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Keepers of the Word | The Nation

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Keepers of the Word

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O Marvel, that one can give to another what one does not possess. O Miracle of our empty hands.
      --George Bernanos,
Diary of a Country Priest

About the Author

Daniel Simon
Daniel Simon is publisher of Seven Stories Press.

Also by the Author

One recent Tuesday, members of the literary old guard gathered at the Church of All Souls on Manhattan's Upper East Side to bid final farewell to one of their secret society and to be reminded that the literary agent Candida Donadio, who had died some weeks earlier, was always clear in her devotion to the

written word and the men and women who make it. So much so that she never allowed herself to be pulled off her course by issues of money or power, meanness or shortsightedness. She had represented, over the years, so many of our literature's mega-authors--Heller, Pynchon, Roth and so on. Everything was always personal with Candida. You sensed her Sicilian past the moment you met her, and with Candida business was always the handservant of literature, not the other way around.

I met Candida in 1984. At the time, all of Nelson Algren's novels were out of print, and Algren himself had died just three years earlier. A short story of his that I'd read in a battered anthology compiled by Robert Penn Warren, "A Bottle of Milk for Mother," had knocked me off my feet. A young editor at Norton then, I blazed through the Algren canon. Although the books were out of print, people everywhere seemed to love to say they had known Algren, and two separate short-fiction prizes had been named after him. He was being silenced and cited simultaneously, and to me that seemed like a kind of posthumous torture. So I called Candida, who had represented him, and said I would like to start reissuing his books, which I could arrange through a company called Writers and Readers, where I moonlighted. Candida dutifully called each of Algren's previous publishers--Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, Doubleday, Putnam. None were interested in putting him back into print, so after about six months of demurring she told me yes, and from then on she never ever said no to me. Once she accepted me as a fellow keeper of the flame, I could have proposed running the texts backward and I think she would have given serious consideration to the proposal.

Candida's connection to her authors, and particularly Algren, was devotional both in the sense of requiring an absolute loyalty and in that there was an incense of faith and ritual that surrounded her--and you also, if you were fortunate enough to be on the inside with her. Her youthful partner Neil Olson said that Candida never thought of herself as a literary agent at all, but rather, she said, as a person polishing silver. You could picture her as a goddess disguised as a servant, in order to make sure that the silver--those words written by her clients--not be denied its brightness. For its sense of egolessness in the extreme, and its implied narrative of enhancing the beauty of what is precious, the image is brilliant and pure Candida.

The anecdotes at All Souls were revelatory of how her values increasingly stood out in a changing landscape. Knopf associate publisher Vicky Wilson recalled that Candida used to say sometimes that she wanted to become a Carmelite nun--not a big change, I can't help thinking--and how, at one of their regular lunches, Candida had fixed her large eyes on Wilson and said of a contract, "Can't you do better on the dough?" The interesting thing is that the anecdote suggests mostly they were talking about things other than money.

Robert Stone regaled the crowd with his favorite Candidaism: "She loved to say, 'Trust is good, not to trust is better.'" And then added, "Not that she believed that not to trust is better. Just that she loved to say it." Leaving us in the audience who knew her to be infused one last time with her complexity: Not that she didn't believe that not to trust wasn't better. She knew when to do both. And loved to say it.

Peter Matthiessen added some color along those lines: During a lunch at which Candida had been drinking heavily, she was sitting next to Matthiessen and hardly responded to an attorney's harsh demands during a negotiation over one of Matthiessen's books. At the very end she turned to the attorney and thanked him politely for the pleasure of lunching together, and then raised her voice to say: "We like you but we don't love you. You are not our brother!" And then she countered each of the attorney's points. "She hadn't missed a single thing," Matthiessen recalled, still marveling.

Frank Conroy recalled when Candida and he were both just starting out, he a pimply-faced, 24-year-old unknown, she the receptionist and assistant at a literary agency. At the end of their first meeting, he described how he called up his courage and reminded her that she was never going to make any money off him, then asked, "So why do you want to represent me?" And how she had leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "The prestige!" The complete implausibility of her response had stayed with him all these years. And perhaps too that in the end she had been proved right.

Eden Collinsworth, a young, willowy Hearst executive who had grown close to Candida in the past decade, told a story that was not related to publishing and yet expressed her magic nonetheless. On the evening Collinsworth introduced her to her fiancé, Candida pulled her aside to say, "He has a very interesting mind, but have you looked at his shoes?" Collinsworth had to confess she had not. "Have you looked at his shoes," Candida repeated, "and considered their implication? They're handmade shoes; it's not going to be easy for you."

We miss her. We need more like her.

He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station-house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query-roo

The integrity of book publishing in the past half-century often relied on the outsized personalities at the helms of the independent houses. The very diminutiveness of their operations helped empower these small businessmen and -women to place the imagination first and shape their companies around literature, social issues and ideas. The "profit incentive" among them had more to do with survival and pleasure than money-making. When they survived and--more rarely--made money, it was with a sense of surprise, even embarrassment, which endeared them to their authors, since it was clearly not what they were in business for. They were talent magnets, because the publishing life is colorful and the work meaningful. Perhaps most important, the best among them sought out and encouraged the humanity and intelligence in those around them--writers, editors, salespeople. That humanism is a rare quality but a necessary one for publishers.

