In Conversation

André Schiffrin with Williams Cole and Theodore Hamm

In The Business of Books (2000), André Schiffrin memorably recalled the heyday of intellectual publishing in the U.S. Schiffrin had directed Pantheon from the early 1960s through 1990, when it was closed by Random House. Pantheon had helped a wide range of authors, including Chomsky and Foucault, reach a large commercial audience. In 1990, Schiffrin launched the New Press. In his new memoir, A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York (Melville House Publishing), Schiffrin discusses his life before Pantheon, paying particular attention to the political climate of the 1940s and 50s. The Rail’s Williams Cole and Theodore Hamm recently sat down with Schiffrin at his Upper West Side apartment, which contains one wall of books Schiffrin’s father had published in France and then when he directed Pantheon in the 1940s, and another wall of those of that Schiffrin published when he took over Pantheon in the 1960s.

Rail: Let’s start with how you felt growing up with a French background.

André Schiffrin: Well, as I say in my new book, I grew up feeling totally American. And when I look at many young kids now coming in from Asia and elsewhere, I think everyone wants to be totally American and forget what their parents were interested in. Their parents don’t want to talk to them about it. Though I spoke French at home, and never would have thought for minute of not doing so, I really thought I was the typical American teenager. It took me a long time to begin to realize that the way I thought, which I assumed was just typically American, wasn’t at all. I started going back to France for my work, and when I started publishing work from there, I discovered that nobody here could care less for the most part. The books I was doing weren’t reaching many more people than the ones my father was doing during the war. But it was really going back to Paris recently for a year that made me realize how much French culture influenced me—especially as I was working on my father’s letters, which were the catalyst for this book.

Rail: How much do you think the French influence shaped your political perspective?

Schiffrin: Well, again that’s an interesting question. I think the point that I’m trying to make in the book is that in the postwar period, talk of socialism was common. In 1942, I just discovered (too late for the book), a study showed that 25% of Americans thought that some kind of socialism would make sense after the war. Only 40% were opposed, and the others were undecided. So there was a lot more of that sentiment then, and certainly at the very least the kind of stuff that Truman was proposing [e.g. national health insurance] was pretty widespread. There may have been some family influence indirectly, but I think I picked up my politics mostly from what was going on at the time. Part of the point in the book is to talk about how these ideas got lost. Instead of calling it Remembrances of Things Past, it’s more like Remembrances of Ideas Past. I mean, in 1948, people were discussing nationalization of the railroads and the mines, and full employment was still the ideal. Now, as I say in the book, 39.3 of Latino and black men in New York are permanently unemployed, and most people don’t even know about it. Certainly the Times doesn’t write about it. But that kind of number would have been absolutely unthinkable 60 years ago.

Rail: In the book, you identify McCarthyism as a turning point. Explain your view of McCarthy’s goals.

Schiffrin: The first thing that’s amazing is that McCarthy came to power, as it were, after Truman had purged the few Communists that were in the government. And yet very recently there was a book review in the Times saying how amazing it was that there were so few Communists in the State Department when McCarthy made his accusations. But McCarthy and his followers weren’t interested in that. They were certainly interested in making as many people suffer as possible for having followed the Communist doctrine in some way, but they were also out to get the New Dealers. I think that’s been underestimated—people have not talked about that, or even looked into it. And then there are the examples from my own life: Why were there full-time FBI offices at Yale in the 50s when I was there? What on earth were they looking at, or for? Later, when we had the Black Panthers in the 60s, conceivably the FBI would want to get in on the act. But in the 50s, there was absolutely nothing there. I hope that someday one student will look at the role of FBI’s campus offices, because every major university had them.

Rail: You describe your experience at Yale in the 50s essentially as an effort to help to create a thaw in the domestic cold war. Can you elaborate?

Schiffrin: As the FBI’s office at Yale showed, fear was everywhere. When the John Dewey Society started out in 1954, we got the Socialist Norman Thomas to speak, but people were afraid to give their names. They left saying they didn’t want to be on the mailing list, students and townspeople equally. That was just about the time of the Army-McCarthy hearings. A decade later, I was in Bob Silvers’s office when he was just starting the New York Review of Books. He was publishing a piece by I.F. Stone and he was really afraid that people would cancel their subscription. That climate lasted a very long time. It changed considerably, obviously, after the McCarthy hearings. But it took a while. And there’s another example from the past, on which I’ve still been doing a lot of reading: In 1946 most Democrats wanted the left-leaning Wallace to be the candidate in ’48 rather than Truman. It just shows how quickly these things change, at least on domestic politics. Socialist ideas disappeared so quickly, which is something I find so difficult to understand.

Rail: Tell us about your relationship to the early New Left.

