are easily communicable across generations and cultures, filter into art and render a particular work ‘timeless.’

In the last post, I posited that publishers are not mediators in the canonical process. They are mediators in the commercial process and, more often than not, mediators in the artistic process itself.

They only ever have the appearance of being mediators in the canonical process. After all, they have access to canonical literature and take measures to keep canonical literature in print and thus, some would believe, ‘keep the canon alive.’

It would be a mistake to think that publishers are necessarily keeping the canon alive through tradition. The reason they are printing it is because it has already stayed alive well on its own through a complicated historical process of hypostasis.

Proposition 3: The literary-canonical process is not inaugurative but reflective.

Though the mechanisms of hypostasis may be contingent in terms of a particular canonical work, it is always by reflection that we identify that hypostasis. There is no committee that decides what belongs to the canon.

Academies might have tried at different times to affect the canonical process, but they are only offering their favored works in question brief flashes of attention. These flashes of attention, at their most extreme, come in the form of rewards, which are held at particular intervals of time, such as The National Book Award or The Pulitzer Prize, or any number of other grants or prizes. While these awards are great mechanisms of exposure for undervalued artists or great gestures of respect, they often act as responses to the canonical process and not as mechanisms in the overall canonical process.

Traditional publishers would do better to recognize themselves as commercial mediators rather than canonical mediators. Some would take it further and say that they shouldn’t see themselves as artistic mediators, but this could well vary from artist to artist and publishing house to publishing house.

If people would stop browbeating aspiring and unpublished writers about whether or not their work is ‘worthy’ of traditional publishing, and view traditional publishing rather as a contingent mode of collaborative and commercial interest, then I believe that both independent publishing and traditional publishing may coexist peacefully. This is not to say that a financially ‘equal’ situation would result, but I believe it is a far friendlier vision—a vision absent of false pretenses as to what it means to be published.

Independent publishing has proved to us that publishing, in and of itself, signifies nothing ‘special’ artistically. Giving traditional publishing a ‘special’ status belonged to a time when it was the only way to get published, but that is no longer the case.

The false proximity that people give traditionally published literature to canonical literature will only widen the gap between potentially great books that might appear through both traditional publishing and independent publishing. But this gap will only be dialectical. I think it would be best to dissolve the arguments that give a special place to the mechanisms of publishing and focus more on the works themselves.

It seems that some of the special places that people want to give to different mechanisms of publishing come from an anxiety that people have about works with particular features they feel give the work potential as up-and-comer for the canon.

In other words, since the argument itself confuses ‘great work’ with those works that merely ‘get attention’ or gain some kind of financial success, and because it is now possible for anyone to quickly put something out that may be successful or get some kind of attention (for which the internet is a historically unprecedented catalyst), people worry that the canon will be forgotten, weakened or disregarded.

Though there is no way to tell how the canon will be regarded in the future, I would offer this hopefully encouraging piece of optimism:

Though a particular canonical work may fall out of vogue or go through different cycles of attention, it will never be possible at any time in the future to say that the canonical work was ‘never part of the canon.’

In this sense, the canonical stage is a state of salvation that cannot be lost. 

Click here for Part 4