smirky trick question, to name a couple of books they hadnread in times within recent memory. It was an oddly tensenmoment or two for partisans of both sides; for nobody couldnbe sure that either of these two office-seekers had indeednread anything or, anyway, could remember the experiencenof reading anything and summon up titles and maybenauthors to go with the experience. Surprisingly, bothnrecalled reading some fairly recent books, works of unevennvalue to be sure; but the question and answers interestednnobody.nWe may be approaching that level of illiteracy in whichnthe book, itself, becomes a thing of magic, and thosenwho write, publish, and actually read books can be identifiednas magicians.nSo many of the basic, simple things about American booknpublishing have been said and said again (shelves of booksnon the general topic, stacks of magazines begging to be sentnto the nearest incinerator or, if you insist, to the nearestnrecycling center), that one is forced to assume the expressionnand stance of the prophet in the Richard Wilbur poem,nappearing “mad-eyed from stating the obvious.” And yetnthere are some things that bear repeating. One of these isnmost obvious, and therefore least often said: that Americannpublishing is, bag and baggage, heart and soul, an entitynmore involved than disengaged from the fabric of Americannsociety and the world of American business. It is true thatnmost publishers, like professors of the humanities, like tonpretend, as much to themselves as to anyone else, that theynare somehow separate from and superior to the mainstreamnof American society and culture. Because publishing is not anvery good nor a very efficient business and because publishersndo not make as much profit as the purveyors of other,noften humbler products, they like to imagine themselves asndedicated individuals who have somehow or other transcendednall crude self-interest and are now performing ankind of sacrificial public service, one without which thenintellectual vital signs of the whole culture would wither,nshrivel, and disappear. They tend to be inordinately proudnof their amateur status. It is only when facing each other, innconcentric rings like the gravestones of the celebratednSedgwick family surrounding the imposing tomb of theirnfounding father, in this case the tomb of somebody like, say,nthe late Alfred Knopf, that they will show the bright grin thenshark reserves for greeting its prey. They are not really anlovable bunch, except to themselves; and you come awaynfrom examining all the books about them, their lives andntheir works and days, with the very strong suspicion thatneven the best and brightest among them are sincerelynsecond-rate. Without being cynical or sour it is quite easy tonarrive at the proposition that if the best you can come upnwith as exemplary figures are the likes of Cerf or Knopf ornHorace Liveright, if these are the giants of the industry, thennthe industry must be and have always been a kind ofnreservation for pygmies.nConsider the editors, then, you will argue. Ironically, Inanswer, the finest times (such as they were) for editors ofnexcellence, for the likes of Maxwell Perkins and SaxenCommins and Albert Erskine and Hiram Hayden, werenprecisely the same times when editors had least to do withnthe business and commerce of publishing. They acquirednand edited books. Most of today’s successful editors makendeals; they make book, not books. One of the most widelynpublicized of the new breed, Gary Fisketjon, now editorialndirector of the Atlantic Monthly Press, is quoted in a brandnnew book {Reasons to Believe: New Voices in AmericannFiction) as having this to say about the ways of hisnpredecessors: “I find this whole Maxwell Perkins line ofnthinking sophomoric.” Several other editors are singled outnfor special praise in Reasons to Believe — Seymour Lawrence,nGordon Lish (“In the world of contemporary fiction,nGordon Lish is a true Renaissance man”), and Tom Jenks.nOddly missing is the equally public and perhaps moreninfluential Ted Solotaroff, whose highly personal A FewnGood Voices in My Head (1987) has much to tell, and morento demonstrate, about the ways American publishing hasndeveloped and changed. It should be briefly noted that threenof these—Jenks, Lish, and Solotaroff—consider themselvesnto be fiction writers as well. In any case, however, younwouldn’t yet put any of these names in a list that includednthe honored and honorable editors of the past, would you?nSeriously?nWhat I am saying here is, yes, that as a business Americannpublishing doesn’t amount to much and that therefore thenpeople who make up American publishing don’t amount tona whole lot, either, and probably never did, even though thenprevious generation is beginning to look better every day.nWith the exception of some rich kids who couldn’t think ofnanything better or easier to do with themselves, most peoplenin American publishing are eagerly upwardly-mobile types,nclawing for whatever honor and status they can claim andnget. This, of course, makes them at once predictable andnunreliable. Predictably unreliable, then. Ideally suited to benmiddlemen in an enterprise that lives more and more on thenfumes of borrowed money that it shares in moderation withnits writers in the form of advances against future royalties, ifnany.nThe most intelligent and thorough general accounting ofnrecent directions in American publishing is the finalnchapter, “What Has Happened to Publishing,” in thenSolotaroff book. His enemy in that piece is the “corporatenmentality,” more and more felt in editorial offices asnpublishing houses are acquired in mergers by larger corporations,nan increasingly multinational phenomenon. This cannmake it tough on editors who have to live and act, Solotaroffnindicates, by the vaguest of guidelines: “Because each booknis different, or at least used to be, publishing is full ofncontingencies and guesswork; hence, in uncertain circumstancesnit pays to know who you are and what you do well.”n(Try that on for size in the corporate accounting office.)nwhat Solotaroff describes as the main lines of developmentnin publishing during his career is, in addition to thencorporate concentration, an increasing centralization ofnpublishing in New York Gity and a gradual change in thensocial class and ethnic background of publishers and editors.nJust as the academic world became less and less dominatednby downwardly-mobile, genteel WSP professors, so publishingnwitnessed more and more “examples of Jewishnnewcomers using family money to establish houses thatnconformed to their desire and drive to play an importantncultural role in New York, much as their counterparts werennnJANUARY 1989/13n