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Katherine McNamara

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My novels are based on the fantastic designs made by real human beings earnestly laboring to maladjust themselves to fate. My characters are not slaves to an author’s propaganda. I give them their heads. They furnish their own nooses.

Dawn Powell

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Fantastic Design, with Nooses


1. Making Money in China

A Chinese friend who is an antiques dealer in my town is doing very well, she notes wryly. Sotheby’s comes regularly to select from her stock. As I write, she is on her way home from China, importing an enormous shipment of furniture and domestic accessories. For the last decade the peasants of China have been enjoined to “make money,” and so they are selling off their households. Rivers of furniture are draining off to the West. My friend, in position to divert a wide stream of these things into her own warehouses, says this massive selling-off causes great pain to intellectuals, among whom she would rather be located. She is bored with making money -- it takes no thought -- and spends her days reading philosophy. However, the practical study of Chinese furniture has revealed to her marvels of her great civilization that she had never been taught on the Mainland. She is aware of the irony of this, and of her own position.

Rupert Murdoch, the naturalized American media baron, is said also to be making money in China. We presume the Chinese government, if hardly the peasants, is also benefiting greatly, as its leaders have given Murdoch rights to loft an exclusive satellite network across the Mainland. It is expected that this access will open China as a vast “market” to Western material and psychological goods. “Making money” replaces all previous slogans and spurs men to frantic destructive new activity. My friend the antiques dealer reports sadly that (in China) only good people are not making money, precisely because they are good people and don’t know how to cheat, lie, and do the unethical things necessary to manage in the new economy.

2. I’m shocked. Shocked.

Last June Britain handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese. Via CNN we watched the last British governor leave: Mr. Chris Patten, late an advocate of democracy for the soon-to-be former colony, critic of the Chinese government. Soon after his departure several publishers, including Mr. Murdoch’s HarperCollins in England, signed contracts for Mr. Patten’s political memoirs. Several months ago, Mr. Patten delivered the first 70,000 words to his editor, Stuart Proffitt, head of trade publishing at HC, who wrote back with enthusiasm that these were very fine political memoirs, so exciting as to quicken his blood, and certain to become a best seller. In late January Mr. Proffitt introduced Mr. Patten to the press as a coming author for HarperCollins and once again predicted great commercial success for the book.

But as we soon read in the papers, Murdoch wouldn’t cotton to the plan. At least, so his minions worried. Patten had criticized the Chinese government. What would the boss think? Consternation followed, we infer, and down through the levels of Upper Management came the word: Drop the book. (Had Murdoch murmured, “Will no one rid me of this priest?”) Stuart Proffitt, we read, was called into the office of a Senior Manager and told to take back what he had already publicly announced. He refused; was handed a gag order, then sacked (in effect, a “principled resignation,” said Patten’s agent, an old hand at the publishing game); and promptly sued his former employer for breach of contract. “It would have meant, in short, both lying and doing enormous damage to my own reputation,” Proffitt said in a legal affidavit.

I acknowledge a certain bias, being acquainted with Stuart Proffitt. I’ve thought well of him as the editor of very good books by writers I care for: Patrick O’Brian, Doris Lessing, Penelope Fitzgerald, Richard Holmes, John Hale, among others. He acted as anyone would have expected of a serious editor and honorable person. I think as well that the very British elements of this tale are more complex and interesting than have appeared in the media. Chris Patten was, after all, once chairman of the Conservative Party; Proffitt also published the memoirs of Margaret Thatcher and John Major; Murdoch was long known as anti-communist (as noted by Michael Bessie, in our conversation, elsewhere in this issue). HarperCollins, like most major publishing conglomerates, is rumored to be on the block.

