Charles Scribner

In the Company of a Publisher

VTR Date: February 11, 1991

Guest: Scribner, Charles


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Charles Scribner
Title: “In the Company of a Publisher”
VTR: 2/11/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…a rather off-the-beaten-path television phenomenon, where words count most, though very much enhanced, I still believe, after all these years, by the pictures of men and women in thought, rather than in heat or anger, the usual staples of the visual media.

And if first there was the word, those who deal with words – and ideas – are always warmly welcome here in this rather pre-McLuhan setting…where print still takes precedence over pictures, and writers and those who bring them to us – their publishers – have a very special place.

Which, of course, is my way of welcoming and introducing my guest today: a most distinguished publisher – and again, a writer, too – Charles Scribner, Jr., who’s book “In the Company of Writers” so delightfully recounts what he calls “a life in publishing”.

And I would begin our program today by asking Mr. Scribner the same question I asked publisher/editor Sam Vaughan here on THE OPEN MIND back a dozen and more years ago…whether after a life in publishing, Mr. Scribner would call it a profession, a trade, or what-have-you. What is it, Mr. Scribner?

Scribner: Well, I think it’s a little of each. I…I think it’s the closeness to the ideas in books that seemed to me the most important contribution to the life of the mind, and I…I know it’s been a business for my family going back generations, but it’s been more than that for me because it has kept me in contact with books that have meant so much to me all my life. So I’ve really been able to have my cake and eat it, too, in that respect because my business is what I would choose to do had I no other alternative.

Heffner: What a wonderful thing for your vocation to be your avocation, or for what you love to do be what you can do. And “In the Company of Writers”…I was intrigued by the fact that there seems to be, about your life in publishing, there seems to be a quality that I suspect may not be present today in such large measure, and increasingly will not be present at all. Is that an unfair statement to make?

Scribner: Well I certainly think I’ve had the benefits of a period of publishing and writing that was, was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy and to learn, and I don’t know if that is answering your question. But it’s certainly a statement that I can say with a great deal of confidence.

Heffner: Well, it’s the other side…the flip side of that coin…

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: …that I do appreciate what you’re saying about your good fortune in living at a time when still the world of publishing was the world of ideas, what the world of the writers with whom you dealt, whether it was Hemingway or any of the many others you describe in your book, but whether you feel that the question I asked in the first place, “Is it a profession, or is it a business?”…is going to have to be answered more in the future…a business. Whether it will be answered by others in the future more as “Yes, this is a business, never mind the professional aspect of it”.

Scribner: Well, I think that if you want to, to make it a successful business, you have to be very, very alive to the non-business side of publishing. It, it…you, you simply can’t put them in separate compartments. I feel that the thing that did…was the greatest help to me…as a publisher…was my own enthusiasm for books of all kinds. And which really had the effect of broadening my interest in the bill of fare of our company.

Heffner: Would that be…would it be fair to attribute that to the fact that it was a family-owned company?

Scribner: I…I’m not sure that I exactly get the point. The fact that it was a family owned company really steered me into that business as a kind of familial obligation, so to speak.

Heffner: Well, actually was I meant was…were you more, more and better able to do what you chose because it was a family owned business?

Scribner: Absolutely. I had a degree of freedom that, that no one could ask for a better opportunity to pursue my own interests as a publisher. It was a unique opportunity for somebody that loves ideas and is to have that chance to, to contribute to the life of the mind by focusing on books that I thought would have lasting value.

Heffner: When I asked the question before about publishing as a profession, I was thinking back to what Sam Vaughan had said. He said, “No, it’s not a…it’s not a profession, because you don’t train for it. There’s no way of preparing for it”. He said it’s a calling…

Scribner: Yeah.

Heffner: Do you think that’s a fair statement?

Scribner: Well, I, I think it is. In, in my case, it was almost a, a foregone conclusion that that would be the field in which I would, would be in.

Heffner: How many generations of Scribners had there been before you?

Scribner: Four. No…I was the fourth generation. So there had been three before me.

