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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
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Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
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Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
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jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
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Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
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Making Light
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Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
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The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

About John Holbo

John Holbo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He works on philosophy of literature and literary theory; Wittgenstein and Nietzsche; also, science fiction, fantasy, film, comics; also, more highbrow literary stuff. He blogs at Crooked Timber and John & Belle Have A Blog. Some of his writings are here. The Valve is pretty much his baby, and he's pretty much Editor-in-Chief.

Email Address: jholbo@mac.com
Website: http://examinedlife.typepad.com/johnbelle/


Posts by John Holbo

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Posted by John Holbo on 03/18/12 at 10:50 AM

It’s probably past time I made such an announcement. Not that there’s been anything wrong with what Bill B. has been up to on his own lonesome for some time hereabouts. But the Valve was never intended to be Bill Benzon’s personal blog. Best he relocate to his own digs if it’s to be a solo operation.

I want to keep the site up. I would be sad if the archives disappeared. Lots of good stuff. But keeping the place up? ... well, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll get around to organizing some of those good old book events again soon. Best of luck to all our past authors, wherever they have wandered to by this point. And thanks to all the readers and commenters who made it such fun while it lasted. But nothing lasts forever.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Posted by John Holbo on 03/25/10 at 06:24 AM

Oh frabjous joy! Holbo makes a post! No, don’t worry. Nothing substantive. I’m just testing the software. Apparently some of you are unable to see the page. Let’s see whether a post can indeed be made.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Heideggerian Are You?

Posted by John Holbo on 11/10/09 at 09:46 AM

You know what? It wouldn’t kill me to post at the Valve every year or so. I could, just for example, take time out of my busy schedule ... (it really is busy, my schedule.)

But I do find that Crooked Timber keeps me busy, and I’m bizarrely averse to cross-posting. (I don’t know why.) So let me link to a post at Crooked Timber, on typography, philosophy and the Nazi question. And let me just ask the humanists among you (that’s most of you, I expect): just how Heideggerian are you? How much of the stuff that matters to you can be traced back, significantly, to Heidegger? If you don’t know a damn thing about Heidegger, how seriously confused are you, sitting in a graduate seminar?

I realize it’s a trick question, because it’s vague. But answer as best you can. How much Heidegger have you actually read - for a class, say. Or assigned, for a class? I’m curious what the kids are being made to read these days.

But it’s not a trick question in this way: I’m not going to call you a Nazi. Life’s too short.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Hey Kids! Free Plato Book! And you can help me make it better!

Posted by John Holbo on 06/01/09 at 09:08 AM

Yes, it is true! Visit the official book site. You can view the whole thing via Issuu.com, which has a very nice Flash-based reader: minimal and elegant but full-featured. And/or download the PDF for offline reading.

Want to see a neat trick? I can embed the book, like so.

Then you just click to turn the page (illegible at this size) or click to open and read in full-screen mode. It’s a very nice viewer they’ve got. Or I could make the embed open on a particular page, so when I’m blogging about a passage while teaching, I can just point the kids to the page in question. Or open the book itself onscreen in class and zoom so it’s readable. Neat, I call it.

The full book title (some would say: over-full): Reason and Persuasion, Three Dialogues by Plato: Euthyphro, Meno and Republic book I, with commentary and illustrations by John Holbo and translations by Belle Waring. It will be out in print by mid-August. The version that is up right now is actually the final draft - so far as I can tell. But I still have a week-and-a-bit to catch any last typos or mistakes. (I have a terrible suspicion that the Stephanus pages may have shifted a bit during the last edit. Gotta check that. How tedious, but oh-so-necessary.) I hope there aren’t any major problems with the book still, at this point. But if there are - well, I will do my best to make needed changes. So if you would like to volunteer your services as proofreader/last minute reviewer/critic, you are most welcome.

Not pre-publication peer-review. Not old-fashioned post-publication review. Perinatal peer-review. (Socrates always said he was a midwife. So I assume he would approve.)

