Swans Commentary » swans.com December 16, 2013  



The Death Of A Bookman, André Schiffrin 1935-2013


by Peter Byrne


In Memoriam



He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2


(Swans - December 16, 2013)   André Schiffrin, publisher and writer, died in his Paris home on December 1. For anyone who had watched his inspiring life unfold, it wasn't pancreatic cancer that killed him. André was crushed by the final turn of the great wheel of corporate greed and hatred of books. Irony had it that on the same weekend, BBC World TV broadcast a Panorama enquiry into the physical and mental peril of working in an Amazon warehouse in Wales. The program concluded that, apart from brutalizing its employees, the company was efficient and its prices low. German workers were on strike against Amazon. France had gone to law over its book pricing policy. On the evening of the same December 1, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced with a splash that he intended to offer drone delivery at home of small items, like books, in four or five years. At his death André Schiffrin was writing a book about the harm Amazon did.

André's father, Jacques, began the Schiffrin involvement with books. He was yet another Russian non-practicing Jew who came west to enrich our cultural patrimony. Born in Baku in 1892, Jacques studied law in Geneva, where he knew the developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget and the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. In 1922 he settled in Paris and started a publishing house, editing Russian classics in his own translation. In 1931 he launched the Bibliothèque reliée de la Pléiade, a luxury edition of classic authors. Jacques edited Baudelaire for the first volume. The series now counts six hundred and eighty-three volumes.

Any reader of French will remember the first time he held a Pléiade volume in his hands. It wasn't like picking up a rare book or a signed first edition. Nor was it like admiring a Folio Society volume through the glass front of a bookcase. The Pléiade's reference texts, sober, elegant, and understated in their scholarship, were meant to be read. The small format, bible paper and supple leather cover made that inviting. The collection clearly inspired "I Meridiani" series of Mondadori in Italy and "The Library of America" in the USA. But neither managed to achieve the Pléiade's hint of the sacred, which is perhaps France's gift to Western culture.

Jacques knew many important authors of the 1930s personally. He was close to André Gide, a towering literary figure of the time, to be named Nobel Laureate in 1947. They worked on translations from the Russian together, and it was Gide who convinced the publisher Gaston Gallimard to join the Pléiade series to his very successful Nouvelle Revue Française editions. Jacques became director of the collection he had created. In 1939 he went into the French army. In 1940, bowing to the Vichy regime's racial laws, Gallimard dismissed Jacques and the one other Jew he employed. By kowtowing to the invaders, the publisher managed to stay in business during the German occupation. Gide helped Jacques and his family in their dramatic exit from France and Europe to New York.

André had been born in 1935 to Jacques's French wife, Simone Heymann, touted by some to be the most beautiful woman in Paris. Though the boy of six experienced a drastic change of place with the move to America, home life remained the same. Jacques continued his editing in New York. He published Louis Aragon, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Joseph Kessel, and the pseudonymous Vercors -- all enemies of Vichy. Then he joined Pantheon Books as a founding editor and vice president of production. Pantheon was founded in 1942 by several European intellectuals who fled fascism and the Holocaust. Jacques's first projects were books by Boris Pasternak and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. He hobnobbed with famous French writers in exile. If André Gide and Roger Martin du Gard came to dinner in Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre was a guest in New York and Hannah Arendt a family friend. Jacques died at fifty-eight in 1950 without seeing France again.

André took lessons in philosophy from Hannah Arendt. He entered Yale on a full scholarship in 1953 when there was still a quota for Jewish students. He graduated summa cum laude and went on to England and Cambridge for his master's degree, obtained in 1959. He became the first American editor of Granta, then a university magazine. Michael Frayn and Jonathan Miller were his fast friends, and he would one day publish both of them. He met Maria Elena de la Iglesia, his wife-to-be and mother of his two daughters. Her parents had come to England to escape Franco's Spain.

Back in New York, in 1961, at twenty-six, André followed his father's path to Pantheon Books where he became managing director of publishing and would remain for three decades. Even as a young man his promise was such that Alfred Knopf himself had offered him the head job at Knopf Inc., just then acquired by Random House. In his long reign at Pantheon, André brought countless major figures out of semi-obscurity into the public eye. He began with a bestseller, Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. A list would include Eric Hobsbawm, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, E.P. Thomson, Edward Said, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, R. D. Laing, and Studs Terkel. At the same time he made America familiar with eminent French writers like Michel Foucault, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir.

