Publishers at Play

When I was a pretentious young man (I’m older now; but that doesn’t mean I’m less pretentious), the Paris Review Writers at Work anthologies were my Bible. (Or at least my Apocrypha. My Bible was a mash-up of Tropic of Cancer and Inside the Whale.)

I’d seek out the collections at used bookstores. The first volume I picked up, the 5th Series, contained interviews with William Gass (whom I was just then struggling to read), Jerzy Kosinski, Gore Vidal, P.G. Wodehouse, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more. The interviews were a joy to this self-important, deluded Future Great American Writer, deftly exploring the writers’ histories, influences and literary opinions, while also revealing some of the practical aspects of their writing habits. Each interview was prefaced with a facsimile of a page of the writer’s manuscript or typescript. This was a wonderful touch, a peek into the writer’s editorial process.

(Well, except for the Henry Miller interview, which had a bizarre diagram with the caption, “Manuscript plan of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, ’embracing planetary conjunction; topographical map of region and monuments and streets and cemeteries; fatal, or otherwise, influence of fields — according to type; Major Events; Dominant Idea; Psychological Pattern.” This may be why I never finished Tropic of Capricorn.)

If I found WaW volumes in a library, I’d photocopy the interviews with my favorites. I still have a folder somewhere with Philip Roth, Harold Bloom, Milan Kundera (I said I was pretentious back then) and others. I began looking up past issues of the Paris Review to find other interviews that had yet to be anthologized.

One of my great triumphs came when I was in Bethesda, MD in 1998 for the Small Press Expo (SPX), an indie-comics event. In a used bookstore near the expo hotel, I found issue #105 with the famed (and uncollected) William Gaddis interview!

At SPX, I met Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth. I’d been writing mean-spirited reviews for his magazine, The Comics Journal, for a few months at that time. He thanked me for those, joking that it was good to have someone else writing mean-spiritedly in the magazine, because it freed up his time. Then he noticed the Paris Review back issue in my hand and said, “I see you found the one with the William Gaddis interview!”

I felt like I was in good company.

The WaW anthology series, published by Viking / Penguin, ended after the 9th volume in 1992, near as I can tell from A decade or so later, Modern Library began publishing Women Writers at Work, Beat Writers at Work, Playwrights at Work and, um, Latin American Writers at Work (?), but I never picked those up. (I did grab The Writer’s Chapbook, which excerpted quotes from the interviews around particular themes, such as the audience, character, potboilers, peers, etc. It was a nice volume, but not as satisfying as having the complete interviews.)

In 2006, St. Martin’s Picador imprint began a new series called The Paris Review Interviews (I, II, and III). They’re the same format as the old WaW collections, right down to the facsimile manuscript page. And they collected the Gaddis interview! I still find the interviews pretty delightful, even though I’m no longer harboring dreams of being a Great American Writer. (I 0-fer-ized two of them here and here.)

George, Being George has a lot of good material about the history of the interviews, including the giddy elation some writers experienced when they were asked by George Plimpton to sit down for a Writers at Work session. Rather than excerpt any of those, I instead offer up a passage about the business of publishing the books:

MONA SIMPSON: [George] was very unhappy at one point with the amount of money that the Review had been paid for the various anthologies of interviews. Viking was paying us very little, and they were delaying publications. So Jay and I volunteered to go to this guy we knew at Simon and Schuster to see about moving our books there, and George was all for it. After an extended series of meetings, we got an offer for twenty-five thousand dollars — the current publisher was offering, I think three thousand — and they were really going to push it and promote it. So we come to George saying, “Okay, let’s sign on the dotted line, it’s going to be great.”

Then, at the last minute, George calls our editor at the other house — basically an old friend of George’s whom he’d been working with for years, who occasionally sent him tickets to a ball game. The editor sends George some tickets to the ball game and the whole deal is off. We realized at that point that we couldn’t just go out in the world and do that sort of thing anymore, not even with his permission, because we found that we basically didn’t have power to go against his personal loyalties. It was very embarrassing, because Simon and Schuster was outraged that we were staying with an offer that was about twelve percent of theirs.

I’ve taken several clients to basketball and baseball games, as well as fancy dinners. I like to believe that our magazine offers great value to our advertisers and that the fun times are sorta ancillary, but I’m sure that “relationship-building” activities like this muddle even the most otherwise clear business decisions.

