ARTICOLO n. 32 / 2022

A CONVERSATION WITH ALESSANDRO GALLENZI

What does it mean to be a publisher?

When thinking about international publishing, there are many questions we should ask ourselves: how is cultural work changing in the world? Will the publishing world be able to respond to the multiplicity of stimuli from which it is overwhelmed every day? What will the role of the publisher be in the future?
These, and many other questions, open up a series of conversations with the protagonists of today’s publishing industry.

A.GENTILE What does it mean to be a publisher? Giangiacomo Feltrinelli used to say that a publisher is like a wheelbarrow, a mean of transportation, thanks to which books pass from an author’s hands to a reader’s. The late Roberto Calasso, on the other hand, thought of a publisher as an artist, who thinks about the construction of a catalogue as a writer thinks about his novel, with a creative, artistical mindset. Which of these two positions you feel closer to?

A.GALLENZI Both of these approaches are part of my publishing ethos. On the one hand I agree with the likes of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and his friend John Calder, whose list we inherited, that a publisher is a conduit – not just between authors and readers, but also between past, present and future. Sometimes a publisher is necessary in order to keep alive a legacy that would otherwise be forgotten. Once we published an English translation of Edmondo De Amicis’s Costantinopoli, a book which had been long out of print even in Italy, and Einaudi was intrigued by our idea and reissued it there. This kind of cross-pollination is very important in publishing. I do, however, feel closer to Roberto Calasso’s approach, and like to think that our list, on the whole (with some exceptions), is a reflection both of our taste and an attempt to create a work of art in itself. The image I like to use to describe a publisher is that of a gallery curator, who selects a number of works and creates a narrative that links them, speaking to the viewer in simple, understated terms. It is essential, and Calasso was a master at this, that the message is not too loud or obtrusive, and that publishers know how to take a step back and let go of their own creations.

A.GENTILE Before being publishers, first of all we are readers, though readers who read books in a way no one else does, sometimes dissecting a text like a surgeon would. My question then would be about the books that influenced you the most in your work as publisher, the ones you keep returning to in your daily job. What are the most vital pages that give shape to your publishing strategies?

A.GALLENZI I feel very lucky and privileged, because my experience as a translator and my interest in linguistics helped me to look at texts in a different way, and to recognize their beauties and complexities in all their multifaceted aspects. I have always been an extremely slow and “dissecting” reader, and there are a number of books I keep going back to as a kind of measuring rod for my work as a publisher. Dante’s Divina commediaVita nuova and Rime are among the most important works in my own development both as a reader and as a publisher. Then I would say the works of Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Gogol, the poetry of Keats, Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats. I am very passionate about Alexander Pope, Smollett, Fielding, Sterne, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The list could go on – the trouble is that once you discover the beauties of literature, you almost feel compelled to share your passion with others.

A.GENTILE Of course, today books are only one part of a delicate, sometimes elegant, often surprising equation of content. From movies and tv shows available for streaming at a click of our devices, to podcasts, mobile Apps and games, stories, words, ideas are all around us, a cloud of content that we breathe, constantly, as we do our morning routines, go to work, talk with a colleague, have a romantic dinner in a restaurant. It’s inescapable and can be suffocating, this cloud, but also exhilarating. What other “cultural objects” beside books are currently influencing your publishing strategies? Are you pursuing any type of cooperation between books and other media that might turn out to be mutually beneficial?  

A.GALLENZI Books are a very supple and versatile communication tool, and they continue to adapt with the times. It is their format that has remained (in most cases) more or less the same over the centuries, but their content keeps morphing in order to speak to new generations of readers. As a book publisher we are not averse to change, and we have embraced the eBook revolution, but tend to resist the latest fads or fashions, such as books by influencers, epistolary novels written as emails, text messages or tweets. We are not closed to any new idea that speaks to us and excites us, but our taste is fairly traditional, and we don’t like gimmicky books. In short, you won’t find many “multimedia” titles in our programme.

A.GENTILE But let’s go back to books. Books are strange objects, and I often wonder what their role in our contemporary society is – especially given the proliferation of media we were talking about. What do you think the common perception of books is? Are they thought about as merely entertaining devices? Do they still represent a different kind of emotional experience, or a different way to interrogate our reality? Franz Kafka used to say that we need books that break the icy sea inside ourselves. Do books still manage to do this? 

A.GALLENZI Books are extremely wide-ranging and eclectic: they can entertain, challenge ideas, grant a little escapism, kindle emotions, lead to a discovery, create a debate and so on. Readers can take what they want from a book. Even the same book can elicit different reactions from different readers. A book can spark or quell a revolution. A book can change one’s life. It is perhaps the most sophisticated form of communication, because it can engage our minds in a more profound way than, say, cinema, visual arts, music or online media, which are mostly based on vision and hearing. Since what we are is clearly defined by thought and language, a book absorbs all our mind and offers a much more complex way to interrogate our internal and external reality. Keats compared his first reading of Homer to the discovery of a new world; Borges likened the discovery of Dostoevsky to that of love or the ocean – a memorable event in our lives. In short, a book gives access to an entire new physical and spiritual world, which can be explored and rediscovered many times during one’s life. And yes, I believe books can offer a unique kind of emotional experience: this is what has made them so successful throughout human history.

A.GENTILE A follow-up question would have to do with readers. What’s the ideal reader you have in mind as you work? And how this ideal reader, if present at all, comes to you: do you search for them, trying then to find the best possible reading experience for them; or do you invent them, meaning that you move about the publishing world creating needs and spaces that weren’t there before?

