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The Rattle of Pebbles


Trade book publishing is by nature a cottage industry, decentralized, improvisational, personal; best performed by small groups of like-minded people, devoted to their craft, jealous of their autonomy, sensitive to the needs of writers and to the diverse interests of readers. If money were their primary goal these people would probably have chosen other careers. They might, for example, have become literary agents, many of whom have prospered as authors’ royalty guarantees have risen sharply in today’s highly competitive market for saleable talent. But most publishers and editors I have known prefer to think of themselves, as I do, as devotees of a craft whose reward is the work itself and not its cash value.

Today the book business stands at the edge of a vast transformation, one that promises much opportunity for innovation: much trial, much error, and much improvement. Long before another half-century passes, the industry as I have known it for the past fifty years will have been altered almost beyond recognition. In the 1920s a brilliant generation of young American publishers fell heir to the cultural transformation that became known as modernism and nurtured it with taste, energy, and passion. As Einstein’s generation introduced once and for all the themes of modern physics and as CĂŠzanne, Picasso, and their contemporaries had done the same for painting, the writers of the early twentieth century had cre-ated once and for all the vocabulary and themes of modern literature. Much elaboration would follow, but the fundamental work had been done and could not be done again. My career in publishing has traced the long, downward, but by no means barren slope from that Parnassian moment.

The cultural flowering of the 1920s was an act of liberation—or so it seemed at the time to its makers—from a culture whose moral, aesthetic, and intellectual failings had become intolerable. The transformation that awaits writers and publishers today is much different and will have far greater consequences. It arises not from cultural despair and aesthetic rebellion but from new technologies whose cultural influence promises to be no less revolutionary than the introduction of movable type, a vec-tor of civilization which these new technologies, after half a millennium, have unceremoniously replaced in the last dozen years. The implications of this epochal event have been noticed only in passing, as those of Gutenberg’s innovation were unforeseen by its own contemporaries.

Twenty years ago when my children and their friends came of age I advised them to shun the publishing business, which seemed to me then in a state of terminal decrepitude if not extinction. Today I would offer young people to whom books are precious the opposite advice. The transformation that awaits them foreshadows cultural ramifications that can hardly be imagined but that promise a lifetime of creative adventure as intoxicating in its much different way as what awaited the generation of Horace Liveright, Alfred Knopf, and Bennett Cerf eighty years ago when Joyce and Hemingway and Eliot and their peers emerged from the muck of the World War and the terrible innocence that spawned it.

Here I want to describe the early stages of these technologies as I understand them. But I cannot do so without discussing the increasingly distressed industry in which I have worked for the past half-century. During this time book publishing has deviated from its true nature by assuming, under duress from unfavorable market conditions and the misconceptions of remote managers, the posture of a conventional business. This has led to many difficulties, for book publishing is not a conventional business. It more closely resembles a vocation or an amateur sport in which the primary goal is the activity itself, not its financial outcome. For owners and editors willing to work for the joy of the task, book pub-lishing in my time has been immensely rewarding. For investors looking for conventional returns it has been disappointing.

Random House when I joined it in 1958 was even then the leading American publisher of general-interest books, but its internal telephone directory, listing its hundred or so employees, didn’t fill a sheet the size of a postal card. For us in those days Random House was an unusually happy second family whose daytime home fit comfortably within the north wing of the old Villard mansion at Madison and 50th Street, with its black-and-white marble lobby, its unreliable elevator, and its courtyard, where we were entitled to six precious parking spaces: the other twelve belonged to the archdiocese of New York, which occupied the mansion’s central and southern sections. My office, with dark green walls, worn parquet floors, and a Juliet balcony overlooking the courtyard, had been a bedroom, and from time to time I came to work and found a wayward author who had spent the night there, not always alone. These offices were a second home for writers as well as for ourselves. Mrs. Debanzie, our Scottish receptionist, usually sent them upstairs to see us unannounced: W.H. Auden in torn overcoat and carpet slippers delivering the manuscript of The Dyer’s Hand; Ted Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, arriving with his story boards to recite Green Eggs and Ham to us in Bennett Cerf’s large, square office at the end of the hall; Cardinal Spellman submitting his poetry, which we published as a neighborly act and to forestall controversy with the monsignors over our parking spaces.

