Almost 50 years ago, in 1959, Philip Roth published "Goodbye, Columbus," a coming-of-age love story that was short, sharp, tender and pitch-perfect, and won the National Book Award. Few writers have launched a career so auspiciously. Roth, of course, went on to win pretty much every other literary prize going, achieving almost uncontrollable celebrity with his 1969 novel "Portnoy's Complaint." Here, obviously, was a big career.
Still, nothing quite prepared us for the last decade, during which Roth, now in his 70s, has hunkered down in Connecticut and hit a series of home runs perhaps unprecedented in the history of American literature. There's "American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist," "The Human Stain," "The Plot Against America" and, most recently, "Everyman." The sequence beggars belief. An aging writer who had sometimes lived too much inside his own head has lost none of his fury, writing with the same virtuosic gifts about a wider world.
"There may be comparisons to what Philip's done these last 10 years," says Martin Asher, editor in chief at Vintage, Roth's paperback publisher. "But in books, it's hard to find them. I think of Beethoven's late string quartets. There's that level of discipline and daring -- the act of a guy jumping off the diving board and then checking about halfway down, 'Hey -- is there any water there?' Sometimes, I'm reading a paragraph and I just gasp and stop -- I didn't know English could do that."
Asher knows Roth well and keeps by his desk treasured jacket designs that have been sent back, red-penciled with a stern Rothian "No!" Good luck to the beginning writer who tries that. For Vintage, Roth's late glorious surge has provided particular pleasures and problems. To start with, Vintage publishes all his books, the entire backlist of 27 titles. Such a situation is unusual -- Penguin doesn't have everything by Don DeLillo, for instance -- and didn't arrive by accident.
One of Roth's original publishers, André Deutsch in London, operated out of a grubby town house between two pubs just off Tottenham Court Road. In those days -- in fact, right up until the late 1980s, a visiting writer was likely to encounter a cranky receptionist who'd hobnobbed with George Orwell or Raymond Chandler. It was a very different world, and by the early 1990s, Roth's books were familiarly positioned: that is to say, he'd written plenty, for several different publishers, which had in turn variously reissued them in paperback or sold out titles to the paperback houses like Bantam and Penguin. It was all a bit of an unfocused mess, commercially speaking, and sales languished.
"Andrew Wylie [Roth's literary agent] came in to see me about 15 years ago with this wild notion about doing all of Philip Roth," says Asher. "I told him, 'Sure -- but you'll never get me the rights.' " Wylie did, in fact, pressing the different publishers to co-ordinate simultaneous licenses to Vintage, whose first Roth campaign began in 1994. The second, riding the crest of Roth's new wave, rolled out in 2005, with a few titles each season. By the time the process is done, it will be time to start afresh, with yet another new set of uniform covers.
It's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Philip Roth may be a genius, but the American book buyer's love affair with the trade paperback has turned him into a brand too.
"If I didn't work in publishing, I'd never go to the hardback section of the bookstore. They're furniture. Paperbacks are cool," says Asher, who in his time at Vintage has seen backlist publishing change completely and has played no small part in that revolution. The Day-Glo Philip K. Dicks, the elegant Nabokovs, the new Ross Macdonalds with those blurry "CSI"-inspired covers, the edition of "In Cold Blood" that wasn't even a movie tie-in but sold half a million copies -- these and other backlist titles now account for 60% to 70% of Vintage's sales.
Vintage, of course, is not the only publisher to give its books new life by repackaging the backlist. Beena Kamlani, an editor at Viking Penguin, worked closely with Saul Bellow during the final decade of his life and now supervises the writer's titles that are being issued in the Penguin Classics imprint at a rate of two or three a year. Bellow approved the cover images and helped draw up a list of writers to do introductions. This can be frustrating, she says; people sometimes take a year to say no. (She's still waiting to hear from Jonathan Safran Foer.) Roth himself wrote a celebration for "Herzog," while Christopher Hitchens introduced "The Adventures of Augie March" and Jeffrey Eugenides is on board for "Humboldt's Gift."
Lampani misses Bellow's tenderness and compassion -- one-liners flowed from him when he was in the mood -- and she feels a responsibility to usher a new generation in the direction of this great American writer. Will the big names help? "In time, we'll know whether younger people are reading Bellow now because a Eugenides or a Foer has written the introduction. That's certainly the hope," she says.
No small part of publishing's charm is that it remains a guessing game, even in this new corporate age. Right now, a way ahead seems to be back to the future. Book sales may be down five months in a row, but Asher, for one, refuses to be dispirited. "I've heard so many end-of-the-world scenarios down the years," he says. "But great things go on happening. There was a time when I couldn't give away Cormac McCarthy. And look at him now."
Richard Rayner is the author of several books, most recently the novel "The Devil's Wind." Paperback Writers appears monthly at latimes.com/books.