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Early summer of 1995. I’d left school and was on my way home. What in any other case – or any other home – would have been reason enough to uncork a bottle of the best champagne, in my case – and in my home – almost triggered a repeat of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion. When my father opened the envelope that contained my school report and discovered that his daughter had finished high school with an average grade of excellent, I saw reflected in his eyes images of me in a two-piece suit entering the European Parliament every morning(Bonjour!Good morning!Guten morgen!), eating chocolates in the ambassador’s house and receiving a gold medal that said something about Honour, Order or Legion, or all three. And then Boom! — the two-piece suit and the medal were buried under a mountain of rubble that read ‘Greek’, ‘Latin’, or both. A few weeks before then I had decided to refuse the chocolates and had marked Classical Philology (immediately renamed ‘Oh, Dead Languages’ by my father) as my only choice on the pre-enrolment form. Au revoir, Bruxelles. As if that weren’t enough, when I finished reading Oh, Dead Languages I enrolled in the emerging degree in Theory of Literature and Compared Literature that my poor father was unable to rechristen. To make him understand that I was going to devote the last years of my academic training to learning to read would have been even more difficult that convincing Penelope that twenty years are nothing …
For me, the new century began amidst essays on mimesis and verisimilitude, inquiries into the sublime and the beautiful, the rule of taste, the critique of the faculty of judgement, the theories concerning the function of art and the sociological theories of literature, literary competence, the theories concerning the subject and the aesthetics of reception, psychoanalytical theories, feminist literary criticism, etc. I learnt to reread Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Melville’s Moby Dick, Joyce’sUlysses, Henry James, a Proust, Jack London, Hemingway … For the first time, I devoured Faulkner, Beckett, Camus, Duras, Céline, Woolf, and gradually filled the toolbox I would take around to publishers a few years later, when I was ready to become a professional reader.
Many and varied are the reasons why an amateur reader chooses to become a professional reader. In those days, what inspired me the most was the possibility of using my toolbox for the first time and putting my literary instinct to the test. In one way or another, today arteurism (or art for art’s sake) is the main reason why the publishing business is able to count on armies of professional readers, as however sophisticated the tools readers carry may be, they’ll have to sacrifice much of their time in the Arcadia of Books in order to perform artisanal trades. Gone are the days when publishers’ acquisitions were discussed every three weeks at committees of wise men, like the one held in the early days of Seix Barral formed by Josep Maria Castellet, Félix de Azúa, Sergio Pitol and Gabriel Ferrater. The reading reports written in those days by Ferrater for restricted private use now form an intrinsic part of his literary production. As Aparicio Maydeu observes in the preface of the Spanish edition, Ferrater’s reports are ‘a tacit tribute to the activity of filtering bivalve, lamellibranch or pelecypods molluscs that survive by straining material out of the endless and not always pristine waters of the ocean of publishing, also commonly referred to as professional readers, critics, editorial informants, scouts, literary agents, publishers, prescribers-who-have-read-what-they-prescribe (unlike the proselytes of prescriber Pierre Bayard in his dangerous boutade How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read?‘. In a caustic manner that soon became the defining feature of his critical discourse, Ferrater dispatched manuscripts with arguments like ‘It isn’t a description of the vulgarity of English criminal life: it’s a sample of it’, or ‘If I had to judge the book as a literary work, all I can say is that it’s imbecilic’. Auden used to say that when he considered a book really bad, ‘the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive’. But we’d be mistaken to think that Ferreter’s only motivation is his desire to elegantly proclaim impertinence as an aesthetic category, for the mitigating circumstance in the case of professional readers is that authors will only be surveyed by indulgent readers who demand sincerity. Besides, unlike literary critics for whom the limits of appropriateness are based only on the judgement of taste, professional readers must never lose sight of the cold reality of numbers, opportunities or the audiences addressed by the works (although in Ferrater’s case, a market criterion will never prevail over artistic virtue). In short, professional readers cannot remain on the margins of the machinery of which they form a part. Before recommending or advising against a given publication, as well as being able to place works and writers in specific traditions and mastering stylistic comparisons between authors, professional readers will need to consider numerous other factors in addition to the quality of the work. In his case, appropriateness is based on a system of variables (that are not always or not necessarily ascribed to the binomial good/bad or beautiful/ugly) that determine a book’s inclusion in the literary and editorial system. An army of professional readers following only their judgement of taste would sink the sector as we understand it today, leading it to markets that necessarily require a system outside the laws governing trade and intellectual property. Guided only by criteria of economic viability and intellectual complacency, this same army would transform bookshop shelves into vast displays of novelties filled with best-sellers and fast-food literature.
In an article published in 1972, Umberto Eco came up with this sort of reply to authors of a few famous manuscripts: ‘Kafka, Franz, The Trial. Nice little book. A thriller with some Hitchcock touches. The final murder, for example. It could have an audience. But apparently the author wrote under a regime with heavy censorship. Otherwise, why all these vague references, this trick of not giving names to people or places? And why is the protagonist being put on trial?’ And of a manuscript by an anonymous author titled The Bible: ‘I must say that the first few hundred pages of this manuscript really hooked me. Action packed they have everything today’s reader wants in a good story. Sex (lots of it, including adultery, sodomy, incest), also murder, war, massacres, and so on. … But as I kept on reading, I realized that this is actually an anthology, involving several writers, with many – too many – stretches of poetry, and passages that are downright mawkish and boring, and jeremiads that make no sense. … I’d suggest trying to get the rights only to the first five chapters. We’re on sure ground there. Also come up with a better title. How about The Red Sea Desperadoes?’ We’re not that far off … In today’s increasingly heartless and market-driven world, professional readers must act as sagacious custodians and witnesses of resistance despite being bound down by pecuniary fetters. Their mission must be to help build up a long-lasting catalogue in which the pieces fit and provide readers with coherent and articulated visions of the world. And all for the sake of art. Long live literary arteurism!
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)