Heffner: And now there’s a Charles Scribner who makes the fifth in publishing.

Scribner: Yes. Yes. And a, a grandson that may make a sixth.

Heffner: (Laughter) Have you figured that out, or has he accepted that yet?

Scribner: Well, he seems very, very strong minded. I told him that the…I told him that he was…doing a Dolly Parson…Dolly Parson?

Heffner: Yeah, Dolly Parton. Yeah.

Scribner: Dolly Parton song…”Islands in the Stream”…and I said, “Well, Charlie, actually, I named…gave the name of that song and it’s not “Islands in the, In the, In the Spring…it’s Islands in The Stream”. And he said, No, that’s not right”. (Laughter)

Heffner: (Laughter) How did you…how did you give the name to that…to Hemingway’s effort?

Scribner: Well, we were…he wasn’t alive at that time…

Heffner: Yes.

Scribner: …and I was working with Mary an done of the, one of the chapters of his book was “Islands and the Stream”, and I knew that Hemingway loved romantic titles, like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and, and, “The Sun Also Rises”, and I thought that “Islands in the Stream” would be just the kind of title that he would have liked. It has a poetic side to it, and it just, it just seemed to me like a Hemingway title.

Heffner: Is Hemingway read as often now as when I was going to school?

Scribner: I don’t know what the statistics are, but I would, I would assume pretty much…yes.

Heffner: And Fitzgerald?

Scribner: Yes. Both of them have had an extraordinarily long life among readers and in, in college courses.

Heffner: Now, let me, let me switch just a bit and ask you about what you consider to be the responsibilities of those who choose the books to publish, those who edit those books…what is your responsibility beyond letting an author say and write what it is he wishes to say and write?

Scribner: Well, I think it’s your…a primary responsibility of the publisher is to, to, to really do the best he can to help his author have a successful book that he can be proud of. It isn’t…it isn’t often…it isn’t always that you can make those contributions, but I think that a, a sensitive editor or writer can be very helpful to, to a writer. It’s a professional relationship so there’s no sense of one-upmanship or something like that because both the editor and the author are striving for the same end result.

Heffner: What about your responsibility to the public? If we were to move always from fiction, and in your book, “In the Company of Writers”, you talk about the obligation to move away somewhat from the fictional path that Max Perkins stayed on.

Scribner: Well I think that that was a matter of balance, so to speak. I think that Scribner’s at the time…about the time that my father died and I took over the responsibility was perhaps a little excessively dependent on fiction. That isn’t to…in any way to question the value of fiction, but Scribner’s over the decades earlier had been active in all fields of publishing, and in science and crafts and things that I think Perkins might have been a little questioning about. But I, I felt that it was…it would be a good thing to try to broaden the bill of fare, so to speak, of what we did. So, we ended up by doing a whole bunch of different kinds of books. One of our most successful books was a book on needlepoint…Erica Wilson’s book on embroidery. Now I can see a rather quizzical expression coming over Max Perkins’ eyes if, if he saw that. But in a way, when you go back to the Scribner list and see the great variety of, of kinds of books,, and genres of books that we published, including scientific books of some difficulty, I’m really very happy that we did broaden publishing tastes in that way.

Heffner: There are those now who rather much deplore to some considerable degree the taste, the public taste that is reflected in the kinds of books, fiction or non-fiction, I guess mostly fiction, that have been appearing. People who refer to the violence or the sexuality…

Scribner: Yes. Yes.

Heffner: …or to the personal attacks…

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: …that seem to characterize much of what is published today. Now, that’s what I mean about what the…when I ask about he responsibility that the publisher has to the public…do you put yourself…let’s put it this way…in loco parentis, and say, “No, that’s not for us, it’s not to our taste…it’s too violent, it’s too sexual, it is too attacking?”

Scribner: Oh, I often took that point of view, I’ll be frank to say, and sometimes was scolded, scolded for being…for having those reservations. But I make no apology. It was, it was our company and I felt that we were free to exercise our taste too, provided that it wasn’t in some obvious disloyalty to the author.

