Tim Parks on the buying and selling (and marketing) of literary archives (NYRB)

Tim Parks writes in a May 21, 2014 blog post at the New York Review of Books about literary archives, particularly his own. While much of the piece has tongue very firmly in cheek, Parks has some thoughtful comments, particularly as archives relate to the fame of an author.

What has changed is the predictive and competitive nature of the acquisitions, with writers being selected on the basis of a few years celebrity or a prestigious literary prize and invited to sell their correspondence even before it is written. …. For the author, needless to say, the lure is money. Large sums can be involved. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas reputedly paid $1.5 million for J. M. Coetzee’s papers. …. But not only money. Any organization that spends a considerable sum on you will also have an interest in promoting your reputation. They don’t want to be accused of having thrown cash at a lemon. So there will be exhibitions, seminars, features of archived material. You will be talked up. [emphasis added]

Parks is quite astute here: selling (or donating) your archive to an institution will ensure your importance–perhaps not for the cynical reason which he suggests (lemons), but because librarians and archivists are increasingly trying to market their collections, promote research usage, and prove their own relevance within research institutions (and thus justify budgets, staff, space, etc.). What this activity by institutional archives may render unclear is the fact that literary archives help build literary canons. Fame can feed canons. Researchability can feed canons. (There’s no question that teachability–like the Norton Anthologies–feeds canons!)

Working Papers vs Made-up Papers

I’ve spoken to some fine printers and type designers who have hinted (and occasionally flat-out said) that they sometimes go backwards and create “drafts” and “mock-ups” for addition to their institutional archive. (I won’t name names!) The point was that the draft or mock-up would otherwise not have existed. I asked the type designer to explain and he said that he had in fact gone through a stage with these versions of a typeface but had never printed it out while working on it or saved it consciously. This after-the-fact snapshot was something he created (or re-created) to document what he remembered of the creation process. What he created or re-created was essentially a copy of his working practice, and later historians will assume that the artifact (whether paper or electronic file) is really a snapshot of a work-in-progress, when it’s technically quite different. Also, will his working practice look more linear? The designer, when I asked this question, looked thoughtful (he is a thoughtful designer with an historical bent) for a moment, and said that his work sometimes was linear, and did try to document when he went off on a wrong tangent. It would be interesting to follow-up with him.

In a slightly different vein, a fine printer spoke to me once about saving progressive proofs that might otherwise have ended in the trash, and that comment had me feeling a little ambivalent: on the one hand, it is wonderful to have these proofs; on the other hand, there’s the problem of collection bloat. And I wonder (see Tim Parks on this) about the equivalent of writers throwing in stuff that they otherwise might not care about. (My mental image is the student in a composition class trying to meet a page minimum.)

I have sometimes encountered objects from the nineteenth century in collections that make me wonder: are these genuine “working” artifacts or artifacts made-to-fit?  This is not quite like those autograph quotations written out by great figures (Lincoln, H.B. Stowe, F.S. Key, etc.) written out for charitable auction. Nor is it like those “souvenir copies” of the Emancipation Proclamation” (like the Leland-Boker edition) signed by Lincoln, Nicolay and Seward for sale by the Sanitary Commission. (ABAA member Seth Kaller with some background on it here.) These sorts of artifacts are significant as iconic documents–indeed, they may even warrant study as documents created as part of image creation.This material should still be collected, but we should also be documenting the circumstances of creation, as best possible.

It’s worth reading the whole post by Parks. I was surprised that Parks’s agent mentioned the idea of selling his archive, and I got a frisson of horror (mixed with understanding) at his comment about using libraries to get rid of his personal preservation problems, like the silverfish in his papers.

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By Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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