Against the Anti-Art Literati: On Roberto Calasso’s ‘The Art of the Publisher’

February 24, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 6 8 min read


Readers new to Roberto Calasso’s work often feel a bit bewildered, as if his books ought to come with a warning: This book is unlike any you’ve ever read. In addition to addressing the actual subject of the book, the reviewer must therefore explain who Calasso is, unpack his unorthodox rhetorical strategy, and provide some orientation to his uncommon perspective. This is easier said than done.

The Art of the Publisher, Calasso’s most recent work, consists of only 150 smallish and deceptively simple pages containing his speeches, essays, and occasional pieces about publishing. Briefly, he argues that publishing is an art, books are art objects, and the publisher is an artist. The publisher’s art has always been to provide the guiding sensibility for the publishing house and for the works it publishes. This sensibility is the mythos or spirit, if you will, of the publishing house. Today’s publishing houses lack this kind of vision and thus do not produce art. And the every-writer-and-reader-for-himself universe of electronic publishing cannot be art either, because it, too, lacks a guiding vision and the art object, books.

There could scarcely be anyone more qualified than Calasso to make this case, and The Art of the Publisher offers entry into his fascinating world of leading edge literati. Intellectually, he is elegant and stylish in an Italian way: traditional, subtle, original. He writes from his formidable knowledge and from his experience as a founder and editorial director of Adelphi, an Italian publishing house of exceptional depth and quality with a backlist that includes the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Leonardo Sciascia. He considers publishing itself a literary genre. He writes erudite and highly original works on subjects few have considered, never mind named. He has an international following.

Calasso’s rhetorical method is “always a mosaic.” [Paris Review, 2012] His PhD thesis concerned the theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne. He says, “[The] idea of a language made up of images is connected with all of my work.” [Paris Review.] His books often begin with an image, almost a digression, that he deconstructs bit by bit as he traces its presence here and there; explicating its relationship(s) within mythology, religion, art, literature, history, languages (he knows eight), and the classics; making unexpected and seemingly effortless connections; and finally arriving at a new meaning for which the original image is now an emblem of a much larger whole. To those accustomed to a linear, PowerPoint-like arrangement of information, this “agglomerative” way of proceeding can be baffling. The following is my own attempt — not Calasso’s — to show what the experience of reading Calasso can be like:

While out walking you spy a coin on the sidewalk. You pick it up, intending to make a wish and throw it over your shoulder, a gesture that already connects you to a distant past. But, wait, it’s a gold coin with the image of a head crowned with a laurel wreath. And old. Did a coin collector accidentally drop it? You turn it over in your palm, recalling your own coin collection — the buffalo nickel, the pure silver dollars, the tiny pockets in the album. Did you know that the Smithsonian’s coin collection, the largest in the world, has more than 450,000 coins? Unfortunately, the exhibit closed years ago for lack of money. Upon closer inspection, you see that the image on the coin is likely Roman. The Romans minted coins from the 4th century BC at the temple of Juno Moneta, (the source of our word money), and they set up mints across the Empire, establishing minting practices for all time. Earlier still, Ploutos, the sometimes-blind Greek god of wealth, carried a cornucopia and dispensed riches. His near contemporary, a Phrygian named Midas, and the latter’s fairy-tale descendants had a different attitude toward wealth, one akin to the hedge fund manager’s. Along with coins and money came trade, banking, and the Medici, though the Romans had already invented checks, which are today dispatched on smartphones.

Question: When you toss the coin over your shoulder, what do you toss? Answer: Civilization. A book by Calasso is always a journey into and through civilization in the company of an expert guide.

In The Art of the Publisher, Calasso concerns himself with what the good publisher is and argues in favor of the publisher’s critical role in the furtherance of civilization through the expression of his own, highly refined sensibility. Consequently, it seems surprisingly self-evident when he says that the good publishing house is one that publishes “only good books,” i.e., “books of which the publisher tends to feel proud rather than ashamed.” Or that, as in most artistic activities, success in publishing is frequently unremunerative:

…along with roulette and cocottes, founding a publishing house has always been one of the most effective ways for a young man of noble birth to fritter away his fortune.

At this point, Calasso explores some questions in contemporary publishing the answers to which aren’t necessarily obvious.

1. Why does one become a publisher?

[Because]…publishing has always involved prestige, if only because it is a kind of business that is also an art…[and]…in order to practice it, money is an essential element.“

With respect to publishing itself, he allows that “very little has changed since [Johann] Gutenberg’s time.” He takes the reader down a rabbit hole of publishing history — typefaces, woodcuts, prefaces, publicity, and, of course, books — wherein we meet Aldus Manutius, an Italian humanist (1449-1515), the creator of “the most beautiful book ever made,” the inventor of the paperback, and “the first to conceive of the publishing house as form:

…the choice and sequence of titles to be published; the texts that accompany the books; the way in which the books are presented as objects.

In other words, the good publisher gives form to the “essential reading of his time.” This is very, very important to Calasso.

