by Pat Holt
Tuesday, October 24, 2000
The Relevance of that 'Midlist Report'ON THE VISUAL SIDE OF LITERATURE
SNIPING AT ANDRE SCHIFFRIN - Part 1
Very few times in the last 20 years have I found it necessary to validate the existence of a book or its author before writing a review.
But recent potshots at publisher Andre Schiffrin seem to necessitate an introduction to a critical treatment of Schiffrin's book, "The Business of Books" (Verso; 181 pages; $23; buy online at Cody's Books, where I interviewed Schiffrin - see part 2 - at www.codysbooks.com ).
For example, it's difficult to understand why email columnist (Publishers Lunch) Michael Cader, an astute observer of the book publishing scene who is usually respectful toward book biz movers and shakers, fell into the anti-Schiffrin trap by commenting not on the book but on Schiffrin's remarks in a "dialog" at FEED magazine.
Schiffrin is the former director of Pantheon Books, which he ran for nearly 30 years before being forced out by Alberto Vitale, the axman employed by (Random House owner) Si Newhouse. Schiffrin went on to establish a new nonprofit publishing model, The New Press, in 1990.
Cader sums up Schiffrin's remarks in Feed as follows: "Big corporations are ruining cultural life/things ain't the way they were in my day sonny and boy are you all going to be sorry."
The next day Cader again took a shot at Schiffrin under the headline "Windbag over Washington" (he could have meant Washington Post writer Linton Weeks, whose comments toward Schiffrin in the Washington Post were at least more fair-minded than those quoted by Cader, but I think it's clear that Cader sees Schiffrin as the "windbag" in question).
The Relevance of that 'Midlist Report'
I was astounded by this sniping, perhaps most of all because I had just finished reading the Authors Guild's report on the state of midlist books -- "midlist" meaning serious books by unknown or at least noncelebrity authors -- in U.S. book publishing today. To me, if it weren't for Schiffrin's book, this otherwise impressive and important research, compiled for the Authors Guild by David Kirkpatrick, would be misleading at best and irresponsible at worst about the way publishers have regarded midlist books for over a century.
It's a great report in the sense that here is precise evidence showing how and why chain bookstores have ravaged the book trade with their obsession with money and power, leaving midlist books virtually abandoned.
However, Kirkpatrick places ALL the blame for the fall of the midlist on the chains, stating that mainstream publishers "haven't substantially cut back on publishing midlist titles" - indeed, he even contends that "midlist title output over the years has grown, not shrunk."
I found these statements baffling, to put it mildly, having spent most of 16 years as book editor of The San Francisco Chronicle roaming around our crammed Book Review office looking for serious and literary books to review - the very midlist titles Kirkpatrick says have been flourishing.
To me, an invisible but steady "thinning of literature" was taking place at the same time that New York publishing was being overtaken by mergers that reduced the number of publishing houses from about 50 (when I started in 1969) to seven major conglomerates and a few independents.
The subsequent bent for commercialism was crippling the midlist, I felt. Where were the well-written biographies (not just of British royalty and American presidents/First Ladies!), history (not just of World War Two!), serious novels (not just Jean Auel!) (tiny joke), works in translation, collections of essays, literary poetry and wide-ranging science books?
The otherwise fastidious Kirkpatrick says he "counted the total number of midlist books in sample catalogs over a 30-year period," and that he excluded celebrity bios, genre fiction, how-to/self help/spiritual/humor books and other gifty lightweights. So far so good.
He was searching for, and found, he says, scholarly works, literary novels, works of theology and science, serious biographies and so forth. Also good.
So relax, he concludes - "trade publishing is no less serious today than it used to be." Well, that is certainly the opposite of my experience.
Having counted midlist books in many of the same catalogs for two decades, I couldn't figure where Kirkpatrick and I differed. He didn't seem to have lowered his standard for midlist books, sometimes going back as far as the '50s for examples, so it wasn't a case of considering, say, "The Drinking Man's Diet" as a contribution to the field of nutrition.
Sonny Boy Steps In
So not until reading the early pages of Schiffrin's book did I realize that both Kirkpatrick and I had missed an entire world of literary thought and assumption.
Schiffrin takes us back to the last century and early 1900s where we can see plainly that intellectual books, very much in the midlist, "inspired social movements," many selling into the millions. He explains that "the most widely read books were highly critical of the ethos of their time" in the 1920s and '30s, and how his father, fleeing certain death as an intellectual Jew in France in 1941, helped found Pantheon (with Kurt and Helen Wolff) as "a small exile publishing house" whose ideal was to bring "good reading for the few and for the millions."
