John Sutherland

  • Publisher by Tom Maschler
    Picador, 294 pp, £20.00, March 2005, ISBN 0 330 48420 6
  • British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s by Eric de Bellaigue
    British Library, 238 pp, £19.95, January 2004, ISBN 0 7123 4836 0
  • Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane by Jeremy Lewis
    Viking, 484 pp, £25.00, May 2005, ISBN 0 670 91485 1

Tom Maschler’s memoir, Publisher, appeared in bookshops on 18 March. It might as well not have done. The book was dead on arrival, having been subjected to a barrage of premature review and ridicule. Private Eye’s Bookworm feasted on the still warm corpse. The Guardian’s Editor page ‘digested’ it satirically: ‘I was 27 when Hemingway shot himself. His death is the only regret of my magnificent career.’ The cartoonist Martin Rowson got the last laugh in the Independent on Sunday, with a riff on the ‘body of literature’: ‘And yet where are Publishers in this Corporeal Plan?/You’ll see them as a TAPEWORM if you do a CT scan.’ Alongside these lines was a caricature of Maschler as a leering parasite.

The reviewers agreed on three things. Maschler had written an absurdly self-important memoir. But he was, they reluctantly conceded, a very important publisher. It was not mere hype to label him, as the blurb did (concocted, presumably, by Maschler), ‘the most important publisher in Britain’. Third, it was generally implied, he was a bit of a shit (‘the rudest publisher I’ve ever met’, as one less rude and much less successful publisher told me). You can’t be a complete shit unless you are also top dog. Maschler is top of the heap and ‘dog’ is too domestic a beast. As one commentator wrote of him in his heyday (still barely thirty), ‘when Maschler turned up at a publishing party, the room stiffened as if a wolf had been let loose in a flock of sheep.’ The jacket picture – chosen, presumably, by Maschler – depicts him lounging, wolfishly handsome and casually smart, at his desk in Bedford Square, doing a deal on one phone with two others waiting: deals, deals, deals.

Whatever the literary quality of Publisher – a book which seems to have been dictated down one of these phones – Maschler’s achievements as a general trade publisher rank him with Archibald Constable, George Smith, John Blackwood, George Routledge, Frederick Macmillan, David Garnett, Ian Parsons, Allen Lane. It was one of the most highly regarded of today’s younger publishers, Peter Straus (now an agent), who commissioned the book. None of these coat-brushers of genius is a household name: most publishers remain invisible. And many of Maschler’s authors weren’t household names in Britain until he published them at Jonathan Cape. His stable has included Philip Roth, García Márquez, McEwan, Martin Amis, Barnes, Rushdie, Vonnegut, Chatwin, Fowles, Deighton and, Maschler does not fear to admit, Jeffrey Archer. The title he was most excited to publish was Catch 22, a novel he took on after more myopic others had turned it down. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is, he judges, the greatest work of literature he was responsible for, though there are several other contenders. His noblest bequest to posterity, he believes, is the Booker Prize (he came up with the idea and then found a means of funding it). Any literate British adult has reason to be grateful to Maschler. Children, too: it was his inspiration to pair up Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. His thumbprints are everywhere on British literary culture.

It is evident from letters quoted in his book that Maschler inspires loyalty and affection from his authors – not least from Blake, who has illustrated Publisher charmingly. Maschler quotes at length from such clients as Dahl, Vonnegut and Doris Lessing, who, if their words are to be believed, clearly care about Maschler (Jeffrey Archer one is less sure about). Writing to the Guardian to protest against the concerted ‘nastiness’ of the reviewers, Arnold Wesker recorded how helpful and generous Maschler was to the writers he took on. Who else, Wesker asked, would have stuck with him, not a world-famous playwright, and ‘sold nearly half a million copies’ of his plays in Penguin? So what if Maschler got rich in the process. Wesker’s remarks recalled the pugilist Larry Holmes on Don King: ‘If this is exploitation, keep it rollin’ in.’ Wesker’s affection, however, is measured. After a dispute about whether a play should be published before or after its first performance, the affronted playwright ‘did not speak to me’, Maschler records, ‘for 25 years’. But a year ago the bridges were mended: it was ‘almost like old times’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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