There was never any golden era in publishing. It’s always been tough. Let’s get that straight. But once upon a time long ago there were a few publishers who looked beyond the bottom line, who fought for authors, struggled to bring books to light when the authorities would have put the publisher in jail. Barney Rosset,* perhaps more than any other living person, represents the very best of this kind of publisher in America. He is a legend and in any other country would be given the designation of Living Artistic Treasure. But truly literary people are rarely so honored in America in 2008.
We live in an era of the bottom line and MBAs with sharp pencils whose vision is the next quarterly earning report. Barney wasn’t that kind of publisher. He sought quality and settled for nothing less. If the book sold fine, if it didn’t that was fine, too.
In a recent interview of literary agent Nat Sobel in Poets and Writers, Sobel, who had worked from Barney at Grove Press as a sales rep, said:
“I'll tell you about a moment in my life with Barney that had a major influence on the things that attract me as an agent, especially these last few years. At some point I noticed that on the upcoming list was a book of poetry, a fairly substantially sized book of poetry by a Mexican poet I had never heard of, and it was going to be in a bilingual edition, Spanish and English. I went to Barney and said, "You know, Barney, I don't think I can sell this book. I've never heard of this guy." Barney said to me, "I didn't buy it because I thought you could sell it. I bought it because I liked it and because I thought it was important." And the book was the first publication in English of the poetry of Octavio Paz. It's sold hundreds of thousands of copies, it's still in the Grove Press backlist, and it was a book he wanted to publish because he loved it. You couldn't help loving a guy who had that philosophy.”
Barney fought legal battles in America against the censorship of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. When the heat got intense, Barney simply doubled up like a great poker player, and bet he would win. And win he did. That win is something no one in publishing should ever forget. He built Grove Press into the leading literary publishing house in America, with a backlist that includes Pinter, Miller, Paz, Stoppard, and Beckett. Barney’s love was fiction. Always has been. And film.
Nat Sobel’s interview paints a bleak picture for fiction writers. With 90% of the deal for non-fiction books, fiction, especially literary fiction, may have hit an evolutionary dead end in America. There are a few writers who still have an audience for literary works; but they’d likely fit in the first class section of Thai International flights from New York to Bangkok with seats left over crew members flying for free.
*I’ve known Barney and his wife Astrid for many years. Barney’s was an early supporter of my novels and I’ve had the privilege of being the Thailand correspondent for Evergreen Review.