the value of the poet

Adir Sodré, Lunch on the grass [acrylic on canvas, 162 x 110,5 cm, 1995]
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By FLAVIO R. KOTHE*

The price is the value assigned by the market, that is, the exchange value of the syllable

The federal government suggested the desire to tax books at an additional 12% in taxes, which in recent days has provoked a reaction from publishers, booksellers, printers and writers. The government claims that the poor do not read; those interested say the book needs to be made cheaper so he can read it. Marx lamented that capitalism was then underdeveloped in the publishing area, on which he himself depended.

When I studied in West Berlin and there was still socialism on the other side of the Wall, my classmates used to buy books there, as they were not considered commodities but cultural goods. When Soviet socialism fell, the prices of sheet music, for example, rose sharply (as did the price of beer). Those who did well, however, got higher wages. The system collapsed because it did not know how to set prices according to costs. He was authoritarian in ideologizing prices according to what was considered necessary or luxury.

In a recently republished book, Foundations of literary theory, I asked myself questions like: what is the value of the poet where nothing is given for him? What is the price of that which is priceless, and not esteemed? What is the value of the word in the age of bestseller? Is the value of art proportional to the price? What does it mean for art to be transformed into a commodity? How are works imposed on the public today by schools and advertising? What is the relationship between artistic value and the price of a work?

If the price expresses the value of the average social labor required to produce the commodity, brilliant creation escapes this average. Outside the parameter, it may or may not be recognized in terms of price. If the innovative artist is not recognized because of the paradigm shift, he is left on the sidelines and cannot live off what he produces, as the market does not recognize him. Good works can be lost or not discovered at all, just as lesser works can be valued for non-artistic reasons, such as the convenience of governments, ecclesiastical institutions, political parties.

We have three types of writers: those who have to pay to be read; those who manage to publish without paying or receiving; those who are paid to write. From the first to the last there is a funneling. Professors, journalists, doctors and lawyers are paid for the words they produce. One can calculate the price of each syllable. The price is the value assigned by the market, that is, the exchange value of the syllable. However, not all the good that is generated passes through the market. The fruits and vegetables that I harvest in my backyard for my consumption do not go to the market, but meet needs.

The labor invested in them is considered, even by Marx, as “unproductive work” (because it does not generate profit). Much of what we produce here as literature is unproductive work. It is strange that he uses this terminology, as it seems that nothing is produced and capital is only interested in what will produce more value and hence profit. It is the logic of capital, as it is also to assume that the revolution must occur to increase the productivity of the production forces, changing the current relations instead of thinking about reducing consumption, the number of consumers.

In Brazil, the capitalist system has not yet managed to establish itself well in the publishing and literary area: on the contrary, it coexists with forms that are not exactly capitalist, such as editions that need to be financed with private or public funds, as they are unable to finance themselves. This does not, however, prevent capitalist formations from prevailing, including entrepreneurs who live off the publication of works financed by their authors.

There are associations and public bodies that do not enter the normal book distribution circuit. When the capitalist system works “correctly”, it can (and even needs to do so, in order to have an expansion of the consumer market and, thus, place its production) give a real increase in remuneration to the productive workforce, although not in direct proportion to its productivity, since capital would not fail to be capitalized to the maximum. The digital book is a new path in the market, but the number of free access magazines has also increased.

If poets are not sought after in the market, if there are more poets than poetry buyers, if the public is not willing to buy poetry books, but is willing to watch one telenovela after another, one canned after another , this indicates that “current poets” should look for work where, through more advanced technology, they can reach a larger audience.

“Paper poetry” becomes, as it were, obsolete, an exercise for anachronistic scribes to privately seek to release tensions, which saves them an analyst, or/and allows them to learn a trade, which could be useful in other sectors. Even though freedom of crafts is proclaimed, in practice poets are expelled in advance from the republic of functional illiterates: rare swallows make a version, never a summer.

Even though some may claim to be a demonstration of the social need for poetry, the market belies them: the situation is only not worse because it was never good. Through the canon taught in schools, it is pretended that it is the shelter of great poetry and not an ideological convenience of the oligarchy. The great poets are the most expelled (the Brazilian school system today constitutes an immense Chinese wall against the penetration of the world's great poetry).