Schiffrin: Well that’s sort of ironic, because I thought those guys would turn out to be much more conservative than the John Dewey Society, and in some respects they were. I mean the SDS, as I renamed it, was pretty much in the classic, old-fashioned social democratic loop, whereas we believed—and I still believe—that unless you change the basic way the economy is organized, you’ll never get anywhere. If you didn’t keep business from having all the power, it’ll control everything. The SDS kids thought that was crazy, and that what you had to do was build a parallel society: you had to build your own newspaper, and organizations, and so on and so forth, in the way the blacks have done in America for many decades. So they had a different attitude. They didn’t think you could change the overall society, except in trying to stop the war and trying to have real battles in the streets and in the universities and so on. But, ironically, they turned out to be much more radical than we had been.

Rail: In the last few chapters of the book, you make a strong critique of corporate culture and consolidation in publishing, which has grown in the last few decades. Tell us about it.

Schiffrin: This is also what the Business of Books is about. As publishing companies try to become profitable, there’s no limit to what profit margins the owners will insist on. Once you begin to say you’re going to make a certain amount as a minimum, the easiest way to head towards that is to simply cancel all the books that are going to have small printings, which is what’s happening. And those are the books that people need to read. When we published Foucault at Pantheon, I think it took us a decade for his work to catch on. There’s a kind of market censorship that won’t allow for books to grow in popularity these days. Then you have the political activities of the owners. The example I use most recently is that for the first two years after the Bush election, no major publisher released a book critical of the administration’s plans to invade Iraq. It clearly was not a commercial decision. More than half the customers in this country had voted for Gore. Harper Collins, Random House and the others were not deciding in terms of money, they were deciding in terms of politics—as were all of the major media at the time. As the war took shape, there was also a debate over FCC licensing. The New York Times and the Washington Post all wanted to be able to buy TV stations. Murdoch owned a lot of them to begin with. They were about to give away billions of dollars of licenses at the FCC, just as Bush was declaring that “you’re either with us or against us.” There was clearly pressure within the conglomerates, and elsewhere, not to rock the boat.

Rail: Does the decline of intellectual publishing also suggest that there’s a diminishing audience for left-leaning books?

Schiffrin: No, actually that isn’t true. Right after 9/11, Seven Stories did this little interview with Chomsky and that sold 100,000 in a couple weeks, which is enormous, and for a small house unheard of, amazing. You get a readership by publishing the books. And having people learn about the ideas. There was not an automatic Chomsky political audience when we published the first of his books. That’s part of the difference in publishing books versus magazines and newspapers. If you’re only going to publish towards an existing audience, then by definition, you don’t have any new ideas.

Rail: One of the best anecdotes in the book is about Alberto Vitale, who took over Random House when Condé Nast bought it in 1980. [Ed.’s note: Random House owned Pantheon, which Schiffrin ran at the time]. Vitale’s office contained no books and only a photograph of his yacht—an image which encapsulates your description of the change in publishing occurring at the time.

Schiffrin: I know that he used to boast that he never read a book. He was too busy, I’m sure. But that was a building where everybody had endless shelves of books. Even the financial people had them. Everybody knew what was happening. There was this whole new theory that books are simply products of one sort or another. You know, the language has been even affected. There’s the idea now that everything is a product, that everyone is a customer. You get on the subway and they don’t talk about passengers anymore, they talk about customers.

Rail: Is this change taking its toll on the rest of the culture, beyond simply the publishing world?

Schiffrin: Absolutely. When I was a kid, nobody went into what we call liberal professions for enrichment. People who wanted to do something interesting but not simply make money became lawyers, or doctors, or publishers. Now everybody in my class, when I meet them for reunions, says it’s all about money. If you’re a lawyer, it’s about how much rain can you bring in. If you’re a doctor, it’s about how can you cut back on what the patients need so that the insurance company will be happy. It’s a common thread.

Rail: But there are still legions of younger folks who have dreams of doing something beyond just making money.

Schiffrin: Yes, there are, and at the New Press we get an enormous number of interns who want to work with us, and I find that very encouraging. There are a lot of young people who are saying there must be another way to spend your life other than doing stuff you don’t want to do because it’s going to theoretically make you more money—and it often doesn’t even do that.

Rail: In terms of American intellectual life, independent publishing houses provide some hope, yes? Publishing has gotten so much easier with technology.

Schiffrin: Yes, it’s not that expensive. I mean my first book will now appear in 23 different countries, not because it’s a world classic, but because the same problems of corporate vs. independent publishing exist all over. Everyone has the same technology to work with. Distributing books is still a major problem, of course. But a lot of the most interesting books that are coming out now are from little publishers. The advantage of publishing is that it doesn’t require a huge staff, it doesn’t require lavish quarters, and it doesn’t require a lot of money.

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