The Financial Times said reasonably, yet with underlying horror, that Murdoch’s dropping the book was a “business decision.” HarperCollins is a small part of the man’s media/entertainment conglomerate [which now includes the Los Angeles Dodgers, and cable stations to broadcast their games]. It wasn’t worth antagonizing the Chinese over a book; the possible “harm” to HarperCollins’s “reputation” and “standing” was a price easily affordable for continuing good relations with the Mainland. Thus supposed the Financial Times. No doubt HarperCollins has a better reputation in England -- in good part, because of an editor the caliber of Proffitt, who also led Flamingo, HC’s literary imprint -- than in the U. S.; but surely this is a relative statement.

In an earlier Endnote I quoted Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, who said, naming companies like HarperCollins, with memory recent of the publisher’s arbitrary canceling of contracts with a hundred-odd writers, that after the conglomerations of the last decade, most of the publishers “left standing” have “debased the imprints started by their founders.”

It’s worth recalling Michael Bessie once more on the matter of Murdoch, big publishing, the stock market, and real profits to be expected from publishing books:


KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And you weren’t in favor of that sale.

MICHAEL BESSIE: I was very strongly against it.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Why were you against it?

MICHAEL BESSIE: Because I liked Harper independent, and also because I didn’t like Murdoch. The easiest way to answer your question is, Because I foresaw what has happened.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And what has happened, that you foresaw?

MICHAEL BESSIE: Harper has become, or, starting in ’87, became, huge. It became a minor interest, namely a cash cow, for Murdoch. See, he bought it for two reasons: he wanted a publishing house; he by that time had 40% of Collins [William Collins Publishers], in England.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Which was a respectable firm as well.

MICHAEL BESSIE: Oh, it was a great firm. It was a great old publisher, and a printer as well, Scottish printer. But under English law, once he acquired 40% he had either to stand still or take on the whole shebang. But he had a vision of a world-wide English-language book-publishing enterprise. I think at the time he had that dream first, he didn’t realize that his real dream was going to be movies and television. He also suffered, as did many another -- why did Paramount buy Simon & Schuster? -- from “synergy.” It was a widely-spread notion.

So, I was opposed to it, as were almost but not quite half the board. Harper was being headed by a fellow named Brooks Thomas, a lawyer by training, but not a book person. The firm was having a hard time adjusting itself to the situation that has since developed in big-time publishing. It was still, in the view of Wall Street, bound to the old-fashioned notion that you published books because you liked them, and so forth, and so forth. And it was beginning to have cash problems: it was profitable, but at too low a level.

What interests me about this most recent act of bad faith in publishing is the public response of some notable British authors. It was grand, conveyed with the gravity and yet volume we desire of writers and intellectuals. The historian Peter Hennessey is quoted as saying, “I am appalled by this...HarperCollins has quite simply ceased to be a member of our open society and no one in their right minds of any worth will ever give them a book again.” Doris Lessing called Murdoch “unprofessional” (of all things): “It is so shocking I can’t find words for it.” These writers, estimable without question, are published by HarperCollins. It is as if they had never considered the kind of man who owned the company whose name appeared on the spine of their books. How is that? The writer’s conscience, speaking historically, is a subtle, poised instrument and skillful at locating distinctions we might not otherwise have noticed.


3. Two Mortal Men Deciding Fate

MICHAEL BESSIE: [Harper] was still, in the view of Wall Street, bound to the old-fashioned notion that you published books because you liked them, and so forth, and so forth. And it was beginning to have cash problems: it was profitable, but at too low a level.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Ah, yes; that dreaded notion.

MICHAEL BESSIE: Well. RCA became disillusioned with Random House and sold it because they realized, as others have, and I suspect Mr. Newhouse now has, that book publishing, even under present circumstances, is very unlikely to return more than five or six percent net profit. In a very good year, you might; but almost nobody does. It’s certain nobody does over a long period of time. Almost anything else in media can and does do better. They’re also capable of generating larger losses. But, you know, they gamble for bigger stakes.

You know what the economics of trade publishing are: about two-thirds of the books that you publish don’t make a profit. So if you’re good, the loss is smaller; the loss narrows.

