Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Passing of Gentility

Yesterday, in reviewing the new RCA Red Seal recording of Edward Elgar's Opus 61 violin concerto in B minor for Examiner.com, I suggested that "there is a considerable streak of nostalgia in the compositions of his [Elgar's] 'Edwardian period,'" that is, the music he composed after the death of Queen Victoria. Nostalgia is, of course, rarely grounded in reality, particularly when it is linked to any sense of national spirit. In many respects the great author of anti-nostalgia was William Faulkner. In his brilliant introduction to The Portable Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley described Faulkner's vision of the American South as one of "an incomplete and frustrated nation trying to relive its legendary past;" and I suspect the same can be said of any twentieth-century nostalgia for Victorian England. One wonders if Elgar ever got a look at Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians and, if so, whether it had any impact on his nostalgia.

However, my preoccupation with nostalgia in writing my review may have had less to do with trying to establish a socio-historical context for Elgar's violin concerto and more with my having recently read an essay by Jason Epstein on the future of the publishing industry. The essay appeared in the latest issue of The New York Review; and I found myself struck by one particular introductory remark:

… the genteel book business that I joined more than a half-century ago is already on the edge, suffering from a gambler's unbreakable addiction to risky, seasonal best sellers, many of which don't recoup their costs, and the simultaneous deterioration of backlist, the vital annuity on which book publishers had in better days relied for year-to-year stability through bad times and good.

That flood of words reads like an elegy less for the business itself and more for an underlying spirit of gentility among those who chose it for a profession. One did not go into "the genteel book business" to get rich. It would be sufficient to "earn one's keep" in exchange for the pleasures of the colleagues one would encounter in the course of plying the trade, not to mention the results of the efforts of those colleagues. This was a world in which one did not compete with the rich and mighty. If one had contact with them at all, it was to cultivate them as clients by providing a service that would see to needs they had beyond those of maintaining and/or increasing wealth and power.

Those days are long gone. They were already passing when the Internet started to change everything, but the Internet probably contributed to hastening their demise. Still, we cannot place all of the blame on the Internet. The "unbreakable addiction" (to invoke Epstein's language) of the World Economic Forum to economic growth has been just as deleterious as the role the Internet has played in the dehumanization of work itself, regardless of the profession one wishes to enter. Thus, when we read what Epstein has to say about the "revolutionary future" of publishing, we must recognize that his thinking has been seriously infected with nostalgia for such things as the old Scribner's book store in Manhattan, the publishing enterprise behind that shop (and the authors it supported), and a regular flow of periodicals that would feed the mind the way The New York Review desperately tries to continue doing.

Epstein believes that publishers should embrace the "revolutionary future" of digitization. He is eating his own dog food through his contributions to the Espresso Book Machine development. However, I fear that the nostalgic grounding of his personal motives may keep him out of touch with those for whom wealth and power matter more than whatever it is that one does to achieve that wealth and power. The best way to appreciate the distinction is to consider someone like Rupert Murdoch. His success can be attributed to his highly-focused fixation on wealth and power, so focused that, to invoke the above language, he has no other needs. I do not think that Epstein is willing to accept "Murdoch's way" as the only path to survival in the current Darwinian business climate; but what, then, can he say about the many small bookstores he used to frequent that no longer exist or the periodicals he used to read? Nostalgia may have its comforts for the elderly; but, to continue the Darwinian metaphor, it is now being selected out of the population base. Those who now define the business climate probably no longer recognize it; and that is the social revolution that Epstein should be addressing, rather than the future of his publishing skills and activities.

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