The book is published by Pearson Asia (that’s a story in itself) and will be available in paperback by mid-August. They’ve been bringing out nice, inexpensive draft versions for my students in Singapore (that’s why I have an Asian publisher.) For this first general release I insisted on extending the deal I had insisted on for my own classroom use: I reserve the e-rights and so have a free hand to try manner of cool free e-stuff. I’m hoping one reward for my virtuous ways will be that some folks will want to adopt the book for classroom use. (Free e-availability is a big pedagogic bonus, I think.) And will then see to it that copies of the book are in school bookstores, so Pearson (and I) get paid a little. That seems fair.

OK, that’s all for now. If you want to talk Plato, please come on over to the book site. (And link! Please link! And help me edit the book, last minute, if you wouldn’t mind.) But it might be fun to chat about e-publishing in academia in this thread. If you are inclined. Doesn’t this sort of thing make a lot of sense. whatever you think of my particular book? I say it does.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Graphs, Maps, Trees and Breeding

Posted by John Holbo on 05/27/09 at 04:21 AM

I’m going to write my response to Jenny Davidson’s Breeding as a kind of post-script to our Moretti event of yore. (Which I’m supposed to be turning into an actual book if life ever stops getting in the way. Troubles, troubles.)

Anyway, let’s say the following is a post-script to this post I wrote for that event. Executive summary: I was pretty jazzed about Moretti. It seemed pretty good.

I’m also going to bounce off some things Jenny herself said at the time.

For about a year after I wrote that post it seemed to me literary scholars I bumped into, attended conferences with, or corresponded with, were buzzing about Moretti (quite independently of our humble little online get-together). He seemed to be enjoying a moment of academic celebrity. Fine by me. But it surprised me how much of the buzz was negative. I was struck, in particular, by one panel discussion I attended at which it was more or less agreed by various participants that scholarship and pedagogy of literary history are, at present, mutually ill-suited. (I am providing my own gloss on their agreement, if memory serves. But I’ll withhold names, in case memory does not serve. Maybe this is just me talking to myself here.) On the one hand, you need a set of texts that will provide you with sufficient evidence to pronounce intelligently—justifiably—on such subjects as ‘the nineteenth century American novel’. On the other hand, you need a set of texts to fill out a 12-week syllabus for an undergraduate course of that title. There isn’t any one set of texts that can do both jobs.

Continue reading "Graphs, Maps, Trees and Breeding"

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Academic Respectability, Comics and Criticism

Posted by John Holbo on 04/16/09 at 12:46 AM

Our Scott K. complains about Doug Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean [amazon]: “Every reference I catch—about half of the ones Wolk drops—complements his argument; however, the way you wear your erudition lightly on the web differs from how you do it in print.  The book’s delicious quotability is a byproduct of its learned chattiness, and if the medium is ever to attain academic respectability, its expositors will need to try a little harder than this.”

I’m making this into a separate thread because it’s a bit tangential (but I’m also responding to Scott’s critique that I praised Wolk too highly in my reviews): what’s academic respectability worth, eh? After all, most of the people (literary) academics study aren’t, themselves, respectable academics. A lot of silly poets, eccentrics, madmen and just plain chatty dilettantes and book-ish types, colorful scribblers. But they are dead now, so many of them. By the numbers, in the long run, it seems the best way to achieve academic respectability is not to have been a respectable academic in life but to have made a mark in some other way. Then, posthumously, your corpse becomes food for the bookworms and, in that way, you yourself become sufficiently bookwormified by proxy, and without having gone to the bother. Not only can you sleep when you’re dead, you can improve yourself through academic studies.

