On Writing: Shakespeare and Company

Monday, 1 August 2011

shakespeare and company

shakespeare and company

shakespeare and company

shakespeare and company

shakespeare and company

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.

23 comments:

Sam said...

Love it, a jewel.

Hannah, Lost in wishful thinking said...

Such a gorgeous bookstore!!

Rebeccak said...

I visited Shakespeare and co when I was 18. I had managed to convince my mother to take me with her to Paris just after I finished school. She was there for a conference and I got to wander around galleries and shops all day. I went to Shakespeare and co. for a poetry reading and will never forget the beautiful man who read - he looked like a magical creature out of a fantasy novel - blonde and fair skinned with green eyes. I was so infatuated I couldn't even go up and speak to him! The experience sent my off on a great poetry kick for years afterwards!

Christine said...

I was just there on my trip to Paris--I couldn't resist revisiting it. But it was so crowded with people squeezing around each other and they were mostly American so I found myself leaving after a few minutes. I use to love the place when I lived there and when Beach's nephew ran it. I also saw a documentary on Beach once and apparently Joyce never gave her credit for first publishing Ulysses. She published it in limited edition which is what got it seen by a bigger publisher. Then Joyce made money off it and didn't even acknowledge Beach's help by giving her some of the profit or even a public word of thanks. Or at least that's how they told the story.

hila said...

yeah, that's how the documentary I saw presented things too - it might have been the same one we saw. I like the initial way the book was published, and the offer she made Joyce (something I suspect doesn't really happen today) - shame about what happened afterwards!

Elizabeth said...

When we were in Paris for an extended time when I was younger and we made friends with the kids who were living there and spent a lot of time in and out. One of the projects was to clean out the basement of that place and we peeked in to take a look and holy cats! There were a lot of mouldering books! The idea was, I think, to put in some sort of little avant gard theater down there there but I'm not sure the idea ever flew.

During that time a book that was written at Shakespeare by a nordic author (can't remember his name) was published and came out and a copy was mailed to George. He opened the package with such love. He couldn't read it because it was in the wrong language, but he put his hands on the book, closed his eyes and he felt the book. "Yes! This is a good book! It has soul!" he exclaimed and put it on his personal shelf.

George also happened to make good pancakes and would feed breakfast to the cast and crew every so often...and he puts out a good tea with the great company as the best part.

Fabiola y Andrea Gordillo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fabiola y Andrea Gordillo said...

Amazing blogg! Love it!

lola is beauty said...

I was just talking about Shakespeare & Co today strangely... I always go when I'm in Paris and everyone I know there seems to be connected with it somehow - a bit of the old six degrees of Kevin Bacon - but I rarely buy a book there. Just popping in there can lead to other things, like the time I discovered they were having a travel writing festival and one of my favourite authors happened to be speaking at that exact moment. Magic like that.

lizzie said...

i haven't been there...but i know what you're feeling. between self-publishing and e-books that are basically common-sense handbooks to trade your email address for...i feel like that word: "Marketability" is such a wet blanket to writers these days. but with so many people "writing their book," i suppose i understand publishers wanting to make sure their next project is a success...i do worry that the art of writing is lost on hardcover burn'n'turn mystery novels and romances.

Rambling Tart said...

I have never visited here, but I love those pictures so much. :-) Makes me want to find a cushy chair between some of those shelves, and disappear for hours at a time.

odessa said...

"so we can at least hold on to the idea of what it represents." -- very well said, hila. ahhh..and i've always wanted to go to shakespeare and co. someday soon.

Jane Flanagan said...

Ulysses would likely not be published today, nor Beckett, Proust or even Tolkien and countless other works. I agree with you that we must resist nostalgia or glorification of the past. There were challenges for sure then too.

But still, it does seem like the economic taint plays a bigger and bigger role in artistic decisions and while I think that's right and fine, I think we need some balance. When we pander to the lowest common denominator in order to maximize profit, we seem to sacrifice daring art and instead end up with yet another tween vampire fiction series...

amanda jane said...

such pretty books. you have a lovely way with words.

Danielle P. said...

