Sunday, July 18, 2010

Two Park Street!

Our book today is Paul Brook’s utterly enchanting 1986 memoir Two Park Street, about some of the glorious times he had in his forty-plus years of association with the storied old Boston publishing house Houghton Mifflin. Brooks started in the business in the early 1930s, when it was still run in an inefficient, ramshackle, and thoroughly human way, and back then, nobody could have foreseen the immense and horrifying changes that would sweep over the whole industry by the close of the 20th century. Those changes would leave nothing whatsoever intact of the publishing world Brooks entered, loved, and – as manager of Houghton Mifflin’s immensely influential trade division for decades – lead for so long. Books are still published in this country, on printed paper in English, but that’s all Brooks would recognize of the world he once loved as passionately as anybody.

He opens his wonderful book (it’s 150 tantalizing pages, and you wish it were five times as long) by describing a meeting the house’s executive committee had with Wall Street investors in 1967 shortly after Houghton Mifflin “went public” … a meeting at which those investors and analysts wanted to know what books the firm had coming out and what profit they expected to make – in actual dollars and cents – from each of them. Brooks had no answer, of course, and said something about how publishers must simply try to make the best cookies they could and let the fortunes take care of themselves. At the time, he was greeted with patronizing smiles and a free lunch. Today, saying such a thing to the stone-cold illiterate 23-year-old Bertelsmann power-suited executives (all wearing their sunglasses indoors, all with bright pink coke-nostrils), he would have been punched to the floor and beaten until he was dead, right there in the conference room.

Years ago, Ursula Le Guin wrote a wonderful essay for Harper’s on the state of book publishing, in which she urged big corporations to simply divest themselves of the troublesome ‘literary’ divisions of the publishing houses they’d acquired, since those divisions can’t reliably make money and the serious reading public is shrinking anyway. It was a funny plea with a twinkle in its eye, since Le Guin knew perfectly well she was pulling a Br'er Rabbit, scornfully advising corporations to do the one thing she and every serious reader prays nightly they’ll do: get out of the book business, let it go back to the “muddle” it once was, stop pauperizing publishing divisions by forcing them to pay 18 kazillion dollar advances to people like Stephen King or his anointed successor, so that the money can be “plowed” back into the finding and encouraging of waves of new writers, developing writers, struggling writers, or meritorious writers who’ve yet to find their audience.

Of course, Le Guin’s calls will go unheeded. As long as there’s any money to be made in publishing, by any methods at all, corporations will be interested – and as long as they’re interested, they’ll run things as corporations, with managers rewarded for being assholes, with every single activity or procedure graphed out along an continuum from ‘needs work’ to ‘totally unacceptable’ (in such a mind frame, nobody ever actually does anything well anymore), with allegedly fluent grown-ups using fad-phrases like “going forward” … and with ‘investors’ pushing for million-dollar paydays for a tiny handful of authors, as if making a parking-garage full of money was ever the reason why anybody worthwhile ever wrote a single word (with apologies to Johnson).

Brooks writes with unabashed, amber sentimentality about that now-lost “muddle.” Here are the ‘characters’ who went about their various rituals in Houghton Mifflin’s old offices at 2 Park Street in Boston (with conference room windows overlooking the Old Granary Burial Ground); here are actual human receptionists answering calls and chatting with customers and authors alike; here are the celebrated three-martini publisher lunches over which so much good business managed to get conducted; and here at Houghton Mifflin was the annual buying-trip to England, where many useful publishing contacts were made and much trans-oceanic dreaming was done.

Here also were the editors, a battered, valiant, monstrously overworked crew who tackled the vast piles of manuscripts that came to Houghton Mifflin every year. These editors had the enviable job of trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, and in my opinion this house had a better track record than virtually any other. How thrilling it is, to read Brooks give credit where it’s due to one of those editors, a wise and soft-spoken woman named Anne Barrett, who wrote this note in one of her editorial reports:
A rich book and a deadly serious one. I think it is wonderful, but it has its drawbacks. Who will read 423 pages about an unfinished journey undertaken by mythical creatures with confusing names? Probably no one, but I still say it is wonderful and – with my heart in my mouth – to publish. October, 1937.

