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J.C. Hallman: ‘KAFKA? I LOVE KAFKA. HE’S VERY – KAFKAESQUE.’

September 23, 2009

J.C. Hallman

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story about the story.jpgAnthologies are notorious for a number of reasons. The books have too many words on each page. They’re way too expensive because they’re intended as textbooks. And they’re never quite as comprehensive as they’re meant to be.

The Story About the Story is an attempt to correct all that.

One of the reasons anthologies prove problematic is the whole business of permissions. I went into the process of obtaining permissions for this book with a degree of curiosity and the tenacity of a visionary. But if I’d known what I was getting myself into I probably never would have started. The permissions labyrinth is a maze manned by a squadron of unruly Minotaurs, and I quickly found that as a single Theseus I wasn’t going to be able to find my way through it alone. After about a month of phone calls I was at the end of my string, as it were.

The problem with The Story About the Story was multi-fold. When we write about reading, we want to cite things, to use examples–these become permissions issues, too. Furthermore, for an anthology like this to have any chance at succeeding, it needs to have the possibility of getting to foreign markets, at least the UK (a number of the writers in The Story About the Story are British–from Woolf and Wilde to De Botton and Dyer). This meant that each essay actually wound up requiring multiple permissions. The prize for most went to Edward Hirsch. The short selection from How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry required two permissions for the text itself (US and UK), two permissions for the Plath poem it explicates, and a permission for a few lines from poet Miklós Radnóti.

Five permissions for one essay. The average permission for The Story About the Story was $150.00 Thirty-one essays in the book.

The budget was $3500.00.

I’m not complaining! True, I wound up in the red on The Story About the Story, but I had never hoped to make a profit, and money wasn’t the biggest problem I encountered. The biggest problem was a new descent into the Kafkaesque.

kafka.jpgProbably the most famous essay reprinted in The Story About the Story is Vladimir Nabokov’s take on Kafka, “The Metamorphosis.” Or, rather, “‘The Metamorphosis.’” Remember that. Perhaps for ease of use, or perhaps frustrated that “Franz Kafka” becomes an anagram for absolutely nothing else (including any number of words), Nabokov gave his wonderful lecture on Kafka’s story the same title as the story itself. He probably didn’t realize that this would become a well-laid man-trap in a maze already overpopulated with monsters.

I won’t name the publisher who actually wound up owning the rights to Nabokov’s essay (though with a little imagination, it’s easy enough to figure out), but trouble began almost as soon as I wrote to them about this piece and couple others. Alas, they rejoined, we don’t control the rights to Nabokov’s “The Metamorphosis.” That was controlled by an agency in the UK, which after a few additional calls turned out to be a subsidiary of Random House UK.

Ah, silly me, I thought. I’m such a novice. But fortunately I have good, informed people to help me along on my path. I wrote to Random House UK.

They wrote back almost at once, kindly explaining that Vladimir Nabokov had not actually written “The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka did, and it was published in a book called In the Penal Colony in 1910.

I took a closer look at the email from the initial permissions department. They had no idea what they were doing.

I called to explain. Nabokov’s essay on Kafka was about a story called “The Metamorphosis,” and the essay was, in an admittedly confusing vladimir_nabokov1.jpgfashion, also called “‘The Metamorphosis.’” They did in fact, I said, control the rights to the essay.

No, we don’t, they said. There followed a somewhat tense exchange. Nabokov’s essay “The Metamorphosis,” they insisted, had first been published in a book by Franz Kafka called In the Penal Colony in 1910. That was the information they had.

I should have just run with it from there – but I didn’t. Why, I argued, would an essay by a writer two generations further on, an essay about a Kafka story, appear in the same book in which the story was first published? How was that even possible?

There was silence on the other end of the line.

I put the pieces together for them, using my new knowledge of the permissions maze. What seemed most likely was that Nabokov himself had been required to seek permission for the sections he wanted to quote from Kafka. The story was public domain now, but it wasn’t when Nabokov was writing, so the agency that was eventually sold to Random House UK gave permission for the excerpts, not the essay.

We’ll look into it, they said. A few hours later I received a confirmation that they did, in fact, control rights to the essay. I would receive a contract shortly.

Victory! Castle doors open wide! Acquittal in the trial of the century!

In a few days, the contract arrived. For the English language rights in the United States alone, they asked $6,190.00. As well, I’d need to obtain the translation rights for the excerpts Nabokov had originally used.

For a moment, I had what is commonly known as a “hissy fit.” Then I called my agent, Devin McIntyre. I can’t do this, I said. I need to quit. This is insane. Devin did what he always does when I call in a panic, ranting about something. He said nothing. He knew his job was simply to listen. (I assume he was playing computer solitaire.) He was better than a chatty Kafka character, but not by much.

I called Lee Montgomery at Tin House. I begged her for help. She agreed, but reminded me that my agent had sold Tin House the book on the assurance that I would do all the legwork myself. He’d never told me this. (To his credit, he sacrificed his agent’s cut of our advance to the cause of permissions. Never has an agent worked so hard for absolutely nothing.)

About forty-eight hours later I was calm again. That was really just the beginning. I started the process of talking them down to a reasonable price, which took a while. And I still needed both the translation rights (US and UK), and the UK rights for the essay itself, and then there was the whole hassle of the drawings that Nabokov had made of Kafka’s beetle, and of the inside of the Samsa flat. Images in a book are a whole different maze with a new set of Minotaurs.

But it all got done. And there aren’t too many of Nabokov’s words on the page. And it’s reasonably priced. And there is handsome art. And you can use it for a class, or just read it–because it’s great fucking stuff.

And there are thirty other essays in the book, besides.

_________________________________________________________

Courtesy of Tin House and reprinted from their blog.

J.C. Hallman will be reading in New York as part of the InDigest 1207 Reading Series on October 7 at 6pm.

J. C. Hallman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Chess Artist and The Devil is a Gentleman. A collection of his short fiction, The Hospital for Bad Poets, was published by Milkweed Editions earlier this year. His work has appeared in GQ, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He is working on a book about modern expressions of utopian thought.

To read more blog entries from J.C. Hallman and others at GUERNICA click HERE .

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