|What it means, in our lives, is
the challenge of the book that may not have the audience, that may not have the obvious
audience, but where you say, This is very good, I want to do this. It comes
down to great simplicity, for me. It comes down to whatever you think quality is, and have
the arrogance to think that your notion of quality may have some validity.
Art and Commerce
MICHAEL BESSIE: Up to now, Ive
been talking about what Im not so much interested in; Ive not talked about
what I am interested in, which is literature and how does it get published?
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Let me quote
from an article you wrote for the Virginia Quarterly Review: 1 If
the publisher were simply a commodities salesman concerned solely with profit and loss, he
might say, There it is. Fiction is down, so we concentrate on other lines, and the
public be served. But of course, life is never this simple. And then you go on
to say why life never is this simple, concerning the sales of fiction. But my
question is: What does it mean to serve the public? Who is the
CORNELIA BESSIE: Who is the
public? The public are all those people with all those different tastes, some of
which may not be yours. You may not think that reading romances is the way you want to
spend your evenings, but there are readers out there and they should be served.
What it means, in our lives, is the challenge of
the book that may not have the audience, that may not have the obvious audience, but where
you say, This is very good, I want to do this. It comes down to great
simplicity, for me. It comes down to whatever you think quality is, and have the arrogance
to think that your notion of quality may have some validity.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Basically, of
course, what you do, I think, is acquire along the way your likes and dislikes, and your
own sense of how widely shared those likes and dislikes are. Give you a simple example:
when I started Atheneum, one of the things I knew about myself, and said to Pat Knopf [Alfred A. Knopf, Jr., co-founder of Atheneum] -- because it was
originally just Pat and me -- I said, You know, I have an outstanding weakness: I
have no real appreciation or appetite for commercial fiction. I wish I had. And there
certainly is some commercial fiction which I enjoy; but I dont have any gift for
it. And Pat had already had the notion of inviting Hiram Hayden to join us, because
Hiram had already demonstrated not only his commercial skills, but had published people
like William Styron. A few years later, we got Hiram to join us.
One of Atheneums failures during the time when I was
in charge was the failure to develop commercial fiction. Now, I say this despite the fact
that we published two or three of the most successful commercial books -- James
Clavells TAI PAN: Herman Golub [an editor at
Atheneum known for his strength in commercial fiction] brought that in.
The thing that you learn from, mostly, is your mistakes.
Cornelia and I muse from time to time over the books weve published -- and I can
certainly illustrate this -- which we were certain were going to be commercially
successful, and werent! That doesnt teach you how to avoid such mistakes, but
it gives you a notion.
1 Michael Bessie,American Writing Today: A Publishers Viewpoint,
Virginia Quarterly Review, 34:1 Winter 1958, p. 4.