The Modernist Movement and the Modern Publishing World

Meeting of the Vorticists by Wyndham Lewis. The painting shows many of the leading Modernists, including poet Ezra Pound (Left-foreground) and Wyndham Lewis himself (Center).

I have been reading Kevin  Birmingham’s excellent history, The Most Dangerous Book, a history of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses while simultaneously reading the latter. While Birmingham’s thesis is centered around government censorship and control of ideas and artists, I would argue his book makes a much more compelling case for individuals in the publishing and cultural establishment at the time for being unable to adapt to change. This sounds very familiar to those acquainted with the shake up in the publishing industry caused by the indie publishing boom.

The Modernist movement of the early twentieth century was not championed by the literary establishment at the time. James Joyce’s Dubliners was rejected by multiple publishers when Joyce tried to get a second edition published, to the point where the well connected Ezra Pound exhausted his literary contacts in trying to find someone to take Joyce’s work. Ernest Hemingway too was seen as an avant-garde writer. Gertrude Stein insisted he was not good enough for The Atlantic or Saturday Evening Post. The writers (and other artists) of the budding Modernist movement had to create their own institutions and publications. Even before what I would consider the height of Modernism in the 1920s, Wyndham Lewis created his magazine BLAST. The publication was a powerful attack on the norms of the establishment; ironically, Lewis was on the political far right, but was no ‘conservative’ in the modern sense. As Birmingham writes in The Most Dangerous Book: “Suffragettes, anarchists, Imagists, and socialists rarely formed tight bonds, but they were part of the same guerrilla band” (p. 71). The Modernist tent becomes even more strange when movements associated with the interwar far-right are added into the mix, such as Italian Futurism. Cultural norms were attacked from both left and right, disrupting the nineteenth century dialectic of the left as rebelling against a right-wing representing an established, usually aristocratic, order.

In the midst of this upheaval, the Modernists had to create institutions out of whole cloth to remedy the situation. Ford Madox Ford founded the transatlantic review to host such new literary forms. Joyce had to turn to bookseller Sylvia Beach to publish Ulysses while it was being banned outright for obscenity. At no point did the the self appointed gatekeepers of the time recognize the new movement; it took many years of creation before Modernism was accepted as the main literary and artistic force in the Western world. Interestingly, both the Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union rejected these ‘decadent’ or ‘degenerate’ art forms and instead promoted a more naturalistic, classical style (compare these examples with the above painting or any Vorticist or Futurist art).

Ultimately, the experience of the Modernists in the early twentieth century has lessons applicable for the emerging writers today such as myself. In reading Birmingham’s history of Ulysses, I was struck by how the publishers of a century ago behave just as they do now. As I wrote above, Joyce was told his Dubliners was written in a genre (short story collection) that would not sell. Many writer have been told their genre no longer sells by legacy publishers, when this is not the case. Amazon’s self publishing, has allowed ‘dead’ genres to find new readers.

The recent events surrounding the Author’s Guild letter to the Department of Justice  undoubtedly means the ‘unwashed masses’ of indie published writers are striking a nerve within Big Publishing world. If they did not see Amazon and indie writers as a threat, bestselling traditionally published authors would note be running to the DoJ to press anti-trust charges against Amazon. This new world of publishing is very exciting; it is hard to say in the midst of it all what will shake out.

I would not like to see publishing houses go away per se; if the terms were equitable for writers I would happily write and then let the publishing house take care of the rest. However, publishers are making more money at the expense of authors. Maybe it is time to BLAST (as Wyndham Lewis would say) the old publishing order and finally give writers the freedom to put their work out and ultimately let the readers decide if it’s something of merit, rather than New York publishers in their ivory towers.

Bibliography/Further Reading


Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book

The late Johnathan Bowden’s lecture on Wyndham Lewis  [He spoke on other writers and artists as well, including T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound]

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Indie Publishing:

J.A. Konrath’s A Newbie ‘s Guide to Publishing blog

Kristen Rusch’s The Business Rusch (Overview of Publishing Industry)

Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing

Mike Cernovich’s post on selling books and his video on building an audience


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