Roger Straus on Publishing, Part I

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Roger Straus
Title: (no title listed)
VTR: 4/23/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When I was a student, in those good old days when we at least talked about respecting others’ freedom of thought and speech, much was made of Voltaire’s wonderful offering, “I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Well, those words seem to have less and less meaning today, for now when we get down to the crunch, our first question concerning what someone else says or writes, sees to be, “whose ox is being gored?” If it’s only the other guy’s, of course, we’d still boldly raise the standard of free speech invoke the shade of Thomas Jefferson, and tell him that he must grin and bear it when others write or say what he abhors. When my values are threatened, however, then it always sees that somehow the situation is different, and that what would otherwise be free speech is now obscenity, and off with its head. Well, that’s not only nonsense, it’s dangerous. It threatens the very fabric of our nation in terms of what has been, in the past, the best of our national heritage. And this tendency to yell “foul” quite so often these days must not go unnoticed or unexamined. Therefore, I’ve invited to The Open Mind today Roger W. Straus, president of the distinguished publishing house of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, to discuss the fact that in several major library systems around our country, one of his company’s children’s books, “Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven,” by Margot Zemach has come under attack and is being kept off the library shelves, not by outside censors, which is true increasingly around the country about many other books, but by some librarians themselves who dislike what they consider its potentially offensive black stereotypes. And so Mr. Straus comes today as a defender of his author’s book. At the same time, however, let’s make careful note of the fact that this distinguished man of letters is caught up in his own angers about what someone else has written, and has taken at least some modern steps to temper that. It’s a peculiar position to be in.

Mr. Straus., welcome to The Open Mind. This is a peculiar situation that we’re all in today. I think we’re all more and more aware of the power of communications and less and less willing to tolerate someone’s abuse of it, as we see it. Is that a fair statement?

STRAUS: I think it’s a very fair statement.

HEFFNER: So how do we handle the situation?

STRAUS: Well, I think one has to take it step by step, or book by book, or situation by situation. I don’t think it’s possible to make a blanket statement about, “This should be published,” or, “This shouldn’t be published, “or, “This is how it should be read,” or, “This is not how it should be read.” I think everybody has a right to say what they think about anything that is written, or anything that is published. Naturally, as you pointed out, we’re going to spring to the defense of any of our authors who we think are gored. And in this particular case, this particular children’s book, I think the case against us is pretty bad. And by “pretty bad,” I mean, perhaps I should say, “pretty silly.” And it’s one of those silly things that does come up, particularly in the hands of some librarians throughout the country. The whole problem of dealing with librarians is sometimes difficult because you can’t figure out exactly what the reason is. This particular book, “Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven,” is a book by an author of considerable reputation. The book itself is listed by The New York Times as one of the ten best children’s books of the year. It has had all sorts of kudos. The author has won all kinds of awards. And for a librarian to jump the book, or a system of libraries to jump the book and say, “This is doing harm, disservice, or looking down on the negro community or the black leader,” is patently ridiculous in our opinion.

HEFFNER: Well, you say, “ridiculous” – and I made a point of going through “Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven” – and I can’t help but agree with you. But I agree with you from probably a perspective that we share. We don’t share the perspective of these particular librarians who may well be representing their constituencies. Isn’t it appropriate for them to make a judgment too?

STRAUS: Yes, I think it’s appropriate… Well, I think – let me put it another way – I think it’s an appropriate, them, to put out, perhaps, a caution signal, if they wish, for their own libraries. I think, had I been the librarian or the head of the library system that was complaining about this book, I would have gone first to the black community to see how they reacted to the book, because this is what they’re objecting to: the possibilities of the black community being hurt by this book. And I don’t think they did their homework, I think is what the problem is. The fact is that Margot Zemach did a great deal of research for this book, and almost all of the situations, if not all of the situations, within the book itself, are drawn on black folklore and black history. And so there seems to be no way that you can … put the book down from that point of view. And the reaction by the black librarians on this book have, and remain – all; we have seen no compliant – very favorable towards the book. So it’s one of those situations. A friend of mine said to me only today when we were talking about the book at lunch, said, “I tell you what my theory is.” He said, “My theory is” – and there may be something to this; I hadn’t thought of it before today – “that the libraries’ budgets have been cut, as we know, and that therefore the librarians are looking for any possibility of not taking certain books on, or taking certain books on that they feel are absolutely beyond any possibility of a squabble or reproach. And it’s the easy way out.” Maybe that’s the simplistic … (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You said it; I didn’t. But I think I’d agree with you if, in that characterization. Certainly they might have picked on others, but they did pick on a book …
STRAUS: They did pick on this one.