But I digress. How should you wear your erudition? Heavily, or lightly? I remember a good discussion by Bernard Williams - in some piece of journalism he wrote somewhere, if memory serves - about how erudition, worn heavily, often amounts to a ridiculously over-armored defensiveness. You are like the hedgehog that knows only one thing: I am going to be attacked and, by God, I will be ready. You make a move and explicitly anticipate and elaborate and catalogue and classify all the possible counter-moves to it and how they will be met. (Sort of like Frank Miller’s Batman, but more tweedily.) Even though any moderately intelligent, charitable reader should be able to see that most of these possible objections are not very good, hence not very interesting. You never make the sorts of broad gestures that leave any soft bits dangerously exposed.

Actually, this is true more of philosophy writing than literary studies stuff, in my experience. We tend to be compulsive completists about possible argumentative paths, easily resulting in a kind of pettifogging judo style. But literary studies folks have their own forms and formulae for exhibiting elaborateness and completeness, to a degree that no sane non-academic would ever voluntarily emulate. You hereby signal ‘academic respectability’. I think Ph.D. dissertations tend to be exemplifications of this tendency. This is the moment when you have to prove academic respectability, more than any other point in your career. It is no coincidence that dissertations are notoriously baggy and ponderous. They are, shall we say, un-gazelle-like, in their intellectual movements. Nay, they do not, as Nietzsche advised, get in and out of the cold baths of their ideas in any hurry.

On the other hand, as your career progresses you may succumb to ‘old phllosopher’s disease’, as we sometimes call it: you write books that are relatively sweeping and opinionated and that tend to be regarded as somewhat cranky. You earn the right to be cranky by being picky for a long time first. (No, I don’t like it either. I want to start by being cranky. Youth is wasted on the young.)

Which is the better sort of stuff, intellectually? I think it’s pretty obvious there are good and bad examples of both, both serve legitimate intellectual functions. Of course, a lot of stuff dwells somewhere in the middle. That stuff, too, is good and bad.

Of course we object to stuff on both ends by pointing out that it’s sloppy or careless or, on the other hand, picky, over-focused and scholastic. And rightly so. But it’s still a bit confused - or confusing - that we do so. Because it’s not the case that the intellectual ecology as a whole would be healthier without this diversity of styles.

In a case like Reading Comics, it seems to me that the question is this: is this a good book? Yes. Very good. Would it have been better book - intellectually more valuable - if it had been more ‘academic’? If it had been encased in an extra inch of justificatory armor, say? I’m not sure it would have been. These thoughts wouldn’t have been expressed in such clear, vivid, condensed form. And if this book wouldn’t clearly be made better, absolutely, by being made more academic, in what sense should I bother about its lack of ‘academic respectability’?

It so happens I was reading Theirry Groensteen’s The System of Comics [amazon], at the same time that I was reading Wolk’s book. It is certainly much more academic in intellectual style, hence more academically respectable. But it isn’t nearly as good.

Not that Wolk couldn’t have footnoted the thing a bit more fully, mayhap.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Squid and Owl

Posted by John Holbo on 04/13/09 at 12:43 PM

Where, oh where have I been these past several months?

When a man gets to be around 40 - maybe a bit older - he starts to look back on life and wonder: what thing have I done for which I will be remembered? The next thing he does is start a webcomic. Maybe sell a few t-shirts, other Cafe Press-type stuff. Which brings us to:


No, really. I honestly don’t know whether it’s a comic or not. It’s an illustrated childrens book for adults, maybe. I’m planning to serialize it on Flickr. Here’s the set. Subscribe to the RSS feed! I decided to start things out by posting the first 21 pages. I’ll be adding a page a day, weekdays. (Not like there’s a story or anything, but it rhymes.)

Then it will become wildly popular. (Step 3: Profit!) Maybe I’ll be able to find a publisher, eh?

The only other really good idea I’ve had lately is ... Bob, can we just show them the picture?

