Pantheon Is Dead, Long Live Pantheon

<i> Miles, The Times' book editor, was elected president of the National Book Critics' Circle last week in New York</i>

Two years ago, when Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past was making headlines, the Los Angeles Times published an unusually thoughtful review, one that compared Waldheim’s amnesia with the amnesia of Austria itself and contrasted it to West Germany’s “ Vergangenheitsbewaltigung-- a truthful and cathartic confrontation with the unhappy and long-suppressed past.” The German word came to the reviewer honestly enough: He was born in Vienna. So too did the cold eye on Austrian politics: Having witnessed at age 12 Hitler’s arrival in Vienna, he escaped to Britain and, when he was old enough, fought in the British infantry. His mother, tragically, died in Auschwitz.

Fred Jordan, author of this review (of Bernard Cohen’s “Waldheim”), made publishing news recently when he agreed to replace Andre Schiffrin as publisher of Pantheon Books. Schiffrin, son of one of the founders of Pantheon, has resigned and, by the terms of his settlement with Random House, Pantheon’s parent company, has agreed not to discuss the reasons for his resignation. Random House itself has issued no formal statement of those reasons. But New York has filled this near-vacuum of information with the fog of speculation as perhaps no city less dense with book trade talk ever could. Doug Ireland in the Village Voice, John Baker in Publishers Weekly, John Leonard in Newsday, a parade of writers and critics at the March 8 National Book Critics’ Circle awards ceremony, scores of other writers in an open letter forthcoming in the New York Review of Books--all have seen fit to lament the “death” of Pantheon and to denounce Random House for putting profit before social and literary merit.

During a week-long visit to New York for the annual meeting of the National Book Critics’ Circle, I heard on allegedly good authority such wildly conflicting reports as that Andre Schiffrin had been told to slash Pantheon’s list by three- quarters and had refused; that he had not been told to cut the list at all but only to cut the staff; that 1989 was one of the better years in recent Pantheon history; that Pantheon had lost a staggering $3.5 million in 1989 on sales of $20 million; that Schiffrin had been told to present a plan of his own for the reform of Pantheon and had refused; that he had volunteered a plan and had it rejected because Alberto Vitale, CEO of Random House, refused outright to deal with him. But murky as the economics of the change at Pantheon may be, the politics seemed murkier still.

In Publishers Weekly, whose account Andre Schiffrin endorsed when we met for supper, John Baker wrote on March 9: “We hear that one of the complaints directed by current Random management against Pantheon, apart from its too-large list and unprofitability, was that it published too many left-wing books, and why could these not be better balanced by some right-wing ones?” Baker does not state from whom he heard this, and I certainly cannot refute it. I would suggest only that if a purge of the left is the end, Fred Jordan is a bit unlikely as the means.


According to one Random House employee, Jordan was labeled a “scab” and hanged in effigy during a demonstration outside the publisher’s headquarters. The Village Voice saw fit to quote, without attribution, a description of him as “not very bright, not very sophisticated, can’t write his way out of a sentence, and is a lousy line editor.” But this is the same editor who, during a long career, much of it at Grove Press, published Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Marguerite Duras, David Mamet, Jules Feifer and others. Jordan was Vaclav Havel’s first U. S. publisher.

It may be true, as one agent with several authors under contract at Pantheon objected to me, that Fred Jordan’s left is the literary left, not the political or social left. But why would Vitale or S. I. Newhouse of Advance Publications, parent corporation of Random House, need to temporize even this much? Why hire a literary leftist when nonfiction editors squarely on the right or the center-right or in the anonymous and malleable middle can so easily be found?

Schiffrin told me, when I asked him, that all of the five Pantheon editors who resigned in protest (three others remain at work) had received job offers. Schiffrin himself, a brilliant and internationally renowned publisher whose departure was noted in Le Monde, has been mentioned as a possible next director of the Harvard University Press, and he might well excel in that role. If the direct human cost of this change at Pantheon should prove slight, so much the better.

As for the indirect cost of the change, or what Tom Engelhardt, one of the resigning editors, has called S. I. Newhouse’s “crime against culture,” I for one fail to see that a crime has yet been committed. Baker badly overstated the case when he wrote (emphasis added): “ Virtually alone among major commercial imprints, Pantheon concentrated on publishing serious books for people seriously interested in the state of the contemporary world.” Others have put the matter with equal or greater starkness. To this, forty editors and publishers from the various subsidiaries of Random House rightly respond in an open letter (released March 12) that they are “attacked and disparaged” by such ill-considered defenses of their former colleague. Editors like Jason Epstein, Elisabeth Sifton, Sonny Mehta, Ashbel Green and Jonathan Segal (all co-signers) are not trash merchants whose redeeming social function is to cover the losses of a higher-minded colleague. All of them intend to publish a mix of titles and to turn enough profit to stay in business. All they ask of Pantheon is that it do the same.

And it may, yet. When I met with Fred Jordan last week, what we talked about was, at first, not publishing at all but the ominous normalization of quasi-military security measures in New York City. (Jason Epstein had been mugged a day earlier at 10 a.m. on the sidewalk in front of Random House.) Violent crime, Jordan said, has led New York to protective measures against its own population unknown, in his experience, except under military occupation--and he has seen several military occupying forces first-hand.

War on crime is a cliche. Jordan’s off-the-cuff formulation --crime-ridden New York as an occupied country--struck me as grimly original. I find him interesting to talk to because his social conscience has been formed not just on campus or in literary salons but in factories and barracks. In any student-worker coalition, Jordan, an autodidact whose first career was tool-and-die maker, might have to be ranked with the workers. And so much the better for his judgment in publishing the social criticism for which Pantheon is rightly admired.

Nothing predisposes me to extend the benefit of the doubt to Random House. Alberto Vitale once publicly attacked my management of our best-seller list and has declined even to acknowledge several letters I sent him about that and other matters. S. I. Newhouse is a stranger. I may yet see evidence that will bring me around to what appears to be the opinion of the overwhelming majority; namely, that Andre Schiffrin has been dismissed because Random House is out to sink Pantheon Books. I can only say that I have not seen that evidence yet; and unless and until I do, I cannot believe that, with Fred Jordan as its publisher, Pantheon Books is anywhere near dead.