Writers and politicans have traditionally traveled to the heart of a matter by very different routes. But a few of them did make a brave attempt at finding an intersection yesterday when Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) asked for their observations on the problems of the publishing business.
Barbara Tuchman and E. L. Doctorow were two of the 10 witnesses who testified before Metzenbaum's anti-trust and monopoly subcommittee, which was examining concentration of the publishing and book-selling industries.
PEN, an international association of writers and editors, requested the hearings about a month ago. "It's an issue that the subcommittee has been aware of from some time," said an aide to Metzenbaum.
"At first glance," Metzenbaum said in his opening statement, "these industries do not seem to be likely candidates for antitrust hearings. There are, after all, about 1,700 book publishers in this country. Among them, they are today bringing out more titles than ever before in our history. And it is also true that there are no insurmountable barriers to the entry of new firms in either of these businesses."
But the "vast majority" of the publishers, Metzenbaum said, focus on specialized areas such as religious or scientific texts, while only eight publishers share 80 percent of the paperback market.
The writers, in turn, were concerned about the shrinking number of first novels being published as economic demands make publishers hesitate to take a chance on an unknown writer, preferring established names.
E. L. Doctorow, author of "The Book of Daniel" and "Ragtime," among others, testified both as a writer and as the vice president of the American Center of PEN.
While making note of the fact that his own career was "flourishing" at the hands of conglomerate-owned publisher -- Random House -- he quoted an editor who said that "instead of searching for good books, I read manuscripts now in dread that I'll find someone fine and young and exciting who needs nurturing. I don't know what hurts more -- having to gun them down or going through the terrible charade of publishing them when they don't stand a chance of distribution in today's market."
"What we have in effect," said Doctorow," . . . is a tendency of the publishing industry to be absorbed by the entertainment industry, with all its values of pandering to the lowest common denominator of public taste coming to bear."
Doctorow concluded with the kind of literary tap dance that might have worked on a Whitman but raised an eyebrow on a Metzenbaum. "That core of free uneconomic expression is the source of cultural wealth," he said, "because of its central, prior, primal place. It must be left as uncontrolled, inefficient, wasteful, diverse, and unstructured as possible, so that our genius in the multiple witness and conscience we make as a people, can rise to our national benefit without constriction or censorship."
"That's a very interesting conclusion," Metzebaum said. "I'm not sure I agree with it. I wonder about 'inefficient' and I challenge 'wasteful.' 'Disverse' is good and 'unstructured' is fine, but I'm not sure I agree with the others."
"I meant waste and inefficiency should be a right, not a value," Doctorow said.
"Since I'm part of a structure that is extremely wasteful and inefficient," Metzenbaum said, "I'm not sure I want to see that extend into the private sector."
Metzenbaum asked Tuchman, the prize-winning author whose latest book, "A Distant Morror," found its own place on the best-seller lists, whether "young historians have the same problems as young ficition writers" in finding their first publisher.
While observing that a public partiality for nonfiction certainly made the historian's attempts a little easier, Tuchman said she didn't know if she "would have been published under the same conditions. Someone took a chance." To limit the opportunities available for authors, she said, would mean that "we are engaged in the limitation of our culture. Books are the form in which civilization communicates and endures."
During the lunch break, Doctorow smiled at the way in which he and Metzenbaum had found themselves at cross-purposes. "It's a difficult thing to talk about in the corridors of power," he said. "They're practical men with practical approaches. We all need each other."
Doctorow said he didn't have an answer to the problem -- "authors, by their nature, are not very good businessmen." The businessmen who came to testify, however, had a few descriptive sentences to level at authors.
"This is just bitchy, that's all it is," said William Jovanovich, chairman of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., referring to a writer's complaint that his book wasn't promoted adequately. "Opera stars have it, writers have it, television people have it," he added, referring presumably to the possession of egos the size of the Ritz, from which publishing tycoons apparently are blessedly free.
Nor is there any problem in getting first novels or less-accessible books published, Jovanovich said. "Some damn fool's ready to publish anything."