Peirene Press editor Meike Ziervogel was right to be delighted by the TLS’s praise for the novellas she publishes: “two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.” An even more catchy expression came from the less highly regarded but more popular Metro: “highbrow escapism for the time-poor”. Of course, she is right to embrace such praise. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you, unless you’re a peculiarly reckless (suicidal) kind of small independent literary publisher. But let’s think about it for a moment. Film has long infiltrated literary creation but how can one blithely put on a par the experience of viewing a film and of reading a book?
The first question concerns the role of the critic. “All a critic has to do,” Dr Johnson tells us, “is to be as intelligent as possible”. This isn’t always true. The kind of literary criticism that offers snappy soundbites that sound like advertising copy offers an interesting case in point when you think that, essentially, (good) advertising is about how smart you are at selling a lie. (This is a simplistic view of course as the excellent little book TheMedium Is the Message: And 50 other Ridiculous Advertising Rules [BIS Publishers, Amsterdam, 2009]) wittily points out).
Let’s think about reading for a minute. Does it matter how long the book you read is – aside from its physical weight in your pocket or bag, if you still read on paper (and assuming you’re not reading in preparation for an exam, being the kind of student that thrives under pressure and leaves things to the very last minute)? How does the interpretative and imaginative work required by the reader, whichever kind of fiction you read, regardless of its literary merits and its length, compare with what happens in the viewer’s mind whilst watching a film? When, by definition, the images exist in front of the viewer’s eye(s), as opposed to being produced in the camera obscura of the mind’s single and singular eye whilst reading a book?
Take The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, a masterpiece of contemporary fiction. It’s a short novel, written in extremely succinct prose, about which reviewers have written abundantly and beautifully. Maybe like me, you read slowly. Or maybe, also like me, when a book is so very good (The Leopard comes to mind) you won’t rush through it, even when you really want to know what happens next or, if nothing much happens but the style is enthralling, you want to devour (but rather, savour) each sentence, perhaps even re-reading the same sentence or paragraph several times.
I wasn’t particularly pressed for time when I read The Blue Flower; by this I mean I wasn’t snowed under, struggling to keep up with a zillion things or preoccupied with some prickly problem. I wasn’t idle either, just going about the daily business of life and work. But it took me three weeks. And I couldn’t read anything else (any other new piece of fiction, that is) for at least two weeks after that. I was still in or with the book after reading the book. Or, more precisely, the book was still in or with me, doing what some books do when you’ve finished them: they leave traces, even as they slowly fade away. This is a banal experience that most readers will identify with. Films, perhaps because we spend less time absorbed in them, have generally a lighter impact, or not as long-lasting, I think. When you finish a book you really love, the experience can be akin to how you feel when you separate from a lover. You can’t (and why should you?) just move on.
In any case, surely the point of reading a book is the experience of reading, not how long it takes. But in the case of a publisher like Peirene Press in the UK, and the equally wonderful Editions Cent Pages in France, surely the first thing to be said regarding their particular chosen perspective, is that while the books they publish are intrinsically entertaining because of their brevity and strong, almost concentrated identity, their chosen short form provides a unique vista into a writer’smore substantial body of work. These publishers seek to reach out to and cultivate the reader’s openness of mind as much as to inscribe each book in a particular temporality, the way a collection does: in other words, it’s not about novelty publishing or publishing a great writer’s latest work.
The previous paragraph does nothing that the snappy wording of the TLS and Metro does but I’m not in the advertising business, nor is a publishing house an actual product. This may sound hopelessly romantic and out of touch with the commercial imperatives dominating contemporary Western culture, but independent publishers like Peirene and many others are primarily human adventures attesting of a deep personal commitment to the books they deliver to the world. As to whether books are products or not, the answer probably depends on which side your bread is buttered but Laura J. Miller’s study on bookselling Reluctant Capitalists (2007) offers an interesting vantage point. Now, to “highbrow escapism”…