Modest Proposal: Martin Seymour-Smith’s New Guide to Modern Literature as an E-book

(This comes from a Teleread article I wrote in 2007)

A Modest Proposal: Martin Seymour-Smith’s New Guide to Modern Literature as an E-book

While browsing through titles at the Sony store, I asked myself, what book would I most like to see as an e-book on the Sony Reader?

The answer came to me immediately. The title is Martin Seymour-Smith’s New Guide to Modern World Literature.

It’s an obscure literary reference book printed in 1985 that went out of print long ago. One reason you never heard of it is that it’s the kind of book your local library would consider a reference guide for students and not allow for circulation. It’s 1300 pages and consists of annotations and commentary about every major writer of the 20th century in every language. Just for comparison’s sake, I examined the chapter on Albanian literature (a subject I know about as a result of my Peace Corps service in that country). In the mid eighties, the West lacked any information about Albanian authors, yet New Guide contained eight pages of informed commentary.

First, a little about Martin-Seymour Smith . Although Seymour-Smith wrote several literary biographies and books of literary criticism, he also prepared a lot of literary reference books for the general reader. He also wrote original poetry and –oddly– a book on astrology. For example, he authored the Bluffer’s Guide to Literature and the 100 Most Influential Books of All Time (scorned by intellectuals for their mass appeal). Robert Nye writes in an obituary of Martin Seymour-Smith:

C.H. Sisson has remarked that Seymour-Smith “is a poet of the kind, and sometimes of the quality, of Henry Vaughan. Yet he seems armed, by his sophistication, to do battle in the larger world of 20th-century illusions”. Those illusions took a battering in Seymour-Smith’s 1,200-page Guide to Modern World Literature (1973) and in his later Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature (1976), encyclopaedic works of erudition in which hundreds of authors are discussed. Anthony Burgess likened Seymour-Smith to Samuel Johnson because of these books, and certainly he resembled Johnson both in the breadth of his interests and the passionate audacity of his judements. But there was always a quiet side to his scholarship also, most evident in his fine old-spelling edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (much praised by William Empson) and in his monumental and authoritative biographies of Robert Graves (1982, revised edition 1995) and Thomas Hardy (1994).

Martin Seymour-Smith’s New Guide is and is not a reference book. Sections are well-organized and invite browsing. From the Table of Contents, you go to the chapter about the national literature which interests you. Each chapter is subdivided into poetry, fiction and drama, with a discussion of individual writers in chronological order. Some authors were covered in only a paragraph. More esteemed figures received several pages. The index in the back lets you look up by author and literary work.

When Seymour-Smith discusses one writer (for example), he writes a brief biographical sketch, plus a candid assessment of individual works by that author. Some of his verdicts are unsparing, while often he points out many neglected authors and works by famous writers which never received enough attention. See his judgment on Solzhenitsyn:

Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion was occasioned by the publication abroad of Gulag Archipelago (1973-5; tr. 1974-8), the first part of an account of the Soviet prison-camp system. This is patchy and not distinguished as literature, but is of immense historical importance. However, while there can be no reason to doubt Solzhenitsyn’s personal heroism, courage and devotion to truth –it is probably impudent to criticize him for vanity and obscurantism after what he has been through –it is important to recognize that he is politically naive–as his admirer, friend and fellow-dissident Sakharov (still in Russia) has, with great tact, pointed out. He is lost in the West, which he does not understand –since at heart he is a Slavophile Russian mystic, living angrily in the past. He is unlikely to produce any more interesting work, but is likely to annoy an increasing number of people by his fundamentally stupid remarks about Western affairs. These, however, should not be ignored — as should journalists’ cliche-ridden awe at his “greatness.” Others, more gifted, have suffered as much. His status in Russian literature is as the author of one minor classic — his first novel — and two semi-autobiographical works of great humor and generosity (Cancer Ward and First Circle). August 1914 is feeble documentary fiction, and its successor is not worth discussion except in terms of Solzhenitsyn’s own not very profound beliefs. His artistic standing is not as high as it has been made out to be; he is in the nineteenth-century tradition of critical realism, and is thus incompetent to deal with much twentieth-century experience.

This is classic Seymour-Smith: pontificating, dismissing certain works while elevating others, throwing in random gibes at literary fashion and popular culture. Yes, his opinions are absolutely infuriating! But always interesting. You would think literary people hate reading this kind of opinionated twaddle; on the contrary, I find Seymour-Smith’s candor refreshing (especially when so many of the literary works Smith mentions receive little mention on the web–much less critical judgment). I frequently consult my well-worn copy just to see “what Mr. Smartypants Seymour-Smith has to say” about a particular author. More notably, Seymour-Smith covered lots of authors publishing in the early part of the 20th century (and he diligently records not only the publication date, but also the date of the translation–a real godsend for people trying to track down public domain titles).