One thinks of George Braziller, publisher of Australian novelist Janet Frame and Matisse's cutouts, and hundreds of other important books; Barney Rosset, formerly of Grove, successful defendant of free speech in court cases involving Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer, publisher and friend of Samuel Beckett and Kenzaburo Oe; Stanley Moss, poet and owner of the Sheep Meadow Press, where he publishes Stanley Kunitz, Yehuda Amichai, David Ignatow and many others; Marion Boyars, the eponymous British publisher (who died this year) of Julian Green, Ivan Illich, Ken Kesey and other lights; Glenn Thompson of Writers and Readers, publisher of the "For Beginners" series, which recasts the most difficult subjects into documentary comic books; Florence Howe of the Feminist Press, with its signature anthologies and reprints of womanist classics like The Yellow Wallpaper; and André Schiffrin of Pantheon, and now the New Press, publisher of Studs Terkel, Matt Groening and Art Spiegelman's Maus; to name just a few--soldiers from the publishing wars, and innovators all.

There was James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, where Delmore Schwartz, Ezra Pound and H.D., not to mention extraordinary translations by Louise Varèse and others of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, found shelter; Nicolás Kanellos of Arté Publico in the Southwest, publisher of a whole generation of Latino authors whose voices might otherwise not have been heard; John Martin of Black Sparrow, who managed a stationery store when he came across Charles Bukowski in the early 1960s and decided he would publish him, since Bukowski "didn't hide behind metaphor" and he could print the books on the store's offset press; of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher, at City Lights, of Ginsberg's Howl and other masterpieces.

On the shelves we find works from Curbstone, the Permanent Press, Coffee House, Copper Canyon, Graywolf, Walker, Soho, Steerforth, my own Seven Stories, Verso, Overlook, Arcade, Seal, Sun and Moon; there are probably dozens of worthy, committed houses you could name. And even this would be a sampling; the entire list would be not endless, but surprisingly long, suggesting that these smaller houses are a kind of grassroots force, without which America might have suffocated in the dust of the long march of the fifty-five years since the end of the Second World War.

Lives spent in book publishing don't tend to turn out men and women of perfect virtue. Years fighting on the battlefield between art and commerce make for wily, poker-faced, hard-boiled characters. If those I name above are to me worthy heroes nonetheless, it may be because, almost like dancers whose every performance is life and death, they are people for whom each book is utterly important, for whom words are paramount, who are creations, as much as creators, of their lives as publishers--and who became better human beings for having spent their adult lives reading and fighting for shelf space for the books they published. In the end, they are seekers following a light. "We're fools," Thompson says, "or we wouldn't be doing what we do." But what human being battling for something isn't part fool?

Then there is the other side of the book publishing business, the corporate sector, mostly based in midtown Manhattan, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of the vast number of books--over 120,000 titles--published each year in the United States. And it is here that the pace of change is like a runaway train, not only with merger upon merger but with a not-so-gradual shift from editorial (with complementary sales-centered) philosophies to financial-growth and marketing-centered ones. At times in recent decades the struggle between the editorial-minded and the fiscal-minded has seemed like trench warfare.

In the period just past, the battle reached, one hopes, its bloodiest point. One after another, following an accelerating consolidation of publishing houses into fewer than a handful of conglomerate entities, wonderful imprints closed or were blended into the corporate edifice in ways that left their unique character forever lost (Dial, Schocken, Atheneum, the Free Press, Owl, Morrow...). Hundreds of independent bookstores across the country failed as well (in Manhattan alone, this included Endicott, Books & Co., Spring Street Books, Verso Bookstore, Eighth Street Books, Paperback Booksmith's, Brentano's). Repackaged actors-turned-authors (who rarely wrote their own books) were emblematic of the historical moment, with first printings of their "works" sometimes approaching a million copies, while those of Nobel Prize-winners or future Nobel Prize-winners could be published nearly invisibly. Esteemed and gifted editors (Elisabeth Sifton, David Stanford, Tom Engelhardt, Allen Peacock, Mark Chimsky, Mary Cunnane, to name just a few) were pushed out by the "new thinking" or simply walked away in disgust.

The air in the corridors of corporate publishing houses developed a pall, slightly stagnant, that was not just people's fear of losing their jobs but also a fear of new ideas and new kinds of voices. And while the editors named above would find work as writers, contributing editors and freelancers, and while a good number of great independent bookstores survived (Three Lives, Shakespeare & Co., Coliseum, St. Mark's, among the Manhattan establishments) and new ones were born (Labyrinth), the axis of power in book publishing nonetheless shifted toward devotees of a pure business model that has never been shown to apply to books, causing a new and now fundamental instability that has not been good for readers or writers.

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