Wolfish

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’.

Why, then, was Maschler so disliked by reviewers? His refusal to be invisible clearly irritated them. And, like many of the outstanding British publishers of the 20th century, Maschler is English but not quite English enough. Like Anthony Blond, the publisher of Jean Genet and Harold Robbins, he is ‘A Jew Made in England’, as the title of Blond’s memoir had it. The outline of Maschler’s career also recalls that of John Calder, whose memoir, Pursuit, was published in 2001, to another general kicking. Born in Canada, educated in Switzerland, multilingual, the publisher who got Beckett, Burroughs and Robbe-Grillet onto British bookshelves, Calder is a North-American Scot made in England.

Ever since the Scottish Scots started coming down to London with the proverbial half-crown in their breeches in the 19th century, many of the most innovative publishers have been insider-outsiders. Typically, such publishers have combined a reverence for English culture with a mission to deprovincialise it. When John Curtis left Penguin for Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1957 (leaving the vacancy that the young Tom Maschler would fill), he was told two things. At Weidenfeld and Nicolson, authority was not devolved via committee: this was George Weidenfeld’s show. Second, Curtis was told, the aim of the house was to ‘open a window to Europe and the world’. So a kind of xenophobia may explain the harsh treatment meted out to Calder, Maschler and (to a lesser extent) Blond’s memoirs. A more likely irritant is the pushiness of young men in a hurry.

Maschler was lucky to arrive on the scene on the eve of the 1960s, a decade friendly to youth. Having declined to go to Oxford (he thought the offer to do PPE unworthy of his intellect), he was invalided out of National Service. He had found square-bashing ‘intolerable’ and resented being shouted at by sergeants. After some false starts in the book world, he was taken on as a fiction editor, aged 24, by the boss of Penguin, Allen Lane. ‘It seemed,’ Jeremy Lewis records in Penguin Special, ‘as if he was interviewing Lane for a job, rather than vice versa.’ At one editorial meeting Lewis describes, the phone rang. ‘I thought I said I wasn’t taking any calls,’ Lane barked. The call, it emerged, was not for him. ‘Oh, hello darling,’ Maschler began, and embarked on a ‘long and amorous conversation’ with his current popsy. Maschler, it seemed, didn’t know his place. Or rather, he did know his place: the top – he just wasn’t there yet. Despite the insubordination, Lane was soon talking of Maschler as his heir apparent.

Would he have been as good a publisher had he been less pushy? He might have been better liked. Many of the harsh reviews of Publisher had kind words for Diana Athill’s memoir Stet (2000). Athill declines the title Maschler grandly bestows on himself. ‘I was not a publisher,’ she writes, ‘I was an editor.’ Athill, as her memoir makes clear, knew her place. It was, first, in André Deutsch’s bed, and then at his right hand when he needed a factotum. Philip Ziegler’s life of Rupert Hart-Davis (2004) was kindly received for perhaps the same reason. ‘I’m not really “au fond” a publisher at all,’ Hart-Davis told a friend. ‘I’m really some sort of literary bloke, who likes reading, writing, ferreting, compiling, classifying.’

Maschler’s pushiness was accompanied by a monumental tactlessness. Tom Rosenthal recalls meeting him in 1960: ‘Maschler drove me to a Booksellers’ Association in Bournemouth, when we were both still under 30, and discussed life and letters for the entire journey. As we arrived he told me how much he had enjoyed the conversation as he felt that he’d learned much about me: “You see, I’ve heard you mentioned several times as another Tom Maschler.”’ It is surprising how often Maschler’s car – a Sunbeam Alpine – is mentioned in spiteful anecdotes. John Calder recalls going on an Aldermaston CND march, again in 1960, and seeing Maschler

driving up to the middle of the march and parking his conspicuous car behind a pub as we camped by the road with our picnic lunches at about one o’clock. A minute later he came out from behind the pub, casually dressed, walked around the groups who were eating their lunch, nodding to some, speaking to others, and then, when the march resumed, walking casually back to the pub. A few minutes later I saw his car whizzing past us on the road back to London. It was trendy to be on the march. But Tom was not one for the effort involved.

‘Shallow’ is Calder’s Caledonian verdict.

In his two years at Penguin, Maschler devised the New English Dramatists series, which did as much as the Royal Court to bring about the 1960s renaissance in British theatre. He moved to Jonathan Cape (whose patriarch, unlike the inconveniently hale Allen Lane, had just died), having left an indelible mark. The seniority of the Cape position was one attraction; another was that ‘I did not greatly enjoy reprint publishing’, or, in other words, falling in behind other publishers’ choices.

The elders of a trade that was facing new and unfamiliar challenges saw these young publishers as saviours. Michael Howard, Jonathan Cape’s vice-regent for ten years, entitled the last section of his 1971 history of the firm ‘Regeneration’. It opens with Maschler’s arrival and ends with his ascent – aged 37 – to the chairmanship. Howard concludes: ‘I could have found no better hands in which to leave the house of Cape.’ Maschler would, Howard was confident, continue the firm’s ‘stable traditions’.

But in the subsequent glory years at Cape, it wasn’t Maschler’s safe hands that were impressive so much as his nimble footwork. Of course he published all the names he trumpets, in chapter after tedious chapter. But, more important, he kept Cape intact as the tides of merger and acquisition swamped the British book trade, wiping out its middle-sized ‘houses’, each with its own house style and personality. Viewed optimistically, conglomeration was ‘creative destruction’. For pessimists, it was destruction tout court. Maschler’s managerial adroitness is described, much more effectively than he describes it himself, by Eric de Bellaigue in British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s. Cape resisted the tide of conglomeration by a series of ad hoc alliances (‘Hanseatic alliances’, as de Bellaigue calls them) with other similarly sized publishers: Chatto, Bodley Head, Virago. It was a lifeboat strategy. The consortia, always flexible, pooled business functions (warehousing, distribution, sales, accounting), leaving the houses free to keep their own personalities at editorial level. Or that, at least, was the idea. It was more difficult than it sounded. There were, as de Bellaigue delicately puts it, ‘tensions’; and a general feeling among junior members of the alliance that ‘the business was run for Cape’ – in other words, for Maschler.

