Dodd, Mead & Co., the venerable New York publishing firm, has decided to cancel two novels announced in its fall 1983 catalogue and, further, to withdraw from circulation a volume of irreverent verse published last month.
The books are being stopped because of a parent company's judgment that they contain blasphemous language and scatological reference. The publisher's parent company is Thomas Nelson Inc., of Nashville, the world's most successful Bible publisher.
The two Dodd, Mead works of fiction are "Tip on a Dead Crab" by William Murray--who writes for The New Yorker--and "Skim" by Thomas Henege, who lives abroad and is vice president of Europe Group Credit, Banker's Trust Co.
The work of nonfiction is "The Devil's Book of Verse," edited by Richard Conniff, an editor at Geo magazine. All three authors are angry and are claiming censorship, while the parent publisher says it is only acting consistently with its corporate policies.
"The key issue we deny," Thomas Harris, senior vice president of Nelson, said yesterday in a telephone interview from Tennessee. "We're not acting as censors. That doesn't mean we don't have certain policies. We just don't choose to publish books that we consider offensive. My goodness, it's not too different from what Reader's Digest or The New Yorker or even your own esteemed publication would probably do. I mean, one lady actually said we burned books. I haven't burned any books."
Lewis W. Gillenson, president of Dodd, Mead, is reported to have said that executives at Nelson instructed him to tell the two fiction authors that certain scatological references and passages that took God's name in vain must be removed from the novels in order for them to be published; and that the excessive use of "goddamn" be removed from Conniff's anthology of verse. Gillenson reportedly said he was told by a Nelson executive that it was okay to publish "damn." According to a published report, it was not okay to publish "goddamn," or at least its excessive use. The four-letter word for intercourse was forbidden in one case, but the four-letter word for defecation was permitted.
In Conniff's book of verse, two poems were singled out as unacceptable, he said: a barracks ballad and a well-known parody by Ezra Pound of a Middle English poem. The Pound parody uses "goddamn" 10 times. Conniff says he was asked by Gillenson to allow the pages containing the poems to be removed from the book. Conniff refused. So 5,000 copies of "The Devil's Book of Verse" are sitting in the warehouse.
"I will not agree to have it altered or mutilated," Conniff said yesterday from his office at Geo. "These two poems fit perfectly into the whole nature of the book I was trying to publish, which was a book of scathing and vituperative and bawdy verse. If they didn't think so, they should have said so a year and a half ago, when they first bought the book and put it under contract, not three weeks after it was published. To me it's the typical censor's flashcard mentality: If they see a word with 'God' in it, they panic. The whole thing is so comic. It's something that would be implausible on the stage."
Gillenson is the only person at Dodd, Mead empowered to speak on the subject, The Washington Post was told yesterday. He was out of the city. Even his secretary was not in.
Conniff says other poems in his book were not questioned at all, including some with four-letter words and some with "vivid images of buggery. You should see this one poem by Catullus. It's wonderfully outrageous. It has all kinds of 'hairy rumps' in it. But apparently they thought that was fine."
Thomas Henege is a pen name. The author's real name is Albert F. Gillotti. His novel "Skim," a thriller, was reportedly judged to have "goddamn" in too many places. Gillotti has released a statement through his agent that he would not permit any changes in "Skim," which was submitted to Dodd, Mead in October 1982 and accepted by the company several months later.
"Thomas Nelson has the power, by way of ownership, to dictate to Dodd, Mead what it can and cannot publish," Gillotti said in his statement. "This augurs ill for Dodd, Mead's authors . . . I fear for the future of independent thought in the United States."
Thomas Nelson took over Dodd, Mead, which is nearly 150 years old, in April 1982. Nelson's King James version of the Bible, released a year ago, has been a major seller. At a recent Christian Booksellers convention in Washington, Nelson was named "Exhibitor of the Year."
Asked yesterday why the decision to stop the books wasn't reached earlier, Tom Harris said, "It's one of the problems that crop up when you take over a company. It's hard to coordinate everything."