December 2, 2013
Hail & Farewell: André Schiffrin
by Dennis Johnson
André Schiffrin would have been really pissed off by his obituary in the New York Times yesterday — although I can imagine him first chortling over the fact that the paper he criticized so vehemently for decades covered his death within scant hours, as if they couldn’t wait to see him go.
Well, I say bully to the Times, for its recognition of André’s standing in the publishing world and his importance to literary culture. (I mean, who other than world leaders does the Times usually memorialize that quickly?)
But André would have snorted fire over the way the obit described one of the most famous events of his life: his 1990 departure from Pantheon Books, an imprint of Random House that he’d run for nearly 30 years, and of which his father, Pléiade-creator Jacques Schiffrin, was a founding editor (along with founding publishers, the legendary Kurt and Helen Wolff).
And indeed, the Times piece does seem rather maniacally intent on getting across that ANDRE SCHIFFRIN WAS FIRED BECAUSE PANTHEON LOST MONEY, as if to justify its lopsided reporting at the time, and in stingy opposition to detailing the remarkable and undeniably historic accomplishments of the man’s life. The piece comes back to the claim again and again, in increasing awkwardness, barely mentioning a fabled career save for a quick listing of some of the authors he published: “Jean-Paul Sartre, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, R. D. Laing and many others.”
Whet your appetite for the details of a great life in publishing? Too bad; the next paragraph goes right back to the claim that ANDRE SCHIFFRIN WAS FIRED BECAUSE PANTHEON LOST MONEY.
Nowhere does the article mention, for example, the story behind one of the biggest-selling books of the late twentieth century — Studs Terkel’s Working, which was entirely André’s idea, thought up after listening to Terkel’s radio show, and leading to a life-long partnership (André was one of those editors authors would never leave). Nor does it tell the story behind one of his weirder hits, Wisconsin Death Trip, which André coaxed Michael Lesy into writing after he read Lesy’s PhD thesis. There’s no explanation of how André came to be the first American publisher of Foucault and so many others, nor of how he got Sartre away from Knopf. There’s nothing about André’s prescient interest in graphic fiction, evidenced by Pantheon’s acquisition, just before he left, of Matt Groening‘s first book of Bart Simpson cartoons, and of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (a mega-seller that itself puts the lie to the claim that André’s Pantheon books never made money). It doesn’t mention how he turned away the interests of Blanche and Alfred Knopf themselves in having him run their company in favor of the job at Pantheon.
And that’s just the publishing life. There’s precious little, as well, about his fascinating personal life. There’s no detail, for instance, of his family’s hair-raising escape from the Nazis — who marched into André’s hometown, Paris, on his fifth birthday — with the help of the legendary escape artist Varian Fry. Nor is there any mention of his studying with another Fry-assisted escapee, Hannah Arendt, who was also a regular guest at his parents’ home, amongst other expatriate glitterati. Nor is there any mention of André’s claim to have named the SDS while a student at Yale. And so on.
But André would not have been so miffed about his hard-earned credentials, nor his very life, being so overlooked. What he would have protested was the depiction of his departure from Random House as being due to Pantheon not making money. He would have protested that he wasn’t “fired,” either — he would have reiterated, as he did in his autobiography with us, A Political Education, that he left Random House because of a war with the company’s then-new CEO Alberto Vitale, whom André felt was besmirching both the reputation of Random House (whose founder, Bennett Cerf, André greatly admired) and the very nature of the business itself by decreeing that it was only about the bottom line.
Plus, André always protested that he, of all people, understood that publishing houses had to be profitable; he argued that Pantheon, where he had books like Doctor Zhivago on his backlist, wasn’t losing money, but that Vitale had made it look that way — putting a monthly charge for a personal car for André on Pantheon’s account, for example, when in fact André had never even learned how to drive. But then, as now, André was unable to point out stuff like that to defend himself — then, because the stringent severance package he’d been forced to go along with included a gag rule. (And by the way, it’s notable that the Times obit doesn’t cite several prominent Random Housers who supported André back then, including former senior executives such as Tony Schulte and Random president Bob Bernstein.)
But perhaps the thing about André’s life that the Times obituary most obscures is what a hero that fight with conglomerate publishing made him to so many people in publishing, including many trapped in conglomerate publishing, and particularly to a generation of small independent publishers. No one did so much, in fact, to define the term independent publisher coming into the twenty-first century.
Case in point: In late 2001, when Valerie and I had started putting together our first book, we weren’t sure about going beyond that — that is, of actually making a business of it. We were artists, after all, not business people, and with busy careers at that point. So I re-read André’s The Business of Books, which I had reviewed when it was first released, and which had not only resonated with my perception of the conglomerization of our culture, but which I had found electrifying in its call to arms. I remembered feeling, when I had first read it, Damn, I wish I had a publishing company. Upon re-reading it, well, damned if I didn’t feel it again — but this time, I had a real opportunity to do something about it.
About that time, I was speaking with the writer Renata Adler, with whom I had recently conducted a lengthy interview, when she told me she was having dinner that evening at André Schiffrin’s house. Astounded by the coincidence, I impulsively blurted, “Tell him you know a couple who are thinking of starting a publishing company and ask him if he has any advice.”
I was half-joking but Adler kindly called me back the next morning with André’s response: “He said whatever you do, don’t do it,” she told me.
Well, if I’d published The Tin Drum and Working, and had people like Kurt Vonnegut leading street protests on my behalf, and still lost my job, perhaps I would have said the same thing. André had been beaten up pretty badly, after all. (Although, as the Times obit may indicate, the other side is still pretty sensitive about it, too, meaning André may have given as good as he got.) But I guess I felt then, as I often do, that the writer’s real and best message was in the writing. And so, Valerie and I took inspiration from The Business of Books and went forward with what would become Melville House.
But every time we published a new book I sent it to André at his office at The New Press, the wonderful publishing company he founded with one of his star Pantheon editors, Diane Wachtell. (Interesting side note and some kind of full disclosure, at least of the small world of New York publishing: Those packages were opened by André’s intern, Kelly Burdick, who is now associate publisher of Melville House.) I’m not sure exactly why I did that — just to let André know he had some fans, I guess — but in any event André never responded to any of these mailings. But when Melville House was about five years old I got a call from him, asking Valerie and I out to lunch. He took us to a place near the New Press’ offices in Soho — an Italian restaurant recommended, he informed us, by his pal Calvin Trillin — and there, to our shock, he asked us if we wanted to publish his memoir.
What followed was an indie publisher’s dream. André liked to work very closely with his editors so we spent afternoons together in his Upper West Side apartment working on the manuscript on the table in his dining room, which like every other room in his house was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. For one of the most prestigious editors in the world he was a bit touchy about being edited himself, and when things got tense, he would disappear into the kitchen, then come back with two frozen shot glasses of vodka and say, “Here.”
As well, there were endless hours of discussion on, well, the business and how to fight it — things to think about when printing, people to know for rights sales, simpatico editors around the world to coordinate with, and anecdotes I can only call “war stories.”
And at the launch party for the subsequent book — A Political Education — I gave a toast recounting his advice to Valerie and me, via Renata Adler, about how we shouldn’t start a new publishing company.
When it was André’s turn, he got up and said, as if glum, “Nobody listens to me.”
Rest in peace, André. Pancreatic cancer is an awful death. But I hope, somewhere in its horror, you had a chance to realize — well, hell, a lot of people didn’t listen to you. They’re all trying to do exactly what you did.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.