Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Publishing Wars

The struggle between Amazon and Hachette drags on, as it has since February. It’s safe to say that Amazon’s tactics have been heavy handed and coercive. Nevertheless, an enormous amount of nonsense has been written defending Hachette and the major publishing houses. Numerous Hachette authors, most notably Malcolm Gladwell and Stephen Colbert, have rallied to the publisher’s defense. A much larger number of self-published writers are supporting Amazon. What is going on here?

The main bone of contention is rumored to be Amazon’s effort to reduce Hachette’s percentage of ebook revenues from 70% to 50% of gross. No one knows whether this is actually true, as the companies aren’t providing any figures. Nor do they appear to be “negotiating” in any meaningful sense. Beyond that, there is the feeling that Amazon wants to position itself as the sole arbiter of ebook prices. This potential loss of decision-making power in the marketplace is what particularly irks traditional publishers, perhaps even more than the issue of the percentage “take.”

Various officers of the Authors Guild, an organization of which I am a member, have rallied to Hachette’s defense. The problem is that whenever Richard Russo or anyone else pens a lengthy missive defending traditional publishing, they provide one side of the story, conveniently leaving out a number of essential points. Namely, that the typical publishing contract is a highly abusive document and that in writing a book, the average author earns less than minimum wage. 

No matter how this turns out, rest assured that no one is going to suggest that authors have a say in the pricing of ebooks. Writers and their books are simply the pawns in this game.

It seems to escape notice that authors published by Hachette have everything to gain by demanding that the publisher split net ebook revenues 50-50, as is done with all other media sales (eg, paperback and movie rights.) If anyone were to actually do the arithmetic, they would see that this would more than make up for any reduction by Amazon in payments to the publisher.

No one wants Amazon to rule the world, or to cut the publisher’s percentage of ebook revenues. But writers should try to win the best terms possible from each of the parties involved. And remember, we’re talking about multi-billion dollar corporations, not benevolent but beleaguered mom-and-pop operations.

A publisher would no doubt argue that being squeezed from above by Amazon and from below by authors would put the company in an untenable position by reducing its profit margin. Which I find darkly humorous, as the overwhelming majority of professional writers I know simply cannot make a living from writing books, whether fiction or nonfiction.

What no one is admitting is that Amazon’s hegemony is the result of incompetence on the part of the major publishers. Now, a business can be incompetent and still make money, for many years. But when the landscape changes, the incompetence is revealed, dramatically so.

To the average reader, this discussion must seem dull as dishwater. People want ebooks that are significantly cheaper than hardcovers and trade paperbacks. The famous authors who have been backing Hachette are highly privileged individuals who are treated well by their publisher and receive very large advances. In contrast, the vast majority of writers with a publishing contract receive miniscule advances and are treated rather shabbily by their publishers.

Maybe it’s time for the serfs to rebel. Or at least to demand better contracts.

For a revealing look at what ebooks mean for a mid-list author, take a look at George Anders’ recent piece in Forbes.

To view the overwhelmingly negative and often acerbic remarks directed at the Authors Guild hierarchy by both members and nonmembers, check the Comments section on the Guild’s blog.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dante in Hell

The Divine Comedy is one of the pinnacles of world literature. The first section, the Inferno, is nevertheless an extreme work, perhaps the most extreme ever written. Reading it for the third time in as many decades, it occurs to me that I really do need to move on to the Purgatorio and Paradiso. For however fierce its poetry and striking its visual imagery, the Inferno represents a repulsive and indeed repellent view of the world.

I regret that I know Dante only via English translations, though even I can get some sense of the verse by reading the Italian aloud from a bilingual edition. The translation I tend to use is by John Ciardi, though I’ve looked through and consult the Pinsky and Hollander editions, among others. Aside from the sound, there is the miraculous visual sense, which does manage to come through in translation. It is the poet’s supreme mastery of visual description in the Inferno that led certain Victorian writers to refer to Dante as the “master of the disgusting.” I would add that the only writer I know of who manages the grotesque in an analogous manner is William Burroughs in Naked Lunch—it’s just that Burroughs writes from a diametrically opposed moral viewpoint. Previously, Dante’s worldview didn’t bother me, I simply regarded it as a given. This time around was different.

The main problem with the Inferno is that Dante the author is playing God. For it is he and he alone who decides who winds up in hell, including which level of hell they are consigned to and what punishment they receive. It might be possible to shrug this off, or to claim that Dante was “divinely inspired,” but then we hit upon one stubborn fact: Dante has consigned no fewer than five popes to hell, including Boniface VIII, who was pope in 1300, when the action of the poem takes place. To us, in the twenty-first century, this may be amusing, but in the early fourteenth century, it was deadly serious. The papacy was a major political force in the Italian peninsula, and Boniface was a political enemy of Dante’s, the patron of the Black Guelphs, as opposed to Dante’s Florentine faction, the White Guelphs. The question is, why wasn’t Dante excommunicated? Why wasn’t the poem banned?

Remember there was no printing in Dante’s time. The Divine Comedy, when completed in 1321, was circulated among Dante’s friends, mainly fellow poets. The poem’s prestige mounted from there. By the time the papacy became fully aware of the Inferno, Boniface was dead and in disgrace, and his successors were less interested in preserving his good name. Beyond this, Dante in no way encourages sin, quite the reverse in fact. In time, the Church probably saw the Inferno as a useful means of frightening people, and incorporated a certain amount of the poem’s imagery in its doctrinal descriptions of hell.

What we encounter in Dante is a panorama of souls who are tortured in ways that are often far worse than any crime they may have committed. The sadistic nature of the punishments needs to be emphasized. These are tortures devised by a vengeful human being. And the punishments are shockingly grotesque—Ugolino gnawing the brain of his enemy Archbishop Ruggieri is just one example.

Where Dante might be construed as genuinely heretical is not in his treatment of the papacy, but in his taking upon himself the divine prerogative of judgment. Not even Aquinas would dare to do this.  And the logic of Dante’s judgments doesn’t stand up—he has consigned the flatterers to a far lower region of hell than simple murderers. Mythological characters who rebelled against Zeus are sent to the furthest depths. Brutus and Cassius reside next to Judas Iscariot as the worst of mortal villains, eternally devoured by Satan. Follow this chain of reasoning, and the assassination of Julius Caesar is morally equivalent to the crucifixion of Christ.   

In answer to this, the distinction between Dante the creator of the self-enclosed world of the Inferno and Dante the naïve and awestruck protagonist of the poem needs to be understood. In the fourteenth century, readers of the poem generally believed that Dante had in fact been to hell, purgatory, and heaven and returned to relate what he had seen. Few modern readers approach the poem in this way.

No doubt the Purgatorio and Paradiso are more in line with orthodox Catholic teaching—in heaven, Beatrice expounds at length on various theological points and matters of doctrine. Many readers never make it this far. It is hell that readers throughout the ages have found the most compelling. Which may say something about all of us as human beings.

Dante scholars will no doubt bristle at much of what I have said. Perhaps my thesis is the “elephant in the room,” something no one mentions but everyone is aware of. Dante’s moral and logical inconsistencies in no way detract from the aesthetic effect of the Inferno, which contains some of the most powerful and transcendent language ever devised.

Throughout the Inferno, there are a number of exchanges that take place between the protagonist and the damned. Aside from the Paolo and Francesca episode, my favorite is the scene with Farinata degli Uberti, who was a leader of the Ghibellines, archenemies of the Guelphs. Farinata and the protagonist acknowledge each other, politely mock each other, and ultimately treat one another with respect. All very medieval.