HEFFNER: … that they believe contains racial stereotypes. You know, I show my students each semester a film that Bill Cosby narrated, did some hears ago, “Black History: Lost, Stolen and Strayed” – did it on CBS – and it was so sensitive, and I think appropriately, to the notion that the mass media of communications legitimate values; they socialize us; they help us understand what it means to be six or 16 or 60, and the national agenda is to a great extent set by them. And he maintained that college textbooks and high school textbooks and school textbooks and films and television programs all go to make up; stereotypes that are harshly imprinted upon young minds. Seemingly, this is what these several librarians had maintained. Is that unfair for them to make that judgment, to exercise that responsibility, for their own communities?

STRAUS: Well, it’s a tough question. I think it is rather unfair. We were involved (I don’t want to digress, but I just want to make a parenthesis), I published a book by Bernard Malamud called “The Fixer,” which won all kinds of praise and won a book award and so forth and so on, by one of the great novelists of our country, if not any country. And it was thrown out of the Long Island Public Library by a group of parents and librarians who felt that the book was offensive in certain ways, and after considerable up and down, was reinstated into those libraries because wiser heads prevailed. The point really is, I suspect, who’s in charge there, to answer your question. Should a librarian, should a chairman of a library committee, be the one that says that this book should not be distributed in the library systems?

HEFFNER: What’s your answer to your question?

STRAUS: My answer to the question is that I think it should be the community that should be involved, and it should be a joint decision on the part of the librarian and those people who have … know something about community standards.

HEFFNER: Well, Mr. Straus, we sat at this table, I sat at this table some months back, when the, what was it, the Island Tree case was argued before the Supreme Court. And I think it was three days after it was argued before the high court, I had Mr. Lipman, Mr. Levine, the lawyers who argued the case, sit here and argue it again in a sense, for our audience. And this wasn’t an arbitrary act in terms of one person; and quite frequently one finds that those who are able, officially, to say that they represent a community are those who take a book off the shelves, whether it’s Mamalud or whether it’s Margot Zemach.

STRAUS: Uh hm.

HEFFNER: I don’t know that we have any answer. You say, “someone who is qualified.” Well, is the school board qualified?

STRAUS: While I agree with you it’s a very difficult question of finding who is qualified, who is unqualified. As we all know, as mature people, there are very many people in fairly high offices who aren’t qualified for a darn thing. And, if you fall into the wrong hands, that could be the same case with a … for the law. Judgments are made, and then judgments are overthrown. Certainly, I think, that what one is entitled to in a case like this is a right of appeal. And I think that that is really one area which I would be sticking for in defense of either an author or a book, whether it’s my book of somebody else’s book; there should be somebody, some method of operation that says, “Okay, this is what you think; but let’s go one step further.” In the long run, as I think I said elsewhere, I don’t think it’s going to matter a great deal, because I think the book has already found it s way, and so many libraries and groups have defended the book and said, “We want it,” that it will find its way back into the library systems throughout the country. But I think if one doesn’t – to quote your opening words – one doesn’t say, “That’s my ox that’s being gored,” why then I think you’re not being fair to your author and to yourself and to your reputation as a publisher.

HEFFNER: Yes, but then let’s go look at the other side of the coin. If I were to ask you whether there were times when you didn’t want to see something published, or when you took strong exceptions to something that you thought was offensive, offensive to you and perhaps offensive to the community, a dangerous, provocative, whatever words one wishes to use – I know you’ve done that because you’ve done it in this Harper’s magazine Susan Sontag situation. So you can get your dander up and say, “This shouldn’t be published as it is”; why shouldn’t others do the same thing?

