i n s t i t u t i o n a l   m e m o r y 



Literary history, of which publishing is only a part, is marvelous and fluid. The publishing of books is itself a curious undertaking. In Europe and America, the organization, financing, distribution, and expectation of profit of the industry; that is, its entire structure, scarcely resembles what it was a dozen, or even half a dozen, years ago. The ‘accidental profession’ of an older generation, with its good manners and care for literature, has been all but replaced by corporate publishing, which banks on the mass-entertainment values of a media-based ‘global’ culture.

Substantially, however, what has changed? Do people read more bad books than ever? Fewer good books? Why should a marketer’s opinion matter at an editorial meeting? What has become of the editor’s art?

I thought I would ask certain notable book people what they thought about these matters, and they have been telling me, at length. Our conversations appear regularly in Archipelago, and may serve as an opening onto an institutional memory contrasting itself with the current establishment, reflecting on its glories, revealing what remains constant amid the present flux. Despite their surround of gentility, these publishers are strong-minded characters engaged with their historical circumstances. Out of that engagement have appeared a number of books  that we can say, rightly, belong to literature.

-Katherine McNamara


What has become of the editor? This is a more intimate question than I have asked before. I will write of a man I knew well, Lee Goerner, formerly at Alfred A. Knopf, latterly the last editor and publisher at Atheneum, and my husband. Though relatively young at his death, he was of that ‘old school’ now eclipsed. In a sense, historical circumstances overcame him.

Atheneum, founded in 1959 by Pat Knopf, Michael Bessie, and Hiram Hayden, had merged (as Michael Bessie has recounted) with Scribner’s by 1978. When Lee Goerner became its publisher, in 1989, Atheneum was owned by Robert Maxwell, the notorious British capitalist; the imprint belonged to Maxwell’s American publishing corporation which also held Macmillan, Scribner’s (as it was still called), The Free Press, Collier Books, and technical branches. In 1991, Robert Maxwell died amid questionable circumstances. As his English holdings were bankrupt, the American corporation was put up for sale to cover costs. For two or more years Atheneum and its publisher labored under a cloud of uncertainty while rumors of imminent sale destabilized his publishing program. When at last the new owners were announced to be Simon & Schuster, the news was a blow to him, because he saw their corporate philosophy and practices as antithetical to his own.

Simon & Schuster had recently been bought by Paramount Pictures (and tried on the short-lived corporate identity of “Paramount Publishing”). Paramount Pictures had itself been bought by the enormous Viacom, owned by Sumner Redstone. It is àpropos that I write of this now, as Redstone has just bought the CBS corporation. A thorough reorganization of this bivalved new conglomerate is promised, under an executive with no publishing experience; Simon & Schuster (deep in whose vaults lie the remains not only of Atheneum but also the old Scribner’s) is rumored to be for sale again.

There is a warmer reason, however, for remembering Lee Goerner in these pages: to mark the appearance of Lynne Tillman’s BOOKSTORE, telling the life and times of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co. In Manhattan, for twenty years Books & Co. was a delight to both serious and fashionable readers, until historical circumstances, once again, led to its closing. Many writers have given readings in that wonderful bookstore. I remember very well the night Isabel Allende read from THE STORIES OF EVA LUNA, her fourth book, published by Atheneum, where her editor and friend, Lee Goerner, had gone from Knopf. The upstairs room was crowded, and the crowd was expectant. Lee, who was to introduce her, did not care for public speaking. He was a slender, finely-dressed man who did nothing to call attention to himself, while observing the scene from behind his glasses and plotting his getaway. His voice was quiet, unemphatic; there was mordant humor in it, and, often, tenderness.