Continue reading "Squid and Owl"

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pre-Golden Age SF: The Super-est Supermen

Posted by John Holbo on 02/24/09 at 01:03 AM

My friend Josh Glenn has a great post up about some half-forgotten (and/or totally forgotten) early 20th Century SF. (I’m on vacation, with intermittent internet, so I may not be quick to add to comments.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Catholic and Protestant Imaginations and SF

Posted by John Holbo on 02/17/09 at 01:43 AM

I’m preparing to teach six weeks of Philosophy and Film. I focus on science fiction, so I’m reviewing a stack of critical writings on SF. I’m taking another look at The History of Science Fiction, by one Adam Roberts, which I’ve read before ... and I suddenly realize that I don’t quite get what is supposed to be a large component of the main thesis.

Adam wants to set up an opposition between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ imaginations, and he wants to privilege the latter - not in quality terms, but for purposes of defining SF. The main SF line is ‘Protestant’ in its imaginings, with Catholic impulses providing important counterpoint. Roughly, Protestantism is all about the ‘disenchantment of the world’ and Catholicism is about magic and sacralization. So SF is Protestant and fantasy is Catholic, and the fact that SF is often hard to distinguish from fantasy just goes to show that Protestant and Catholic imaginative impulses can intertwine and do complicated stuff. “If I am asked to condense into a single sentence, my thesis is that science fiction is determined precisely by the dialectic between ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ (or, if one prefers less sectarian terms, between ‘deism’ and ‘magical pantheism’) that emerges out of the seventeenth century” (p. xi-ii).

I take this binary to be vague but intuitive. (And really I’m not hoping for any non-vague theses hereabouts.) Fine. But now this:

“I am not saying, as some critics have done, that SF ‘embodies religious myth’, or secularizes religious themes. SF may, of course, do either or both of these things, but this is not my argument. My argument is that the genre as a whole still bears the imprint of the cultural crisis that gave it birth, and that this crisis happened to be a European religious one” (3). The crisis is the Reformation, obviously.

But here’s what I don’t understood. Before I noticed this sentence, I did take Adam to be arguing that SF ‘embodies religious myth’, or ‘secularizes religious themes’. I took him to be saying that this is the evidence that SF still bears the imprint of its Reformation-era origins. So now it looks to me like Adam is saying: I’m not arguing A, I’m arguing A & B. Which isn’t exactly a denial that you are arguing A. 

So what does it mean to assert that SF ‘bears the imprint’ of the Reformation, while not asserting that it is a matter of secularizing religious themes. I guess I’m not getting it. Adam, what say you?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Was Lenin A Utilitarian?

Posted by John Holbo on 01/28/09 at 08:35 AM

Well, the Zizek thread was invigorating, eh? Let’s talk about something related but distinct. One thing that has come up repeatedly in these threads is the allegation that it is obviously absurd for me to label Lenin a utilitarian. Or rather: to it is absurd for me to characterize the philosophy of Leninism as a species of consequentialism. (I don’t claim that Lenin personally practiced utilitarianism with much success, but he certainly preached a form of it.) As I’ve said, I find rather annoying the persistent refusal to let Leninism-as-consequentialism pass on the grounds that some things are pretty darn obvious. (It’s true that it’s a bit hard to find scholarly articles that argue specifically, that Leninism is, broadly, a consequentialist philosophy. But it’s also hard to find articles arguing, specifically, that the Pope wears a funny hat.)

Well, here goes.

Continue reading "Was Lenin A Utilitarian?"

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Now who the hell wrote that story about ….

Posted by John Holbo on 01/18/09 at 10:27 PM

I’m half-remembering an old SF story, which I’m half-remembering was even discussed here at the Valve - or was it over at CT? - about a scientist who builds what is basically a machine for interpreting all of literature. The joke being that this machine-product interpretation isn’t ultimately interpretable - surveyable - by mere mortals. So what’s the point, from our perspective? (A bit like finding out that the answer to the question was 42, per Douglas Adams.) Does anyone remember who the author is, and what the title is? I’m sure it’s early 20th Century, nothing very recent. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Anticipatory Retrospective and Presentism Now: Two Papers I’ve Published Of Late

Posted by John Holbo on 01/15/09 at 08:58 AM

Where have I been? Why haven’t I been posting? I don’t really know!

