How to break through the barrier of ‘nonsense’ ‘publishing
Benjamin Disraeli once had one of his fictional characters point out that books are the curse of the human race. In “Lothair,” it was Mr Phoebus who said: “Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense. The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing.”
As author and Jew, perhaps this was the Victorian statesman’s private joke at the expense of his mesmerised readership. In the brave New Britain of 1998, it is worth asking if 10 per cent is too high a figure to accommodate “the refutation of that nonsense.”
The 1990s have encouraged a market-centred publishing industry where fewer authors are able to see their Work in print. The lion’s share of the publishing cake now goes on six-figure advances and promotional hype. Independent publishers are a diminishing breed and the number of “larger” outfits grown fat and indolent with the ingestion of yet another literary entrepreneur has increased.
There is no pretence at providing a new experience, a new way of thinking or moving back intellectual and literary horizons. ‘Can’t cook’books and millennial supernaturalism rival the coffee-table blockbusters
For a minority audience, such as that interested in reading “Jewish” books, _ this development has meant, fewer specialised publishers. Weidenfeld and Nicolson is now part of Orion and it is left to independent publishers such as Peter Halban, Frank Cass and the Littman Library to carry the flag. In turn, fewer new Jewish authors are likely to be given their chance by a publisher.
Shared experiences with non-Jews, such as Anthony Julius’s incisive challenge to contemporary views on T. S. Eliot’s anti-Jewish blindness, are perhaps the exception. The great reservoir of Jewish literary and intellectual endeavour in English is, of course, the United States and occasionally a controversial work emerges, such , as Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” which attacks an accepted viewpoint and is widely acknowledged. Canadian first-time novelist Anne Michaels’s prizewinning Holocaust novel, “Fugitive Pieces,” is a rarity.
Just over two years ago, the European Publication Society was established to counteract the tendency of the people of the Book to become bereft of Jewish books — at least in, Europe. Its stated aim is ‘to promote and assist by way of grants and subsidies, the publication of- manuscripts on Jewish- subjects of literary, educational or historical interest that might otherwise not be publishable commercially.’
Publishers can submit manuscripts for consideration and apply for grants of up to £3,000. Approximately 10 grants are made each year. Since 1995, the society had assisted in a wide range of publications, from a collection of new fiction by Anglo-Jewish writers (‘The Slow Mirror and Other Stories’), collections of poetry (Lotte Kramer and A. C. Jacobs) and memoirs and autoblography (Isaac Levy, and Thelma Ruby and Peter Frye).
A “Jewish” book is interpreted in the widest sense. Translations are also supported from and into other European languages, such as that from the German of Gotz Aly’s “Endlosung.” Unusual subjects like Anton Felton’s “Jewish Carpets” and Simon L. Cohen’s “Child’s Play: Jewish Toys and Children’s’ Books from the Past” have been sponsored.
The EJPS intends to expand the accessibility of Israeli writers, from the contemporary work of Savyon Lebrecht to a bilingual edition of Bialik’s poetry, this year, the society has supported the “Babel Guide to Jewish Fiction” and Jennifer Glynn’s editing of the charming Palestine Mandate memoirs of her aunt, Helen Bentwich.
The Zohar asks ‘who has understanding?’ and replies, “Those who read everything and know more than their own speciality.” In 1998, the EJPS intends to assist more publishers to make this a reality.
Jewish Chronicle Literary Supplement 27 February 1998