Monday, March 14, 2005

Publishers' memoirs

For several decades I have made it a practice to read the memoirs of any publisher who has decided to offer us an account of his life. Usually this has been a rewarding experience, but not always; and I can offer warnings about two publishing memoirs to avoid. One warning derives from my own experience, and one comes by courtesy of other reviewers.

Tom Maschler is a well-known name in UK publishing. He was a commissioning editor at Jonathan Cape in its alleged 'glory days', and he was the first publisher to sign up such 'stars' as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes -- all of whom, in my opinion, are dull enough to make your teeth ache. Maschler was later chairman of Cape.

Now he has produced an autobiography, called Publisher. It was reviewed in yesterday's Sunday Times by John Carey, a man who has been, in his time, Merton Professor of English at Oxford.

Carey is not too impressed with Maschler's effort, despite the fact that Maschler is definitely a literary sort of publisher. Carey's overall view seems to be that it is a pity that, 'with so many friends in the literary world, none of them persuaded him [Maschler] not to publish this book.'

On at least one point, however, Carey's review is wrong. He says that Maschler, through the firm of Jonathan Cape, was the first publisher to introduce Kurt Vonnegut to British readers. Not so. It was actually Victor Gollancz, via The Sirens of Titan.

Anyway, despite the fact that Publisher is mercifully short (208 pages), Carey reckons that it is not worth your time.

Other reviews of Publisher appear in the Sunday Telegraph and the Observer (links provided by The former repeats the claim about Maschler being the first to publish Vonnegut in the UK, so it's presumably in the book, or on the back cover, or something, but you only have to look up Vonnegut on COPAC to see that the claim is unfounded. So what we have is just a typical example of a publisher claiming credit for something he had nothing to do with. Anyway, the Tel reviewer, Claudia Fitzherbert, doesn't like Maschler's book much better than John Carey does.

As for the Observer, there Tom Maschler's memoirs are reviewed by Robert McCrum, who rather to my surprise declares that he doesn't know Maschler. Or at any rate not well. As a result he is able to be as lukewarm as he likes about the book, without causing a breach of friendship.

All in all, I get the impression that you will not be missing much if you avoid Publisher, but by all means read the reviews and decide for yourself.

Another set of memoirs, to be avoided at all possible costs, is Pursuit, by John Calder. This book is ghastly beyond endurance.

John Calder, now aged 77 or so, is also big name in UK publishing, and again he is a literary heavyweight. The publishing firm which carries his name, Calder Publications, modestly proclaims that it publishes 'the most significant literature of the twentieth century.' The list of authors includes such avant-garde persons as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, and so forth.

Anyway, in 2001 Calder published his autobiography, Pursuit, and this, as I say, is one to miss. It comes in at 621 pages. And these pages are big, covered in small type, whichis set in long lines, and with perhaps one paragraph break per page if you're lucky. The wordage must be about 250,000, at least. Probably 300,000. No normal publisher would have touched the text, but it was, of course, put out by Calder's own firm.

I tried to read this book, but soon gave up. It is immensely detailed, and immensely tedious, and when not tedious is faintly disgusting. At one point, Calder tells us about going to bed with two women, one of whom introduces him to the joys of anal sex. This quite put me off my tea.

It is hard to find reviews of this book, perhaps because no one in the media could face the task of reading it, but here is a link to an article in the Guardian which in itself will tell you all you really need to know about John Calder.

By the way, if you look up Pursuit on Amazon, you will find that, although the book is published by Calder Publications, no one at the firm has bothered to ensure that the Amazon entry for the boss's book includes even the briefest description of it, let alone any warm encomiums from old pals or favourable quotes from reviews.

That's pretty amazing, really, isn't it?

On the other hand, since this is British literary publishing we're talking about, perhaps such incompetence isn't very surprising at all. More like par for the course. Calder, it is said, has lost a lot of money in publishing, and it's not hard to see why.


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I found your blog this morning and, having sampled many of your posts, must say what a delight it is to read. Far too many of us lack that crucial sense of humor that enables us to laugh at ourselves, and your incisive examinations of writing's sacred cows and "accepted rules" brought me has repeated smiles. Thanks, and I look forward to more.

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