[Marxism] André Schiffrin, Publishing Force and a Founder of New Press, Is Dead at 78
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Sun Dec 1 19:21:31 MST 2013
NY Times December 1, 2013
André Schiffrin, Publishing Force and a Founder of New Press, Is Dead at 78
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
André Schiffrin, a publishing force for 50 years, whose passion for
editorial independence produced shelves of serious books, a titanic
collision with a conglomerate that forced him out to stem losses, and a
late-in-life comeback as a nonprofit publisher, died in Paris on Sunday.
He was 78.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, his daughter Natalia Schiffrin said.
The son of a distinguished Paris publisher who fled Nazi-occupied France
during World War II, Mr. Schiffrin grew up in a socialist New York
literary world and became one of America’s most influential men of
letters. As editor in chief and managing director of Pantheon Books, a
Random House imprint where making money was never the main point, he
published novels and books of cultural, social and political
significance by an international array of mostly highbrow, left-leaning
Taking risks, running losses, resisting financial pressures and
compromises, Mr. Schiffrin championed the work of Jean-Paul Sartre,
Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam
Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal,
George Kennan, Anita Brookner, R. D. Laing and many others.
But in 1990, after 28 years at Pantheon, Mr. Schiffrin was fired by
Alberto Vitale, the chief executive of Random House, in a dispute over
chronic losses and Mr. Schiffrin’s refusal to accept cutbacks and other
changes. His departure made headlines, prompted resignations by
colleagues, led to a protest march joined by world-renowned authors, and
reverberated across the publishing industry in articles and debates.
Many in publishing spoke against the dismissal, calling it an assault on
American culture by Random House’s billionaire owner, S. I. Newhouse
Jr., who was accused of blocking a channel for contrary voices in favor
of lucrative self-help books and ghostwritten memoirs for the sake of
the bottom line. Mr. Schiffrin was conspicuously silent, his severance
package barring him for a time from discussing the issue publicly.
But Mr. Vitale and others in publishing called his dismissal an
inevitable result of Pantheon’s losses, which reached $3 million in Mr.
Schiffrin’s final year, and his refusal to adjust his list to turn the
imprint around. In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times, Erroll
McDonald, Pantheon’s executive editor, disputed what he called the
“sense of entitlement” by those protesting Mr. Schiffrin’s dismissal. He
said Pantheon would continue to publish serious books.
The contretemps over cultural integrity versus business imperatives had
been building for years. While Pantheon accounted for a small percentage
of Random House’s revenues, it had always had a special place within the
company. Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House, regarded it as a
vehicle for distinguished rather than lucrative books. But mounting
losses in the 1980s had eroded the corporate magnanimity.
In 1992, Mr. Schiffrin and Diane Wachtell, a former Pantheon editor,
founded the New Press as an independent, nonprofit publisher of books
“in the public interest,” funded by major foundations. He likened it to
public television and radio, a house to supplement university presses in
publishing riskier books. The enterprise flourished, and Mr. Schiffrin,
its editor in chief for more than a decade, remained as founding
director and editor at large until his death.
The author of several books of his own, Mr. Schiffrin offered a gloomy
assessment of publishing in his polemical memoir, “The Business of
Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed
the Way We Read” (2000).
“Books today have become mere adjuncts to the world of mass media,
offering light entertainment and reassurances that all is for the best
in this, the best of all possible worlds,” Mr. Schiffrin wrote. “The
resulting control on the spread of ideas is stricter than anyone would
have thought possible in a free society.”
André Schiffrin was born on June 12, 1935, in Paris to Jacques and
Simone Heymann Schiffrin. His father, a Russian émigré, founded La
Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, which published editions of the classics,
and in 1941 fled from the Nazis with his family and settled in New York,
where from 1943 until his death in 1950 he was editor and vice president
of production at Pantheon Books.
André grew up in a multicultural household, immersed in languages and
literature and a milieu of Jewish socialist intellectuals. He worked
summer jobs at Pantheon, a prestigious house founded in 1942 by the
German émigrés Kyrill S. Schabert and Kurt and Helen Wolff, and knew the
book list “the same way another boy would know the stock of his father’s
candy store,” a Book World profile said.
After graduating with high honors and a degree in history from Yale in
1957, Mr. Schiffrin studied at Clare College, Cambridge University,
where he became the first American to edit Granta, then the school’s
literary journal, and earned a master’s degree with highest honors in 1959.
In 1961, Mr. Schiffrin married Maria Elena de la Iglesia, known as
Leina. Beside his wife and daughter Natalia, Mr. Schiffrin is survived
by another daughter, Anya Schiffrin, a journalist married to the
Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz; and three grandchildren.
In 1962 Mr. Schiffrin joined Pantheon, which had been bought by Random
House a year earlier. He edited his first best seller, “The Tin Drum” by
Mr. Grass, shortly after his arrival. He became editor in chief in 1963
and managing director in 1969, often subsidizing important works with
profits from commercially successful books.
In 1980, after Random House was acquired by Mr. Newhouse’s Advance
Publications, Pantheon and other Random House units came under
increasing pressure to raise their profit margins. In 1990, Random House
said Mr. Schiffrin was “asked to resign after he refused to reduce the
number of titles published or to trim Pantheon’s 30-member staff.”
In the ensuing uproar, Pantheon authors and others called his ouster
corporate censorship. E. L. Doctorow, accepting a National Book Critics
Circle Award for “Billy Bathgate,” said of Random House, “Even if no
censorship was intended by its application of its own bottom-line
criteria to its Pantheon division, the effect is indeed to still a
voice, to close a door against part of the American family.”
But scores of Random House editors and publishers defended the company,
insisting that they too opposed corporate censorship and denying that
they — or Pantheon — had been subjected to it. In a statement, they
said, “We have preserved our independence and the independence of our
authors by supporting the integrity of our publishing programs with
At the New Press, Mr. Schiffrin published best-selling fiction and books
on race relations, civil rights, AIDS, black culture, history,
economics, the environment, feminism and other subjects. He wrote for
The Nation, The New Republic and European magazines and was the author
of “A Political Education: Growing Up in Paris and New York” (2007) and
“Words and Money” (2010), in addition to his memoir. Mr. Schiffrin
taught at Princeton and the New School in New York. He served on the
boards of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Council of the
Smithsonian Institution and the New York Council on the Humanities.
Since 2005, he and his wife divided their time between homes in
Manhattan and Paris.
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