Inventing Sovereignties: The Genesis of the Publication of The Sovereignties of Invention
It is unusually complex to speak of my relationship to The Sovereignties of Invention for it is impossible to follow the standard acquisitions editor script of “How I came to acquire X manuscript,” a script so standard few who follow it are even aware they’re doing so.
The problems begin with the word acquire. I didn’t acquire it, I licensed it. An odd word to use in the precincts of publishing, “licensed.” It’s rather tainted, sprinkled with the ochre of lucre. But you know, it’s factually more accurate (it’s a license, not a purchase) and frankly it’s less odious that the language of sale, of purchase, of acquisition. Acquire is perhaps genteel, it suggests the purchase of, oh, a wooden trunk. A shotgun. A car, such as an Aston Martin. License, even though it doesn’t assert dominion over the author’s work, lacks gentility.
So I didn’t acquire Matthew’s manuscript. I simply read it, and loved it, and offered to license it for three years, in a semi-exclusive arrangement designed to maximize its value and visibility to our mutual benefits.
How did the read-and-love-and-offer come to pass, then? Well his agent didn’t submit it, nor did it get sent to me in the slush, the two standard modes of manuscript transmission in our times. Matthew uploaded the manuscript to our site here. I saw some lovely comments around the manuscript, from a wide range of our membership, some loving the tone, a few calling out a sentence here or there for its loveliness or, even, its inconsistency. Here was true grist for the mill of culture I could see. These stories of Matthew’s gave an occasion for a discussion around beauty, cliché, genre, the first vs third person, seduction. I saw comparisons to Jose Saramago, not unexpected, and to Cormac McCarthy (unexpected, but the reader was right, in that moment.)
And I loved it too. Was I influenced by these other readings? Hell yeah. Should I be embarrassed to be influenced by them? Should an editor consult only his own aesthetic? For me, I see myself as a conduit through which an idiosyncratic set of cultural forces expresses itself. No doubt I pervert it slightly as it flows through me, but my gut instinct is that I am a listener, a viaduct.
There is certainly a role for the editor who only publishes what she personally likes—that ruthless of purpose, like a writer’s own vision, is a powerful engine. But that editor should always remember that she too is a creature of her culture—it doesn’t take much research to note how one generation’s gold is another generation’s dross, one man’s silk purse is another man’s sow’s ear.
Am I addressing here readings of The Sovereignties of Invention as a book, or just talking about how it came to be published in the present manner? The latter, clearly, but also the former. (Though for a universe of responses from Red Lemonade members on the former, see Ancillary Probes: Being a collection of reader responses to Matthew Battles' The Sovereignties of Invention.) Myself, I’ve a predilection for the overdetermined and the title itself is so deeply evocative of the processes I’m discussing here: where does invention come from, whence its provenance? Who can claim ownership of it? Who might assert control and on what basis? Matthew, as with any fiction writer, does not propose resolutions for these questions. But the title hints at Matthew’s instincts: origin and attribution are plural, are various, are contested. These creations of Battles aren’t just that, created artifacts but also about creation and, as such, are perfect for a publisher interested in elucidating how literature is to be disseminated in these strange, giddy, feral times.