(Whew. That awkwardness is clean out of the way.)

In the last few months I’ve gotten two pieces through the publication pipes that (I think) deserve discussion together. Unfortunately, they aren’t readily web-accessible. One is a chapter in a book, the other an essay in a subscription-only academic journal. Fortunately, I’m going to try to summarize both, by way of showing how they go together. So it should be possible to discuss. But this’ll be a long post. Just like the good old days!

My pieces are: “Dewey’s Difficult Recovery, Analytic Philosophy’s Attempted Turn” in Democracy as Culture: Deweyan Pragmatism in a Globalizing World, eds. Tan and Whalenbridge, (SUNY 2008) [amazon]. And: “Shakespeare Now: The Function of Presentism at the Critical Time” in Literature Compass 5/6 (2008): 1097-1110. (Academic publication is weird. I started writing these pieces in late 2005 or early 2006. It’s so strange that my ‘new’ work feels old to me, in blog-years. But at least I still agree with both of them.)

The first of these two pieces discusses difficulties the likes of Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam get into, trying to take inspiration from John Dewey about how to stop being analytic philosophers and start being something more useful. For post purposes I’m going to focus on Rorty. The Putnam stuff doesn’t have any strong connection with the Shakespeare ‘presentism’ stuff I’ll be turning to in the second part.

Continue reading "Anticipatory Retrospective and Presentism Now: Two Papers I’ve Published Of Late"

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Fear and Trembling and the Incarnation

Posted by John Holbo on 12/02/08 at 01:21 AM

Adam K. and I have been having a good old-fashioned Zizek brawl in comments. As Adam R. notes:"Ah, just like old times.”

But one of the fun things about Zizek brawls is learning stuff about Kierkegaard. So let’s reflect on Fear and Trembling. Adam K. doubts my claim that Kierkegaard’s concept of faith and the essence of true religion hinges on his understanding of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The obvious counter-argument: Fear and Trembling is about Abraham, obviously a pre-Christian figure whose story is related in the Old, rather than New, Testament. Adam K writes: “Isn’t it interesting, then, that Fear and Trembling doesn’t deal with the Incarnation at all?” But this is, I think, a misreading, albeit one that is quite understandable. In fact, Fear and Trembling is very centrally, but only implicitly, concerned with the Incarnation, and it is rather hard really to get what it is about until you see this. 

Continue reading "Fear and Trembling and the Incarnation"

Thursday, October 23, 2008

JSTOR for books

Posted by John Holbo on 10/23/08 at 11:55 AM

BoingBoing links to a Safari Books Online special offer: pick a free book for a month , plus 10% off a subscription to the full version of the service. Looks good. In the basic package, Safari gives you generous (not total, unless you pay more) access to a truly vast range of titles from “O’Reilly Media, John Wiley & Sons, Addison-Wesley, Peachpit Press, Adobe Press, lynda.com and many more top publishers.” It looks like you can have 10 books ‘checked out’ per month. You have ‘slots’. Plus there are extras and goodies of various sorts. Yearly rate: $252. Monthly rate: $22.99. For me it doesn’t quite make sense, but almost. I’m sure for a lot of people, and institutions, this makes total sense. Often when you are learning something new you would like to have not just one but five books (because you aren’t sure which Photoshop book will be best). And 18 months later there’s a new version and you would like new books. (How many thick, obsolete technical titles do you have on your shelf? I have: enough.) It might make sense to subscribe for a few months when I’m learning something new, then unsubscribe for a year and subscribe again when the next bout of learning hits.

