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.

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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!

I just finished the Man Booker-Shortlisted and British Book Design and Production Award-Shortlisted novel Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh. Wow.  The skill with which this author writes is just breath-taking.  The story is set in 19th Century India and on the high seas, centering on a group of incredibly diverse characters drawn together one way or another on board a ship called The Ibis.  The opium trade is at the heart of the plot and it is one of those fantastic historical novels which manages to teach you something at the same time – I had never before realised, for some reason, that a lot of the British Empire’s Opium was grown and manufactured in India and then exported to China, having somehow assumed it was an exclusively Chinese trade.  I also learnt something about the transportation of indentured migrant workers from India to Mauritius – although I knew that Mauritius had a strongly Indian background, I had never really thought about why.

Rather like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, (which is probably the longest single book I’ve ever read, but is riveting nevertheless), Ghosh’s technique of switching between different characters and his skill in fleshing out their personalities so that you have a fully living, breathing, amimated cast of characters rather than only one or two fully developed main characters, ensures that we get a sweeping insight into 19th century Indian and Colonial life.  The characters come from all works of life: a mulatto freed-man from Baltimore working as a sailor, a Raj toppled by an unscrupulous English businessman, a poor poppy farmer escaping the clutches of her brother-in-law after the death of her opium addict husband, an enterprising young French-woman who has grown up with India as her motherland, and many more.

One of the ways Ghosh manages to make his cast so vivid is through his imaginative use of language.  Each of the characters has a distinctive voice, shot through with personal idiosyncracies and Indo-English slang.  The misunderstandings that arise from the mutual incomprehension of the different characters makes for a great deal of humour alongside the darker themes arising from the historical setting.  To give a couple of examples:

” ‘Puggly, tell me the truth, I conjure you: there isn’t a rootie in the choola, is there?’

‘Why, Madame…’

Paulette was a little surprised to see Mrs Burnham making such a to-do about a matter she usually touched upon so lightly – but she was glad, too, to have the conversation turned in this new direction, since it presented a good opportunity for escape.  Hugging her stomach, she made a moaning sound: ‘Madame, you are perfectly right: I am indeed a little foireuse today.’

‘Oh dear, dear Puggly!’ The BeeBee dabbed her streaming eyes and gave Paulette a pitying hug.  ‘Of course you’re furious! Those budzat sailors! With all their udlee-budlee, you’d think they’d leave the larkins alone!’ ”

“He paused to give Zachary a broad wink. ‘From what I hear, the Rascal’s going to be in for a samjaoing soon enough.  The kubber is that his cuzzanah is running out.’

Zachary could no longer sustain the pretence of omniscience.  Knitting his eyebrows, he said: ‘Cu – cuzzanah? Now there you go again, Mr Doughty: that’s another word I don’t know the meaning of.’ ”

Ghosh spends a lot of the book – and it’s not a short book – setting the scene, introducing the characters and slowly weaving them all together.  The second half of the book therefore felt much faster-paced, and ended quite abruptly: I have to admit, after the time spent building everything up, I felt the culmination of the action was almost too rushed.  However, I just found out that it is in fact the first of a planned trilogy, so I just have to wait for the second one to come out!  Ghosh has invested so much in the characters that you are definitely left wanting to know what happens to them next!

Most of you will probably have heard of the publisher Picador, or maybe read a book without realising it was published by them – their authors include Douglas Adams, the poet Carol Ann Duffy, Bret Easton Ellis and Helen Fielding, to name just a few of the more recognisable.  They publish a fantastic range of contemporary classics and literary fiction, with lots of prize-winning authors.  Their website is very up-to-date, uncluding podcast interviews with authors, extracts from new books and, most relevantly, a blog.   To quote from their website: 

‘You can also talk about all things book-related on the Picador blog, where we will be regularly posting contributions from writers, editors, journalists and literary bloggers, and would love to hear from readers too’.

I’m not quite sure whether I fall into the category of literary blogger or reader, but, excitingly, I have been asked to contribute a post for their blog.  Of course I agreed, and am planning on writing something hopefully amusing, interesting and informative about student reading habits.

It would therefore be amazingly helpful if all my student readers out there, and anyone who has ever been a student, could contribute by answering a few questions for a very unscientific mini-questionnaire.  Leave a comment or post on the wall of my Facebook group; and go into as much or as little detail as you can!  The sooner the better as I do have a deadline…

1: Do you read fiction regularly during termtime?

2: If yes, how often, when and where?  What type of books do you read – do you have any particular favourites you always bring up to university with you?

3: If no, why not? Not enough time? Not enough money? Too boring? When do you read, if ever?

4: Do you buy fiction books regularly?

5: If yes, how often? Where from? An independent bookshop? Charity shops? A big chain like Waterstones or Borders? Amazon? Another online retailer? Why do you shop at that particular place?

6: How many fiction, non-academic, non-work-related books are sitting on your shelf/desk/floor/table in your university room at this moment? Did you bring them with you from home or did you buy them recently? How many of them do you expect to read this term?

So there you go: for obvious reasons, academic/work related reading is excluded here!

I look forward to getting your responses, and will of course point you in the direction of the finished post!

My MA application finally went in the post yesterday so should be landing on UCL’s graduate admissions doormat today!  I went for UCL in the end as the course content seemed to be more what I am after – see here for a description of the modules.  The fact that over half the course is dedicated to exploring and understanding the key skills and processes of Publishing as a business was a big bonus to me, and I also think the Publishing, Culture and Society module sounds very interesting. The Publishing Process module also requires you to work in groups to give a presentation in front of top industry professionals, which would be excellent experience.  They condense their taught classes into two days a week, giving you time to work or do work experience alongside it, and a 5 week work placement is compulsory, as is a dissertation.  For me personally, their location in Euston is far more convenient, and they have a lovely campus.

So I should be getting confirmation of my application from the Graduate Admissions Department within 5 weeks, and from the Publishing Admissions Tutor a few weeks after that, then interviews will be in the new year.  I’m glad I managed to get it sent off before term has really got going here, because now I don’t need to worry about it too much until I know if I get an interview or not!

I’m also now starting to look at the very few in-house Publishing Graduate Training Schemes available.  HarperCollins run one, but no information seems to be available yet for 2009 applications, so I can’t really tell you how their scheme works. Macmillan‘s scheme puts you straight into a real job with real responsibilities, giving you an opportunity to learn about the business from the inside and providing you with support and mentorship at the same time.  They only have 5 or 6 places available and their scheme seems quite prestigious, so I will be tackling the rather long, detailed and slightly intimidating application form this weekend!  Penguin have in the past run a scheme in which you spend three months each in six different departments, gaining on-the-job insights into the company and how different departments work, whilst also completing individual project work and participating in a business skills development programme.  However, the only information I could find on their website dates from 2004/5 and I have not yet received a reply to the email I sent asking if they are running the scheme for 2009/10, so I will probably have to try and ring to find out.  The advantage of these schemes in general is, of course, that you are doing a real job and getting paid for it whilst receiving training; the advantage of an MA is being able to gain a thorough theoretical, academic knowlege of the business before being thrown in the deep end!

At any rate, I feel very positive that I will have something interesting to do next year, and if all else fails, I’ll be going down the more traditional work experience plus hundreds of applications for entry-level assistant jobs next summer after I’ve graduated!