Found Text | September 01, 2000
An Interview with Knopf Editor Ashbel Green
Interviewer: According to Alfred Knopf’s own remarks, made in a talk in 1949, Alfred got into the business partly by getting to know good bookstores, including a model publisher in England, Martin Secker. Then he came back to New York and finally got a job at Doubleday, Page, and Company, where he was paid eight dollars a week. When Doubleday sent him into the manufacturing department, his connection with books began. He got to correspond with Joseph Conrad, which was a really big thrill to him. He bought Conrad’s correspondence from John Quinn and did his first book, partly to help Conrad, who was a lifelong gout sufferer and perpetually hard-up. In other words, he became involved in publishing partly through his interest in and caring about authors. Do you think that describes the Knopf vision?
Green: We certainly do care about authors, and we care about the quality of their work. Only three people have run this place in eighty-five years. Alfred and Blanche I count as one, and then Robert Gottlieb, and now Sonny Mehta. They are all very different from each other, but they have all been committed to the care of authors and the quality of their work.
Interviewer: What about the idea that authors and publishers ought to be friends? Does that seem like the climate today?
Green: Some authors and publishers are very much friends, and others are strictly businesslike. Certainly John Updike has been edited by Judith Jones for forty years, and they are very close.
Interviewer: This brings up the perennial question about the relationships of editors, and it was one that concerned Knopf, too. Have you ever had to edit a book of fiction that you really, really disliked?
Green: I don’t think I’ve ever edited a book of fiction I disliked. I can say that I’ve edited a book of fiction that disappointed me. It sometimes happens that a writer will write a book that is not up to the level of his previous work. But if you believe in that writer you say all right, he or she’s going to do better next time.
Interviewer: Knopf believed that you should carry authors through bad patches and bad books.
Green: He believed in publishing authors, not books. Although there were and are occasions–especially in nonfiction–where you’re publishing one-of-a-kind books.
Interviewer: At what point is an author important enough to a publishing house to be an author that they identify with? In a sense there’s a lot of give there; some of these rejections are of books by authors Knopf had previously published.
Green: I don’t think in general such a relationship can happen after one book; it may take six books.
Interviewer: Knopf’s American republication of Green Mansions, by W. H. Hudson, was the big book, the early success, that allowed him to continue. Then, in the ’20s, Alfred and Blanche started going abroad every year looking for foreign titles. We notice in reading these reader reports that Knopf republished a lot of work from foreign publishers, particularly Britain. Secker and Warburg, Heinemann and so forth. Has Knopf done that more than other publishing houses?
Green: It’s quite possible we did so in the early years. When Alfred and Blanche started this company they found it hard to attract American writers, so they went abroad for much of their list. I think the breakthrough among American writers was when they started to publish Mencken and Willa Cather in the late ’10s, early ’20s. Willa Cather left Houghton Mifflin to come to Alfred Knopf because she liked the way he produced and manufactured books.
Interviewer: He gave a lot of attention to the physical book. He went to Europe every year and looked at different paper for the end papers, etc.
Green: He cared about the production values, and we try to continue in that vein. I would say that our list is more American now than it was in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s. This is essentially a reflection of the editors. One thing that has changed over the last thirty years is that we have a much more stable editorial staff. It wasn’t easy working for Alfred and Blanche, and there was a lot of turnover.
Interviewer: Even the outside world hears tales of the mythic disputes between Alfred and Blanche.
Green: Between themselves, exactly.
Interviewer: How would you characterize Knopf’s tastes now, and how have they changed?
Green: As I say, it’s really a reflection of the editors’ interests. For example, we used to publish more books on the American West because Alfred had a strong interest in it. An editor named Angus Cameron in the ’60s had a strong interest in the American West, and there isn’t really anybody here who has that passion now. There were a lot of books on fishing and hunting; there hardly are any now. We do publish quite a few books on the environment; that’s always been a standard interest of the house.
Interviewer: Was it often the case that Alfred and Blanche disagreed about individual manuscripts?
Green: I don’t know how to define the word “often.” They did disagree, sure, but they usually found a way to work it out. There were certain areas where Blanche was more interested than he was and vice versa. I don’t think Blanche gave a darn for the American West. And she was certainly much more interested in French literature than Alfred was.
