Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Bibliographical Musings

I have been reading E W Padwick's Bibliographical Method. In his discussions of analytical and descriptive bibliography Padwick, of course, is at pains to point out the ways in which bibliography can be of use not just to the historian of printing/publishing but also of textual criticism and literary students. I was put in mind of one of my favourite authors, Samuel R Delany, whose dislexyia has always, he says, created in him an obsession with proof-reading and texual corrections. Almost every time one of his novels is reprinted he avails himself of the opportunity to make corrections and he keeps sheets of typos and other needed corrections on the latest impression of each work so that the next, whenever that might be, can be corrected. It has been suggested by a number of Delany 'scholars' that there may never be a 'ideal text' of Delany's masterpiece, Dhalgren, as he has made alterations to almost every impression. Currey, Delany's bibliographer, records 65 textual alterations between the 5th and the 6th impression of the first edition!

But Delany is also a good example of what I have been musing on most whilst reading Bibliographical Method. Delany (and I) are fascinated by the book as an artifact, not just in the direction of wondering how the book as an object can reveal things about the text but in the other direction too. I (and Delany) wonder about the ways in which the book and its place in social and economic structures, its technological restrictions, its physicality, how do those things affect the text and the creative process by wich a book comes into existence. Delany, for example, when presenting his first novel The Jewels of Aptor to Donald Wollheim at Ace Books was received very warmly, but in order to be published in the Ace Doubles format at that point, he would have to cut 720 lines, or twenty pages from a typescript of some 206 pages. The text that he cut was later restored but in his autobiographical The Motion of Light in Water, Delany recalls Wollheim's telling offer to make the cuts for Delany if he wanted. Delany demurred and made the cuts himself but one wonders how many other new SF authors awed by their first contact with a serious publisher may have allowed Wollheim to make significant changes to their manuscripts in this way.

I've just dug out an article by Delany on the packaging of science fiction which is as insightful as any acedemic bibliographer of XIVth Century Incunabula in his appreciation of the way in which the cover artwork on mass market pulp paperbacks, printed in a "cheap cheap four-color printing process" makes a difference to the transmission of the text inside those covers. He points out for example how the notion that artists should be required to provide large scale artworks for reproductions onto 3.5" x 4" paperback covers is a nonsense derived from a former era in which the reduction of engraved detail into smaller prints made that fine detail, finer still. As Delany points out there is a point of diminishing returns and in the case of such cheap, cheap reproduction in four-colour printing in 100,000 copies or more, there would be a greater fineness of detail if the artists worked at actual size. He also goes into the whys and wherefores of how colours reproduce from the original paintings onto the covers all of which, I think, is an invaluable field of study for the would-be bibliographer of modern works.

The final thought is my own and goes back to this issue of how the constraints of the book and book production might effect the text and the creative process. I have wondered for a long time, and if I ever met her, I think think this is the thing I would ask J K Rowling. Clearly when she first started writing and was a previously unpublished first-timer she would not have been allowed to create the doorstep size novels of the later Harry Potter books. Hence the first three books are the normal, rather conservative size of a typical childrens' book. It is at that point that Potter became a phenomenon and so her commercial draw, and a number of other completely non-literary factors came into play and she was able to create books, I'm guessing, but of any length she damn well pleased (although one wonders, on handling some of the larger ones, if she was actually then writing to a maximum size). But most of all, what I would like to know is, what might she have written in the first three books if she had been allowed to write the story at the length she reached later on.

1 comment:

John C said...

Hi Callum. I was going to add some comments to this earlier but a cold put paid to that.

Regarding size of original versus size of reproduction, unless Delany has tried painting himself I'd advise him to temper his criticism. One reason that artists prefer to work at a larger size is that it's often easier, not only on the eyes but also easier to use the materials. I have a book about the work of the pulp paperback artists of the Forties and Fifties which looks at the working methods of master artists such as James Avati. ( They might have been working for cheap reproduction but they took their work seriously, producing sketches from photographed models and painting in oils. That's not pretension, it's how they achieved the work they were commissioned to create.

Another point is that many of these artworks had a dual life, being used first as cover art with the original being sold later to collectors or fans. Frank Frazetta was one of the first to start doing this in a big way, and was fully aware of painting as a future investment, something which is now realised in the form of his own museum. If he'd been doing tiny sketchy pictures for those Lancer Conan covers in the Sixties he wouldn't have made a name for himself or had any work worth exhibiting (and selling as posters) now he's retired. If Virgil Finlay had cramped his style in order to compensate for being printed on cheap pulp paper in Weird Tales, we wouldn't now have the splendid black and white work we can see printed on decent stock. I agree with Delany's general point but I'm happy that so many artists contradict it.

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