Trying to stump Seymour-Smith, I checked the index to see if he listed Menon’s Indulekha, the 1899 classic of Malayam literature (now available in Anitha Devasia’s excellent modern translation) . Sure enough, on page 736, he writes:

It is in the novel that Malayam literature is outstanding. French as well as British models influenced it from quite early on, and Tazaki (q.v.) is the only truly Zolasesque (q.v.) Indian novelist. The first novel of importance was Indulekha (1889, tr. 1890), by Oyyaratuu Cantu Meno (1847-99). The translator was Cantu’s British boss in the Madras civil service; a nice and unusual gesture. The plot of Indulekha was suggested by Disraeli’s Henrietta Temple ; it is about the different attitudes of a Kerala family to the impact of Western ideas; more important, this exceptionally intelligent book is perceptive about what one can only call feminist issues –it has even been described by an irate patriarch as a ‘feminist tract.’ Sarada , which was not finished, is even better. Cantu Menon’s premature death robbed Malayam literature of a potentially major writer, perhaps of a calibre of Premchand (q.v.).

(Personal note: I scanned the 1899 translation of this work and plan to submit it to Project Gutenberg relatively soon).

Note: Space limitations for this article prevent me from giving additional quotes. But if you are lucky enough to own a copy of this book, I recommend page 620 paragraphs 2-3, page 152 last paragraph (entertaining), p659 last paragraph (!!!) , p718, bottom paragraph, p496, 2nd paragraph (damning!), p 1005, last paragraph (insightful!), p904, top paragraph (damning!), p120, bottom paragraph (I agree), p133, 3rd paragraph (a little too dismissive), p217, 3rd paragraph (hilarious!), p147, 2nd paragraph (on-the-ball), p496 bottom paragraph to 497 top paragraph (a tad unfair!)

In the passage above, works were in boldface or italics and would probably be hyperlinks in an ebook version. This ebook would be ideal for browsing. Despite the internal hyperlinks, the content itself is not terribly structured, and there are no graphics. It would be relatively easy for a publisher to produce this work for layout. The hardest thing would be the index.

The book went out of print in 1985; copies now sell on the used market for $20-25. As good as Seymour-Smith can be, used copies are 20+ years old; they are heavy, falling apart and 1300+ pages long. In this age Wikipedia now provides background information on neglected authors (albeit using the NPOV rather than Seymour-Smith’s idiosyncratic voice). But as an ebook weighing nothing, owning this as an ebook would be a thrill –providing countless hours of entertainment. Would I pay $20 for it? Sure, because I bought it five years ago at $25. I also refer to it at least once or twice a week.

Now, how do we get it published on the Sony Connect store? It was published by Peter Bedrick Books in UK (and distributed in the US by Harper & Row). Probably the rights have reverted back to the author’s estate, or perhaps Harper & Row/Harper & Collins would take a chance on it again. Who knows?

But what about the Essential Listening Companion series of Classical Music, Jazz, etc? These volumes are to music what Seymour-Smith’s New Guide is to literature. The classical music edition compares and judges famous recordings of classical works, offering critical introductions to composers and their repertories. But Backbeat Books (the publisher) doesn’t publish any ebooks on the Sony site (or anywhere else). Suppose that Backbeat Books wanted to make an ebook version. What would they need to do to make their ebook available to the Sony Connect store? To me that is unclear.

The Sony Reader is a first-class device. I’m generally happy with it. But I wish that the e-book store were easier for smaller publishers to distribute with. Compare to Mobipocket, where you can buy the Mobipocket e-books from several different stores. Until now Sony has been following the iTunes model of selling content. Develop a DRM-protected platform, partner with media companies to distribute/sell content exclusively and then market the hell out of the device itself to consumers. That worked for a few years with Apple. Eventually media companies realize that the hardware maker wields too much leverage over e-commerce; eventually consumers find alternate ways to load content on a device (infringing or noninfringing). Then, when another device comes along with offers the possibility of buying content from more than one place, suddenly market share for the original device plummets.

Will Martin Seymour-Smith’s literary reference guide ever become an ebook? I keep my fingers crossed. The answer depends partly on how easy it is for consumers to buy content from a variety of publishers (and how easy it is for smaller publishers to sell Sony-friendly content). Until that day comes, Sony Connect will continue to sell ebooks that consumers have no need for.






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