Prime Edition

The Business of Words

André Schiffrin


Pages: 296 Rs. 295

Veteran fails to support tall claims about Big Publishing

André Schiffrin makes a few valid points about publishing conglomerates, but his memoir is marred by a series of sensationalised revelations, writes Sharanya

SHARANYA  16th Sep 2012

For a collection of poems from the Taliban website, this book has very few overtly pacifist entries

n his tender essay "Hating the Leopard", on Tomasi di Lampedusa's 19th-century magnum opus The Leopard, Javier Marías quotes Lampedusa as saying, "I would like every effort to be made to publish The Leopard..."—a sentiment that was not easily fulfilled, given that the book, which Marías called a "solitary masterpiece", was initially rejected by several important Italian publishers at the time. Lampedusa did not live to see it published.

It is not entirely surprising, therefore, that on the 50th anniversary of its publication, American publishing house Pantheon brought out a new edition of this unassuming book, and according to publisher and author André Schiffrin, "transformed from a struggling, marginal firm into an excessively profitable one". In his memoir The Business of Words — a combined Indian edition of his books The Business of Books, and Words and Money — Schiffrin expands on his journey from being the only "full-time editor" at Pantheon in 1961, to breaking away thirty years later and establishing the non-profit publishing house The New Press. Schiffrin's journey is an inspiring one, and his detailing of his father's immigration to America and his involvement with Pantheon its early days, is both fascinating and relevant as it locates the context in which works such as André Gide's Intervues Imaginaires and Camus' L'Etranger were published: that of European literature battling what Schiffrin terms as "traditional American isolationism" in 1942 and the vast refugee audience that existed for these books at the time. Schiffrin argues strongly for the cause of independent publishing—and bookstores—and through the titles that Pantheon refused and the authors that it chose to take on in its later years, highlights the metamorphosis of an independent publishing house into a subsidy of a conglomerate, and the loss of a fiercely political identity for a profit-making enterprise. While his observations need not be off-mark, his earnest embracing of France's Loi Lang and disapproval of American journalism's dependence on advertising as solutions to what he evidently perceives to be a bleak and quickly-deteriorating intellectual climate, are inevitably utopian — and one may go so far as to add, naive, considering that The Business of Words has been specially issued in a country where the average English-reading population thrives on second-hand book markets and discounts.

The book is punctuated with revelations about the evolution of publishing in Europe and America, some of which border on sensationalism. Since the author has not clarified queries in public media, one remains uncertain about their legitimacy.

he book is punctuated with revelations about the evolution of publishing in Europe and America, some of which border on sensationalism, such as his claim that the Hachette group in France has been part of a conglomerate that is very involved with the French armament industry. Schiffrin also succeeds in sounding unnecessarily harsh, when he opines, for instance,, that Newhouse and Vitale, the former chairman and CEO of Random House respectively, "had achieved the remarkable result of lowering the intellectual value of the firm, cheapening its reputation, and losing money, all at the same time".  The subtitle of The Business of Books, strangely missing in The Business of Words, reads "How the International Conglomerates took over Publishing and Changed the Way we Read" and offers an accurate insight not merely into Schiffrin's argument but also into the vindictive tone that occasionally surfaces in his railings against Pantheon's later days.

Schiffrin's claims could have been assimilated as a bitter but true elaboration of his experiences, had the validity of his claims not been doubted. In a 2001 review of The Business of Books for the Los Angeles Times, Richard Seaver points out that Fred Jordan, who replaced Schiffrin at Pantheon, remained for the entirety of his three-year contract and did not, as Schiffrin writes, last "barely beyond his first year". Seaver also notes after speaking with Antoine Gallimard, the then-head of Gallimard Publishing that supposedly fired Schiffrin's father in 1940, that Jacques Schiffrin was a "salaried employee only until 1937." Since André Schiffrin has not clarified Seaver's queries in public media, one remains uncertain about their legitimacy.

The Business of Words makes some strong, convincing arguments for the collapse of contemporary publishing in America and some parts of Europe, and it is certainly to be lauded for taking stock of the scenario of the privatisation of media across a wide range of contexts and raising questions about what our contemporary understanding of publishing has come to be — whether there is, in fact, such a decline in the quality and range of books that are being published that we have accepted it as an inevitable part of the business of making books, and what hope one can sustain for enterprising endeavours like The New Press. It must be added, though, that questions about the ferocious sentimentality that accompanies Schiffrin's narration and his single-minded insistence that conglomerates cannot produce significant books  are not those that can — or should — be shrugged off easily.

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