Face, book

23 June 2011 | Letter from the Editors

What are books made of? Picture: Wikipedia

‘The worst of all is if the writer forgets writing and starts turning out books.’

This thought is from the poet Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen’s introductory talk at the Lahti International Writers’ Reunion (LIWRE), which took place at Messilä Manor between 19 and 22 June. ‘There’s too much talk of the stunting of the book’s lifespan and the economic life of the publishers,’ she continues. A writer ‘must not forget that he or she is responsible to the work of art, nobody else, not even the readers.’

Today, book publishers are responsible to capital and productivity, and a work of literature resembles a product with an invisible best-before marker. Is its life a couple of months, like ice cream? Books delivered to the shop in September are already old-hat in February, and are best put on sale.

An article by Martti Linna in the Finnish Writers’ Union magazine (Kirjailija, 2/11) deals with the maculation that is mentioned in publishing agreements, or the destruction of copies of ‘old’ works. The unsold copies of one children’s book published in the autumn of 2008 were destroyed at the beginning of 2011. For the author, the destruction of a work is, of course, a cause of sadness; for the publisher it is merely the elimination of an item of expenditure. The development of print-on-demand services will perhaps put an end to both the storing of books in warehouses and the sadness of writers.

Faces sell the printed word. How old a new writer is, and what he or she looks like, is important. It is more difficult to sell an ‘old’ and ‘ugly’ writer to the media, both at home and abroad. (That is, if the ‘old and ugly’ writer is a woman – in the case of a man things may be different, we think, although good looks are of course an advantage to men too.)

We have also heard of writers being warned by their editors not to write ‘too intelligently’ in order not to hamper the marketing of the book. This is linked to a paradox that we just can’t get over: Finns are more highly educated than ever, so that there is no need to suppose any lack of intelligence or knowledge when what we might call products of the spirit are designed for publication. Playing safe may perhaps bring coins into the till, but it won’t result in art.

Youngish women with camera-friendly faces sell like hot cakes. As the Finnish author Pirkko Saisio said (in a feature entitled ‘Menestystarina’ – ‘Success story’ –  by Pekka Hiltunen, published in Image journal 5/11), ‘I have heard that foreign agents always ask three things about Finnish writers: how many copies have they sold in Finland, how old are they and are they good-looking. These are very influential today. ‘Whether their work are the stuff of classics or reduced-calorie-ice-cream-human-relationship prose is, of course, irrelevant to the media, which need a constant supply of new interviewees. In a celebrity culture, writers are considered to be functioning members of the profession of publicity – which is pretty rich, considering that they actually practice their profession in solitude.

Underestimating the reader is always short-sighted and intellectually impoverished – whether it is done by the writer or the publisher. Being a writer may be a profession, but ‘writing cannot be performance,’ said Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen.

In our job editing a literary journal, we often find ourselves leafing through texts which, you can somehow tell, have before publication been polished for years in creative writing schools, publishers’ offices and writers’ workshops in order to produce a publication. What is missing, though, is the convincing passion and skill, the certainty and self-confidence with which the writer takes the reader where he or she wishes.

It is the voice of original talent and intelligence, not to be found at writers’ workshops or publishers, but in solitude and in thought.

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