In my memory I associate our authors with particular parts of the building: Terry Southern sitting on a wooden table in the basement mail room next to the postage machine cackling in his exaggerated Texas drawl over scenes he was writing for Dr. Strangelove; Andy Warhol outside my office at the head of the once grand but now battered marble staircase, bowing slightly and addressing me in a deferential whisper as Mr. Epstein, as if I were a patriarch and not someone in a torn sweater and corduroy trousers hardly older than he was; John O’Hara, wearing a three-piece suit showing off his Rolls Royce in the courtyard on a sunny day; Ralph Ellison in my office, smoking a cigar and explaining with his hands how Thelonious Monk developed his chords.

Though our authors relied upon their agents to negotiate their contracts with us, for many of them Random House was their family as much as it was ours. Today most publishing imprints have dissolved within their vast media conglomerates and many authors now depend on their agents as they once did upon their publishers for general sustenance. But forty years ago agents were mere peripheral necessities, like dentists, consulted as needed, not the dominant figures in the lives of authors that many of them have since become. In the Villard mansion editors almost never held meetings but exchanged news and gossip or asked for advice when they felt like it, often from authors who happened to be in the building. In many cases, these authors became our lifelong friends. But at Random House, unlike Simon and Schuster, a much more intimate family in those days, the editors’ private lives seldom intersected and we rarely met outside the office. Most of our friendships were with our authors and we jealously reserved these valuable intimacies for ourselves. A regular army lives in a barracks. Guerrilla armies live amid the people who sustain them and for whom they fight. So do book publishers.

Today the central section of the Villard mansion is the entrance to the Palace Hotel. The southern wing houses a fashionable restaurant. From its entrance you can look up and see my former balcony. By 1972 Random House had acquired Alfred A. Knopf, was acquired in turn by RCA, and outgrew the mansion. That spring we moved into a nondescript glass building on Third Avenue. I recall the day joylessly. We were losing more than our parking spaces. We were losing our individuality, I felt, and gaining nothing in return. Though I have been responsible for several innovations in the publishing business, I see now that each of them was intended to recapture the fleeting past. I am skeptical of progress. My instincts are archaeological. I favor the god Janus, who faces backward and forward at once. Without a vivid link to the past, the present is chaos and the future unreadable. In our culture books form such a link, perhaps the main link. How, I wondered, would the delicate process by which an author’s work becomes a pub-lished book be affected by our new situation?

It was with such thoughts that I joined the migration to our new home three blocks to the east. In these new quarters with their carpeted offices we still operated independently of RCA, at least in theory, but a cottage industry within an industrial conglomerate makes no sense. The dissonance between the pretense that we were now an ordinary business and the true nature of our work made me fretful. Only in retrospect did I see that our removal was part of a much larger transformation, affecting far more than the book publishing business and our small, elegant, amiable firm.

In the 1950s book publishing was still the small-scale, highly personal industry it had been since the 1920s, when a remarkable generation of young men, and a few women, most of them Jews who were not welcome in the old-line houses, broke with their genteel predecessors and risked their personal fortunes and the disapproval of their elders by aggressively promoting the literature and ideas of modernism. Like the Manhattan gallery owners of the 1960s, they came of age during a cultural revolution and brilliantly exploited it. But when I encountered them in the 1950s these publishers seemed to me anything but revolutionary. Like the avant-garde writers they championed in the Twenties, they were now an establishment and carried their years with dignity. I remember them in tweed caps, wrapped in blankets on the first-class decks of ocean liners; or strolling along Fifth Avenue on Sunday mornings in their topcoats and hats from Locke; or in Hunterdon County in autumn with Faulkner down for the weekend. They lunched at “21” and dined at Chambord and the Colony.

After a Sunday lunch at the Knopfs in Purchase, the shades were drawn and home movies shown of Alfred and Thomas Mann in lawn chairs beside Lake Constance, flickering like automata as they moved their arms in conversation. We stayed for a second silent film showing Mann lecturing, presumably on the moral collapse of German Romanticism, for he had drawn a vertical line on a blackboard and on one side had written beauty, disease, genius, and death and on the other life and morality. Alfred Knopf might wear dark shirts and a Cossack mustache but he, even more than his staid counterparts, represented the sobriety, the unassailable dignity of his mighty generation in middle age.

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