Interviewer: I want to ask a few questions about these rejections. Even in the mid-’50s, Herbert Weinstock was recommending the rejection of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose first novel they’d sold about 5,000 copies of. He based his recommendation on how many copies they figured they’d be able to sell. I first started hearing about the blockbuster complex in the late ’70s or early ’80s. Is this emphasis on sales record, on having nothing but blockbusters, not so new?
Green: You have to remember that Knopf was an independent publisher. There wasn’t a vast amount of money behind it. The Knopfs had to live on what they made. There were lots of books they published with no hope of making a profit. They did publish popular novelists you’ve probably never heard of, who sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the ’30s and ’40s, like Warwick Deeping and Charles Morgan–totally forgotten authors now, who were very successful commercially. They needed those writers to make up for the Hungarian translations that they published.
Interviewer: Betsy Hutchins does a fair and honest summary of Wide Sargasso Sea, admitting all along that her objections may simply be a matter of taste: the alienation of everybody in the book; the fact that there’s no one in the novel to like; the fact that the second part is told from the point of view of the nasty husband. She admits to the compelling evocativeness of the prose, and she ultimately asks Judith Jones to make a decision, partly because she thinks the book will appeal to secret lovers of the gothic. Judith Jones rejects it. In retrospect, if you yourself had rejected Wide Sargasso Sea, would you feel now that it was a bad decision? Knowing what you know about Jean Rhys and her subsequent career?
Green: Remember the old Satchel Paige statement, “Never look back, someone might be gaining on you.” Every editor and every publisher makes judgements that retrospectively do not look sound five or ten or twenty years later. You try to do the best you can. Nobody’s perfect.
Interviewer: If you thoroughly dislike a story but you think it’s going to be quite successful. . .
Green: I would give it to another editor, but there’s no point in publishing a book if there isn’t at least one enthusiastic editor behind it.
Interviewer: This brings up the question of the nuts and bolts of the selection process. How has it changed, or has it changed? Can one editor get a book through, or is it a more democratic process?
Green: It’s not democratic at all. This place has always run on the idea that the editor consults with the head of the house, and the decision is made between the two of them.
Interviewer: That’s fairly unusual, isn’t it?
Green: I don’t know that it’s unusual. I think it works that way in a number of places.
Interviewer: What about the infamous editorial board?
Green: We have an editorial meeting once a month, in which the editors announce what books they’ve put under contract. We don’t have an editorial board. In the old days, there was a weekly editorial meeting that was followed by kind of a business meeting that talked about the financial implications of books that the editorial meeting had passed on.
Interviewer: You no longer write reader reports. Now what is the process?
Green: The process is that an editor goes to the head of the house. The editor may well have asked another editor to make a commentary on the proposal. Most of the time now we’re dealing with proposals, not manuscripts. It’s not hard to get other editors to read proposals. So you get support, you go to the head of the house and talk it over with Sonny Mehta, which is the way it should be done. The attitude around here is that once the house has agreed to publish a book, if the book doesn’t do well, the editor is not held responsible for it–unless the editor has done something really bad–because the house has agreed to publish the book.
Interviewer: That sounds like an ideal publishing world.
Green: We have very little turnover on the staff here.
Interviewer: How many editors do you have?
Green: About a dozen. Harry Ford, our poetry editor, died last year. We just replaced him with Deborah Garrison, who is also going to edit fiction and nonfiction for Pantheon. She’ll have a dual responsibility since Pantheon is part of the Knopf publishing group now. But they have their own separate list and separate editors.
Interviewer: In 1963 a couple of your editors recommended rejection of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
Green: We had published Colossus.
Interviewer: You rejected Ariel and The Bell Jar.
Green: They were of course at different times, and I believe The Bell Jar was a little earlier. We would have published Ariel, but Plath’s husband made some impossible contractual demands.
Interviewer: Plath wasn’t quite as famous. She was rapidly in the process of becoming famous actually during Knopf’s consideration of the novel. Again, it seemed to me like the description of the novel in the readers’ reports was fiercely accurate.
Green: Who were the readers? I suspect that Judith Jones was one of them.