STRAUS: We’re on a fine line on this one. I use the Harper’s example – and we can go on to that in a moment, if you wish – I never said that I felt Harper’s did not have a right to publish an essay, bad though it was from a literary point of view and everything else, attacking Susan Sontag as a writer. I merely said the presentation of the material because of the headlines and the subhead lines of the article were obscene and degrading. And that I had no objection, nor would I, because I’m not in the censorship business, have said one word about the essay itself.

HEFFNER: But you see, when we get to the question of obscene and degrading, what’s one person’s obscenity is another person’s outrageous or outlandish or provocative or courageous statement, whether it’s a headline or a book itself. And so I guess I was surprised to find you, of all people, involved in this statement that a headline, a title, was obscene. It is a, that is a legal concept; did you mean it as a legal concept?

STRAUS: Yes, I suppose in this case I do men it s a legal concept, and I’m too refined to recite the Zappa jingle in the phone. I did not even realize it, I might add, that this was obscene position that was being taken, until one of the staff of the magazine recited it, the jingle, to our publicity director. Up until that time we hadn’t squeaked.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, George Carlin’s seven dirty words, or however many they were, the Supreme Court did indicate in certain times in certain places, indeed, they were obscene. Well, I guess obscenity is as obscenity does, and to you that might have seemed to be the case. The librarians who looked and read “Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven,” I’ll bet there were some among them who might quickly have used the word “obscene,” that it is an obscenity to establish stereotypes or to repeat stereotypes that to them could be identified with the most demeaning and degrading aspects of the black man’s lot in this country. Suppose some of them had used the term “obscenity?” Would you have responded more kindly to their pressures?

STRAUS: No, I wouldn’t have responded more kindly. I think what you’re staying is true, although we get a semantic problem there dealing with the word “obscenity,” I suspect. One could obviously say that something, if it were degrading, which I’m prepared to believe it’s not, that that is an obscene thing to do, to do, to make a degrading statement of that kind. But I think in a way it’s apples and oranges in terms of this book and the contents of this book, and the presentation of Susan Sontag reader review as an essay in Harper’s magazine.

HEFFNER: Given the conflict here; given the two situations as they, as at least you would say, I’m sure, that they shouldn’t be put side by side, but I’ve done the unthinkable: I’ve put them side by side. Given the two of them, and the different postures that you find yourself in, in the different cases, couldn’t it be better and wouldn’t it be safer to go back in – you said at the very beginning of our discussion, you said, “These things ought to be done on a step-by-step basis.”

STRAUS: Uh hum.

HEFFNER: Isn’t the trouble that when you do them by a step-by-step basis today, three out of five want to take this step and tomorrow three out of five want to take that step; and our history has been of, basically of some no steps in the direction of freezing, silencing, speech and symbolic speech. Wouldn’t it be better …

STRAUS: Yes, I think so. I think, all things being equal, censorship is a dirty word. And I think…

HEFFNER: An obscenity?

STRAUS: Well, I … (laughter) … Same thing, in this case. I certainly do not believe in censorship. And that’s why I was very careful in my attack, if you will, or in my rebuttal to Harper’s magazine, to say that we were not in the censorship business, and the fact that they wished to pillorize, blast this author for any reasons of their own to sell more newspapers, was, we weren’t complaining. But in the context of how it was presented to the public, I thought they had certain ethical and more responsibilities that they had failed.

HEFFNER: What about the ethical and moral responsibilities of Ferrar, Straus & Giroux in the terms of “Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven”; in terms of the stereotypes that these people find …

STRAUS: We do not believe that’s true. I mean, our position is very clean, clear on that, and that we simply do not believe anybody’s held up to ridicule – and I come back to what I said earlier – the research that we went over of Margot Zemach and her work with her editor, Michael Decapure, was the fact that everything that appears in this book had been part of the Negro folklore of our times, of our previous times.

HEFFNER; But isn’t that the problem? What has been part of American folklore in previous times is really not acceptable?

