Looking back over more than fifty years of publishing, I count myself lucky to have begun by working for Constant Huntington, chairman of Putnam, a Bostonian of soldierly appearance, blessed with an air of extraordinary propriety, but a man of paradox. He was a self-confessed snob who enjoyed moving in what he called ‘the great world’, by which he meant the narrow orbit of country houses and fashionable quasi-literary circles where he believed the best writers were to be met. I never quite found my way there, but when I met Harold Nicolson he seemed the epitome of what Constant wanted for me. At the same time, Constant was a publisher whose policy was truly radical and whose achievements were never fully recognised by his contemporaries. He delighted in flouting convention – an inclination that I am sure was fostered by his wife, the anonymous author of Madame Solario.

I arrived at Putnam the week before the publication of All Quiet on the Western Front, that historic best-seller, one of the few that are still read fifty years on. It was a radical book in its day, and my first political eye-opener was the opposition it met: W.H. Smith refused to sell it at first, and all the national newspapers rejected a full-page advertisement designed by E. McKnight Kauffer, showing a helmeted skeleton with a fixed bayonet. Smiths overcame their moral objections when they realised they were losing out on a novel that was to sell 320,000 copies in its first year. The sexual content was the usual reason for ‘not allowing your daughter to read it’, but I am inclined to believe now that it was not so much the sex as its outspoken message against war that caused the fuss. It was the first successful book – Barbusse’s Le Feu had been published in England but not widely read – to come down fair and square against slaughters like the Somme and Passchendale.

Putnam also published Marie Stopes, the great pioneer of sex education and birth control, at a time when her books were considered improper, to be sold only under the counter – as they were most profitably by W.H. Smith. The Times refused to advertise them. Up to the 1940s they sold by the hundreds of thousand: today they seem naive, and sometimes comically romantic, and may well be virtually out of print. Marie Stopes had to face unremitting, often crude attacks. After the war we met regularly to discuss her sales, usually in some dark little-frequented restaurant where her persecutors would not track her down. I was incredulous when she declared, ‘I am the only person who can save India,’ but her early missionary work must certainly have had its effect on the Indian Government’s current propagation of birth control.

Her books were all grist to Constant’s radical mill, and he gleefully took on Bottom Dogs by the American writer Edward Dahlberg: a book so shocking that it was published in a limited edition of 500 copies with gilt tops at 15 shillings – double the normal price of novels. But when Arnold Bennett, then at the height of his fame as a critic, wrote that ‘it took you by the scruff of the neck and shook you,’ a quick reprint at seven-and-six was ordered. Not even Joynson-Hicks, the Home Secretary, would have dared to argue with Bennett.

One welcome change in the publishing scene is the new attitude to obscene libel. In the late Thirties the morbid Joynson-Hicks was for ever having books seized by the Police – Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were but two of the kind of thing he was after. David Low portrayed him as a funeral mute with thick crêpe on his hat. Even that little classic The Specialist was a cause of some anxiety at Putnam, and a sigh of relief went up when the Times Literary Supplement dubbed it ‘innocently Rabelaisian’. We may or may not be through with the restrictions of obscene libel, but political censorship, so often unofficial, strikes me as being as prevalent as ever. Readers of the correspondence columns of the London Review have recently learned something about the ‘institutional’ censorship evident today in the press and on the BBC.

Fifty years ago publishing was a relatively gentlemanly affair with pretensions to being a ‘profession’ – not that it has ever really been one – and this was hard luck on entrants to the book trade, who not infrequently had to pay a premium for the privilege of working for it. Huntington was an honourable exception. He paid his young aspirants 25 shillings a week, for which he worked us hard but gave us a thorough grounding in all aspects of the business: a grounding which is no longer possible, so far, at least, as the larger and more rigidly departmentalised firms are concerned. After a year as dogsbody to the man responsible for production and publicity, while also filling an editorial role, I was transferred to the sales office, logging up orders from booksellers all over the world, before going on the road in Outer London and the Home Counties. How can you have a notion as to what might sell without having shown your bag of new books to one shop after another – only to hear that ‘it’s a bit special,’ or, outside London, ‘That’s only a West End book,’ or, in town: ‘That’s for the provinces, old man’! Not that such judgments were necessarily correct, but they were a sobering influence later when I tried to assess a book’s commercial worth. Here again I was fortunate at Putnam, for if all my swans were passed over as ducklings I could usually book an order for ‘two each of the Barclays’. Who today has heard of Florence Barclay? She wrote ten novels and a volume of short stories early this century, the most successful being The Rosary, the first novel to sell a recorded million copies. The others, with their appealing titles, were not far behind: The White Ladies of Worcester, The Mistress of Shenstone, The Postern Gate. They were suitable for ‘your daughter’ – innocent, well-written romances, very popular as Sunday school prizes at half-a-crown. They had an unobstrusive religious whiff, more Methodist perhaps than C of E. As a salesman I blessed them.

