Independent Publishing: What Would Stéphane Mallarmé Do?

Steve Moyer provides a fascinating look at the intersection of technology and publishing in nineteenth-century France. As Moyer observes, Stéphane Mallarmé not only excelled in poetry, essays, and translations, but in reconceptualizing the nature of the book:

He was given to imagining new possibilities for the book, and in the 1870s and 1880s, he worked to define what a book was and, in a utopian world, what it might become. He is known now as one of the innovators, along with Manet, of the livre de peintre, or artist’s book, in which an original text by a poet appeared on a facing page with an original print—often an etching—by a contemporary painter. This may sound fairly tame (especially in an age when books rarely have pictures and “looking at the pictures” is a standard description for reading that is childish), but there was nothing tame about how Mallarmé thought about publishing. He once described the book as “the Orphic explanation of the Earth.”

As we might expect, someone trying to explain the Earth Orphicly would have some opinions about how it should be done, conventional publishing ideas be damned. And here’s where he crashed against technology and the can’t-do spirit of commercial publishers. It was an era when even the great Flaubert needed to fight against publisher control for something as simple as not wanting to have pictures in his books:

From 1820 to 1850 rapid advances in the technology of illustrating books made such work as Paul et Virginie and Grandville’s album possible and increasingly the norm. Publishers continued to exert near total control over the use and selection of illustrations throughout the century. Gustave Flaubert, who had begun publishing during the Romantic era, had to firmly resist publishers’ efforts to illustrate his work.

Enter Mallarmé, whose “bibliophilic fantasies” led to his taking great care in putting out his product:

He involved himself in the minutiae of the publishing process of his own work, choosing the paper and fussing over the typography, which “celebrated the sheer pleasure of reading a beautifully crafted book and the private reveries that such an experience might induce.”

 It’s hard to read passages like this one and not think that Mallarmé might have found some resonance in the ongoing transformation today, as blogs and podcasts and e-books emerge, giving individual authors and artists control over their products that may be at odds with what commercial publishers, voting with their pocketbooks, might be willing to put out:

Manet and Mallarmé collaborated on Le Corbeau (The Raven), by Poe, translated by Mallarmé, and accompanied by Manet’s distinctive etchings. For both Mallarmé and Manet, their collaboration was a way of sidestepping traditional publishers and juries. It was their attempt to reach the public directly. 

While the book was a commercial failure, it served Mallarmé’s ends.

What would he make of today’s publishing scene? His view of the book was largely informed by his reaction to newspapers, and I tend to think he may have continued to find solace in books as a bulwark against the chaos of blogs and the rest of the Internet. Would he have extended this to e-books as well as the printed page? That’s not clear. But I do think part of him at least would have seen the benefits of digitization – not just for writers, but for readers:

Nineteenth-century critics and authors had seen the public in relation to literature as passive admirers, while Mallarmé’s idea was that [as technology advanced], society would become peopled with empowered readers.

Image Credit: Sketch of Stéphane Mallarmé, nineteenth century (pen and ink on paper), Verlaine, Paul (1844–1896) / Private Collection / Archives Charmet / The Bridgeman Art Library (via http://www.neh.gov).

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