Interviewer: She was. And the readers were right on, yet her very reason for disliking the book was that it was just the raw, primordial, simple stuff without any attempt to get beneath it, to get to reasons for it, to understand it. That seems to me to be quite a cogent reason for rejecting a manuscript, yet that’s one of the reasons Plath is so powerful–because she eschews explanation. I wonder sometimes if we don’t construct these rejections like a palace in the air. I’ve rejected plenty of manuscripts in my life, and I’ve written plenty of clever remarks on them, and then later they’ve been reprinted in Best American Short Stories, having been published by somebody else.
Green: As I say, you can’t look back. But it was also true at the time that Plath didn’t want her name on the novel.
Interviewer: Isn’t there one book that kind of just kills you to have rejected?
Green: I’ve seen reports rejecting The Deer Park, Giovanni’s Room and Lolita.
Interviewer: Lolita! That would kill me.
Green: Those three books were all rather advanced in an explicit sexual way for the 1950s, and Alfred was very careful about that.
Interviewer: And he was around at the house and important until, what, the ’60s?
Green: Actually he would show up in the office as late as ’82 or ’83. In the ’60s he gradually delegated his authority, and by the time Bob Gottlieb arrived he really didn’t consider himself in charge anymore.
Interviewer: Among the manuscripts that you’ve worked on, which book has meant the most to you?
Green: I never answer that kind of question. In the first place I haven’t really thought about it, and in the second place if I thought about it, I would think about the people I would offend.
Interviewer: Which books occur to you right off the cuff that have meant a lot to you?
Green: Well, Andrei Sakharov’s memoirs. I’ve published a lot of political dissidents: Jacobo Timerman, Milovan Djilas, Vaclav Havel. I’ve published a lot of people who have had political troubles over the years, particularly Sakharov.
Interviewer: Why the interest in political dissidents?
Green: My graduate school training was in Eastern European History, so I was always interested in Russian history and Russian politics. I’m very pleased to have published books by García Márquez, by Ernest Gaines, by the mystery writer Ross Macdonald, the first book by George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I have a wide interest in fiction. I would not, however, have found myself connected to John Barth. I don’t think experimental fiction is where my strength is. But I wouldn’t single out one favorite book or one favorite author.
Interviewer: Have you published more than one of Ernest Gaines’ books?
Green: Yes, three: In My Father’s House, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying. Another writer I really enjoy, who is somewhat forgotten now, though his first book has been in print in hardcover for forty years, is John Graves. He wrote a book in 1960 called Goodbye To A River. He wrote fiction in the ’50s, for The Atlantic and Esquire. And then he turned to the story of this river that he had grown up on and wrote a book about a three-week trip down the river, which is filled with the history and the contemporary life on the river. We’ve kept it in print for forty years.
Interviewer: That’s amazing.
Green: He is the man who should have written the great Texas novel, but he didn’t.
Interviewer: Why not?
Green: I don’t know. We’ve published two other books by him, which are kind of environmental books about Texas.
Interviewer: Can you think of a book that in your opinion is a forgotten or lost classic?
Green: Well, that is one. Goodbye To A River. I was talking about it with the writer Robert Boswell. I had lunch with him today. He’s up here for The New Yorker‘s seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations. He hadn’t heard of it, and Robert lives in New Mexico and grew up in Arizona. This is a classic book about the Southwest, and he’d never heard of it. I’m also very pleased to have been connected with a writer named Thomas Sanchez, novels like Rabbit Boss and Mile Zero. He’s a West Coast writer.
Interviewer: Are you an editor?
Green: Yes. Everybody edits books. Here they do.
Interviewer: That’s a difference between Knopf and many publishing houses.
Green: I’ve heard it’s so. But people are expected to edit here.
Interviewer: Seeing so many manuscripts–or I guess now proposals–how do you keep a fresh eye?
Green: I really think that most editors wake up each day hoping they’re going to find something they love. I have a real sense of excitement when a new writer comes in with a novel or a collection of stories or an idea for a political book–someone you feel has a fresh voice, whom you can publish with a lot of enthusiasm.
Interviewer: How do you know you’ve hit on a hot new writer, other than the voice?
Green: Just guts and instinct. That’s something you develop over years of experience. When you’re younger, in your twenties, you’re a little uncertain about your judgement in these matters, and gradually, as experience comes, you get better at it.
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