As I said, George, Being George is a pretty entertaining book. Why, it’s right here at the end of my Plimpton/Review shelf!


Oh, and the fourth volume of the new series — sorry, the IVth one — is coming out next week, so you should get on that.

Cinc0-fer de Mayo

In honor of “Drink Corona (or whatever Mexican beer you choose) Day,” I thought I’d go find some well-regarded Mexican authors whom I’ve never read a word of. Only having thought up this idea this morning, I decided to dive into the “canonical appendixes” of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, since the lists of authors and books are broken up by nationality.

Except for Latin America, which is lumped together. So I had to spend a few minutes checking out the nationality of all the authors he listed, only to discover that he only has two Mexican authors on his list and I’ve actually read a book by one of them (Aura, by Carlos Fuentes)! Grr!

Bloom’s list did manage to yield a Mexican 0-fer author for me: Octavio Paz.

For the sake of bulking up this post, here’s the full list of Bloom’s canonical authors of Latin America (in the sequence he lists them), with 0-fer annotations:

  1. Rubén Darío (Nicaragua): 0-fer
  2. Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina): I’ve even read his long novel!
  3. Alejo Carpentier (Cuba): 0-fer
  4. Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Cuba): 0-fer
  5. Severo Sarduy (Cuba): 0-fer
  6. Reinaldo Arenas (Cuba): 0-fer. Haven’t even seen that movie about him.
  7. Pablo Neruda (Chile): We read one of his poems at our wedding.
  8. Nicolás Guillén (Cuba): 0-fer
  9. Octavio Paz (Mexico): 0-fer
  10. César Vallejo (Peru): 0-fer
  11. Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala): 0-fer
  12. José Lezama Lima (Cuba): 0-fer (but his wife is awesome)
  13. Julio Cortázar (Argentina): I tried reading Hopscotch, but didn’t get far.
  14. Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia): Read One Hundred Years of Solitude and some short stories
  15. Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru): 0-fer
  16. Carlos Fuentes (Mexico): The aforementioned Aura.
  17. Carlos Drummond de Andrade (Brazil): Wh0-fer?

Looks like Bloom really digs Cuban writers, huh? Now go get messed up on Tecate!

7 Rooms of Bloom!

[UPDATE: In 2016, I recorded a conversation with Harold Bloom for The Virtual Memories Show! I also recorded episodes with his friends and colleagues John Crowley, Sandy McClatchy and Langdon Hammer.]

So, wait: I never told you about the time I called Harold Bloom? Geez! I’ve been blogging 6 years now; you’d think I’d have gone through all of these stories by now! My bad.

Back when I was failing at publishing books (c. 2002 in my 1998-2004 run of failure), one of my authors (Samuel Delany, if you must know) thought it would be wonderful if we’d bring Walter Pater’s Plato & Platonism back into print.

I figured there may be a specialized audience (read: academics and intellectual deviants) out there, and tried to suss out if I could get away with a short print run, even though it would push unit costs a bunch higher. I’d learned from previous failures that it would help to have some sort of hook for the book, instead of just running ads announcing,

“If you’ve couldn’t get enough of Marius the Epicurean,
you don’t dare miss the astonishing reissue of Plato & Platonism!”


“If you thought you knew post-1893 aesthetics . . .

My author told me that a lot of his smartypants literary contemporaries were enamored of Pater and this book, so I thought I could try to get one of them to write an introduction to it. He mentioned Guy Davenport as a likely prospect, so I wrote him a line.

Mr. Davenport respectfully declined, but thought it was wonderful that someone was bringing the book back into print.

Next, I wrote to publishing innovator Jason Epstein, who made some comments in Book Business that marked him as a Pater devotee. He too shot me down, but wished me luck.

(I wasn’t aware of any curse laid upon Pater’s lectures, but Mr. Davenport died a few years after my request, while Mr. Epstein’s wife was victim of a hoax anthrax letter in 2001, later went to prison over the Valerie Plame scandal, and was vilified for her NYTimes reporting on WMDs in Iraq.)

I decided to try Harold Bloom. I’d read his praise for Pater in  numerous books and interviews and, since he wrote a bazillion books, guides and introductions, I thought I had a chance.

Having no idea how these things work, I called the department where he taught at NYU; they told me he was currently at Yale. So I called there and said, “I’m a publisher and I’d like to speak to Prof. Bloom about a Walter Pater book I’m planning to reissue.”

The secretary said, “He’s not teaching today. Would you like his home number?”