STRAUS: But not of … I didn’t say, “American folklore”; I said, American Negro folklore.

HEFFNER: Okay.

STRAUS: That’s the difference. So there was, this was not, they were not stereotyping, they were merely saying, in the folklore were certain stories that Grandma told to her son and her son told to a child, that were repeated, and were certainly not meant, obviously, by them to be a put-down of their race.

HEFFNER: Well, I was thinking again, “My gosh, you’ve been around with this program for so many years that I keep talking about this table,” that Kenneth Clark sat here, where you’re sitting now, not so many weeks ago, and I was just thinking of the sociological research that he did for the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision of the Supreme Court in 1954. In his identification of stereotypes in the media, generally, that I’m sure were repeated, I’m certain were repeated within the black community itself, the nevertheless were destructive. And that nevertheless were picked on by civil rights groups I the years thereafter, held destructive, they tried to root them out. And the question I would ask you is: How do you, as a person concerned with a maximum of free speech, and a publisher, how do you respond to the growing pressure in our community at large to pick out the stereotypes and say, “This is anti-Italian, or this is anti-Jewish. This is anti-Catholic? Where do we start; and what do we do about it?

STRAUS: I think there is where taste comes into it.

HEFFNER: Taste?

STRAUS: Taste, very often. I think … Are you asking e this question as a publisher?

HEFFNER: Right.

STRAUS: And this is the only area in which I can, in any way, have – I won’t call it censorship – but where I can stand back. If a book comes in to us of our editors, and we feel that the book breaks any of these, breaks any of these traditions that we don’t want broken – “traditions” is the wrong word – break any barrier; in other words, if we think the book is anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-black, anti-Indian, whatever, well, we merely refuse to publish the book whether we believe that the book is, quote, “a money-maker” or not. And that is our right to do that. We don’t call that censorship, because, presumably, somebody else will have a different opinion and go on and publish the book and do very well with it perhaps.

HEFFNER: Okay. That’s what editors are for. Editors edit …

STRAUS: So, therefore, the other side of the coin, presumably, is, if a book comes in that we feel does not break these barriers, it may offend – which we didn’t think this would, let me quickly say; it had never occurred to us that we would have a squeak from any library. As a matter of fact, peculiarly enough, the editor-in-chief of my children’s book division is a former librarian, and a very good former librarian, as he is a very good children’s book editor, and it was, did not occur to him in any way this could be harmful.

HEFFNER: Mr. Straus, suppose, just hypothetically, suppose it was one of the librarians – and some of them are high-placed librarians who have reacted so poorly to this book – who had retired from librarianship, and who were, one who was an editor at your publishing company, saw this manuscript, said, “This is a person who has written splendid books; has won prizes, many of them, for the excellence of a children’s book; but this one, I feel, violates my standards,” and you hadn’t published it, aren’t you, aren’t we, of necessity in a Never-Never Land here when you say, “We satisfied ourselves that these stereotypes were not the stereotypes that have been attacked?” What about these other people?

STRAUS: I don’t think it’s a Neverland. I think that what immediate time will prove that this is a minority complaint. And I mean “minority” in a different sense than what we have been talking about. Already I am told that articles are appearing throughout the country saying the book does not break, in no way is harmful, and that various other librarians are writing us and saying, “You were right to publish the book,” and so forth. So this one of those little internecine warfares that’s going on between one library branch, or two library branches, to be precise, and the rest of the libraries in the country. And I would think, I would be in default of my duty as well as my personal opinion about the book if I didn’t say, “Nonsense.”

HEFFNER: What’s happening on a larger scale to Malamud and all the other books that have been picked out…

STRAUS: Life is much better.

HEFFNER: It is?

STRAUS: Life is much better.

HEFFNER: Pressures are lessening?

STRAUS: Pressures are lessening, and many fewer challenges of books.

HEFFNER: How do you account for that?

