Friday, November 12, 2010

Random Thoughts

Random House really isn’t one of the older American publishing houses, as it was founded by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer in 1927. They had previously purchased Modern Library from Liveright in 1925, clearly two young men on the make. Whether they really said they were simply going to “publish a few books at random” or not, the name stuck. I remember Bennett Cerf from my childhood, or more specifically, from the television in our living room, as he was a regular panelist on “What’s My Line,” a game show that exuded a sort of Manhattan cocktail hour sophistication, albeit in the very low-contrast black and white of early television. Today, Cerf and Klopfer would probably be Internet entrepreneurs, though they would doubtless still be drinking martinis.

In the twenty-first century, Random House, USA is a division of Random House Worldwide, the umbrella name for the book publishing arm of the international conglomerate Bertelsmann AG, which is based in Germany.

What intrigues me about the Random House headquarters on 55th Street and Broadway is that here is a publishing company that actually appears to pay homage to its past and to the titles it has published. Walk into the lobby and you will be met by a vision of hardcover books, their jackets facing out from behind plexiglas: Doctor Faustus, Ulysses, Ellison’s Invisible Man, The Big Sleep, Mencken’s American Language, Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, Thunder on the Left by Christopher Morley, Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, and The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes, to name just a few. On the other side of the room,  you would see Shelby Foote’s three-volume Civil War history, Portnoy’s Complaint, and In Cold Blood, among others.

One could almost be in a bookshop that sold twentieth century first editions. The security guard lets you know that you aren’t. As a friend of mine has pointed out, a lot of dreck was no doubt also published back then, roughly 1927 to 1970. Nevertheless, the standard is pretty damn high.

In a very real sense, Random House put itself on the map with Ulysses, by fighting the famous court case in which the estimable Judge Woolsey ultimately decreed that the book may have been disgusting but was not obscene (he actually seems to have enjoyed it.) It is unimaginable that a major publisher would go to court to defend a work of literature these days. A celebrity biography accused of libel, yes, but an avant-garde novel? I doubt it.

The Random House lobby stands in sharp contrast to that of Penguin, the first floor of which yields no clue that a publishing company resides there. This may be intentional: after all, Penguin shares the building with the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, whose name the building bears. The publisher relocated there in the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair. I remember when bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the place in the early 1990s. 

It’s distinctly strange, though no doubt also intentional, that in the lobby of neither Random House nor Penguin is it possible to buy a book, even though there is a newsstand in the Penguin lobby.

Some readers will no doubt find it sinister that Random House is publishing both Tony Blair’s memoirs and George W. Bush’s reminiscences of his presidency within a month of each other. I find it more comical than not. For neither of these works is really a book at all. Rather, they are edited transcripts that have been placed between two cardboard covers, somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Will anyone be talking about them next year?  Does anyone care what Bill Clinton said in his book that appeared in 2004, also published by Random House?

For the role Bertelsmann played in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, I refer the reader to the BBC News World Edition story of October 8, 2002.

The real issue, given all the storied literary history, is this: does the current front end of Random’s fiction list come up to the standard of its past?

I will leave that as an open question.

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