The book was Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, and it and its sequels have done fairly for Houghton Mifflin ever since.

Brooks makes the point over and over in his chapters: back when publishing was an artistic endeavor rather than a financial investment, editors and writers enjoyed a relationship that’s largely vanished from the industry. They were friends and business colleagues, almost co-conspirators, and the results could range anywhere from the editor offering the author a night’s lodging and ending up with Thomas Wolfe sprawled all over their guest room for a month to perhaps even more sketchy incidents. Brooks relates the story of how he and his wife ‘volunteered’ to re-enact the canoe-journey Henry David Thoreau and his brother took on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, all to help one of the house’s authors research his biography of Thoreau:
From Billerica the Thoreau brothers turned off on the Middlesex Canal, but since it had long ago dried up, we had to portage around a formidable mill-race before paddling downstream to the center of Lowell and thence up the Merrimack River, with highways resounding from both banks most of the way. By nightfall we had reached our objective: Nashua, New Hampshire. But how to get home? At length we found a broken-down taxi that took us and our boat back to Lincoln by 2:00 a.m. Here we learned that someone had reported to the Concord police seeing a couple in a canoe depart but not return. Presumably they were about to drag the river. On receiving my report of our journey, Dr. Canby decided that this was sufficient research for his purposes. I mention it merely as one small example of routine service by editors to their authors.

Those authors included such legendary figures as the immensely likeable, down-to-earth Esther Forbes, the haughty-but-personable Anya Seton, the aforementioned larger-than-life Thomas Wolfe, the great trinity of Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger, and Benny DeVoto, the wildlife-guide guru Roger Tory Peterson, the great Rachel Carlson, and the bombastic Winston Churchill (Brooks also mentions a one-time publicity director for Houghton Mifflin, a writer – if such a term isn’t too generous – called Jack Leggett, about whom the less said the better), and the loving portraits Brooks draws of dealing with each of them leaves the reader with the distinct impression that we have wandered into dwarfish times here in the 21st century, when the point of the exercise anymore isn’t to write a great book or even a good one – or indeed any kind of book at all. The point for all the sad young literary men these days is to write the Future Source-Material for the Screenplay, and to get paid $15 million dollars to do it. Caring about the quality or craft of that Future Source-Material is just wasting time that could be spent talking about yourself in faux-humble terms at a podium at the 92nd Street Y. And caring about your subject matter? Please. Either make it lyingly autobiographical or make it about vampires – who cares? The point is selling it as soon as it’s done, selling it for more money than the last fifty generations of your family have seen collectively – for more money than you or anybody else in the world could possibly need. Yeah, that’s the writer’s dream.

Brooks wouldn’t recognize this landscape, nor would he want to. It’s a stump-studded wasteland populated by mindlessly avaricious Future Source-Material Generators whose goal is not to provide coming generations with immortal prose but to provide their little daughters with horses who can be given pretentious names. If some equivalent of Brooks’ Houghton Mifflin were to approach one of these Future Source-Material Generators and say, “We can pay you $15 million for your three-book series about sexy androids who fall in love with clumsy high school girls, but it will mean we’ll have to close our lists to all other fiction authors until your series is done in 2021; if you take the money, you’ll be the only fiction author we can afford for that period – we’ll be publishing you and crossword puzzle books and nothing else,” the Future Source-Material Generator would not only take the money, they would punch Brooks to the floor and beat him until he was dead.

But at least we have gemlike little books like  Two Park Street, to remind us that it wasn’t always so.


Ben Murphy said...

As always, a nice article, but if Anne Barrett's report on a book by Tolkien was made in 1937, the book was The Hobbit, not The Fellowship of the Ring.

PatD said...

Art as product is not exclusionary to the 20th or 21st century. As far back as Byron (probably further back), prostituting one's artistic soul for patrons or debts or fame had already been a slippery slope for some time. There is no sating the greed monster, and as unfortunate and sad as it all is, it's certainly not hopeless. Not as long as venues exist like this one and Open Letters Monthly.

Steve Donoghue said...

Sorry about the date! I got it wrong, as I sometimes do - 1953, not 1937!