Lee Goerner introduces Isabel Allende
at Books & Co., 1991

“I first read Isabel Allende eight years ago in rather extraordinary circumstances. I was working at another publishing house at the time, and we received the Spanish language edition of the book you know as THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS. No one knew anything about this writer, the agent didn’t explain much about this writer, and all we had was the book and a rather charming photograph of this very attractive young woman. Since I was the only person at that house who read Spanish, it fell to me to read the book. And I took it over on a Friday afternoon to Carl Schurz Park and read the first chapter over a couple of hours — my Spanish was rustier than it is now — and I thought, This is OK. I then went home and proceeded to do some more homework over the weekend. As the week went by — I can tell this now, I would never have told Isabel before — it took me a week to get back to the book. I read some more in Carl Schurz Park on a Saturday, and then I stayed home all day Sunday; and I’d begun to get drawn in to the story, all the magical events. Then I stayed home Monday — I didn’t go into the office until I finished the book — my Spanish was getting better all the time — and I went to Bob Gottlieb, who was then head of the distinguished house of Knopf, and I said, ‘I don’t know anything about her, you don’t know anything about her, but this is the book we have to publish.’ He looked at me and blinked. He said, ‘Well, OK.’ We were extremely lucky in this regard because, as we found out later, three other North American houses had turned down this book. And as I said, that book was THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS, and I’m sure that’s where you first heard about Isabel Allende.”


from BOOKSTORE The Life and Times of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co.,

by Lynne Tillman

(New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999)



When Lee Goerner was a young man he lived for two years in a small apartment on Laguna Street in San Francisco. By day he worked in a cigar store. By night he wrote a novel. A year later he finished the novel, read it over, decided it wasn’t good enough and burned it. Tired of his own company, he abandoned the writer’s solitary existence; but he wanted to be in books. He drove his VW Bug back across the country, spent six months looking for a job, and entered publishing as a junior assistant at Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Someone asked me if he really had burned the manuscript. He must have; it was not among his papers. I thought I had found it; no, it was the translation of Isabel Allende’s first novel, THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS. He had read her book in manuscript, bought it, and then so disliked the translator’s work (and worked with another on the subsequent books he published) that he rewrote much of it. Of his writings known to me, these exist: an elegant newspaper piece about Machado de Assis, whom he admired almost as much as he admired Chekhov, which was a very great deal; and hundreds of letters, scattered among writers and other friends across the country. The ones I’ve read are good: the tone is distanced, balanced, never too personal. The editor disliked talking about himself. An English publisher wrote me that unlike most Americans Lee understood irony, and knew how to ‘deploy’ it. During his five years at Atheneum he published between eighty and a hundred books, most of them novels, nearly all edited by him. He used to say he stayed in publishing because he liked the writers – liked their company, liked listening to them, and working with them. He loved editing. He loved books, even physically: their heft and color, binding stamp, rough trim.

After his death, oftentimes one of his writers would phone me. We would talk about this and that, life going on, until there came brief pause, a long breath held. One of us – I, probably – mentioned Lee’s name. The listening writer was silent for a kind moment, a steady heartbeat, then said: I think about him a lot. He’s not here, but I find his mark everywhere – books he sent me, a note, tapes he made.

We consoled ourselves with those brief, intent moments of attention to memory and objects. We could not, for a long time, quite comprehend his absence, even as we learned of other deaths, lost friends, as we learned to live with our own illnesses and the terrible insecurities brought down by on us by the corporations that direct our life. Someone remarked: I’m cataloging deaths among our generation: the AIDS deaths, and this other kind. We began to understand – not our ‘mortality’: we don’t know what that is; we understood: “I didn’t return his call, now I can’t”; and, no more lunches marked by his humor and irony and high gossip about publishing; and, He’s not here. The physicality of his absence was what surprised us.


One day he named a novelist whose work, though acclaimed, he didn’t care for, though he didn’t say why. He never liked to give ‘reasons’ for his choices – he thought such things were after-the-fact reductions of emotion not easily, perhaps not wisely, articulated: although, once when we were speaking about how popular fiction, the movies, and the news seemed like variants of each other, he said, in a rare pronouncement: “You cannot deduce motivation from action.” If he was stubborn about what he liked, he worked from a carefully-wrought aesthetic. During his first freshman week at Cornell, he sat down in the undergraduate library and read GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, DON QUIXOTE, and THE LABYRINTH OF SOLITUDE. He thought the purpose of a university education was for reading books, not talking about them, not taking them apart out loud, in front of strangers. Formally, he studied history, not literature; literature was a creature you had best come to on your own. In fact he studied Black history; this was in the late ‘60s, then the early 1970s, for graduate school at the University of California at Davis, and the war was on. He studied Black history, he read Spanish, he went to movies, he hated the war. He was an angry young man; it took him a long time to learn to live with his anger, then to go past it.