Putnam published many novelists in translation after All Quiet: for example, Hans Fallada, Sholokhov and Italo Svevo. Of these three, Fallada is forgotten, Sholokhov in disrepute, and Svevo, but only after repeated failures, is established as an author of Penguin Modern Classics. His Confessions of Zeno was one of the rare novels hailed by Bennett which failed to sell. It came out before its time, and timing is a crucial but unpredictable factor in publishing.

These foreign books gave me the urge to go abroad, and in 1932 I was granted eighteen months leave of absence to learn German and try to complete my education. Huntington put me in touch with Helene von Nostitz, and in 1932 I went to stay with her family in Berlin. When she was young she became a close friend of Rilke and Rodin. She knew many publishers and this led to odd jobs with the S. Fischer Verlag, the Insel Verlag, and the vast Ullstein publishing empire, for which she deeply disapproved of my working, for the Ullsteins were Jewish. Since I had a white tie, and money for taxis, I was a convenient escort for Helene at embassies or in the Alexander Platz. My first sharp political lesson came in the course of my term with a Jewish publisher. I found him in tears one morning just after Hitler had taken over: he had had all his books seized – an experience that was to keep me on the left ever since.

Soon after my return to Putnam I got to know Desmond MacCarthy, who was to be a lasting influence on my activities as a publisher. Huntington was attempting to publish six volumes of his writings, and it was my job to prize bits of typescript out of him. I don’t think he was enamoured of the plan and was ingenious in finding excuses for not handing his bits over to me. On one occasion he had not finished his essay on Bloomsbury because he ‘couldn’t get it quite right’. Another time he had given up because his ‘work fell so far short of the standards set by Leslie Stephen’. But I suspect he was amused by a young man’s persistence and when, eventually, the proof stage of one volume was reached, he would call at the office, listen to my trivial comments, courteously accepting some of them, and then take me out to lunch at the most unexpected places.

Once he walked me into the Royal Automobile Club, his long overcoat flying behind him with a kind of bravado that made me wonder if he belonged (he certainly never drove a car); another time it was at the Café de Paris. But fop him, I would never have dared to enter the Café de Paris even if I had known that luncheon was served there. He talked non-stop over lunch. ‘Now Lytton Strachey, he wrote in clichés – but clichés of good pedigree,’ and he chuckled as he said so, apparently pleased with the term. He was a generous critic, and he was generous to me when, later on, he proposed his collected writings on Shaw to MacGibbon and Kee.

It is probably due to the demise of the big subscription libraries that critics nowadays have less power to make books sell. Enthusiastic reviews used immediately to bring in repeat orders by the hundreds. Now that is all gone, although I am sure that the standard of reviewing in the popular press has never been higher.

In 1949 the combination of a small legacy, frustration at Putnam, and my friendship with Robert Kee, led to the founding of the firm that bore our names, with my wife as literary director. I soon discovered, though, that my temperament is not that of a loner, and seven years later, when the time had come to raise new capital (an aspect of business I know nothing about), we sold out to a property millionaire and I accepted an offer to join Curtis Brown, the agents. Small publishing is a risky undertaking at best. I remember John Lehmann’s warning: ‘You sit there listening to the rats under the floorboards.’ As a sailor, I would prefer to say that storm cones were for ever up. But we had our satisfactions. Some of our books are still in print, notably Rex Warner’s volumes of Greek myths and Noel Annan’s Leslie Stephen, as well as novels by Thomas Hinde and Colin MacInnes. There was also the peculiar satisfaction of publishing books right outside one’s ken. When we took on Great Horses of the Year, my ignorance of the turf was such that when one of my salesmen suggested that the bookmaker William Hill might send out a leaflet, I had to inquire who Mr Hill was. I tracked him down, and although he declined a leaflet, he ordered fifty thousand copies of the book. That was a bonanza year.

