Monday, March 5, 2012

Barney Rosset U.

Upon his recent death, I realized I had matriculated in the Barney Rosset School of Literature, or, more correctly (since I didn’t know who Barney Rosset was when I started), The Grove Press University of the Arts. I also went on to graduate school at New Directions U., founded by James Laughlin. I didn’t know him, either, back then, in my teens and early twenties.

There’s been a lot of bemoaning over the decades of how badly students are being educated, how little they know. Leave Most Everybody Behind, etc., has been the general rule. Since I came along at the pre-dawn of the Baby Boomers (born in December of 1945), my generation benefitted enormously from the paperback revolution that was underway. Why? Not just because of the cheapness of paperbacks, which took hold via the military, since they were distributed to WWII soldiers, but because of the authors they published. It wasn’t altruism, even in the case of Barney Rosset; it was because the great authors, or Dead White Males of yore, were out of print, not afflicted by copyright, and the publishers didn’t have to deal with even the minimum problem of royalties.

So, who did my generation get to read? What were the mass paperback books filling up newsstand racks (not the snooty “trade” paperbacks of today)? Oh, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Homer, Balzac, Victor Hugo, those guys. And cheap. Less than a buck. The first book Barney Rosset published at Grove Press was Henry James’ The Golden Bowl. That cost more than a dollar.

Try to find any of the above at an airport bookstore these days. And people wonder why everyone has gotten more stupid over the years. Take a look at the dates when the SAT scores turned downward. By 1972 the shelves began to be full of other sorts of books.

Publishers played an unique role for the 60's decade – and some of the 70's. They set the curriculum for a generation of curious and avaricious readers such as myself. It might all be called pornography now, but Rosset brought me D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the mid-sixties, which, of course, led me to other Lawrence titles. Rosset made available to my cohort almost the entire reading list of modernism, even as it swerved toward post-modernism. And it wasn’t just international. He championed Henry Miller, became the publisher of the sexual revolution of the time, literary division, and made a lot of young people eager readers. Now they have, alas, Harry Potter.

Grove Press led me to New Directions, which carried on the same tradition, though more thoroughly continental, Sartre, etc., but also the new expatriate American generation, Paul Bowles and his crowd, along with Tennessee Williams, authors who filled the list of doctoral dissertations to come and come.

When I got older and more established, I met an early Grove Press author, the world-class translator Anthony Kerrigan, who introduced Borges to the English speaking world, or, certainly, to Americans, with the publication by Grove Press of Ficciones in 1962. Tony told me Barney Rosset had asked him whether he wanted royalties, or cash now, a “for hire” contract, for his translations. Tony, being of the older generation of writer/bohemian, took the cash up-front. If he had waited for royalties, instead, he would have had an annuity for life – and he sorely needed one, which he didn’t have.

Of course, this super tutorial that two publishing houses carried out for so many students and writers-to-be didn’t last forever. But, it certainly helped fuel a good bit of what has become to be known as “the Sixties.” Yet when you’re filling a void, it sooner or later is no longer a void. Now, it’s a matter of oversupply. Publishers today are no longer playing that guiding role.

Now, with Amazon and other outlets, any book ever published is available for purchase. But when you can have everything, there is often no way to choose anything. Or too many ways. It was limitation, back in the ’60s, that had power. Grove Press and New Directions opened the literary world’s doors for me and many others. Now, there are nothing but doors open and, alas, very little (or far too much) awaits beyond them.

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