I don’t know if he read Cervantes and Paz in Spanish that freshman week. He could have. He read and spoke Spanish: he had first encountered it in high school, in Venezuela. He said once that listening to Spanish had been like overhearing his mother-language, from the first the words seeming half-remembered, warm, as with friendship and knowledge. Later, he was one of the two or three book editors in New York who read Spanish. The formidable Catalan agent Carmen Balcells told me that in the early ’80s, when Lee came to Barcelona (then, as now, the conduit-point for Latin American literature), the writers and editors thought he had brought them the publishing version of the Marshall Plan. Carmen Balcells gave a reception in his honor to which everyone came. Lee stood in a corner and blinked when anyone approached him.

He loved movies, and was interested in writings about movies. In the early 1980s, I’d guess, he read an article by an English film critic named David Thomson about Warren Beatty, and, excited by this writer who was new to him, showed it to Robert Gottlieb, then editor-in-chief of Knopf. To his intense disappointment, Gottlieb wouldn’t let him buy David Thomson’s book. Later, Gottlieb became David’s publisher and Lee, his editor. Powerful older men often thwart gifted, rising young men – the young bucks who challenge the alpha stag, but cannot (not yet) vanquish him? Perhaps Lee himself turned into that stag. He encouraged some very smart young women coming up in publishing – he liked intelligent women as persons, and wasn’t afraid of them – but I observed several young men who carried battle-marks after working with him. “They’re full of themselves,” he would say; and – this, more and more often – “They don’t know how to read.” He wondered when he heard young editors talk about going out to clubs at night. “When do they edit manuscripts?” he asked. Nearly all his adult life he spent his evenings reading manuscripts. He had that high shoulder you get from years of carrying a heavy briefcase home from the office.

He began at Knopf in 1973, as a very junior assistant to Robert Gottlieb. Among the first books he was given to edit was Michael Herr’s DISPATCHES. When Michael Herr turned in the manuscript, no one at Knopf knew how to edit that hyped-up rock-and-roll language. Lee hovered in the hallway by Gottlieb’s office, his face glowing. Gloria Emerson, the war correspondent, watched him and said, “Give it to that young man.” DISPATCHES, a report of the war that poisoned our generation, was Lee’s first big book. The war didn’t leave him; one of the last books he published at Atheneum was ACHILLES IN VIETNAM.



“I saw a picture of a North Vietnamese soldier sitting in the same spot on the Danang River where the press center had been, where we’d sat smoking and joking and going, ‘Too much!’ and ‘Far out!’ and ‘Oh my God it gets so freaky out there!’ He looked so unbelievably peaceful, I knew that somewhere that night and every night there’d be people sitting together over there talking about the bad old days of jubilee and that one of them would remember and say, Yes, never mind, there were some nice ones, too. And no moves left for me at all but to write down some few last words and make the dispersion, Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.”


In late 1988, soon after we married, we were at dinner with Carol Janeway, his old friend at Knopf, who is also a fine translator, and her husband Erwin Glickes (d. 1994), who directed The Free Press. They knew that Lee was looking to leave Knopf (when I first knew him he said he wished he could have a year off), and Erwin asked if he would like to consider coming to Atheneum. At the time, like The Free Press, Atheneum was an imprint at Maxwell-Macmillan. Lee said yes. When he started at Atheneum he told me that he expected to have five years there – not that he meant to stay just that long; it was a different sense of timing: and he was right, almost to the month. In January 1994, the new corporate owners decided that respected literary imprint should no longer exist (profits were said not to be high enough) and its editor would have no place in the new order. He persuaded them to let him publish his spring list. Atheneum ceased to exist on June 30, 1994. The last title he published, wonderfully, was John Hale’s THE CIVILIZATION OF EUROPE IN THE RENAISSANCE. He had nearly another year: his year off. He listened to opera, read piles of books, watched movies, talked on the phone, went to lunch, napped in the afternoon. We traveled, and took walks. He didn’t wake at three a.m. so often anymore.

He must have lived with his own death, which announced itself as he began at Knopf. A physical exam was required. He learned then that he had juvenile diabetes. It was an inexorable disease; ameliorated, not cured. He was a Stoic; he faced the shadow, without flinching, until the end.