STRAUS: I think time, again, is a good healer of ideas, and I think people are somewhat more relaxed about what is being put into the marketplace. I think the standards are somewhat higher, perhaps, than they were. And I think selection, which is a great judge, is taking place. And I think what was a very difficult up until a few years ago, was when a lot of the smaller communities around the country were making their own judgments. I think now there’s been a withdrawal of the desire for the communities to make their own judgments, they’re waiting for a larger voice. And I think, therefore, there is less combativeness.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting, because I – and I must admit I haven’t caught up with the return or the swing of the pendulum…

STRAUS: Well, I’m merely …By that I mean the fact Malamud’s “The Fixer,” Kurt Vonnegut, and the several other books that were under attack, are all now are not under attack anywhere.

HEFFNER: That’s that… I’m so unfamiliar … That happens very seldom because …

STRAUS: It does happen very seldom, and …

HEFFNER: No, I mean my being subtle…

STRAUS: (Laughter) Oh, I beg your pardon.

I think that part of it is better than it way, in the crazy world we live in.

HEFFNER: When they argued the Island Tree case, it seemed then—and it wasn’t so many months ago—that there was still, although the case stemmed back for a number of years, or harked back to a number of years ago – it seemed to me as I read accounts in the newspapers and the magazines, that in small communities around the country that the presumed moral majority is very active in attempting to push librarians to push books out.

STRAUS: Well, perhaps I only think of this because I see that there have been certain victories, if you wish to use that work …

HEFFNER: Court victories or community victories?

STRAUS: Community victories. And that the various organizations who were protecting, quote, “free speech,” unquote, seem to have won a number of the arguments against the, quote, “banning,” unquote, of books in various communities around the country.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the word of freedom, if that’s the word, exercised by the massive media, the electronic media, film media, that this perhaps contributes to taking the pressure off the books?

STRAUS: It could well be. That could well be it. I don’t know, but certainly it would be in that direction, I would think.

HEFFNER: The question of limitations upon books has loomed so large in our history that I hope that you are correct in your characterization of what’s going on now. Would you – well, it’s an old question; it’s again the one we were talking about in relation to Harper’s and Susan Sontag and the title of the review – would you find yourself embracing the notion of saying, “Don’t do this; don’t do that,” and I don’t mean continuing to say it, but identifying things that you thought were antisocial?

STRAUS: No, I certainly wouldn’t. I wouldn’t think I’d either have the knowledge or should have the authority or should have, or should be, or should wish to give that judgmental value.

HEFFNER: What about your industry? Is it … You say things have, there’s less pressure now. Is this perceived by the industry in that way? Is there less running scared today in the book publishing industry?

STRAUS: Oh, I think without question of doubt that’s true. You know, there are certain things that are out on the newsstands and the book stores today that certainly
x-number of years ago would not have been there, either by self-censorship by the publishers themselves, or by fear of being hit.

HEFFNER: What about texts?

STRAUS: I’m not in the textbook business, and therefore I couldn’t give a … I have no idea now that would vary from now as against five years ago.

HEFFNER: One hears quite frequently of the logged states where there are limits, let’s say, on …

STRAUS: I read a sexist story recently, but all I know is what I read in the paper, and as I’m not in that business, I would not be able to give a sensible response.

HEFFNER: So, in summary, Voltaire isn’t doing too badly in our times?

STRAUS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Then you’re going to ease up on Harper’s, perhaps?

STRAUS: No, if we, I wish we had more time, because I think that Harper’s has also …The people who own Harper’s have responsibility. And by peculiar circumstances, Harper’s is owned by a foundation.

HEFFNER: Are you going to do the tax routine?

STRAUS: Well, I could.

HEFFNER: The tax-exemption routine?

STRAUS: I could, I could, I could. And I think there are certain … I think that the foundation behind the publication also has some moral responsibility. See, I’m a very old-fashioned type.

HEFFNER: What an incredible two-edged sword that is. And it seems to me that the other edge was used on you in terms of “Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven” But, look, please, if you will, stick around. Let’s talk about other aspects of publishing in our next program.

STRAUS: Be my pleasure.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Mr. Straus, for joining me today.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s extraordinary guest and extraordinary topic, please write THE OPEN MIND,
P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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