Gatekeeping in an Age without Fences - July 22, 2013

Some sixteen months ago, in the first article for this blog (, I wrote about an experience I had trying to explain the nature of publishing to a crowd of totally indifference freshmen. I used the inestimable Benjamin Franklin as the model of what Americans might rightly think of as the ideal publisher, one who wrote and, presumably, edited the books he published; typeset, printed, and bound them; sold them in his own store and through the mail; and funded this entire activity. True, in his twenty years of publishing, Franklin produced fewer books than St. Augustine’s Press does these days in a half-year, but, as we know, he had a lot of side-jobs (and, besides, this limited production was, nevertheless, more than any other printer of his time). I asked the students which of these many activities that Franklin accomplished was the central one for a publisher. After the nanosecond of silence, I gave them the answer: “none of them.” Each of these activities is now subject to being shopped out by any publisher who wishes, and none is the essential definition of publishing. I told them that control of rights is the central activity of publishing, the one that cannot be shopped out.

A couple of months later, I wrote another blog with the ticklish title, “Amazon Is Not Your Friend” (, which was directed to the general trend in publishing, after the destruction of so many wonderful bookstores by the chains and the continuing takeover of the chains by online order takers, as the book has become for most people a commodity no different from any other, say, purchasing a flowering plant online (I purposely picked something beautiful, one often thought of as unique, though one minute of reflection will be enough to see that, as a commodity, nothing in the world is more unique than a book . . . I mean, how many types of flowering plants are there?). It may be so far in the past that few will remember, but there were times when bookstore personnel were amazingly knowledgeable about their specialties. I remember the sheer joy, during my years as a grad student in international relations, of going to the wonderful World Affairs Bookstore on Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. There I would find personnel who not only knew the contents of the books in their store but could lead a student to the right scholar, the new title of importance, the central argument. Did I ever wonder for a moment that perhaps these books could be found elsewhere for a buck cheaper? No!

The first of these blogs mentioned above spoke about the abandonment by publishers of the important duties that together made each of them unique from others. The second blog did the same to bookstore owners. In both cases, what we are talking about are gatekeepers. It is true that in publishing gatekeeping comes in several packages, depending upon what is considered the centrally important activity of the firm. In nearly all cases, these centrally important activities are worthy of the need for gatekeeping. For example, a large trade house like Random House or Harper-Collins has shareholders who have invested in the company and rightly expect that the people running the company would look after their interests. In such a situation, the publisher must concern himself or herself with sales and profit over a personal desire to publish the quatrains of untested poets. A publisher of a company owned by a religious order or, for that matter, an avowed atheist organization owes it to those owners to publish works that reinforce their standards and mission. In that case, their concern would be more in editing than in sales. Some publishers of books in the fine arts may actually find that their concerns are more directed to production than even editorial matters.

In all these cases, what the gatekeeper must do is allow the best that is possible, given the constraints that are inevitable in every business, in the area of their work, and to hold back, as best they can, the mediocre or the unimportant or the destructive.

But what happens in a world that seems fast becoming our norm, when it is not clear what the mission is, not evident what separates excellence from mediocrity, not certain where the truth lies? That seems to be our future. As I have mentioned before (, just as librarians get together nowadays to talk about delivery systems, book publishers meet to talk about formats. If they are standing by the gate with that sort of goal in mind, we can assume that somewhere there is a need for a stronger fence, because the essential reason for their existence has twittered away and become atrophied.

For scholarly publishing, which is the area I know best, the gatekeeper must be centrally concerned with the truth; the arts publisher might well find that principle in the beautiful; a trade publisher aims for the good. Each, of course, has to be very concerned with knowing precisely what the true or the beautiful or the good is. For many, they might find that knowing perfectly the full aim of their work may be more like what is termed “negative theology,” i.e., that they might know more about the beautiful by knowing and understanding what the not-beautiful is, for example.

We live in an age in which fences of all types are being torn down, destroyed, allowed to deteriorate, or never built in the first place. These fences are the very stuff of our existence, the patterning out of life worth living with others, a way in which we can find ourselves instead of losing ourselves. Without these fences, there is no need for gatekeepers, because there is no opening or closing to the world that was once contained and defined. The stripping of these fences is being done, no doubt, with good intentions, that very stuff so thickly paved in hell.


Jehovah buried, Satan dead

Jehovah buried, Satan dead,
do fearers worship Much and Quick;
badness not being felt as bad,
itself thinks goodness what is meek;
obey says toc, submit says tic,
Eternity's a Five Year Plan:
if Joy with Pain shall hand in hock
who dares to call himself a man?

go dreamless knaves on Shadows fed,
your Harry's Tom, your Tom is Dick;
while Gadgets murder squack and add,
the cult of Same is all the chic;

by instruments, both span and spic,
are justly measured Spic and Span:
to kiss the mike if Jew turn kike
who dares to call himself a man?

loudly for Truth have liars pled, click;
where Boobs are holy, poets mad,
illustrious punks of Progress shriek;
when Souls are outlawed, Hearts are sick,
Hearts being sick, Minds nothing can:
if Hate's a game and Love's a fuck
who dares to call himself a man?

King Christ, this world is all aleak;
and lifepreservers there are none:
and waves which only He may walk
Who dares to call Himself a man.

                                                                                                e.e. cummings