But mostly I’m thinking how nice this would be for academic books in the humanities in particular (in the social sciences, too, but the humanities seems more monograph-driven - or ridden.) JSTOR for books. Your institution subscribes, or you subscribe individually. You get access to everything from all the major publishers. It would make a good deal more economic sense than what we’ve got, and would be a lot more functional. Also, it would be good for independent scholars and ordinary citizens who don’t have the privilege of institutional access, which I think is a real problem. It’s bad that the (often tax-subsidized) productions of academics get locked in university libraries. If you could buy a month-long library membership for $22 - maybe Joe the Plumber gets it in his head to read all the latest scholarly work on Plato - that would be reasonable. Free culture is best, but affordable culture is second best. Of course it won’t happen. JSTOR for scholarly books in the humanities. Damn, that would be nice.

Monday, September 22, 2008

More Publishing and Perishing

Posted by John Holbo on 09/22/08 at 07:44 PM

There’s a fascinating article in New York Magazine about the publishing crisis (not in academia this time - just the plain old commercial publishing crisis). It’s fascinating in part because it sounds so awful that I can’t imagine how the whole industry stays on its feet a whole week. (So obviously I’m not quite getting it.) But here’s the thing. Amazon is eating everyone’s lunch and people are really worried about that, and I personally sympathize with nearly everyone who gets quoted in the piece. There’s this theme of braying Jeff Bezos and his Kindle and his suborbital space vehicle (?) driving nails into the coffin of a glorious thing that was:

In its heyday, publishing was a vast array of mom-and-pop shops, in which the pops tended to be independently wealthy. Their competitive advantage was not efficiency or low costs but taste. Maxwell Perkins at Scribner; Bennett Cerf at Random House; Roger Straus and Robert Giroux at Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Barney Rosset at Grove; and Alfred A. Knopf epitomized the gentleman editor as gallerist, snatching up unknown geniuses. One British publisher advised an American at the time: “Take lots and lots of gambles, but small ones.” So they did. They took poor writers drinking, put them up in their homes, and defended them in court. They made handshake deals, spent their personal wealth in lean years, and built backlists out of modernist classics. Discovering Faulkner was like buying Picassos in 1910.

In the early sixties, Knopf sold out to Cerf, who sold Random House to RCA, and the era of consolidation began. Formerly independent publishers shriveled into mere imprints of massive corporations. Knopf became part of Random House; so did Doubleday and Bantam and Ballantine and dozens of still smaller shops now distinguished mostly by their names, like corporatized Broadway theaters bearing the monikers of long-gone cigar-chomping producers.

And now all the corporatized Broadway theaters are all folding. And it’s sad to see this last vestige of those early days disappearing.

Again, I’m sympathetic. But there aren’t any examples in the article of a contemporary publisher (big or little) doing something artistically noble, like ... discovering Faulkner, promoting some talent that would have been neglected without a sheltering agent/editor’s wing. Something that Amazon can’t do, by implication. The article is all about the fantastic incapacity of traditional publishers to provide value at any stage of the process. They can’t discern, they can’t predict, they haven’t a clue how to market, they can barely sell. I guess they can still edit. Obviously they can distribute, but the point of the Amazon thing is that this is getting perilously easy all over, so that can’t be traditional publishing point of distinction. They do stuff in the craziest ways.

I don’t really have any strong opinion about this myself. I just thought it was sort of interesting that the article didn’t even try to argue any claim of the following form: ‘and with the passing of all these New York commercial publishing houses, the following important critical/mediating/distribution function will tragically cease to be performed.’ There’s just no sense of that. The only half-point that is made in that regard is a ‘think small’ wisdom. Publish fewer books. Smaller advances. Less of this collectively suicidal chasing of the big blockbuster - a game that a few can win big in the short run but everyone loses in the long-run (apparently). But if ‘think small’ is the wisdom in publishing, and ‘distribute enormous’ is the wisdom in distribution and selling, then why kick against the pricks?

“Book publishing is still a big-league business, and that’s a hard thing to let go of. “There’s something terrible,” says an editor at a prestigious imprint, “about admitting that you’re not a mass medium.” Is that really so terrible?

UPDATE: Just to be clear. I’m not personally arguing that publishers don’t do anything useful anymore. I’m just noting that the article doesn’t even really attempt to argue that they do.

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