Heffner: Well, when you say, “It was our company”…that harks back to the question that I really was driving at before. It was your company, you were able to express your own sense of what the world is and what it should be, in terms of the books that you choose to publish. If one looks now at most publishing companies, they are not family owned, they are corporate owned…

Scribner: That’s right.

Heffner: Now, can the same choices be made, the same…will the same responsibility to your standards be manifest today?

Scribner: Well, it certainly wouldn’t be the same degree of freedom that I benefited from of, of deciding what I thought would be a valuable and, and I hoped a successful fields of publishing. But I really had a considerable degree of freedom in what we did. And I think that it was perfectly proper to, to decide what I…by my own lights, what we would, what we would do or not do.

Heffner: And in the future, again, do you see that happening to the same degree? And I don’t mean…

Scribner: I don’t see…

Heffner: …in Charles Scribner’s company.

Scribner: …I don’t see how it could. I mean I think it’s a…was almost a unique, a unique situation that would arise only…virtually only in a family business.

Heffner: Then what do you see as you look into the crystal ball as happening to American publishing?

Scribner: Well, I see a lot of, of signs that depress me. I hope…I’m not too faint-hearted. But I mean, I think that so much of, of publishing now is oriented towards the entertainment industry rather than to the, to the world of ideas and the whole blockbuster thing is, is of, of books…I feel maybe an expression of what you would call a Hollywoodization of books and publishing.

Heffner: And that doesn’t please you.

Scribner: No, it doesn’t.

Heffner: And you talk about the “Hollywoodization”…alright I…I’m a person who commutes almost every other week to Sin City West from Sin City East…

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: …I know something about what you’re speaking about. But it’s not just Hollywood, is it?

Scribner: No.

Heffner: Aren’t…haven’t the publishers themselves…don’t they feed upon each other, one begets the other?

Scribner: Oh, I think, yes, I think that there is a close relationship (laughter)…but I’m…I just feel that as I’m talking to you now I’m sounding so precious in a way that I don’t want to sound. But, we’re talking about books in a very general spirit and I’m focusing on…I would like to focus on the, on the values of books that we can all share and be proud of. And I’m not at all sure that those values won’t persevere in the future.

Heffner: But if they do persevere, and we hope that they will, where will they persevere? Do you, do you foresee that the tastes that your, that Scribner’s manifests…

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: …will be reflected in a certain kind of publishing venture in the future, leaving the rest of the field to what it is…

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: …that we deplore.

Scribner: I hope, and I hope that that will, will be the case, and I’ve…and I feel that it will because I’m an optimist and I feel that the, that the world may be gaining in wisdom and taste and there will be a, a fine market for the kind of books that I would like to see successful.

Heffner: Alright. But now, now what I’m asking you…I’m asking you this as a master publisher…do the bottom lines…does the bottom line reflect the probability that what you’ve just said will come to pass?

Scribner: The…I’m not absolutely sure that I…that I’m taking the point properly. The bottom line that we’ve been referring to…is the, is the, is the continuation of types of books that we would like to see successful.

Heffner: Can they do it? Can they do it financially within a world which…we’re not talking about family owned companies, we’re talking about corporations…we’re talking about conglomerates…we’re talking about organizations where profit and loss, this year, measured in dollars and cents, not in a sense of responsibility, are account.

Scribner: I think it can be the…those values of publishing can be pursued. I think with a little more difficulty from time to time when you consider popular fiction and so on, which sometimes isn’t…isn’t in every…any…it’s often a bit of a disappointment. But I feel that, that some wonderful books in history and in science, all departments of knowledge are being produced by American publishers and I think that the nation can feel, as a whole, that our…that American publishing has been just splendid.

Heffner: You know, each year, because of my involvement with that…with Sin City West…Hollywood…

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: …each year, when as a member of the Academy I get the ballot to nominate the first…the top five pictures from which one will be chosen…

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: …by the Academy. I’m always fascinated by the fact that even after a year in which I felt…there hasn’t been much that one can be proud of…

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: …and I get the list and I write those that are possible nominees. I find quite a number of films that have matched the high standards you would set for the world of books.