“. . . Uh, sure,” I told her. It was then that I realized “I’m a publisher” is a spell of great power.

Looking at the number scribbled on my pad, I thought of past literary figures I’ve called out of the blue: William Gaddis, David Gates, Grant Morrison, Marcus Greill, Ron Rosenbaum . . . none of them were quite as daunting as Harold Bloom. After all, he was The Guy Who Read (and Wrote About) More Books Than Anydarnbody.

Would he grill me on Pater, of whom I’d have to admit I hadn’t read more than 30 pages? Would he be as disappointed in me as Greill Marcus was when I admitted I hadn’t finished Lipstick Traces? Would he be as flat-out stunned as Mr. Gaddis was when he found out that his number was in the phone book? Would he call me “dear,” as he seemed to do with every interviewer, regardless of gender?

I had to fall back on my version of “they’re just like us.” In this case, I reflected on Bloom’s lifelong support of the New York Yankees. I told myself, “When you were drunk on Colt 45 in a Dallas hotel room, jumping up and down and cheering as Charlie Hayes caught the final out of the 1996 World Series, Harold Bloom was also cheering and . . . well, maybe not jumping up and down, drunk on Colt 45, but definitely celebrating.”

I dialed. He answered.

“Hi, my name is Gil Roth. Is this Prof. Bloom?” I asked. He confirmed that it was. I took a deep breath and launched into my pitch, making sure to let him know that I’d published several legit authors, even though “I’m a publisher” had changed into “I’m a small press publisher” (how could I lie to him?). He was pleasantly surprised to learn that someone would bring back Plato & Platonism and expressed some admiration for the author who’d suggested it to me.

“But,” he averred, “I’m so backed up with work for my new series of critical books, my dear, that I’m afraid I simply cannot write an introduction for you.”

“I understand.”

“Why, even if you were to offer me the opportunity to write an introduction to the illustrated history of Sophia Loren, I’m afraid I would have to turn you down.”

You don’t mess with a man of his era (b. 1930) when it comes to Sophia Loren.

I thanked him for his time and his subsequent offer to blurb the book, wished him well, gave him a “Go, Yankees!”, and hung up.

I never did publish that Pater, but you can download an e-version any old time.

[UPDATE: In 2016, I recorded a conversation with Harold Bloom for The Virtual Memories Show! I also recorded episodes with his friends and colleagues John Crowley, Sandy McClatchy and Langdon Hammer.]


I have a copy of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon that I take down from the shelf every year or so. I like to look through its four appendices and check off the “canonical” books that I’ve read. There are 37 pages of these lists, broken down into four Vico-esque eras of history: Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic and Chaotic.

I recall reading a New York magazine interview around the time of The Western Canon‘s publication (c. 1994) in which Mr. Bloom complained about having to produce the mammoth end-of-book list. His editors prevailed upon him to do it, I guess because it would be easier to hook reviewers, since they could now look to see if their favorite authors and titles had made the cut. And because dilettantes like me could start checklists!

[UPDATE! Article found, courtesy of Google’s copyright-be-damned policy! Here’s the paragraph I was trying to recall:

The list, Bloom says, is intended to be suggestive rather than prescriptive — which is just as well, since there are more than 850 authors cited. Indeed, says Bloom, the list may turn out to be a liability, stealing all the attention from the body of the book. “I was encouraged to do it by my agent and my editor,” he says woefully. “They may have been right, they may have been wrong. I’m not so sure that it was a good idea.”

Go read it!]

I admit that I find it fun to measure myself against lists like this. And, yes, I’m enough of a geek that I get a little thrill putting a check-mark next to a title that I’ve finished after years of false starts. I’m not out to “finish” Mr. Bloom’s list, obviously; I could enjoyably spend the rest of my days just reading Shakespeare and ignoring the hundreds of other titles he suggested, and I think he’d find that a perfectly fine choice.

But it’s nice to make progress. Last night, I took out my copy of The Western Canon and was surprised to find that a few books I read last year were on Mr. Bloom’s list: Aegypt and Love & Sleep. Check and check! Only 37 more books to go! On that page!

After checking off those John Crowley books, I got down to business. I flipped back to the Aristocratic Age, looked for the “FRANCE” section, then the entry for Michel de Montaigne. I proceeded to put a dark check-mark next to “Essays, translated by Donald Frame,” because after more than 2 years of reading, I have finished all 1,045 pages of Montaigne’s Essays, beyotch! I am D-U-N done! Celebrate me!

