Zeno’s Conscience & The Vindication of Self-Publishing

Self-publishing, although increasingly easy to do with the conveniences furnished by the twenty-first century, still remains, by and large, looked down upon by the literary powers that be. And yet, so many fantastic works have been put forth into the world in this manner. From Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past to James Joyce’s Ulysses, the masterworks that have been birthed thanks to the sheer tenacity of these famed authors might never have entered into existence without the so-called gall of self-publishing. Also among this list is Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, published in 1923.

Cover of Zeno's Conscience

Cover of Zeno’s Conscience

The semi-unreliable tale of a man driven to record his every thought and memory as a result of adhering to his psychoanalyst’s advice, Zeno’s Conscience is the type of novel that very few publishers at that time (and even now) would have an interest in printing. The reason being, of course, that the neurosis of a veritable madman (though he’s no madder than the average person subjected to the woes of everyday life) is not what most publishers would deem “marketable.”

Italian cover of Zeno's Conscience

Italian cover of Zeno’s Conscience

With a preface from Zeno’s doctor that states, “I am the doctor occasionally mentioned in this story, in unflattering terms. Anyone familiar with psychoanalysis knows how to assess the patient’s obvious hostility toward me,” we are uncertain of who to trust in this novel. The doctor’s immediate undercutting of our narrator makes it clear that he is only releasing this work to the public for the purpose of vengeance (Zeno refused to continue going to his sessions, after all)–yet it’s still obvious that Zeno is not totally objective. At this time in the twentieth century, such literary irreverence was not a pervasive trend. People instead preferred the social intrigue and sensationalism of authors like Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Italo Svevo

Italo Svevo

The overarching theme of the novel centers around the notion that there is no one better at deceiving oneself than his own mind (which is kind of what it takes to be able to self-publish with any amount of confidence). So able are we to convince ourselves of the reality we want to see that we rarely seem to know anything that’s truly real from a neutral and unbiased standpoint. While, at the time of the book’s publication, psychology was still in its infancy, Svevo brought the tenets of the field to the forefront–particularly in Italy, where psychology is still often balked at. And yet, had he chosen to accept the defeat of rejection and not publish the work with his own money (a gamble that paid off when considering his legacy and the ranking of the work on most Greatest Books of All-Time lists), we would never have glimpsed the inner-workings of Zeno. Of course, not every self-published book is a gem–Fifty Shades of Grey being a case in point–but it is comforting to know that even some of the most profound novels ever created suffered through some of the same misjudgment and rejection as yours.

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2 Comments

  1. I’ll have to check it out. Sounds promising.

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  2. Some still look down upon self-publishing, but those views are completely misguided. As you mentioned, there are tons of fantastic literary works that have been published through the self-publishing method.

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