Filling in the Gaps: The Homogenous Cowardice of Contemporary Book Publishers

Ever since the novel form burst onto the literary scene writers have been struggling with its obvious limitations in representing the hidden, interior processes of the human mind. Some of these experiments have tampered with the fabric of the book itself, removing pages numbers and even parts of pages. In the early days of the production of literature for the public, publishers were willing to allow this experimentation, a freedom which extended into the 1970s. In the 21st century this openness to allow writers experiment has been rescinded. With paperback mass production and the standardised manufacturing processes which generate large profits for smaller outlay, experimentation is discouraged. What this means is that previously experimental novels are nowadays published in a form which limits the extremes of their subversiveness.

Some of the techniques which Lawrence Sterne employed to explore the limitations of the novel form were incredibly subversive and looked remarkable post-modern. This was in the 18th century. Sterne was demonstrating post-modernism before modernism existed. Sterne totally deconstructed the novel form famously utilising in Tristram Shandy blank pages, unorthodox typographical markings, and missing chapters. The narrative was equally subversive and demonstrated how limited the novel form, and indeed any literary form, is when trying to convey the inner workings of the human mind. Tristram Shandy is ostensibly the autobiography of the title character and yet over the course of the nine volumes and five hundred-odd pages, we only manage to get as far as Shandy’s birth as the narrative is constantly interrupted by intrusive memories and the tangents of the narrator.

The most subversive and deconstructionist element of Tristram Shandy comes in the missing chapter. The numbering of the pages jumps forward as some pages are said to have been removed from the book. This omission of several pages results in the pagination running from 254 to 264. What this means is that the book ends up having even numbered pages on the right hand leaf, or recto side of a page, instead of the norm which sees even numbers of the left hand leaf, or verso side of a page. The integrity of the book is thereby compromised by disrupting the arbitrary but unchallengable process of odd and even numbering.

In the contemporary, conformist age of the early 21st century, this sort of disruption cannot be endured and modern publishers have taken the decision to correct this aspect of Sterne’s novel. Modern reprints of Tristram Shandy make it clear that an even number of leaves have been removed from the book to enable the right/odd and left/even page numbering to continue. The publisher’s have even gone so far as to change the actual text of the novel to ensure that this happens, changing Sterne’s line ‘there are nine pages missing’ to ‘there are ten pages missing’. Egregious in the extreme.

A writer who was hugely influenced by Sterne was BS Johnson who wrote in the 1960s and 1970s before his early death at the age of 40. Johnson also explored the limitations of the novel form and was especially interested in how the novel can represent memory and an authentic internal narrative. Johnson’s most famous book is probably The Unfortunates, commonly referred to as ‘the book in a box’. The Unfortnates was published with all its chapters separately bound so that they could be read in any order, apart from the first and last chapters. The book is frequently out of print because of how difficult it is to publish and to be fair to Picador, they published the loose edition about ten years ago when they were putting out Johnson’s complete novels. Another of his books with a unusual literary device was Albert Angelo which featured holes cut into two of its pages so the reader had a glimpse of what was to come. The modern editions of this work do not feature the holes. Instead Picador have placed boxes where the holes are meant to be, allowing the reader to do the cutting if they so wish. Why though, could Picador not have released the book the way it was intended to be read? Is it so beyond the norm to produce a book with holes cut in the pages that they felt it was better to release an inauthentic version of the book? Releasing Albert Angelo in this way is just the same as publishing The Unfortnates bound as one and giving the reader the option of tearing out the pages for themselves.

In short, I see no reason to publish a book unless it is presented as the author intended. Publishers should not be allowed to decide that it is OK to reproduce a book any other way. If it is simply too hard to publish the authentic presentation, then don’t bother. We live in an age of conformity and are robbed of the literary experimentation of previous eras.

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