November 2008


Last week I had to hand in a 500 word proposal detailing what my final year dissertation will be on.  In this dissertation I am combining all my interests by looking at the nature of ‘publishing’ in Anglo-Saxon England and analysing whether it is in fact possible to see any such thing.  So here is a slightly extended version of my proposal (the quote in the title is from King Alfred’s Preface Letter to his Old English Translation of the Pastoral Care, a good translation of which is to be found in this book by Keynes and Lapidge):

These Books Most Necessary for all Men to Know:

An Analysis of the Nature of the ‘Publishing Industry’ in Three Case Studies from Anglo-Saxon England

The modern publishing industry is dedicated to recording ideas, reproducing them – whether in print or other media – and selling the reproductions. It is run for profit, and operates within the constraints of the contemporary economic and legal framework. To describe book production and dissemination in Anglo-Saxon England as a ‘publishing industry’ is therefore anachronistic: there were few of the processes seen in the modern industry as most of these processes developed only after the invention of printing.

It is nevertheless possible to evaluate Anglo-Saxon book production with the concept of a ‘publishing industry’ in mind. My essay will be divided into three thematic sections: The Commissioning, Authorship and Editing of Texts and Manuscripts; The Design and Production of Manuscripts; The Dissemination and Use of Texts and Manuscripts. Each process will be carefully defined. I will distinguish between a text – the written words – and a manuscript – the physical object or book. ‘Editing’ encompasses both the creative role of an ‘editor’ in helping the author formulate ideas into written words (although in our case studies author and editor often overlap) and the corrective role of a ‘copy-editor’ or ‘proof-reader’. ‘Production’ refers to the physical creation of a manuscript, but also describes the overall process from the inception of the idea to the completion of the physical manuscript. ‘Dissemination’ covers both the physical distribution of manuscripts and the cultural spread of ideas.

Within each of these thematic sections I will analyse the nuances of these processes and how they can be defined by an examination of three case studies. My first case study is Bede at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the mid-eighth century, an example of an ‘in-house author’. His works were popular – as evidenced by the requests for copies from the missionary bishops Boniface and Lul. It has been argued that the demand for Bede’s works was a driving factor in the development of Phase II Insular Minuscule script. Here we can see the processes of authorship, production – in the possibly conscious script development – and dissemination – in the number of Bedan manuscripts with continental provenance.

The second case study is the translation and editing of the Old English Pastoral Care by King Alfred and his scholars at the end of the ninth century, and the production of later manuscripts of this text. The Preface Letter to this translation indicates Alfred’s purpose: commissioning a text for a specific purpose and a specific audience. He intended for all young men in the country to be taught to read English, and wished to provide the most ‘necessary books’ translated from Latin into English for them to learn from. Textual and palaeographical research on the surviving manuscripts of the Old English Pastoral Care has led to debate about the manner in which this translation was formulated and written down, and about its later dissemination and use. The precise role of the scribe has been questioned – ‘mindless amanuensis, copy-editor or editor in chief’?

Thirdly I will examine Bishop Leofric of Exeter’s scriptorium in the mid-eleventh century. The donations lists and ownership inscriptions which allow an unusually high number of manuscripts to be associated with Leofric’s library also suggest that Exeter had an unusually active scriptorium at this time. Drage’s analysis of the scripts of all the manuscripts associated with Leofric has allowed her to identify at least 11 scribes working in Leofric’s scriptorium, and about 13 manuscripts which were a product of this scriptorium. These manuscripts were not newly authored texts, but new manuscript copies of texts necessary for the everyday duties of a bishop and his household. It has been argued, however, that the high number of Old English manuscripts surviving from Leofric’s scriptorium suggest a more than usual concern for the provision of practical and suitable texts for his bishopric. Here, therefore, again, we can see the influence of one man ‘commissioning’ specific texts for a specific purpose and audience.

I hope then to draw together all of my case studies and themes in order to come to some conclusions about the nature of ‘publishing’ in each of the case studies. Although the terminology of modern publishing will be useful by analogy to describe the processes of book production in Anglo-Saxon England, it is not my main purpose to compare the Anglo-Saxon era to the modern day, but rather to consider and analyse the processes, functions and nature of Anglo-Saxon book production and ‘publication’ in their own right.

I read a review of this a while back here, so when, armed with birthday book tokens, I spotted it on prominent display in my local Waterstones, I thought I’d give it a go.  Fiction in translation (in this case from French) isn’t something I read very often, so I thought it was a good opportunity to try something new.

I hate to say it, however, but The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery and translated by Alison Anderson, did not do anything for me at all.  It left me entirely cold, apart from the warm tingle of irritation that pretentiousness always leaves behind.  I persevered until the end, because the review I read said it got better, but in retrospect, it was a waste of time – at least it’s not very long.