André never feared the new and, for example, saw the future of graphic fiction before other major publishers. He published Art Spiegelman's Maus, a mega-seller that had been refused on all sides. He bought Matt Groening's first book of Bart Simpson cartoons for Pantheon. The same was true of oral history. His flair was behind the huge seller that was Studs Terkel's Working. André used to listen to Studs's radio interviews and suggested the book project to him.

All the same, in 1990, André was rebuked for producing too-slim profit margins. Pantheon, absorbed by the Random House conglomerate, had come under the sway of billionaire S. I. Newhouse, Jr. A new CEO, Alberto Vitale, had been put in place to enforce a policy of only publishing books that were assured of an immediate profit. What was presented as a simple problem of accounting was in fact an ominous cultural shift. Few of André's many successes had been sure things, guaranteed in advance. He saw the change in direction as fatal for cultural life and stood his ground. Refusing to reduce his staff or number of titles, he and most of his senior editorial team resigned.

There was heartening support for André. Three hundred eminent authors signed a letter of protest. Kurt Vonnegut, Arno Mayer, and Studs Terkel organized a demonstration outside Random House headquarters. The conglomerate now had little to do with the company that congenial Bennett Cerf founded in 1927. Random for Cerf meant free choice and imagination. Speaking at the National Book Critics Circle annual dinner, E.L. Doctorow lambasted Si Newhouse's colossal money machine Publishers Weekly and the European press backed André. But Random House won, just as it and others like it have continued to do.

While André refused to consider publishing to be only about the bottom line, that wasn't his only difference with Random House. Of course publishing houses couldn't continually lose money. But at Pantheon he had always been, in his way, a profitable publisher. Otherwise how would he have lasted for thirty years? The real battle, André said, had been with Vitale, and not simply over profit. It was about policy and power.

The obituary of André in the New York Times shows us the sad distance we have traveled since 1990. The writer Robert D. McFadden makes it clear which side he is on in "the contretemps over cultural integrity versus business imperatives." He keeps repeating that André wasn't making a profit and so had to go. While in 1990 the necessity of quick and sure profits on a book still met with opposition, in 2013 our newspaper of record takes it as an iron law of nature that only a madman would contest. The money men call the golden calf "fiscal responsibility" and invoke it to rule out using profit from one book to finance a valuable but less profitable one.

In 1992, with some of his authors and several colleagues from Pantheon, André founded The New Press. It would be an independent, nonprofit publishing house funded at least to begin with by major foundations. He likened it to public radio or television, ready to publish riskier books that didn't fit into university press programs. His team would be multi-racial with an intern program aimed at drawing candidates from ethnic minorities into publishing. The New Press has flourished and after twenty years boasts a catalog that includes history, economics, and fiction. There are titles on black culture, race relations and civil rights. Environmentalism is well represented. André was editor and chief of The New Press for the first decade and then founding director and editor at large until his death.

André became an author himself. Apart from magazine journalism in The Nation, The New Republic, and elsewhere, he wrote two books about the publishing industry, The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, 2000, and Words and Money, 2010. Felicity Rubinstein, a family friend, wrote in the Guardian:

Translated into more than 20 languages, the books, a reasoned excoriation of the conglomeration of culture, established André as something of an international literary lion and an inspiration to right-thinking, independent publishers, while maintaining his position as a thorn in the side of corporate publishing.

In 2004 André reconnected with Paris and began to spend half the year there. He taught a course at Sciences Po, just as he had at Princeton and at The New School in New York. In his political autobiography, A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York, 2007, he noted that he found himself in agreement with "fundamental French convictions" about the role of government to oppose outside forces that were transforming French life. He had in mind American pressure on Europe to renounce its anti-capitalism and to stop its stubborn effort to maintain social protection, cut back working hours, and grant more leisure.

Let a publisher, Dennis Johnson, have the last word. He is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.

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.


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Published December 16, 2013