FROM THE PULPIT
J EREMY L EWIS
WRITE OR PUBLISH?
agents, booksellers, wholesalers, librarians, libel lawyers and literary editors. He was workaholic, monomaniacal and possessed of just the right amount of tunnel vision – all qualities that distin
C YRIL C ONNOLLY WAS always fascinated by the ways in which writers scraped a living. Shortly after the end of the war he sent a questionnaire to various eminent authors asking them what jobs or means of earning money were most compatible with the literary life, and published their answers in Horizon. Connolly himself recommended a rich wife: a common ideal among his less worldly contributors was a job, preferably manual, which wasn’t too exhausting, left the mind free, and didn’t compete with the business of writing. Wood-turning and vegetable-growing were among those mentioned, I seem to remember. None suggested a job in publishing, so confirming Connolly’s own belief that the enemy of promise was not so much the pram in the hall as work in what he termed ‘cultural diffusion’ – publishing, journalism, broadcasting, the British Council and other agreeable, convivial and literate activities which brought one into contact with writers and could all too easily become a substitute for writing itself. Despite such warnings, publishing houses inevitably include among their staff an above-average number of would-be writers, part-time writers and writers manqués. Every now and then one of them moves to the other side of the desk, and becomes a full-time writer – myself among them. Most of them, no doubt, had gone into publishing for reasons which Cyril Connolly would have found deeply suspect. Forty years ago, when I was looking for my first job, I assumed that all publishers were rather like the late Colin Haycraft of Duckworth: bespectacled, articulate, immensely well-read characters with double firsts from Oxford and a good line in corduroy jackets and colourful bow-ties. I eventually landed a very junior job in the publicity department at Collins, and I soon realised how misconceived I had been. There were plenty of literate, wellread individuals working as editors, Philip Ziegler and Richard Ollard among them, but the salesmen ruled the roost; and although the formidable Billy Collins was a product of Harrow and Magdalen, he was no more of a literary or academic type than Allen Lane or Jonathan Cape, neither of whom had much in the way of formal education, and was far happier haranguing the reps or moving Collins titles to the front of the pile in bookshops than discussing new trends in poetry with John Lehmann or lit crit with F R Leavis. From there I moved on to André Deutsch, where more salutary lessons were learned. Like all the best publishers, he was shrewd, parsimonious, had a good nose for a book, and was adept at picking other people’s brains. The literary side of publishing – reading and assessing works offered to the firm, and then knocking them into shape – he could safely leave to Diana Athill and others; and it formed only part of his job, competing for his time with the demands of printers, binders, papermakers, literary
guish the publisher proper from the mere editor. The great publisher has to have something of the actor about him, able to simulate (and yet at the same time genuinely feel, if for an instant only) overpowering enthusiasm, excitement, rage and disappointment, as the occasion demands. ‘This is the most amazing book I have taken on in my entire publishing career,’ he will declare, and he will believe it for the next six months at least. What made Tom Maschler the most brilliant publisher of our time, apart from stylishness and a feeling for the spirit of the age, was his ability to persuade his colleagues, and then his salesmen, and then the world at large, that all his geese were swans, and that Cape books were synonymous with both excitement and distinction. However much the editor-cum-writer manquémay enjoy his work, he almost always has one eye on the clock and one foot in the door; and however much he may admire the authors whose books he edits, he is hard-pressed to indulge in the wholehearted suspensions of disbelief that distinguish the genuine publisher from his more apathetic and less driven colleagues. The most extreme example of the editor as Doubting Thomas was the poet and critic D J Enright, my colleague at Chatto for many years. Dennis thought that only a handful of books deserved to be published in any one year, and since he completely lacked the competitive spirit so essential to the successful publisher, he didn’t mind whether we or Faber or Secker or Cape published the few titles he thought worth taking on. A firm run by Enrights would soon die from inanition, publishing far too few books to cover the overheads, let alone make a profit; and since literary men employed by publishers tend to steer clear of the business side of things, this might not occur to them until it was too late. T S Eliot of Faber was the most famous writer-publisher of recent years; others included C Day Lewis and Andrew Motion at Chatto, Graham Greene and J B Priestley at The Bodley Head, Nigel Nicolson at Weidenfeld, and Diana Athill and Nicolas Bentley at Deutsch. They provided useful contacts, they looked good on the notepaper in the days when directors’ names were still listed there, and they could be invoked to impress or overawe recalcitrant authors: ‘I would like you to meet Professor Enright,’ Norah Smallwood would declare, summoning the sage from his lair with a peremptory blast on the internal telephone. Although some of the most interesting books of the last century were published by part-time writer-publishers like Leonard Woolf, John Lehmann and Alan Ross, publishing and writing call for very different attitudes and abilities. They are not easily combined in a single individual.
LITERARY REVIEW February 2007