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This item is taken from PN Review 101, Volume 21 Number 3, January - February 1995.

1994 has been a curious year in the world of publishing - curious in ways which will affect readers in future. Legal and commercial developments accelerate trends established in the 1980s which may reduce the number of books available, and the number of booksellers from whom we buy them.

The Net Book Agreement, discussed in these pages when last under threat, is back in the news. Some major publishers have withdrawn from it, and a few major booksellers urge that it be rescinded as an anachronism out of keeping with a free market culture. An anachronism the NBA certainly is; yet its demise will affect independent booksellers and literary publishers unable to compete with the big manufacturers. New and experimental writers will find publication harder; older writers who have not broken through to a big market will become an endangered species. Market-lead publishing is now the rule rather than the exception in eastern Europe, where subsidy has vanished and free market disciplines give the word 'free' a brutal nuance. A translation of the latest western blockbuster drives important native writers back to samizdat; profits from successful publishing are not ploughed back but paid on to parent companies in western Europe. In the UK direct mail sales may become the rule, with poetry occupying even less space than it now does in the High Street. Recent poetry hype has proven to booksellers that poetry (with a few exceptions) has a finite market.

In July 1995, in line with the cacophonous 'harmonisation' of European Community regulations, copyright will be extended from 50 to 70 years after the death of the author. Dozens of poets - Hardy (1928), Housman (1936), Kipling (1936), Yeats (1939) and Lawrence (1930) among them - will be snatched out of the public domain. Publishers who invest heavily in out of copyright modern classics will find their margins cut or their lists depleted, depending on how the re-activated Estates of the authors concerned use the powers restored to them. The variety of editions and approaches which we enjoy will be reduced. Estates of writers who perished in World War I, or had the misfortune to die before 1925, may feel glum that descendants of certain eminent Victorians should reap a rich harvest.

European harmonisation, together with darker domestic pressures, keep alive the prospect of VAT on the printed word. VAT will - indeed, must - eventually settle upon the book trade, with editorial consequences. There is also the development of the cheap classics from Wordsworth, Penguin, Oxford and Everyman, and the further consolidation of the bookselling chains, with terminal consequences for independent booksellers in many places. Such developments, real and anticipated, erode the special status that the book has historically enjoyed in the UK and will alter our reading culture.

There can be very little opposition from poetry publishers to what is happening, though poetry, that most minority of activities, stands to be most radically affected. What we have seen during 1994 is a falling in with trends by publishers who might be expected to know better, or rather to have other - literary - priorities. 'Readership', already confused with 'audience', is being casually translated into 'market'. Market requires a limited number of legitimised products whose promotion becomes the business of the trade, the educational and arts establishments. The politicisation of poetry in the 60s and 70s, with emphasis on 'audience directed' writing, is now followed by commercialism and leads to the kind of fragmentation which some critics like to call 'post-modern' while others recognise it as post-cultural.

Christopher Middleton wrote recently about an anthology in which all the poems were 'dilated anecdotes'. 'Whatever can have happened,' he asks, 'to the understanding that poetry - and not only at outer limits - universalises words, or works and plays words up to a condition of clearest starlight?' He is alive to what poetry can aspire to. There are, so long as you don't try to define them too narrowly or generalise from them too emphatically, objective measures in poetry. Those measures are particular: achieved poems or bodies of poetry. One can criticise them, even try to subvert or change their valency (as with Milton, or Spenser, or Donne). But they remain, and they continue to give light. What should matter is the product, the poem, not the production or the marketing efforts that surround it. The quality of the critical environment into which the poem emerges matters, too: the review culture, as against the feature culture we now inhabit.

It is hard not to feel that the notion of a poetry industry, a sub-class of the larger publishing industry with its strict numerical disciplines, is inimical to an art which, central to many readers' lives, thrives necessarily on the margins. Unpredictable, unanticipatable, the good poem, the great poem, the poem that does something new with the language, that re-invents the reader's hearing, that adjusts the past and affects the future configuration of the art, is unlikely to be immediately recognised or 'assimilated' by a market or a feature writer. It affects individual readers and makes its way gradually into the consciousness of people. This slow alchemy requires something other than a fast-food culture.

This item is taken from PN Review 101, Volume 21 Number 3, January - February 1995.

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