Guess what these books have in common and you win the grand prize: a novel by a Dutch writer about two circus performers; a new history of the Lindbergh kidnaping case; a collection of anecdotes about actors and the theater; a self-help book about "How to Stay Well, and What to Do When You're Not"; a thriller by a French novelist about "the last man"; and new volumes of poetry by Howard Nemerov and Karl Shapiro.
If you guessed that all these books are being published in the fall 1987 season now getting underway, you're right, but not right enough by half. To walk away with the honors in this competition, you have to know that all of these books are being published not by trade houses but by university presses: Louisiana State, Rutgers, Oxford, Harvard, Columbia and Chicago, respectively.
This, many would have us believe, is the wave of publishing's future. With increasing frequency, those who worry over the commercialism that has swept through the trade houses are placing their hopes for serious publishing in two quarters: the small presses and the university presses. The former are indeed making impressive progress on all fronts, but they are still quite indisputably small and their capacity to influence either publishing or literature is still limited. The university presses, by contrast, are well established, and many of them are both large and highly respected; are they indeed ready to move out of their traditional scholarly role and into the trickier world of trade publishing?
From where I sit, the answer is a most emphatic "maybe." If you listen to the university press people, you will hear from many of them a confident if not smug assertion that they are ready, willing and able to take over the serious publishing that the trade houses, in their view, have abandoned. But if you look at the "trade" books these houses are now so eagerly issuing, your judgment must be less sanguine; the evidence suggests that a good deal of leaping without looking is going on here, and that the university presses may be getting in over their heads.
This evidence falls into two broad categories: The university presses are getting into kinds of publishing about which they know little or nothing, and they are too willing to compromise scholarly standards in order to compete for the trade dollar. These are for the most part errors of good will and inexperience rather than mere venality, but they are errors all the same, and they should not be allowed to pass unnoticed in the general hoopla over the presses' new role.
The principal area in which inexperience shows its awkward hand is fiction. Until 1980 the university presses had published relatively little fiction, but then LSU, at the urging of Walker Percy, stepped in where heaven knows how many trade houses had feared to tread and brought out, posthumously, John Kennedy Toole's riotous novel, "A Confederacy of Dunces." It went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, to become a best seller in paperback -- and to give the university presses dreams of publishing grandeur.
Now it's the rare university press that doesn't issue fiction in one form or another. Several specialize in collections of short stories; LSU publishes the winner of the Pegasus Prize, an international competition, and Pittsburgh has the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, for American writers; others concentrate on regional writing, and a number bring out poetry. But what they all have in common is the steadfast conviction that, by contrast with the schlock merchants of New York, they are on the side of the angels.
Which can only mean that the angels have lousy taste in fiction. Though certainly there have been exceptions, too many of the books by American writers that university presses now bring out simply are not accomplished enough to withstand editorial scrutiny at a responsible trade house -- of which, in actuality, there are a number. Too often the university presses merely serve as house organs for the work of the local writers-in-residence and their prote'ge's, thereby tightening the stranglehold that the writing departments have gained on lit'ry fiction.
The problem frequently is that the university presses have no editors with experience in evaluating and publishing new fiction, so they either try to wing it or they go to the writing departments and beg their assistance. Either course has as many potholes as Publishers' Row, and the results show their effects. However good their intentions may be, it is insufficient for the university presses to claim that because they are now publishing fiction, they are serving literature; they must produce more fiction that actually warrants publication before their claims to moral superiority over the New Yorkers will have any validity.
As for scholarly standards, they are still maintained in the majority of books issued by these houses, but they are also being set aside when the publishers seem less interested in standards than in income from trade sales. A number of books in recent years have shown evidence of this, but none more so than one I read the other day. Published by a university press of immense reputation, it dealt with a subject (popular music) customarily dominated by the trade houses. But I found it difficult to believe that any self-respecting trade house would have accepted so shabby a piece of work as this one, and I therefore concluded that the university press was more interested in making money off this book than in holding it to scholarly standards.
Those standards usually are enforced by boards of review that must approve each book the editors at a university press want to publish; the boards consist of scholars from a broad variety of disciplines who, though they are eager to cooperate with the editors, keep the criteria high. But on the evidence of some of the books now coming forth from some of these presses, those standards are being eased or ignored when it is convenient to do so. This may produce immediate financial returns, but in the long run it can only diminish the reputation of scholarly publishing within the scholarly community itself.
That would be an unnecessary price to pay for evanescent gains. Though the university presses certainly cannot ignore the bottom line, they do not operate by ordinary marketplace methods and expectations. Their first obligation is not to make money -- some break even at best, and most receive one form of subsidy or another -- but to contribute to scholarship and general knowledge. This does not mean that they must publish, willy-nilly, every bit of arcana that the local scholars emit; the percentage of doctoral dissertations that make it into book form has declined markedly, and three cheers for that. It does mean, though, that if the university presses are to be true to themselves and to their obligations, they must be scholars first and publishers second; the temptation to make quick gains through reversed priorities must be stoutly resisted