Authors around the country mobilized Wednesday to protest the apparently forced resignation of Andre Schiffrin, managing director of Pantheon Books, noted as a major publisher of serious nonfiction and a forum for political dissent.
While authors organized picket lines and composed statements, four of Pantheon’s five senior editors also quit in protest. Although a Pantheon statement said Schiffrin had resigned, the imprint head was believed to have been booted out by Pantheon parent Random House because he refused to reduce his staff and book list. Random House has said Pantheon loses money.
Authors and editors viewed the move as the beginning of the end for Pantheon. “In mainstream publishing in the U.S., Pantheon was the only house consistently willing to present the voices from elsewhere, challenging voices of one generation that might become central voices to the next generation,” said Tom Engelhardt, one of the editors who resigned. “To in essence wipe this out is to close down the mainstream of publishing and the mainstream of American thinking to challenging ideas, and that’s a very important thing.”
Random House bought Pantheon in the 1960s, two decades after it was founded by German exiles Kurt and Helen Wolff. Over the years, Pantheon has published such distinguished authors as Studs Terkel, Simone de Beauvoir and Ralph Nader. It brought out more than 100 books last year.
Alberto Vitale, Random House chairman, could not be reached for comment, but he said in a statement: “I want to most emphatically reaffirm Random House’s commitment to maintaining Pantheon’s position as one of our most prestigious imprints, and to ensuring its continuity and success in the years to come.”
The publishing giant, however, had many doubters. By Wednesday evening, 25 authors who have been published by Random House and its divisions had already lent their names to a letter of protest planned as a full-page ad in the New York Review of Books. Hundreds of authors are expected to join their ranks, according to organizer and Berkeley author Todd Gitlin.
The statement reads in part: “Although we are not privy to all the interior discussions or motives, what is clear is that the effect of Mr. Schiffrin’s forced resignation is to chill the intellectual environment. An important part of our national dialogue, the basis of an informed citizenry in a democratic society, has been silenced.”
Author Barbara Ehrenreich was spearheading a protest planned for Random House’s New York headquarters at noon Monday. And 11 writers including Terkel, Dore Ashton, Noam Chomsky and Dorothy Thompson voiced their displeasure in a letter to the New York Times, which was unpublished as of Wednesday. Terkel, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, was said to have announced his refusal to stick with the whittled-down Pantheon.
The letter draws parallels between Schiffrin’s removal and the apparent dismissal of Robert L. Bernstein from his post as chairman and president of Random House last December. The letter says both men were penalized for refusing to value “short-term return upon investment” over the “criteria of cultural vitality and literary excellence,” according to “the demands of the proprietors.”
“Si Newhouse’s real books, the ones he cares about, are the accounting books,” Engelhardt said. “Unlike the ones we publish, they are not open to us.”
All the resignations are effective March 15.