A.GALLENZI My «eternall reader» (to quote from the prologue to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida) is curious, intelligent, questioning, understanding, happy to be challenged and never petulant or pedantic. I want to share my interests and my tastes with my readers, and I want them to feel some of the joy and good humour that inspired me to publish the books I bring to their attention. Each book is an open invitation, but since I am fully aware that it is impossible to make everyone happy, for me it’s more like scattering seeds than casting a baited hook.

A.GENTILE However, a publisher thinks about the readers who the books she publishes are going to meet, books are often thought of as bridges, especially in times of great division. It’s a platitude, of course, but one that holds – like all platitudes do – a morsel of truth, though one that is consistently challenged by political, societal and linguistic barriers. Many have dreamt, over the decades, of a fully European publishing house, that can make a book available in multiple languages at the same time, for readers across the Continent. Is it utopia, or is it something that new technology and a renewed need for cooperation are making more and more possible? How would you feel about such a project?

A.GALLENZI Many have tried and failed. There was a time when, during the late Sixties and early Seventies, when a group of likeminded and politically aligned publishers (Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, John Calder, Barney Rosset, Klaus Wagenbach, Heinrich Ledig-Rowohlt, the Dutch firms Bezige Bij and Nijgh & van Ditmar, Jérôme Lindon, Christian Burgois and others) thought it possible to publish the best books from Europe in every major language. But what made their project unrealizable was their own strong individuality and the gulf in readers’ tastes and expectations across the borders. Publishing is a very idiosyncratic pursuit. Perhaps this is the beauty of it – what we call «bibliodiversity», something that in fact should be fostered and safeguarded. I think that, today, making this happen would be more difficult than ever (mainly for reasons which have to do with the complexity of our market and a shift towards corporate publishing), extremely commercial publishing operations such as Harry Potter and Elena Ferrante aside. Nonetheless, and as we have seen recently, there is no guaranteed formula of success even for best-sellers: what France adores, Britain dislikes – what Italy and Spain rave about, Germany finds boring, and so on.

A.GENTILE Despite the need for cooperation we were talking about, we do have our differences, of course, and differences must be treasured even as we find new ways of working together, of being together, because it’s our differences that make us unique. Another platitude, perhaps, but one that is often exemplified in publishing by the contrast between British and American publishers and European ones. Generally speaking, and on the one hand, every book is different in the UK and the US, thus, a publisher’s identity is less perceivable that the identity of the editor building a particular list. On the other hand, and in the European landscape, a publisher’s identity tends to be immediately recognizable from the get-go – think of a Gallimard blanche, or Adelphi’s pastel colours on a bookshelf. What do you think the respective merits of the two approaches are? And which one do you feel closer to?

A.GALLENZI Soon after starting my career in publishing in Britain, I discovered that I would have to adapt my editorial and production compass in order to be successful. If I had followed my instincts and personal taste, I would have conformed to the French model of Fayard and Gallimard, or the Italian model of Adelphi and Sellerio. Other British publishers have done that (the first Pushkin Press, Maia, Peirene, etc.), however, they have never been able to shake off the perception of being «niche», difficult and inaccessible. My approach, first at Hesperus and later at Alma, was to put an emphasis on the editorial care, the quality of the translation and the physical appearance of the book, using striking images or illustrations for our covers and making every single volume stand out on its own, rather than becoming part of a series. We used fine Arctic paper and «French» flaps, but our books were perceived as accessible and were a hit among younger and the older generations alike. Our motto at Hesperus was «Et remotissima prope» – «bringing near what is far» (both in terms of space and time) – and we managed to do what others had failed to do before: finding the right commercial formula without having to sacrifice our editorial integrity. As the British market evolves, we need to keep changing too if we want to remain successful, so we can’t adopt a one-layered approach to publishing.

A.GENTILE Publishing, as our readers may have gathered from this conversation, is sometimes a very idiosyncratic business. How do you imagine the future of our industry? Umberto Eco used to say that books are «eternal objects»; objects that, like a fork or a spoon, are so perfect from the moment of their invention that they don’t need changes. Do you think this is true for books? Do you believe that books will stay the same – physically and spiritually – through the next years? And if, on the contrary, you think they will change, how will they do it?

A.GALLENZI I totally agree with Umberto Eco, and, in fact, the comparison of a book to a fork or a spoon is one I have used many times in the past during my talks about publishing to illustrate that some objects are perfect as they are and need no improvement. Both PDFs – which are meant to be read online or on tablets – and eBooks for Kindle devices are in fact a substandard, diminished version of the original paper artefact. I want to believe (and the recent resurgence of the printed book in all markets bears testimony to this) that books will remain the same – always adapting in content and presentation. And I do believe they will speak to new generations, remaining the lusciously pleasurable objects they are to our senses today, as they have been for centuries.

A.GENTILE As we wind down our conversation, perhaps it’s time to move into more playful territory. We talked about the future of publishing, so, perhaps, now it’s time to talk about the future of your publishing house. Give us a sneak peek into the next six months. What are you most excited for in publishing?

A.GALLENZI I am particularly looking forward to brand-new translations of Crime and Punishment and Pinocchio, and to the publication of a lesser-known literary gem by Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy, detailing his impressions of our country during his one-year stay in 1844–45. Having recently published a translation of John Keats’s letters for Adelphi, La valle dell’anima, I am thrilled to be publishing in September, under our Alma imprint, my first non-fiction book, Written in Water, about the poet’s final months and death in Italy.

A.GENTILE Last question. If you were to choose a classical book from ages past that were to reach your desk today and that you wouldn’t be able to pass on, which book would that be?

A.GALLENZI Too many to mention, but one that keeps coming into my hands and is swiftly put back onto the shelves is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress – possibly too dense and slow-paced for our times of short attention spans.

ARTICOLO n. 74 / 2022