Today’s dispersed and disparate publishing business, particularly the digital universe, directly challenges Calasso’s claim that a good publisher has an essential role and is himself artist. Even among the well read, Calasso’s kind of publisher seems a relic of an earlier time. In advocating for the relevance of those very few publishers who still remain faithful to the publisher’s art, Calasso can seem like a unicorn among donkeys. Undeterred, he insists that the good publisher by imposing his judgments, his noes and yeses, his style, his taste on the available possibilities…

. . . give[s] form to a plurality of books as though they were the chapters of a single book. . . [and takes] . . . a passionate and obsessive care over the appearance of every volume.

In this way, a good publishing house becomes:

…a single text formed not just by the totality of books that have been published there, but also by all its other constituent elements, such as the front covers, cover flaps, publicity, and quantity of copies printed and sold, or the different editions in which the same text has been presented…[and this totality is]…a literary work in itself, belonging to a genre all its own.

This vision is at the heart of Calasso’s argument. It is both secular and spiritual. The “single chain” that is “formed by all the books published by the publisher” is the unique work of art that the publisher brings to the literary table. It is both tangible — the books — and intangible — a reflection of the mythos or sensibility that is expressed in the “chain” and the “totality,” which “imply other related books not written.” For Calasso this totality is numinous.

2. Couldn’t these tangible and intangible connections exist without the publisher?

For the most part, publishing today, whether print or digital, lacks the overarching sensibility that only the good publisher provides:

There would still be good and bad books, but those good books would appear as sporadic, isolated events with no congenial context into which to fit them.

Calasso’s good publisher is an endangered species in a business sense as well. In publishing today, form has become the organization chart, and mythos is merely brand power:

There are very few people today who can be given the title of publisher. They could probably be counted on the fingers of two hands. Editors, on the other hand, are many and increasing, if editors are those who discover, follow, develop, and launch a certain number of books within the catalog of a publishing house. All editors are associated with a list of authors and books as though they are theirs. This, however, does not include the form itself — the catalog, the program of the publishing house for which they work. If a publishing house is not conceived as a form, as a self-sufficient composition held together by a high physiological compatibility between all of its constituent parts, it easily turns into a casual association, incapable of triggering that magical element — brand power — that even marketing experts consider essential for achieving some degree of success.

Managers in today’s publishing houses often know little or nothing of books and care even less about form. Their mandate is profits. Calasso believes this organizational pattern precludes the publisher’s art. It is, in fact, anti-art.

3. But won’t information technology make all written works more widely available?

A little web-surfing — mine — turns up dozens of niche sites for contemporary fiction, poetry, essays, and works of art — an argument in favor of art for art’s sake as the artists contribute their work gratis. Publishers’ websites — publicity arms, really, but presented as literary hubs — display varied imprints defined by consumer preferences. Other sites are more serious literary efforts that vanish when the editor gets a paying job. Barriers to entry are low, and some sites are scarcely more than hobbies. Often, sites are cross-listed, the better to achieve a higher ranking within the Google algorithms. The result is ever more self-referential and enclosed universes. A few sites, such as this one, grow and thrive because they serve real needs.

Calasso doubts the literary value of such websites and that Google books can become the greatest library in history. Quantity is not quality. He finds Google’s ambitions totalitarian and oppressive and the implications for publishers negative:

In the face of…[immediate access to everything]…which grows wider and better every day, the publisher can only seem like a miserable obstacle.

Democratization in literary publishing isn’t necessarily desirable either:

…information technology aims toward a situation — its own utopian vision — in which, as everything is connected with everything else, the result is…[a state of confusion and disorder]…in which everyone can claim to have contributed…Whether or not a world of this kind is desirable does not, for most people, seem a question of any urgency…

The “cloud” is an apt image for this digital fog:

…if we limit the field to that of publishing, it can be said with certainty that there is one element that the cloud of knowing (or, more accurately, the cloud of information, though hasn’t the very distinction between information and knowledge become blurred?) can do without: judgment, that primeval capacity to say yes or no. But judgment was the basic founding element for the existence of the publisher…[who]…has always had the one undeniable prerogative: to say yes or no to a manuscript and decide in what form to present it. But if judgment can be easily dispensed with, this is even truer of form. Indeed, discussion about form could soon become meaningless.

4. Still, doesn’t the existence of literary sites, publishing houses driven by consumer preferences, as well as the self-publishing boom refute Calasso’s claim that only the good publisher can provide a meaningful place for literary output?

In the digital universe everyone with a computer can be his own publisher, his own arbiter of taste, his own stylist of content, his own “decider,” but absent the publisher’s taste and judgment, there can be no art in Calasso’s sense of the word. Absent the “chain,” the “totality,” the publisher’s vision, there is no form, no mythos. Writers, readers, and books bob alone on a sea of dreck.