Scribner: Isn’t that wonderful?

Heffner: Do you feel that that is as true today in publishing as it was ten years ago? As it was 20 years ago?

Scribner: That each year there’s a, there’s a…

Heffner: A sizable number of books you can be thoroughly proud of?

Scribner: Yes. Thinking of the industry as a whole?

Heffner: Right.

Scribner: Yes. I’d say yes.

Heffner: That’s…

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: You know, it is that…that’s not optimism, that’s realism…you’re talking about your observations of the books that came out last year, that are coming out this year…as I look at the films that do. But then, I’m not an optimist the way you are. The people who watch this program fairly regularly know that. And, of course, that’s why I pressed you to your evaluation of what the trends are now.

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: I’m going to move away from that…

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: Wanted to ask you, because “In the Company of Writers”, you talk about the company of writers, indeed.

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: You talk about Hemingway and the others.

Scribner: Yes.

Heffner: It’s foolish, I know…it’s, it’s…it belongs on a very different kind of program, but when you look back at your long life in this field, this life in publishing…what are, what surfaces as your most pleasant and most enthusiastic memories? Which ones? Is it Hemingway?

Scribner: Oh, I certainly had wonderful memories of a rather off-and-on friendship with Hemingway…when I say “off-and-on” I didn’t mean to suggest that sometimes we were in agreement and sometimes otherwise. It’s…it was off-and-on because I didn’t see him very much in the flesh. Our relationship after my father died was almost entirely in, in letters…in exchanges of letters, and when my father died, he did what I thought was a very kind thing…he said, you’re going to have an awful lot of trouble with your, with your business and company and so on, and he said I just want you to know you never have to worry about me, or send me letters, or do anything like that. Now how could anybody be off to a better start than that?

Heffner: Did he turn out to be as cantankerous a person as one hears he was?

Scribner: He wasn’t at all cantankerous wit me. I had a marvelous relationship with him, and once I asked him to do a book for high school and for high school classes…of his best book, an anthology, and asked him to write an introduction. And when the introduction arrived, or the preface, and it was simply awful…I mean it was Hemingway at its worse…full of wise cracks and mean remarks about Faulkner and so. So I, I, I fortified myself to write him a letter and I said, “This is just too jocular”…I’d never used that word before or since… (Laughter)

Heffner: (Laughter) Did it work with Hemingway?

Scribner: Well he was awfully mad…he was in Spain at the time and he got this letter from me that it just wasn’t going to work for the high schools…this letter and I said, “we’ve got to”…and he was furious…he sent back this terse note and said…in a cable, said “Stop all work on high school text. This is a mistake I’ll never make again in my life” and I can…you can imagine how nervous I felt about that. and then finally after about several days, or maybe weeks of perspiration as to when I might hear something, there was a Hemingway letter with all the Cuban stamps and so on, and Spanish stamps…hardly dared open it…and I did finally open it, and he said, “You know Mary didn’t think much of that essay, either”. Now, how could you ask for a, a nicer response? And he said, if you…”If I can’t write anymore I’ll be your scout”.

Heffner: A fair response, a fair response.

Scribner: I thought that was pretty nice.

Heffner: In the, in the minute or so that we have left, I wanted to ask you what has been the impact of the institution of the agent as an intermediary between you…between the publisher and the writer…or between the editor and the writer?

Scribner: Well, we never did a great deal of difference…uh, business with agents to tell you the truth. We weren’t a large firm. We didn’t have great resources and bank rolls which gladden the hearts of agents when they perceive it. And I, I think that as a result we developed much of a list away from and separate from agents, doing the kinds of books that weren’t the kind that would be agented. And in a way, paddling our own canoe.

Heffner: Mr. Scribner, I do appreciate your joining me today. “In the Company of Writers”, by Charles Scribner, Jr. …it’s a charming book and I’m glad you would talk to our audience about it.

Scribner: Thank you very much.

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, please write to 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”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.