He shows how much Americans in their often-daunting isolationism needed to be educated as to the value of translated works - how the thick and difficult (to us) 2-volume work by Hermann Broch, "The Death of Virgil," sold out immediately in Germany but took 20 years to sell even 1,500 copies in the English-speaking world.
Often these books were to become classic literary works, and it seemed the proper place of a publishing house was to stick with them despite initial disinterest or intimidating controversy. For example, "the anti-German hostility of the war years" resulted in harsh criticism of Pantheon's first complete translation of the Grimm fairy tales.
And he talks about the unexpected Pantheon bestsellers that mushroomed out of esoteric preoccupations of its editors - how midlist titles reflecting the Wolffs' interest in Eastern religions ("Zen and the Art of Archery" and the first complete translation of the "I Ching") surprised everyone by selling millions; how books by Andre Gide (in French), Andre Malraux, Paul Valery, Anne Morrow Lindberg, Giuseppe di Lampedusa (his classic novel, "The Leopard"), Boris Pasternak and others both distinguished and financed the early Pantheon, often to the surprise of its founders.
There's Even a Little Humor
Schiffrin has been accused of writing a "polemic," as though he is incapable of humor or texture in remembering such events as his father's first meeting with philanthropist Mary Mellon. One can imagine how much the "impressive but clearly impoverished European intellectuals" who ran Pantheon must have anticipated Mellon's visit. Having been psychoanalyzed by C. G. Jung, Mary Mellon wanted to pay homage to Jung by financing an entire series of books (that would become the prestigious Bollingen imprint), and she had the millions to do so.
"A family legend tells of Mary's first visit to my father's small office over-looking Washington Square," Schiffrin writes. "He was signing a letter and briefly looked up to say, 'Please have a seat.' After he kept her waiting for a few minutes longer, presumably on purpose, Mary cleared her throat and said, 'Perhaps you don't realize who I am. I'm Mary Mellon.' Whereupon my father answered, 'Oh, I'm terribly sorry; please take two seats.' "
That gruff treatment of a potential benefactor says as much about the unnecessary risks taken by his curmudgeonly father as it does about the elitism of New York philanthropists, which goes to show that Schiffrin is not above viewing his family story through a critical lens.
Pantheon's Second Generation
But later, after Schiffrin's father died and Schiffrin had put in an apprenticeship (working with E.L. Doctorow and Marc Jaffe) at the paperback house of New American Library - itself a place of surprising intellectual fervor that reprinted books by authors ranging from Zane Grey to William Faulkner in equally lurid covers - the "second generation" of Pantheon, sold to Random House in 1961, becomes even more enthralling.
Here despite the censorious environment of the McCarthy era (which, Schiffrin reminds us, was intended to cripple New Deal thinking from the Roosevelt era as well as to exploit fears of communism in the aftermath of WWII), Schiffrin at the tender age of 26 asked for and was given authority to acquire books independently.
And here come the biggies: "The Tin Drum" by Gunter Grass, who would be the first of many Pantheon authors to receive the Nobel Prize; early Zen proponent Alan Watts; independent movement-inspiring columnist I.F. Stone; E.P. Thompson's "The Making of the English Working Class;" Marxist historian Eugene Genovese; F.R. Levis' controversial attack on C. P. Snow; Ronald Fraser's classic history of Britain during WWII; psychoanalyst Ronald Laing; early British feminists Juliet Mitchell, Ann Oakley and Sheila Rowbotham.
And that's just for starters. Schiffrin discovered Michel Foucault for American audiences; published the early works of Margurite Duras, and later titles by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He also published Gunnar and Alva Myrdal (separate Nobel winners); the Martin Beck mysteries by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall; early film scripts by the unknown-in-America film director Ingmar Bergman.
Pantheon also published Noam Chomsky, Saul Landau, Studs Terkel ("Division Street" was Schiffrin's idea) and James MacPherson. A Pantheon high school textbook of Mississippi history that "countered the existing overtly racist texts" (including those assigned by the state that "dealt with the origins of the Ku Klux Klan in a positive fashion") and that became the subject of a controversial Supreme Court case.
And more: Pantheon published William Ryan's "devastating critique" of Daniel Moynihan's then-popular book on race and family" (the Ryan book sold a half a million copies); Ralph Nader's corporate critique, "The Big Boys"; Latin American writers Julio Cortazar and Eduardo Galeano; Chilean leader Salvador Allende and ambassador to the U.S., Orlando Letelier, both later assassinated; foreign policy expert George Kennan; Senator William Fulbright, even Robert McNamara (the first of what proved to be a series of books analyzing U.S. mistakes in the Vietnam war; and historian John Dower, who would go on (under Schiffrin's present company, The New Press) to write "Embracing Defeat," which won the 1999 Bancroft Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
The Midlist Beyond Pantheon
It's important to note that while Pantheon aggressively went after serious midlist books, Schiffrin insists that other publishers were publishing equally distinguished authors. He mentions Simon & Schuster (Bertrand Russell, J. Robert Oppenheimer, William Shirer), McGraw-Hill (Vladimir Nobakov), Harper (Robert Heilbroner, W. W. Rostow, Kenneth Clark), Random House (John Strachey, W.H. Auden, Wylie Sypher) and many others.