The story revolves around a French concierge who, despite the facade of poor, ignorant, stereotypical concierge that she carefully constructs to decieve her rich neighbours, is actually very passionate about Art and Culture.  Interspersed with her narrative are the thoughts of the 12-year-old daughter of one of her neighbours, who, unhappy with what she sees as the inevitability of a facile, superficial life despite her own intelligence, plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.  There is a lot in the book that purports to be about class struggles, stereotypes and superficiality versus profundity, but to me it just came across as pretentious and snobby.  Renee, the concierge, is so scathing about the way her neighbours treat her as sub-human, despite the fact that she goes to great lengths to ensure they continue to think of her in this way and is terrified of her cover being blown.  At the same time as lamenting their snobbishness and superficiality, she is failing to see them as human, and making what I think of as a hugely pretentious assumption that nobody can appreciate Art and Culture in the same way as she.  It never seems to occur to either of the main characters, who are both so absorbed with their own lives and problems, that maybe they aren’t so special after all, and that if they bothered to try and understand those around them, they would see that everybody has their own worth and their own reasons for being how they are.  This hypocrisy is never dealt with or commented on by the author, and it was this that left me frustrated and irritated – along with the wordy and hyperbole descriptions of Art and Beauty and Culture which were, to be frank, extremely off-putting.  They reminded me of the reasons I’m not studying English Literature – I love books and reading, but hate people trying to read things into a narrative that aren’t there – overanalysis can completely spoil your enjoyment of a perfectly good story.  All together, this meant I had little sympathy for the main characters and found the conclusion of the book (and I won’t spoil it just in case any of you do choose to read it) farcical rather than tragic.

The writing in general was not to my taste – as I said, very verbose, flowery, long-winded and pretentious.  I assume that this is how the original French is written and that the translator is reproducing this accurately, but it is of course hard to tell – perhaps if I had read it in French I would have found it easier to stomach.  But there is no way to avoid the conclusion thatI really have not read a book I enjoyed so little in a long time, which is a great shame.

Up until now, being a student with an admittedly large student loan debt, but no credit cards, mortgage or stocks and shares, the so-called ‘credit crunch’ has hardly affected me personally – indeed, part of me has been hopeful that the drop in house prices might mean I can actually afford to buy something in a few years time – provided I have a job with a salary that would allow me to get a mortgage.

Although I know other students who have recently graduated or, like me, are graduating in 2009, who were planning on careers in the financial sector and who are now having to think again, I also know people who have done exceptionally well on the hedge fund traineeships they were accepted onto, and the university Careers Service diary is still full of recruitment events for law firms, management consultancies and big financial companies such as Goldman Sachs and Pricewaterhouse Coopers.

Therefore I wasn’t unduly worried about my prospects; I know what industry I want to work for, and by all accounts publishing hasn’t been doing too badly recently.  Some publishers almost seem more worried about the effect the removal of Friday Night with Jonathon Ross will have on  sales, this being one of the main forums for plugging the Christmas blockbuster books, than on the effects of the credit crunch.  I have heard it said that more people are returning to books as a cheaper form of entertainment.

Reading here that HarperCollins are freezing recruitment until the start of 2009 at the earliest wasn’t the best of news for me, though I guess it is inevitable that the credit crunch caught up with publishing eventually.  I don’t pretend to know much about the economic ins and outs of it, but Neill Denny provides quite a good analysis here.  He seems to imply that it is the middle level earners that will lose out the most, as publishers turn to young interns willing to work for ‘pocket money’ in order to cut financial corners, but obviously this is not an ideal situation.  There would be a loss in skills, and no-one wants to work for a pittance long term – people like me are willing to do unpaid work experience because of the expectation that when we’ve done our time, there will be a full-time job at the end of it.  There do seem to be a few entry level assistants jobs advertised in the Bookseller every week, but there is a lot of competition for them and it is hard for me to judge whether there are fewer jobs being advertised than in previous years.

So I’m guessing that there won’t be a Graduate Scheme for me to apply to at Harper Collins this year; nor are Penguin running one.  I’ve applied for Macmillan’s and it would be fantastic to get it, but the MA Publishing is still looking like a very good option, despite the cost.  By the time I get an MA, perhaps the publishing recruitment market will have settled down a bit, and publishers will be keen to employ young, qualified and passionate people willing to work for a low-ish starting salary once again!

I’m very pleased to say that my post has gone up on the Picador Blog! Please do click through and read it, it’s all about student reading habits and hopefully you’ll find it interesting – leave a comment if it gets you thinking!  If you’ve found your way here from there, welcome!  I hope you enjoy my blog and that you will be back again!