Marie Stopes was my first encounter with an egocentric character, but she paled into ordinariness compared with Victor Gollancz. I was flattered to be invited to join his famous firm and I accepted without proper consideration. On balance, it was an unhappy experience, but so bizarre I would be sorry to have missed it. I had found him some good books when I was an agent, and he expected the flow to become a flood. I introduced a number, but Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was the one that, for a short spell, raised my stock. This was the big ‘Thaw novel’, and I dare say it eased his conscience over his former short-lived advocacy of the Soviet Union. Victor’s character was summed up for me by his refusal to publish Françoise Gilot’s My Life with Picasso, which I had been offered on a New York trip. ‘My dear James, we can’t publish it! Supposing someone wrote like that about Beethoven ... or me!’

I am gratified that this favourite anecdote opens Ruth Dudley Edwards’s biography.* It is long, over seven hundred pages, but brilliant, and, I think, astonishingly truthful. Victor’s posturing, egotism and other outrageous qualities are all there. At the same time – and this is important – he had his mana. He could be generous, and his energy in promoting his books, his causes and himself was boundless. He was also a scholar capable of spotting an incorrect Greek accent in a quotation on a title page.

This is a complete portrait, which contains a very good account of one aspect of the politics of the Thirties, when Victor took part in the fight against Fascism with the formation of the Left Book Club. Ruth Dudley Edwards writes in her preface: ‘It seems unlikely that Victor would have entirely approved of this book. He would, however, have been pleased by its length.’ Victor could hardly emerge unscathed from any honest biography: those who do come well out of this one are his biographer and his daughter Livia, who imposed no restrictions on Ruth Dudley. Edwards, and who has since maintained the firm’s good name and kept it in business as one of the few medium-sized independent houses that are left to us.

A career in publishing is likely to include many failures, and its rare triumphs will rarely be unblemished. So it proved with my share in the introduction of Milan Kundera to this country. I read his first novel, The Joke, in German, and the way the story went to and fro in time, together with the injection of what can only be called a monograph on Moravian folk music, seemed certain to confuse English readers. With the agreement of the translator and of the American publisher, I wrote to Kundera asking if we might rearrange the story in chronological sequence without changing a word, and drop the monogaph. This was at the time of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, when it was dangerous for Czech authors to be in touch with the West, so I mentioned friends we had in common who could communicate with me if he disagreed. After a decent interval no reply had come, so we went ahead with the setting of the translation. I wrote a similar letter with the proofs, but again, no reply. A matter of days before publication, however, an answer did come, threatening an injunction. Kundera had received finished copies but neither of my letters. I flew out to Prague to meet him at the Union of Writers, feeling very much on the carpet: but as soon as I showed copies of my letters I was forgiven. And a year or two later, when I was working out my latter years in publishing in Devon, I got a message asking if I would care to publish his next novel. I shall always be grateful for this absolution.

Another of my disappointments, but in the event, a comic one, was over Marshal Zhukov’s memoirs. Ironically, I was offered this important book because I had published Ivan Denisovitch (‘this great new Russian novel’, as the Novosti Press Agency referred to it at the time). By 1965, when I was running Macdonald, Solzhenitsyn was already in disgrace, but I had maintained friendly relations with the agency. After the usual round of dinners, toasts and bargaining in Moscow I flew home with a contract which entailed publishing the book in a token Russian edition to establish copyright, for the USSR had not yet signed the international agreement. This was a scoop which became a very damp squib some ten days later, when it was discovered that the guts of the book had been published in a specialist Red Army magazine: copyright was blown, the book was free for all and the contract was annulled. The disappointment was slightly offset by the fun I had had, particularly when, during the lengthy negotiations, I was asked for a bigger advance in view of the ‘excellent translation’ – it was the usual turgid Moscow one. When I riposted that it was ‘not worthy of the Marshal’, the point was taken and a clause enjoining that ‘the translation shall be worth of the Marshal’ was added to the contract. Much laughter, more vodka.

Now that I am retired, occupying myself with producing a broadsheet for the Suffolk Book League and other light duties, I have no regrets about having worked in publishing. I can’t help feeling, though, that much of the fun has gone now that the City has moved in and conglomerates have taken over. One too often hears of books being accepted or, more often, rejected by committees. It is difficult to imagine the Capes, Gollanczes or Unwins putting up with that. But there is some consolation in the rise of smaller firms like Virago, and in the survival of houses like John Murray, Faber and Gollancz.

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