As a newly minted editorial assistant at Norton, writer Tom Bissell was able to resuscitate an out-of-print novel called Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. In Bissell's new book, Magic Hours, he wrote about how, paradoxically, that experience shook his faith in publishing. Brooke talks to writer Tom Bissell about whether we as readers will miss the publishing industry, imperfect as it is, if it disappears.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’ve just heard about how the vagaries of intellectual property can influence the fate of books, old and new. But obviously, humans are also instruments of literary destiny. As a newly-minted editorial assistant at Norton, writer Tom Bissell was able to resuscitate an out-of-print novel called Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. Bissell convinced Norton to republish Fox’s book, reviving her career.
In his new book, Magic Hours, Bissell writes that the experience shook his faith in – books. Tom, welcome back to the show.
TOM BISSELL: It’s always great to be here with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The faith that I’m talking about was your belief in the power of great art to rise above, quote, “base commerce and sheer indifference and live.”
TOM BISSELL: What shook my faith was the idea that suddenly I was somehow the most important part of this process. And I think processes seem much more reassuring when you’re not part of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And your experience showed how random events can rule the destinies of the greatest works of art. You cite the novels of Kafka.
TOM BISSELL: Kafka asked for all of his work to be burned. One of the two people he told to burn his work did it, the other did not. Now, if Max Brod, the guy who did not burn Kafka’s work had, I put it, “loved him enough to take him his plea to him seriously” -
-you know, we would have lost one of the most emblematic writers of the 20th century.
In the case of Paula Fox, this was a writer who was completely out of print. I was an editorial assistant at a house that was not known for encouraging its editorial assistants to propose reprints of out-of-print novels. And yet, on the day that I brought the book up, I – I remember everyone was a kind of—a good mood. Everyone just seemed sort of happy that meeting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It could have been the barometer or a particularly tasty lunch, or your personality.
TOM BISSELL: It could have been any one of those things. And the fact that the book took off, launching Paula back into literary consciousness – she’s really recognized as one of the most significant post-war writers – all these chance events that led up to my even knowing of that book, and then that it gave me the strange confidence to propose this to my colleagues, it freaked me out a little bit.
And it made me realize how fragile these processes are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And is that why in your essay you traced the tenuous faiths of three writers that we might never have heard of or certainly not remembered – Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson.
TOM BISSELL: Now, of the three, Walt Whitman’s survival was the least surprising because he – he was always a pretty famous writer but I think amongst the literary tastemakers of his day he was regarded as a bit of a joke. And he certainly wrote a lot of poems that encouraged them in that thinking.
And he was such a shameless self-promoter that I think [LAUGHS] people just kind of got really sick of him. So in Whitman’s case, I think it was that all the people who knew him personally were dead, that – you know, that allowed people who didn’t remember what a self-promoting ass he could be –
-from time to time, that – that they were able to go back to his work and rediscover it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about Herman Melville?
TOM BISSELL: Melville is the one that I think should keep novelists up at night, who – you know, he had two very early successes, which were published as non-fiction but, in fact, were very heavily fictionalized accounts of his life in Fiji. And they were very successful, and he sort of set himself to change the game.
And he wrote this massive incredibly weird, ambitious novel, unlike any novel anyone had ever written before, Moby Dick, And it was a resounding un-success. It sold 3,000 copies over its 36 years in print?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, how did he come roaring back and become enshrined in the canon?
TOM BISSELL: The one Melville resuscitation attempt that stuck was Carl Van Doren, a very influential American critic. And he, according to the legend, found a copy of Moby Dick in a used bookstore, went home, read it, was so blown away that this book had like completely vanished from – from literary consciousness, and he wrote an essay about it.
D.H. Lawrence noticed that essay, E.M. Forster noticed that essay. And then in the teens and the twenties Moby Dick actually reentered American consciousness, and all of his books were brought back into print, in which they have stubbornly stuck since then.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you suspect that if it hadn’t been for this used bookstore and random chance, that just wouldn’t have happened.
TOM BISSELL: It’s a very good argument for used bookstores, isn’t it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Emily Dickinson, she relied basically posthumously on her sister.
TOM BISSELL: Her sister was the one person that seemed to understand what she was up to. And the woman who wound up editing Emily Dickinson’s poems never met her face to face. And Emily Dickinson would write poems up in the attic while this woman would play the piano downstairs, and they would leave gifts for each other at the top and bottom of the stairs, but they – never actually met.
And when Emily Dickinson died, this woman, Mabel Todd, just out of sheer devotion, and Lavinia Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s sister, pressured every New England literary figure they could think of to put these poems out there. And just like Melville, she was doing something so utterly new that people just were unable esthetically to recognize that this was – great.
Houghton Mifflin has the poems sent to them, the great Boston publisher, and they were returned as “too queer” [LAUGHS]
-to publish. When the poems finally were published, the public instantly recognized that this was something spectacular.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And perhaps one of the greatest lessons of your essay is that these chaotic forces that determine the fate of an artistic work have always been with us. And you cite Aristophanes who lost a contest but won immortality.
TOM BISSELL: Yes. Aristophanes’ The Clouds placed third to two other plays in this dramatic contest. However, the two plays that we know were judged to be, quote, “better” than Aristophanes’ play, they were like dust in the wind. We have no idea what happened to them they don’t exist anymore.
And it’s just sheer chance that any of Aristophanes’ plays survived. I mean, most of them didn’t. The ones we have, we have no idea if they’re his stinkers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The good stuff doesn’t always rise to the top.
TOM BISSELL: No. And I’d like to imagine an alien civilization who has only say, The Firm, Sidney Sheldon’s collected works—
-and The Book of Mormon to determine what we were like today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
TOM BISSELL: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Bissell’s new book is called Magic Hours.
[CLIP/JULIAN SMITH SINGING]:
sitting in my favorite nook
My girl's trying to get me eat some dinner she cooked
I'm reading a book, girl
I'm reading a book
don’t you ever interrupt me
While I'm reading a book
[SONG UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Luisa Beck and Rob Schoon, and edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
[JULIAN SMITH SINGING]:
If you ever interrupt me
you can bet your gonna see
the nasty me, the nasty me, the nasty me