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Al Silverman Talks to The Post-War Editors Who Helped Forge Contemporary American Letters

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 10/1/2008

This past March, in the New York Times Book Review, Matt Weiland reviewed Richard Zoglin's Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America, and coined a useful phrase in the bargain. "Gang theory," Weiland explained, is "the idea that a number of charismatic revolutionaries coalesce and together grab power and attention, overturn orthodoxies and remake their time. It's an alluring idea, and well suited to describing the dynamics of scenes and subcultures of, say, cooks or comedians." Or the book world: What industry, after all, is more cliquish than publishing?

Gang theory isn't quite what Al Silverman's new The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors (St. Martin's Press) is about. The book is a celebration of the "golden age of the publishing industry," from the end of World War II to the beginning of the 1980s, focusing on the publishing houses themselves, particularly the book editors who nabbed, followed hunches on, coaxed, cajoled, browbeat authors into, and otherwise helped midwife much of the canon of modern American literature.

You'd expect there to be plenty of gossip here, and there is. But for all the many interviews Silverman did (120, by the author's count), the book is more personal reminiscence bolstered by reporting than an immersive outsider account. Where a book like Peter Biskind's 1998 gang theory Rosetta stone Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is omniscient and detail-packed, Silverman, a publishing veteran who spent 16 years as editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club and nine at Viking/Penguin, is chatty, relaxed, and offhandedly candid. Right near the top, he says that the publishing industry "began to falter not when the book publishers who loved books gave way to those who preferred profits to reading. It happened when publishers and editors began cutting back on their drinking. If there is one national flower in book publishing, it is the martini."

Silverman cuts his own liquid voice with gray-shaded boxes of first-person testimony from his principals--a kind of Studs Terkel in reverse. Authors pass through the narrative as adjuncts to the editors and publishers, not the other way around. Silverman keeps aerial track of so much activity, across such a long span, that you can find yourself wanting more nuts-and-bolts detail about the actual editing done to some of the many great titles mentioned within, such as the section in which Tom McCormack recounts, in engaging detail, the process by which he found two slim, obscure volumes by English veterinarian James Herriot and persuaded their author to combine them, with some new chapters, into the best seller All Creatures Great and Small.

There are countless memorable anecdotes. When Judith Jones, an editor employed by the fearsome publisher Alfred A. Knopf, prepares a first book by American cook Julia Child, her boss is skeptical: "Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in the fall of 1961. `If you can sell a book with that title,' Alfred told Jones, `I'll eat my hat.' Chomp, chomp." The founding trio behind Anatheum--Alfred A. "Pat" Knopf Jr., Random House editor in chief Hiram Haydn, and Harper and Brothers senior editor Simon Michael Bessie--bring their house to prominence before money troubles and bickering bring about a nasty split, with Haydn fired and Knopf freezing Bessie out of power. (The one thing the trio agreed about was to pass on Mario Puzo's third novel, after publishing his The Fortunate Pilgrim, leaving The Godfather to G.P. Putnam's Sons--and sales of over 12 million.)

The book's renaissance figure is Robert Gottlieb, the legendary bookman (and magazine editor--he ran The New Yorker from 1987 to 1992) who dominates two sections, on Simon and Schuster and Knopf. (Silverman's chapters are organized by publishing house.) A teenager obsessed with book sales charts turned, in his own words, "a very arrogant and scruffy young man" having trouble finding work, Gottlieb began as an assistant in the Simon and Schuster offices before becoming the company's wunderkind, taking rank at age 26 and steering the house toward such fare as John Lennon's In His Own Write, Chaim Potok's The Chosen, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22, before joining Knopf for two decades.

As Jane Friedman, a longtime Knopf marketer and publicist, points out, Gottlieb's sales sensibility matched his wide-ranging tastes. "If he wanted to publish celebrities, they were real celebrities," she tells Silverman. "Bob knew trends before we ever had heard the word trends. He decided to publish Miss Piggy's Guide to Life because she fit into his very special celebrity status, and of course we went on to sell 500,000 copies." In a world whose principals, as Silverman makes clear, valued the monetary gamble as much as they did loosing worthwhile books into the world, that's worth hoisting a drink to.

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