Part of me wishes for some kind of apocalyptic even that forces people to return to simpler, more genuine ways of living, thinking, and feeling. I imagine a world where shops like this thrive, where words are valued...

Susanna-Cole King said...

What is the name of the documentary you saw? I'm curious to see it myself ... I've often thought it would be lovely to have my own little bookshop someday, filled with books I love ... which are rarely marketable or popular, but it doesn't matter to me.

I have a feeling if I lived near Shakespeare and Company I'd be in for a visit, frequently. That happens whenever I'm in walking distance of a good bookstore ... By the way, you don't happen to know, is the Shakespeare in Co. bookshop in Paris, related to the ones in New York City? Maybe they only have a name in common ...

Sasha said...

This place looks like heaven.

chocolatine said...

Hello,

I loved seeing this come up on my blogroll. I'm interning at Shakespeare & Co. this summer, and one of the best things is how happy and excited people get in the store. I mean to make a post or two about it one of these days! As with many things in Paris, the beautiful can easily become ordinary—that's what tourists are for, though.

Acacia said...

I visited Shakespeare & Co. on my honeymoon and first time in Paris. Being an utter tourist, though desperately trying not to look like one, I purchased Anais Nin's Henry and June and Hemingway's Moveable Feast.

For every Barnes & Noble stocked with Sarah Palin's latest ghost-written book, there are still independent bookstores (Quimbys and 57th Street Books in Chicago are good examples.) I also think that if David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest found a publisher, there are still publishers willing to take a risk.

Amelia said...

I'm pretty sure what happened with James Joyce will most likely not happen in this day and age. I am such a cynic.

louise said...

What a life to be that lucky literary cat. I'm sure he understands art and is unconcerned by marketability and popularity. xolj

Megan Champion said...

I share your sentiment. I too feel romantic about the contrast in writing today and what it was in years past.

I remember the first time I went to Shakespeare & Co, it was about this time of year. A hot and dry day, we had just finished at that large cafĂ© across from Notre Dame and were on our way to the Louvre. The smell of musty pages reached me before I saw the bookstore. I was completely delighted. It’s just as romantic and wonderful as I had imagined, I felt honored just to be there.

It’s such a wonderful memory, thank you for reminding me of it.

hila said...

sam: thank you!

hannah: I know, I just adore it.

rebeccak: that's such a sweet story, thanks so much for sharing it with me :) alas, I did not meet a fair-haired, green-eyed lad when I visited.

christine: you lived there?! please, do tell more ...

elizabeth: oh what an experience! I'm so jealous :)

fabiola y andrea gordillo: thanks!

lola is beauty/claire: yeah, I believe in magic like that - sort of like when you're fixated with something, and suddenly the whole world seems to reciprocate by placing it in front of your eyes via various avenues ...

lizzie: I understand publishers' perspective, I mean, they have to ensure they publish to a certain high level. But I also think keywords such as 'markets' are getting in the way. There are also a lot of assumptions placed on audiences these days - it gets a bit tiresome when readers are clumped together like one mass audience, because this simply isn't realistic.

rambling tart: I'll join you!

odessa: I hope you get to go sometime soon, you would love it. And thank you so much for your thoughtful present and note!

jane flanagan: I completely agree with every word you've written here. There does need to be more balance. I feel like we're losing the creative impulse behind a wall of bureaucracy. Some things should exist not because they make money or cover costs, but because they simply need to be.

amanda jane: thank you :)

danielle: sometimes I feel that way too - like something big and dramatic needs to happen to shift our current perspective.

susanna: oh I can't remember the exact title ... let me think. It may have been something to do with a series on 'great cities' - I guess the documentary on Beach was part of a series on Paris. I really can't remember the title, so sorry! Hmm, and I don't know if the bookstore in Paris is related to the one in New York, sounds like something you should investigate :)

sasha: precisely.

chocolatine: lucky you! you'll have to tell me all about it.

acacia: yes, let's hope there are still publishers willing to take risks, and that they too don't die out.

amelia: I'm not a cynic, but I agree with you. It's sad.

louise: the cat is probably smarter than us all. xo

megan: my pleasure - sounds like the best memory to rekindle.