They do not have the function of pleasing, but of telling the underlying truths of history and existence. They produce out of irritation, like oysters, and, like oysters, they pay with their lives for the pearls they produce. Pigs do not like pearls: they are hard and indigestible. Valuing the regional author does not guarantee quality, but reinforces the average level.

The law of supply and demand is not enough to explain why certain things are valued more and others less. Advertising manages, to a certain extent, to manipulate what is considered necessary by consumers. A worker being able to be more productive may be due to a more sophisticated machine, whose price must be offset by its profitability: it then “pays for itself”. (And if the “machine” is himself, as happens with the poet, whose value is not directly proportional to the average social work time invested in him, since there is an uncontrollable factor that is the gift?) cheap, it seems not worth the investment in machinery. Human life is worth little, no more than a piece of machinery.

Machines replace people: lower costs, increase productivity and profit rate. More people can be supported, less can find work. With the birth rate reduced, everyone could live better, but there are more and more unused people. The greater the technological advance, the more unemployment grows and the more “culture” serves to entertain the useless, at a lower social cost: it has the same function as alcohol and drugs: regenerating strength and forgetting. On the other hand, the less qualified people are, the more generally they reproduce. Misery multiplies.

The profit rate can also be high with low-selling works, such as deluxe, specialized, and bibliophile editions. Within the preponderant law, the quantity of sale validates the “artistic quality”, it even creates the star system, in which best-selling writers and artists are also the most interviewed, commented on, publicized. A vicious circle can be generated, in which the subject is big because he appears, and he appears because it was convenient to consider him big.

Not all bestseller is the best writing, even if none is badly written, but there are well-written works that don't make the list of best sellers (because too good for the mass of consumers). The bestseller list tends not to be a bestseller list. There have already been editorial efforts to publish works of the best quality, if necessary in a good translation, which have not resulted in sales success. What sells is the book adopted in schools, and schools don't adopt the best books. At most they adopt short and simplistic versions of good works.

Outside the scope of books that enter the market to be sold, there is also an extensive and diversified production of works sponsored by the authors or by funding bodies. It is customary to make a launch, in which only a few dozen copies are sold, as a financial help to the author. The custom of publishing works by subscription disappeared, that is, with the advance sale of copies. There is a system of mutual praise, in which all are said to be exceptional authors, without defects. The book is only a commodity there in the relationship between the publisher and the author and in the resale of some copies, but it does not usually enter the sales system of bookstores and used bookstores.

The work paid for by the author may deal with details of the story, but it does not generally come across as something of broad value that is only written because there is nothing equivalent to be read. These personal testimonials can be very interesting, but they don't enter the book market. At universities, professors and graduate students are forced to publish, where quantity matters more than quality. This, incidentally, does not count: it only counts what can be counted, numbered, quantified. Amounts of pages equal each other, as if they were equivalent. What is best becomes bad for the author.

Among major publishers focused on best sellers and publishers that function as graphics, an alternative may emerge. The reduction of computer costs, graphics programs, printers and virtual libraries can lead to smaller editions, without higher storage costs, a system of print on demand and digital book that allows publishing good works as something viable in commercial terms. The works can be sold all over the world. The Portuguese language is one of the languages ​​with the most potential readers. There may thus be a positive synthesis between the publisher's aspiration to publish good works and this being commercially viable.

The beautiful, the good and the true are not democratic in themselves. The list of “best sellers of the week” stems from a relationship between the thematic choice, the narrative structure, the mentality and the semantic gesture of works that correspond to the average taste and the somewhat narrow mind of the average public. There is the empire of averageness, but which dares to propose the new. The list of best sellers it tends to be a list of books not really worth reading, which complements the standard school canon. Contrary to the belief that “what is good always appears”, one can caricature saying: “what is good, does not appear; what appears is not good; as the excellent has no price, nothing is paid for it”.

* Flavio R. Kothe Master, Doctor and Lieutenant in Literary Theory, Full Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Brasilia.

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