These "intellectually important books" so filled the pages of the New York Times Book Review that "if we look back into America's past, it's surprising to see how much healthier book publishing used to be," Schiffrin writes.
"In the 1940s, for example, an average issue of the New York Times Book Review was 64 pages long, twice the length of the current Sunday section. Hundreds of publishing houses had books reviewed and advertised in those pages."
Hundreds of mainstream publishing houses? What a far cry from the "five major conglomerates [that] control 80 percent of American book sales" today, but more about that in Part 2.
Meanwhile, it's not that our standards for midlist books have been lowered but rather that the conversation has changed. "We have lost much of our curiosity" about the world outside our own, Schiffrin notes - and this is the "curiosity that once provided raw material for a great many important books."
What has replaced this curiosity? Schiffin points to a loss of belief in the idea of publishing "for the few, and for the millions" of readers who are intelligent and curious enough to want challenging intellectual books; a "neoconservative movement" following the McCarthy period and culminating in the paralytic effect on culture in general; and of course, Schiffrin's big bugaboo, corporate takeovers of independent houses that have stopped otherwise conscientious editors from seeking "the very best books they can find" to answering to stockholders who believe that commercialism yields the highest profits (Schiffrin proves this isn't true).
What has replaced the belief in serious midlist publishing, says Schiffrin, is not only the substitution of marketing procedures for editorial values; it's also a "belief in the market" above all - "faith in its ability to conquer everything, a willingness to surrender all other values to it - and even the belief that it represents a sort of consumer democracy."
I think if Andre Schiffrin had done nothing more than define the midlist as it once existed - if only so that we can compare it to what we mean by the midlist today - he would have contributed mightily to straightening out this key little blip in the historical record.
He makes it clear that the different definitions we may use for the word "midlist" are the result of profound cultural upheavals that were so gradual and invisible we perhaps couldn't see them until now.
More about Schiffrin's forced departure from Pantheon and his next venture, The New Press, in my interview with him in Part 2.
ON THE VISUAL SIDE OF LITERATURE
Don't you think it's fascinating that Hollywood is characterizing American presidents who are wise, articulate, erudite and - well, presidential?
I got to thinking about this during the thoroughly enjoyable political thriller "The Contender," in which the president (Jeff Bridges) is such a magnificent leader that he learns a lesson in political greatness from his embattled vice presidential nominee (Joan Allen).
On television, every Wednesday, Martin Sheen gives audiences a lesson in the snarly brilliance of political power when a president is unafraid to speak knowlegeably and with sophistication, in "The West Wing."
The creator of this series, Aaron Sorkin, also conceived the tough-minded and humane president (Michael Douglas) who falls in love with the no-nonsense environmental lobbyist (Annette Benning) in "The American President" some years back. He, too, has that erudite bearing that reminds us how a born leader, comfortable with power and history, might talk and think.
Perhaps it was bound to happen that after decades of mediocrity and squalid scandal in the real-life White House, somebody was going to come up with a populist version of presidential leadership that's unashamedly idealistic and romantic.
But it's the timing that's so intriguing. Just when Hollywood has been roundly castigated for showing us the worst in brutal violence, cruel humor and woman-hating sex, the same industry is challenging us to seek a higher standard when we look for presidential material, especially during an election year.
After all, some of the best scenes occur when the president and his advisors consider mundane policy matters and show us how the principles of a republic can be applied to daily life. In "The Contender," for example, Joan Allen's very plain remarks to the Senate committee about what she stands for are refreshing and memorable, even in a movie acclaimed for its many surprising plot twists.
Similarly, it's often just the language of deeply knowlegeable policy wonks in "The West Wing" that demonstrates how steeped we have become in the kind of namby-pamby, poll-conscious, noncommittal speeches of real-life White House folk that take the guts right out of the American Constitution.
Anyway, it occurred to me that all this is a tribute to the messy way democracy works. As much as I hate the (to me) obscene way TV and movies pander to the lowest tastes, it appears that the lowest of the low often prepares the way for the highest of the high.
At some point, if we just let people express themselves however they are going to, culture is going to seek that higher elevation.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Since you noted all the letters of concern you received about ABA (American Booksellers Association) dues increase, I thought you ought to know that not every letter has expressed concern. Mine is not the only one, but it is representative:
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.