Making Books

Sunday, December 21, 2008

On a gloomy, rain-soaked afternoon two weeks ago, a memorial service for legendary editor Robert Giroux was held in an elegant Italianate chapel on the campus of New York's Columbia University. Fewer than 50 people, almost all of whom were associated with his former employer, sat in chairs listening as colleagues read passages from some of the writers associated with Giroux's long and brilliant career, first at Harcourt and then, starting in the mid-1950s, at a recently founded house that came to bear his name, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG).

Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Bishop, Walker Percy and Bernard Malamud are stars among a large galaxy of authors now regarded as standards of modern literature. Giroux discovered and published each of them (although he famously lost the opportunity to publish On the Road when Jack Kerouac rejected Giroux's suggestion to present the book in sequential pages rather than on a single roll of paper, like the one Kerouac thrust into his hands).

It was Giroux's pursuit of a first novel by an unknown writer that caused him to finally break with Harcourt, where he spent too much time fighting the crass encroachments of its more important textbook department: The house's owners didn't understand J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and felt that publishing it would harm Harcourt's reputation as a leading source of schoolbooks, and so Giroux was denied its acquisition. The loss was deep and bitter enough that 50 years later, speaking at a short story festival in New York City, Giroux took a few minutes to lambaste Harcourt, acidly ridiculing the publisher for its dull devotion to profits, its sour unimaginativeness and its general inability to recognize or appreciate literary quality.

Later, on that same rainy afternoon of Mr. Giroux's memorial service and farther downtown, Rebecca Saletan, the most recent and perhaps final publisher of the perennially ill-starred Harcourt, packed up and left her office and job. Saletan, a highly popular and greatly respected editor who had come to Harcourt from FSG four years earlier, brought to its list a smart, delightfully accessible kind of nonfiction, ranging from books about food to the Middle East to politics, that Harcourt had lacked in recent years (although she also edited acclaimed fiction writers such as Ivan Doig and Dean Bakopoulis). In a move that had all of literary New York buzzing, Saletan's astonishing departure, said to have been an act of protest against the house's recent announcement that it would not seek to acquire new books in the foreseeable future, was interpreted by the Manhattan lunch crowd to be a further result of the damage, public and private, sustained by last year's violent merger of Harcourt with another house of unimpeachable literary quality, the ancient Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin.

The merger had loosed a relentless and distressing drip of whisperings, rumors and actual firings. And only days after Saletan's resignation, another round of firings left the now supposedly expanded house even more isolated and weakened. The sweep of the scythe included the dismissal of an older editor, Drenka Willen, one of the most distinguished and venerated in the business. Willen had enriched Harcourt with no fewer than four Nobel laureates (Octavio Paz, Wislawa Szymborska, Jose Saramago and Gunter Grass) and some of the most distinguished international writers alive, including, among many others, Umberto Eco, Margaret Drabble and A.B. Yehoshua. The book industry now wondered if the house could survive the battle of perception, so vital in an increasingly small and squeezed literary community, let alone make its numbers in an unprecedentedly tough retail climate. Scrambling its way out of this mess, HMH is reportedly now trying to bring Willen back in another capacity.

Meanwhile, across town, both Simon & Schuster and the Bertelsmann empire, which includes Random House, Knopf, Bantam and Doubleday, implemented their own staff restructurings and reductions, with the prospect of many more to come. Among other events on what is now referred to in the industry as "Black Wednesday," it was announced that Doubleday, one of America's oldest publishers and one that achieved the name recognition so beloved of marketers, was to be absorbed by Knopf. What this means is yet to be seen, but based on the increasingly rocky trajectory of publishing in this country, the industry's rattled employees would do well to take cover under their desks, like 1950s schoolchildren anticipating an onslaught of Soviet bombs. At least they would feel they were doing something.

At Giroux's memorial service, a much younger editorial colleague noted that it would be tempting to draw an analogy between the death of this great publishing soul, one of the few genuine titans of the business, and the death of publishing itself. Tempting but wrong. He pointed out that the kind of editorial work for which Giroux is venerated -- the endless, selfless, exhausting interaction between editor and writer, intended to get the best possible book into the hands of a reader and not arrogate fame to the editor -- was rare even back then, in what we nostalgically recall as the golden age of the business.

With book sales in a general free fall, bookstores -- large and small -- closing around the country, and library and school budgets slashed, the publishing industry is now feeling the same pain as the rest of the economy. Small presses and university presses are not exempt from the squeeze; in the end, it comes down to income and profit, and as consumers find themselves short of cash, publishers are discovering the hard way that the fat years are over. It can't be business as usual. The business as it has been run since Kerouac poured his novel onto a massive roll of paper stopped making financial sense long ago. Change is here to stay, even if we don't yet know what those changes will be.

One thing is sure: One way or another, whether printed on paper or seen on an electronic screen, good books -- great books -- will continue to find their way to readers. Good writers -- great writers -- will continue to surface, with the help of the Drenka Willens and Rebecca Saletans of a different book world. FSG, in part thanks to Giroux's decades of dogged, tireless struggle to promote the writers in whom he believed, survives and even, one can say, seems to flourish, along with other houses of greater or lesser distinction -- although laudatory reviews and flashy book prizes often add up to little more than a literary Potemkin Village.

Yet I can't help thinking that as this year gasps its way to its merciful end, something terribly sad is happening, that a vague, general shift in the cultural landscape will alter how or what we read in some still indefinable way; that a quirky, creaky, financially insupportable business that in spite of itself produces that most desirable and perfect of objects -- the book -- is perishing, and that we are yet to fully feel the loss.

I think of the final lines of Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux Arts," in which Brueghel's painting depicts the strange banality of the death of Icarus, who plunges to his death while around him the world goes about its business, paying no attention:

. . . the ploughman may

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