Legendary book editor and publisher Andre Schiffrin died last weekend at the age of 78. Years ago, I read his memoir/broadside The Business of Books. Here's Schiffrin describing the scene at Random House in the early 1960s, after Random House acquired Pantheon Books, a literary publisher his father had helped to build:
I arrived at the Pantheon offices with a great deal of anticipation. These were housed in the triangular skyscraper known as the Little Flatiron Building at Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue. My father's office used to be at the prow of the ship-like edifice and had been kept empty in his homage for many years after his death. The building was shabby, and most of it was occupied by manufacturers, including the premises of an accordion maker and various garment firms. But it was also the site of a number of the country's most interesting publishing houses: New Directions, Pellegrini, and Cuddahy shared our floor, as did the left-wing journal the 'Nation' and the Marxist 'Monthly Review'.
Since the Wolffs' departure, the firm was bring run by the people who had previously been in charge of production and sales -- well-intentioned and agreeable men who, however, lacked the editorial skills necessary to maintain the level of books for which the list had become known and that Random expected it to continue publishing …
It strikes me now as an extraordinary display of confidence, as well as an indication of how comfortable the Random bosses were in their own roles, that never once was I prevented from taking on any of the many initially unprofitable titles that we published. The closest I remember getting to being reproached was an ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow when I confessed to Donald [Klopfer] that I had not yet read the new Mary Renault. (Her historical novels were among the most profitable books we had inherited from the old Pantheon but very far from my own interest.)
As a result of this ideal situation, we were able to spend our time looking for the books that seemed to us to matter the most. We were not so naive as to fail to realize that an occasional best-seller would help, and we spent a great deal of our time on the few promising titles that had been left to us. Thanks to the Wolffs, we were able, in our first year, to publish 'The Tin Drum' by Gunter Grass, an author who would be awarded the Nobel nearly forty years later. When we presented the book to our sales people, Bennett [Cerf], who had read the manuscript, was concerned by some of the sexual episodes it contained and expressed his doubts. (Amusingly enough, he did so after asking the only woman in the room to absent herself, lest she be embarrassed by the discussion that was to follow -- an indication of the puritanism of those in publishing at the time.) We persuaded Bennett without much difficulty that the manuscript should retain intact …
Nineteen Sixty-Two, the year we started, was not an opportune one for thoughtful, inventive publishing. Even though the McCarthy era had finally ended in 1954, the effects of the years of purging were still powerful. American intellectual life was devastated in this period.
… In my first months at Pantheon, I suggested publishing the work of I. F. Stone, the left-wing journalist who was one of the few to speak out against the folly of the McCarthy period. In later years Stone was recognized as a major influence on American journalism, the mentor to a generation of writers and critics. But when I presented Stone's book, the people at Pantheon who had hired me responded by looking uncomfortable and making excuses about why we could never take on anything so controversial.
Ahh, the joys of the publishing memoir! The classic texts are by Andre Schiffrin, Michael Korda, Bob Epstein -- and the pleasures are always found in the details of the literary discoveries, the tales of the tough cases worth going to bat for, the descriptions of the often shabby and unremarkable physical spaces in which major editorial decisions are made. (Note: after first reading this book years ago and then skimming it again to select a passage to quote here, I was still under the mistaken impression that Schiffrin's Pantheon office was in the Flatiron Building. It was only when I slowed down my reading enough to type in the above passage that I realized it was in plain print that the building was not the Flatiron Building but rather the so-called Little Flatiron Building at the intersection of Fourth Street, Sixth Avenue and Cornelia Street. Yes, it's all about the details, and yes, I am a terrible reader.)
When a legendary editor dies, it's tempting to bemoan the current state of the literature business and declare that the era of greatness is now completely over and dead. But I happened to have just begun reading a new editorial memoir called My Mistake by Daniel Menaker when I heard the news about Andre Schiffrin.
Daniel Menaker began his long career as a fact-checker and then copy editor at the New Yorker, and eventually became editor-in-chief at Random House, now a much different company than the one Andre Schiffrin now. His voice is more intimate and less angry than Schiffrin's, which might reveal something about the literary evolution of the memoir, but more likely simply reflects the different personalities of the two editors. His observations are artful and pithy:
Centrello takes me to lunch and let's me know that she would like me to step aside as Editor in Chief. Why? Numbers, evidently. Prizes -- lack thereof. My high salary. It comes back to me that Harry Evans, when he hired me, said "You have five years to fook oop," and I have barely finished four years.
Here, he's having a "typical" phone conversation with an agent about a new book by an author with a middling track record:
ME: How many copies did it sell last year?
AGENT: Fifteen thousand.
ME: Fifteen thousand as in twelve thousand five hundred?
AGENT: Yeah, about that. Twelve thousand five hundred.
ME: Twelve thousand five hundred as in eleven?
AGENT: Twelve-five as in twelve.
ME: So it sold about eleven-five?
Or, he steps back with a quick realization:
I sometimes think that many books at all houses are more nearly privished than published.
Why do so few editors ever publish their memoirs? (It's a good bet that many editorial memoirs have been written but never published, because this is a business that thrives on confidentiality.) Menaker was apparently inspired by a bout with cancer. A few other ghosts from his past show up in his book, along with cameos by Steven Pinker, George Saunders, Pauline Kael, Roger Angell, Alice Munro. These names don't quite compare to the impressive names in Andre Schiffrin's memoir -- Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras, Eduardo Galeano, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, James McPherson -- but perhaps time will smooth out the difference. It's the same world of book publishing, a world still totally alive, and the editor's side of the story is a side we don't get to enjoy often enough.