The death of André Schiffrin and Big Publishing
December 2, 2013 | 12:30 pm
The demise of a force in American literary publishing, André Schiffrin, in Paris at age 78, offers a moment to reflect on how Big Publishing works, and exactly how deep is its true reverence for the cultural and intellectual values that it wheels out periodically to defend copyright extension, DRM, the Apple price-fixing cartel, and its other self-interested curbs on free expression. For the former chief editor of Pantheon Books was the focus of a storm over editorial integrity versus commercial pressures when he was fired by the company’s parent Random House in 1990, in a move which many authors and others dubbed corporate censorship.
Schriffrin’s father Jacques Schriffrin was the creator of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, an imprint with immense cultural prestige in France. The Schriffrin family fled to New York when Vichy France’s anti-Jewish laws demanded his father’s dismissal from the company he founded. In 1962, Schriffrin joined Pantheon Books, already in the hands of Random House, as executive editor, and championed authors such as Marguerite Duras, Günter Grass, and Noam Chomsky. However, the imprint was concerned to use its revenues to finance less commercially successful books rather than to enrich its parent’s bottom line, and eventually there was a collision with Alberto Vitale, the new chairman of Random House, who asked Schriffrin to resign after he refused to cut either Pantheon’s list or its staff. Writers who demonstrated or spoke out against his dismissal included E.L. Doctorow, Studs Terkel, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
After his ouster, Schriffrin went on to found The New Press, an independent not-for-profit publishing house supported by various cultural and other foundations, which continues to this day. The titles of Schriffrin’s own books really sum up his own experience of publishing: L’édition sans éditeurs (Publishing without Publishers), The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, Le contrôle de la parole (The Control of Speech), A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York, and Words and Money.
So, ladies and gentlemen, on one side we have the Pléiade, multiple Nobel prize winners, refugees from the Nazis, and the intellectual cream of two continents. On the other, we have Penguin Random House and Author Solutions. Which camp would you prefer?