Joyce, Tolkien, and copyright

James Joyce’s Ulysses is fascinating in many ways, not least because it has proven such a magnet for controversy of all kinds: it has been at the center of hullabaloos about obscenity law, about textual editing, and — as Robert Spoo’s new book demonstrates — about copyright. I haven’t read Spoo’s book yet, but I want to after reading Caleb Crain’s lucid review of it.

As often is the case when I find myself thinking about Ulysses, my mind turns towards The Lord of the Rings. This is probably as odd as I suspect it is, but the books have some curious things in common: each seeks to renew and transfigure some inherited literary form; each tries to reconceive the idea of epic scope; each has been accused of being excessively masculine in its understanding of the world; each, thanks in part to endless authorial fiddling, has been the object of a great many controversies; and finally, each has been involved in all sorts of copyright issues.

Crain writes in his review,

Law isn’t the only way for people who do business together to keep one another in line. In most fields, there’s a faster, cheaper and simpler sanction: don’t do business with the miscreant anymore. Such self-policing by a group isn’t fail-safe. Ostracism might not cost enough to be a deterrent in markets with many participants, little reporting and few long-term relationships, and there will always be a few bad actors who choose to be disreputable. But law, no matter how absolute, doesn’t prevent every act of bad behavior either, and self-regulation is more flexible and quicker to adapt to changing circumstances. The phenomenon has been called “order without law,” and it has been detected in Maine lobstermen, who respect one another’s trapping sites; in chefs, who are ginger about knocking off one another’s recipes; and in stand-up comics, who usually refrain from stealing one another’s routines and punch lines. It has even been found, believe it or not, in publishing. Sometimes, in the absence of copyright, publishers have paid authors and have abstained from reprinting the books of authors they haven’t paid. Ulysses, by James Joyce, considered by some the greatest novel of the twentieth century, lost its copyright protection in America on a technicality soon after it was published. But from the 1930s to the ’90s, Joyce and his estate were paid royalties from its publication in America anyway, thanks to exactly this kind of happy anarchy.  

With The Lord of the Rings, things didn’t happen quite this way. In 1965, the bosses at Ace Books decided that they had discovered a loophole in the copyright law that allowed them to publish their own edition of the novel — and to pay J.R.R. Tolkien absolutely nothing for doing so. It seems hard to believe that as recently as fifty years ago the American publishing industry was sufficiently chaotic for any publishing executives to think they could get away with this, but they printed 150,000 copies — you heard that right: one hundred and fifty thousand copies — of each of the three volumes of LOTR, which of course sold like hotcakes. After some huffing and puffing by Tolkien and his American publishers the Ace guys decided that they had received enough legal threats, bad publicity, and cash on the barrelhead that they should probably send the author some money and let their edition slide grecelessly out of print. Still, they probably came out well ahead on the deal. “Order without law” indeed.

"I will hate you till the day I die"

We interrupt this hiatus for this message from your host. The other day I had an email exchange that went something like this: Anon. Why did you say those terrible things about me a few years ago? Me. I didn't. I explained to you at the time that I didn't. [expressions of extreme irritation redacted here and elsewhere] Anon. That doesn't change the fact that you said terrible things about me. Me. Wait . . . Yes, it does. I wasn’t talking about you, I was talking about someone else. Anon. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You need to take responsibility for your words. Me. [pastes in quotations proving that I was talking about someone else] Anon. [silence] Sigh. Well, at least I’m not Caleb Crain, whose review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work got this response, on Caleb’s blog, from de Botton himself:

Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon – so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as 'nice' in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It's only fair for your readers . . . to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

Well now. That’s something. And then this follow-up:

The reason I was led to respond to this review – and I have never done something like this before – is the sheer vindictive lunacy of the accusations levelled against me. My response may seem deranged, but only if you hold in mind two things: the book I've written and what the reviewer said about it. The gap is so large that this goes way beyond a casual and quite understandable case of a reviewer not liking a book. Everyone is allowed their own taste and I'd be the last person to force a consensus. However, there's a point at which a review becomes so angry, cruel and mean-spirited that perspective just disappears and one is into new and uncharted terrain. I'm responding to this review as a way of proposing that forgiveness is perhaps not always the only option when the provocation has been enormous.

Goodness. I didn't even think it was that harsh a review. De Botton also made his displeasure known through Twitter — though apparently he removed those tweets — and he isn't the only one:

Novelist Alice Hoffman was so enraged last weekend by a lacklustre review in the Boston Globe – her new novel, The Story Sisters, apparently "lacks the spark of [her] earlier work" – that she tweeted furiously: "Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron. How do some people get to review books? Now any idiot can be a critic." She completed a comprehensive act of revenge by tweeting Silman's phone number and email address so her followers could "tell her what u think of snarky critics".

Instant communication means, among other things, the ability to instantly say things that you may well regret for the rest of your life. I don't think Hoffman and de Botton exactly shine in these exchanges. My own view, as someone who has written negative reviews and been on the receiving end of them, is that if you want to put your thoughts before the public and be paid for it, you simply have to accept, as part of the deal, that some people won't like your writing. When your response to a negative review is to shout for all the world to hear that the reviewer is an “idiot,” or, worse yet, you tell the reviewer directly that “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make” — well, you simply give the impression that you are full to overflowing with preening self-regard. Of course it hurts to have a book you’ve slaved over slammed or dismissed. And in those cases there’s nothing wrong with letting off steam with your family or friends. I think “dismissed” is probably worse than “slammed”: among the responses to my books, the one that most bothered me was Adam Gopnik’s cursory kiss-off in The New Yorker of my biography of C. S. Lewis, and I may have made the odd unkind comment about Gopnik over pints with my buddies. However, I can honestly say that I do not hate Adam Gopnik and do not want to see his career destroyed. And more important, I didn't share my every uncharitable thought with the whole world. Some websites may be disappearing, but this much is for sure: if you’ve said anything online that really, really embarrasses you, it’ll be available forever.

the settlement

Despite the widespread concerns about Google's power over the scanning and distribution of books, I had decided to go ahead and accept the provisional Google Book Settlement — but then I read this letter by Caleb Crain, and I'm going to have to rethink the whole business. The whole situation is starting to seem more momentous than I'd like it to be. . . .