Last night I saw a documentary on Sylvia Beach, which included about an hour on her founding of the famous bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company. This is such a well-known bookstore, that I hardly need to describe its legendary status. But one detail caught my attention, and I haven’t been able to shake it off. The narrator described how Beach offered to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses.
As I was watching, a little voice in my head said: 'this could never happen today'. I cannot, for the life of me, picture a writer like Joyce sitting in a local bookstore today and being offered publication. This kind of patronage, or perhaps, artistic generosity, is something that I think we may have lost. This is just the way I feel, so I’m not sure if it’s entirely correct, and I don't want to seem all nostalgic and negative. We have gained a lot in some respects. For example, the internet and other forms of technology have opened up the world considerably, and have provided opportunities for writers that may have possibly not existed before. But I can’t help feeling like the world is also closing in, like it’s getting swallowed up by increasing bureaucracy.
Have we become too cynical for the idealistic words of promise and generosity written upon the walls of Shakespeare and Company? Have we lost perspective about artistic pursuit in the haze of 'marketability', profit and popularity? I’m sure that financial concerns, bureaucracy and the marketing of works was always and will always be a primary concern for publishers (and for authors too). I’m not naive enough to believe that there used to be a golden period in the history of literature when it was was completely separated from money or materialistic concerns. In the same breath that he uttered disdain for 'the masses' and the business of money-making, F. Scott Fitzgerald also actively courted the public and those who handed out money. He was in for a buck and fame too. Writers live in the real world, and have to make a living like everyone else. And anyway, I don't even think that art’s link with money is a bad thing - if you can make money out of something you love, go for it and more power to you.
I guess what I’m wondering by writing this is whether today, James Joyce would have had the opportunity to publish a big, sprawling, frighteningly intelligent work like Ulysses, or whether he would have just gotten fobbed off by a publisher with a comment on making his work more 'marketable'. In any case, let's just hope that a bookstore like Shakespeare and Company will always be present, so we can at least hold on to the idea of what it represents.
P.S. has anyone visited Shakespeare and Company? I always like to hear stories of people who have. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time there, and could quite happily become a permanent resident, like that lucky literary cat in the photo above.
Images from top to bottom: Shakespeare & co by nami. ops; untitled by Blanca Garcia; Shakespeare & Co. resident cat by snaxsnaps; Shakespeare & Co. by indlethink; and Shakespeare & Co. by ca.roman.