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 authors propaganda. I give them their heads. They
furnish their own nooses.
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. Sothebys 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 dont
know how to cheat, lie, and do the unethical things necessary to manage in the new
2. Im 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.
Murdochs HarperCollins in England, signed contracts for Mr. Pattens 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 wouldnt
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 Pattens 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
I acknowledge a certain bias, being acquainted with Stuart
Proffitt. Ive thought well of him as the editor of very good books by writers I care
for: Patrick OBrian, 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 Murdochs dropping the book was a business
decision. HarperCollins is a small part of the mans media/entertainment
conglomerate [which now includes the Los Angeles Dodgers, and cable stations to broadcast
their games]. It wasnt worth antagonizing the Chinese over a book; the possible
harm to HarperCollinss 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, HCs 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 publishers 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
Its worth recalling Michael Bessie once more on the
matter of Murdoch, big publishing, the stock market, and real profits to be expected from
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And you werent in favor of that sale.
MICHAEL BESSIE: I was very strongly
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Why were you
MICHAEL BESSIE: Because I liked
Harper independent, and also because I didnt 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 didnt
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 cant 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 writers
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. Its certain nobody does over a
long period of time. Almost anything else in media can and does do better. Theyre
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 dont make a profit. So if youre 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, its said, on the latters 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
isnt 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
thats my experience. Its great, though, whats happening in publishing
these days. At least if we write seriously, we dont have to worry about having
anybody read it. But God reads all books.
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 Ive 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 Gides
superb Journals on guard duty in the Fontainbleu forest. Kafkas Diaries changed my
life later on, and Robert Lowells 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 Im still alive, maybe because I
dont want to die yet and poetry is a special life-force after the painting has been
taken out of my hands. Ive failed so far because my poems seem poor, but Ill
keep trying. Meanwhile, Ive 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)
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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