Kingsley Amis is a writer of pronounced and often astringent views who is also a notably gifted satirist. His first novel, "Lucky Jim," is a minor comic masterpiece; even if none of his subsequent books has reached quite so high a level, there can be no doubt that among those British writers who gained recognition in the years immediately after World War II he occupies a position of prominence. Not surprisingly, therefore, he has a following in this country as well as his own.
As of the moment, though, it seems that his American readers are to be denied whatever pleasures are offered by his most recent novel, "Stanley and the Women," unless they can obtain copies of the British edition. Last week it was reported by John Gross of The New York Times that no American publisher has been found for "Stanley and the Women," though the book has been in print in Britain for six months. "In the opinion of many British readers, this is a scandal," Gross wrote, "and it is a scandal that in recent weeks has finally smoldered its way into the press."
"Scandal" and "smoldered" may be a bit much, but the incident is nonetheless disturbing. It seems that in "Stanley and the Women" Amis has not been shy about expressing, through his central character, views about women and other subjects that are, as Gross put it, "unenlightened." There seems some reason to believe that these views have more than a little to do with the response of American publishers to the book, notwithstanding the generally excellent reviews it has received in England. Writing from London, Gross observed:
"The unfortunate but understandable result of all this has been to encourage British suspicions that feminists of the more intolerant variety are trying to establish a stranglehold over the editorial policies of American publishing houses, of fiction publishing in particular. Those of us who are closer to the situation naturally do our best to explain that this is far from being the case, that things are much more complicated; but it has to be admitted, I think, that seen from a distance the whole affair does not look good."
Well, it doesn't look so good from up close, either. Probably the brief tempest of publicity the affair has caused will prompt some publisher to sign up the book. Perhaps this whiff of notoriety will pique the curiosity of enough readers to give it a decent sale, and thus the "scandal" will quickly be forgotten. But the questions it raises about ideological, political and cultural bias in the publishing industry will remain, because they are very real and because that bias has a considerable if immeasurable effect on the dissemination of ideas in this country.
Though labels are untrustworthy and to be read (as well as applied) with care, it is entirely accurate to describe the publishing industry as "liberal." This is to say that the overwhelming majority of its employes would unite in support of those causes that have formed the liberal agenda in recent years: "affirmative" government action to equalize opportunity, especially for women, blacks and homosexuals; opposition to American involvement in foreign wars that do not threaten American security; protection of the environment, in particular as it is affected by nuclear power; opposition to apartheid and other violations of human rights abroad.
Not surprisingly, the books they publish tend to reflect these views. What James J. Kilpatrick wrote last week about the editors of the "CBS Evening News" applies equally to the people of the book business: " . . . they are men and women of professional integrity, but they bring to their tasks all the accumulated observations, experiences and prejudices of their lifetimes. Does anyone seriously believe they take off their opinions when they put on their eyeshades?" Many may try, but it's very hard to do; and if anything, there is probably more evidence of bias in the book business than there is in the network news.
How much of this is deliberate and how much unconscious can only be guessed at, but there can be no doubt of its existence. One need only look at the books: title after title, both fiction and nonfiction, celebrating feminist causes, decrying the Vietnam war, attacking industrial polluters, ridiculing Ronald Reagan. Whether these books come from the big commercial publishers in New York or the university presses in the hinterlands, too often they are notable for consistency and predictability of viewpoint.
By the same token, books expressing a "conservative" point of view are relatively hard to come by. With the exceptions of Basic Books, which for a number of years has been more or less in the "neoconservative" camp, and Simon & Schuster, which publishes a broad range of political viewpoints, the more prominent publishing houses show little or no interest in issuing books that deviate from the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy. Though leftists of extreme views have little difficulty in finding respectable publishers for their work, rightists of comparable excess usually end up with small houses out in the provinces that are scorned by the publishing community.
This is bad, and it would be every bit as bad if the tables were turned: if the conservatives were in control of the book business and if writing of a liberal slant were having difficulty reaching the market. The danger lies not in which side is in control, but in the exercise of that control. The publishing industry may be privately held, but it has a clear public obligation to foster the free exchange of ideas; when it wittingly or otherwise imposes a political test on the manuscripts submitted for publication, it defaults on this obligation.
That "Stanley and the Women" has been subjected to such a test seems transparently obvious. Does anyone seriously believe that there is any explanation, apart from its gynephobia, for the novel's failure to find an American publisher? Kingsley Amis is well-known to American readers and taught in American colleges; his new book, according to Gross, has been praised by some British reviewers as his "most successful and entertaining book for some time"; his sales in this country have not been huge, but surely they have been good enough so that any publisher would welcome this new book to its list.
That's what you'd think, but apparently it is not the case. Amis has had the temerity to say what he thinks -- or, perhaps more accurately, what one of his characters thinks. What he thinks is unfashionable and/or objectionable in American publishing circles, and now he is paying the price for it. So much for freedom of speech.