For the best part of two decades, Maschler and his colleague Graham C. Greene kept Cape independent: their faith in the company ‘never wavered. Neither of them ever sold a share.’ Finally, Maschler came to an arrangement with his American friend Bill Gottlieb at Random House. There is an arresting detail in Maschler’s account of a conversation with Gottlieb in 1987. Gottlieb asked how much Maschler and Greene earned. Forty thousand pounds, he was told to his astonishment: roughly what a first-year dogsbody editor earned in New York. The English publishers left the meeting with doubled salaries and ten-year contracts. On the strength of their shareholdings they had become millionaires. Maschler promptly fell into the most acute and paralysing depression of his life. It was three months – during which he carried out some therapeutic bloodletting in the office – before he could work again.

By reference to Booker victories and shortlistings, de Bellaigue demonstrates Cape’s sustained supremacy as a literary publisher from 1960 to the present day. Maschler can be said to own the prize in two senses: he invented it, and it is frequently on his firm’s mantlepiece. This year Ian McEwan’s Saturday is already said by bookmakers to be leading the running for the prize. Without Maschler, one suspects, there would no more be a house of Cape to publish McEwan in 2005 than a House of Usher. His is a remarkable and, in its way, heroic story. It’s a shame that he tells it so badly.

Jeremy Lewis would have told it better. The title of his book, Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane, is ambiguous. Is this biography or company history? It sets out to be both, but as an account of Lane’s life it is deficient. Either the founder of Penguin was a man without qualities, or Lewis was nobbled by the family members whom he fulsomely thanks in his acknowledgments. The reader will learn more about Lane’s vexed marriage, for example, from a couple of indiscreet sentences in Publisher than the several hundred pages of Penguin Special. ‘I have got a little barrier around myself that I find very difficult to let anybody inside,’ Lewis reports Lane as saying. This should have been his epigraph. But as a house history Lewis’s book is outstanding. A publisher himself, he narrates the complicated office dramas, big ideas and epic feuds that produced the century’s most famous line of books. The story is told with verve and enlivening malice (most of it for his predecessor J.E. Morpurgo, whose 1979 biography, Allen Lane: King Penguin, stinks in Lewis’s nostrils).

Particularly gripping is Lewis’s account of the turbulence left by Maschler’s departure in June 1960. In his letter of resignation to Lane, Maschler recommended his friend Tony Godwin as his replacement. Lane did as he was advised, fondly thinking that Godwin was ‘another Tom Maschler’. After a honeymoon period – at an exhilarating time for the firm, with the acquittal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in November 1960 – friction developed. Two publishing visions were in conflict. Godwin extended the list into the territory associated with Calder (Camus, Sartre, Svevo, Brecht, Genet), and moved it leftwards, with Penguin Specials propagandising for unilateral disarmament and against capital punishment. Paul Foot’s campaigning career as a writer began with a book for Penguin, Immigration and Race in British Politics. Godwin had a cavalier attitude to finance, buying rights from Maschler, for example, at what older heads regarded as wild prices. He published advanced literary criticism – Leavis, Empson, Wellek and Warren – in his egghead Peregrine list, and hip titles like R.D. Laing’s Divided Self for the pot-smoking student. He launched the Penguin Modern Poets series; the Liverpool Poets volume, riding on the back of the Fab Four, sold 50,000. He brought a new flair to the firm’s previously typographical covers.

Godwin did all this and in the process mightily pissed off Allen Lane, for whom Somerset Maugham was as far into the future as he wanted Penguin to go. For all his flair, Godwin was, as Lewis vividly describes him, as pig-headed as Lane was stiff-necked. By a series of manoeuvres, he was eventually fired. A jubilant Lane was overheard boasting in the Garrick that he had got rid of ‘that shit Godwin’. Reading Penguin Special alongside Publisher one wonders whether Maschler – a better office politician – might have succeeded (in both senses) where his friend failed.

In Pursuit, Calder identifies two points of cultural collapse during his career. One was the Lady Chatterley trial, after which dangerous books ceased to be dangerous and became mere commodities. The other was the abolition of the Net Book Agreement, after which books came to be sold like baked beans. The man who can take most credit for bringing the NBA down, Terry Maher of Dillons, made clear in his memoir, Against My Better Judgment (1994), that his principal battle was with publishers – a set of businessmen who believed that ‘they are a cut above booksellers’. Publishers, Maher felt, were directly responsible for a book market that was ‘under-capitalised, old-fashioned, snobbish, inward-looking, regulated and, not surprisingly, inefficient.’ Maher, engagingly frank about his agenda, wanted to cut publishers down to size. He had no problem with applying the baked-bean philosophy to books: ‘If a grocer does not like the way Heinz runs its business, he can transfer his custom for baked beans to another supplier, or develop his own brand. In the book trade if a bookseller wants Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, he has no option but to deal with its publisher.’ Maher wanted to change that balance of power. He and his sansculottes finally succeeded in 1996. The abolition of the NBA has tilted the balance from the publisher to the bookseller. Conglomeration has created vast industrial landscapes in which no individual publisher, however able, can aspire to the Napoleonic stature Maschler enjoyed in his greatest years. He could have called his book ‘The Last of the Publishers’, but that might have been immodest.