5. Why is someone like Calasso better at choosing what to bring to our attention than we are?

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Calasso has been accused of elitism and paternalism. To be fair, however, his argument rests on more subtle grounds than simply that the good publisher is the necessary, singular arbiter of quality. Rather, he sees the publisher as having a responsibility to establish a vision and within that vision to practice his art. In this way, the publisher becomes the custodian and purveyor of what he believes is essential to his culture and time. “The gods are the fugitive guests of literature,” he says, meaning that the publisher’s mission, while secular, has a sacred element: the carrier or custodian of a mythos that guides and is reflected in the collective works he publishes. This “spirit” unites otherwise solitary authors, readers, and books. The sum of his acts as a publisher thus constitutes a form, which is, like sculpture or painting, art.

Calasso ends by returning to the image of Manutius. He wants publishers to aspire to create new books that are equally as beautiful as Manutius’s perfect book. For some this charge may seem precious and as suffocating in its imposition of critical judgment as the Internet is in its lack of discrimination. This much is certain: No other publisher today has dared to claim as his own the singular judgment and unique artistry of the publisher-artist Calasso describes so precisely. That is because the one he has in mind is himself and the art his own.

is a writer, painter, and committed Italophile. Her novel, The Train to Orvieto, which is set in Italy, will be published by Black Heron Press in Fall, 2016. In it she explores cross-cultural marriage and family relationships, issues affecting women as artists, and the nature of truth. Roberto Calasso’s philosophical/mythological/literary investigations fascinate her.


  1. This piece is such a tonic to my sadness following Miss. Harper Lee’s death and the whole “Watchman” debacle. A literary desecration in my opinion.

    To move from the world of books to the world of film, there was a very subtle dramatization of some of these points in 2013’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” The setting is Istanbul. Changez Kahn, an ambitious young New York financial analyst originally from Pakistan, accompanies his boss and mentor on a trip there to put a “value” on a Turkish publishing company for possible acquisition. There is a mythic quality, as Khan’s two “fathers” (the New York financier and the cultured Turkish editor from the company) square off, with the very soul of their spiritual son in the balance.

    My favorite scene was a quiet lunch between Changez Khan and the editor (played by Haluk Bilginer). Khan’s father is a Pakistani poet the editor knows well. The editor is quiet but pointed, as he questions the very nature of the “value,” and whether such a man as Khan’s boss is even capable of measuring the worth of his beloved firm in any meaningful way.

  2. Thanks for calling my attention to “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” which I had mistakenly conflated with a book about a young man faced with a decision about whether to join the Taliban.

    It seems the question of what has “value” in the universe of writing and literature now is very much open to question. Example: Today, in a NYT book review, Dwight Garner, the book reviewer, quotes from “Prodigals,” a short story collection by Greg Jackson. In one story, Jackson’s narrator says of The New York Review of Books that it “. . .continued to devote such good minds and scholarship to what after five minutes in the desert sun, driving with the top down by imitation-adobe strip malls full of nail salons and smoothie shops and physical therapy outlets, was almost painfully irrelevant.”

    I hadn’t driven that mile myself yet, but I guess the NYRB is also pretty irrelevant if you’re a refugee or lost in the Amazon or just calling your ISP. The author is not his narrator. Still, it seems worth mentioning that Jackson is among the fine minds published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a publisher whose distinguished authors have long had bylines in the NYRB. Furthermore, Straus himself was one of the very few publishers Calasso considered an equal.

  3. @RebeccaJNovelli – Highly recommend “Fundamentalist.” Mira Nair did an amazing directing job. Loved the novel as well.

    When I think about the New Normal of publishing, I imagine the grim specter of “crowdsourcing” manuscripts (already a reality for some genre romance novels).This makes me laugh and shiver at the same time.

    I remember reading somewhere that an author whittled down a manuscript from 23 to 14 POVs after a crowdsource complaint that her work was “too complex.”
    One of the original 23 was the POV of a squirrel. I could not stop thinking about the squirrel. A poor furry creature, with a crooked and balding tail, unprepossessing , but blessed with the heart of a true romantic and an eye for the foibles of man. What if the cruel Groupthink of the crowd stifled his little chattering voice? Sigh.

    God knows what the crowdsource would have made of James Joyce!

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful and well-written review of the book and for your evenhanded treatment of Calasso’s “elitism.” It made me rush to my shelf to pick up Cadmus and Harmony to remind myself how rich and discursive and erudite and mysterious and gorgeous his writing is. If this is elitism and paternalism, then my heart belongs to daddy.

    Your analogy for what it’s like to read him is spot on — you fall down the rabbit hole, kicking yourself for not knowing Greek or Hindu mythology or 6-7 possibly dead languages. But no time for regrets! Calasso is burrowing ever deeper into the ether — you are submerged and flying at once. Way over my head, so often, but so worth the disruption of regular programming. I will be looking for this new book — really enjoyed this piece.

    @Moe Murph — truly depressing thought — crowdsourced writing. The squirrel example is perfect! And I, too, had overlooked The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Will be looking for it now.

  5. “Mysterious” is exactly the right word for that experience of following Calasso where he leads, and I think of opening a bottle of champagne for how my mind feels when the journey ends..

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