One day – I think it was during the unsettling year before Athaneum was shut down – he and Thomas Pynchon were saying goodbye after lunching together, when Pynchon took him lightly, affectionately, by the lapels and half-growled, “Only publish good books!” Lee did not reply, perhaps feeling he did not have to. When, later, sturdily, I defended Pynchon’s plea, he exclaimed, perhaps in despair, “That’s easy for him to say.”

A week or so before he died he had lunch with a younger editor whom he had befriended over the years. They talked about publishing and the state it had come to. Recalling the conversation, he look disturbed, almost hurt, then indignant. “He said I was cynical. But I’m not cynical: and you know why?” He tapped my knee, for emphasis. “Because I’ve never done anything for my own advantage.”

He loved Chekhov’s letters, though not the plays; many of the stories, however. A day or two after he died a piece of paper floated up; two passages on Knopf note paper, probably once scotch-taped to the wall above his typewriter.

Chekhov to a friend:

“In general, I am finding life tedious and, at times, I begin to hate it – something that never happened to me before. Lengthy, stupid conversations, guests, people asking me for favors, handouts of a ruble or two rubles, or three, having to pay cabbies for patients who don’t give me a cent – in a word, everything is so balled up that one might as well run out of the house. People borrow money from me and don’t pay it back, walk off with my books and don’t consider my time of any value. The only thing lacking is an unrequited love.”

Chekhov to S.N. Plescheyev, May 14, 1889:

“Write me a letter, my dear. I love your writing; when I see it, I grow cheerful. Besides, I shall not hide it from you, my correspondence with you flatters me. Your letters and Suvorin’s I treasure and shall bequeathe to my grandchildren: let the sons of bitches read them and know what went on in times long past.”

Books and authors mentioned:

Michael Herr, DISPATCHES




                           EPITAPH OF A SMALL WINNER


Cervantes, DON QUIXOTE



                               DICTIONARY OF FILM BIOGRAPHY

Lynne Tillman, BOOKSTORE




Among the authors and translators edited by Lee Goerner:

Isabel Allende, Max Apple, John Avedon, Cheryll Aimee Barron, Elizabeth Benedict, John Berger, William Betcher M.D., Anne Billson, James Bishop, Jr., Robert Olen Butler, James Campbell, Benjamin Cheever, James Colbert, Jim Crace, Robert Cullen, Kiana Davenport, Thulani Davis, Don DeLillo, James Dickenson, Ivan Doig, Sergei Dovlatov, Jennie Fields, Robert Fisk, Jonathan Freedman, Sarah Gaddis, William Gaddis, Gabriel García Márquez, James Preston Girard, Lesley Glaister, Laurel Goldman, Phyllis Grosskurth, Edith Grossman, Jay Gummerman, John Hale, Stephen Harrigan, Tommy Hays, Michael Herr, Linda Hogan, Andrew Hurley, Samuel Hynes, Charles Johnson, Lieve Joris, Helen Elaine Lee, Osman Lins, Hilary Mantel, Linda Hogan, Paule Marshall, Joseph McElroy, Tom Miller, Alanna Nash, John Nichols,Tom Nolan, Michael Ondaatje, Roberto Pazzi, Margaret Sayers Peden, Joan Perucho, Nélida Piñon, William Pollack M.D., Abel Posse, Reynolds Price, Ishmael Reed, Agusto Roa Bastos, Howard Rodman, Richard Schickel, Helen Schulman, Jonathan Shay, MD, PhD, Richard Slotkin, Randall E. Stross, Elizabeth Tallent, David Thomson, Rose Tremain, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, Sebastiano Vassalli, Armando Valladares, Sara Vogan, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Edmund White, Richard Wiley, Carter Wilson, David Winn, Larry Woiwode, Nancy Wood, Rudolph Wurlitzer


See also:

A Conversation with Marion Boyars, Vol. 1, No. 3

A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, Vol. 1, No. 4; Vol. 2, No. 1

A Conversation with William Strachan, Vol 2, No. 4

A Conversation with Samuel H. Vaughan, Vol. 3, No. 2

Books & Co. News at Turtle Point Press

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