Michael Bessie, speaking last Autumn, was not prescient, I ’d say, merely acutely observant, being a man who knows the territory. The landscape of European and American conglomerate publishing is being paved over. His “Mr. Newhouse” is S. I. Newhouse, whose huge family-held company owns “big” Random House, covering “little” Random House, Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, Villard, and so on, and several English imprints. Bertelsmann, an immense German media corporation represented by Mr. Thomas Middelhoff has just agreed to buy all of Random House from Mr. Newhouse for a very great deal of capital. Mr. Middelhoff approached Mr. Newhouse with the offer, it’s said, on the latter’s 70th birthday.

Interested readers have seen media reports of the scale of this transfer of ownership. Bertlesmann is the Xth largest media conglomerate in the world, and holds Bantam Doubleday Dell, part of American On-Line, plenty of other entertainment companies, and, amusingly, RCA Records. Random House is the Yth largest publishing corporation in the U.S. and England, and publishes serious literature as well as lucrative high trash. Agents, always preferring the status quo, said glumly that now there would be fewer imprints and not as many editors to read their clients’ work. Editors are holding their breath waiting to be fired, or scurrying about looking for likely mega-sellers. Everyone is fearful; no one will speak for attribution. Etc. Etc.

What interests me about this development are two things. One, “no one” inside or outside Random House seemed to know the deal was in the works. Wonderful, when the gossipy publishing factories can be surprised. Two, once again the ground has been shaken underneath us who are writers and serious publishers. The quake isn’t even a natural disaster or some great historical cataclysm, merely the banality of capitalist dealings and their unintended consequences. The Random - Bertelsmann deal: two mortal men deciding fate.

Feeling portentous, I e-mailed the last few sentences to a Contributing Editor of this journal, a novelist who replied sensibly:

“Serious writing is always a little unnerving. Or that’s my experience. It’s great, though, what’s happening in publishing these days. At least if we write seriously, we don’t have to worry about having anybody read it. But God reads all books.”


4. Perspective

R. B. Kitaj, the painter, has moved to Los Angeles. The jingoist treatment of his superb retrospective at the Tate in 1994 by English critics caused him to leave London after decades of residence. He was interviewed before the show by Richard Morphet:

“Oh, I see myself in most exalted lines of descent of course, among those mad scribblers Delacroix, van Gogh, Gauguin, Whistler, Sickert, to name just five. The collected writings of Matisse and Klee are also favourites on my shelves, and I’ve already mentioned the crucial books written by Mondrian and Kandinsky in another context. Painters who write are also enacting a kind of play within a play... the larger drama is the work of the great confessional writers for me... Rousseau (a discovery of my old age), Proust, Montaigne, Kafka, Gide, the Russians, Canetti and the like. I came upon the confessional mode quite young. In the army, I read Gide’s superb Journals on guard duty in the Fontainbleu forest. Kafka’s Diaries changed my life later on, and Robert Lowell’s poetry also helped lead me to think an autobiographical art of painting was not only possible but deep within my bones. But painters have always written. Picasso wrote a lot of Surrealist stuff. At the top of the heap was Michelangelo.... He inspired me to try to write poems about my own pictures, to somehow extend the life of a painting while I’m still alive, maybe because I don’t want to die yet and poetry is a special life-force after the painting has been taken out of my hands. I’ve failed so far because my poems seem poor, but I’ll keep trying. Meanwhile, I’ve written some short stories or prose-poems for some of my pictures, as you know. I like the idea that they have no life apart from the picture. They illustrate the picture the way pictures have always illustrated books in our lives.”


(R. B. Kitaj: A Retrospective, ed. Richard Morphet. London: Tate Gallery, 1994)

See also:

Bessies conversation, Vol 2, No. 1
Bessies conversation , part  I Vol. 1, No. 4
Endnotes, Vol. 1, No. 3
Endnotes, Vol. 1, No. 4

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