* * *

Still, all of that reading added up to just one check-mark, and you readers know that I have plenty of 0-fers out there!

I coincidentally came across a link to a literary blog I’d never read, The Elegant Variation. Jason Kottke linked to this post about literary critic James Wood’s 1994 response to Mr. Bloom’s lists. Mr. Wood offered up his own list of the best British & American books from 1945 to 1985!

I jumped down to the bottom of the list and started working my way up. At first, I thought, “I have not read a single one of these books! This will be the greatest 0-fer of all time!”

Eventually, I started coming across titles that I had read, so I decided to break the list down into four categories:

  1. Books I’ve Read (18)
  2. Books I’ve Started but Never Finished (5)
  3. Books I’ve Never Started (78!)
  4. Books (and/or Authors) I’ve Never Heard Of (25!)

I could probably break #3 down into Books I Plan To Read Someday and Books I Know I’ll Never Get Around To, but hey.

It’s important to blaze one’s own trail through the library and not to take any single source as too much of an authority. After all, Mr. Bloom includes four books by Don DeLillo on his list, so it’s not like we should regard his modern section too seriously. It’s called “Chaotic” for a reason, right? (Mr. Wood puts one of Mr. DeLillo’s books on his list, too. Sigh.)

In the spirit of celebrating my lacunae, here’s this week’s modified 0-fer list! (Go to that TEV post to get the original sequence of Mr. Wood’s list! And go check out that blog! It seems pretty neat!)

Books I’ve Read
William Burroughs – The Naked Lunch
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5
Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man
Frederick Exley – A Fan’s Notes
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day
Philip Roth – Goodbye, Columbus; The Counterlife
JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
Robert Penn Warren – All The King’s Men
Don DeLillo – White Noise
Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano
Walker Percy – The Moviegoer
George Orwell – 1984; Collected Essays and Journalism (4 vols)
JG Ballard – Concrete Island
Saul Bellow – Herzog
Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49; V

Books I’ve Started But Never Finished
Harold Brodkey – Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
AS Byatt – Still Life
Toni Morrison – Beloved
Jack Kerouac – On the Road
Joseph Heller – Catch-22

Books I’ve Never Started
Norman Mailer – The Naked and the Dead; Armies of the Night
Walter Abish – How German Is It
Elizabeth Bishop – The Complete Poems
John Cheever – Collected Stories; Falconer
Toni Morrison – Sula
Bernard Malamud – The Assistant; The Stories of Bernard Malamud
William Trevor – Collected Stories
James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time; Giovanni’s Room
Howard Nemerov – Collected Poems
VS Naipaul – A House for Mr. Biswas; In a Free State; The Enigma of Arrival
Philip Roth – Reading Myself and Others
Flannery O’Connor – A Good Man Is Hard To Find
Frank O’Hara – Selected Poems
Sylvia Plath – Collected Poems
Ezra Pound – Pisan Cantos
John Barth – The Sotweed Factor
Saul Bellow –  The Adventures of Augie March; Seize the Day; Humboldt’s Gift
John Berryman – The Dream Songs; The Freedom of the Poet and Other Essays
Donald Barthelme – Sixty Stories
Wallace Stevens – Collected Poems
Eudora Welty – Collected Stories
William Carlos Williams – Paterson
Edmund White – A Boy’s Own Story
Amy Clampitt – The Kingfisher
WH Auden – The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays; Collected Poems
Angela Carter – The Magic Toyshop; Nights at the Circus
Bruce Chatwin – On The Black Hill
William Golding – Lord of the Flies; The Spire
WS Graham – Collected Poems
Raymond Carver – The Stories of Raymond Carver
Martin Amis – Money; The Moronic Inferno
Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea
Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter
Jonh Ashbery – Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; Selected Poems
Geoffrey Hill – Collected Poems
Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook
Ivy Compton-Burnett – A Heritage and its History
Muriel Spark – Memento Mori; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Phillip Larkin – Collected Poems
Ian McEwan – First Love Last Rites; The Cement Garden
Andrew Motion – Secret Narratives
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net; The Bell; The Nice and the Good
Carson McCullers – The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
Anthony Powell – A Dance of the Music of Time
John Updike – Of the Farm; The Centaur; The Rabbit Quartet; Hugging the Shore
Ted Hughes – Selected Poems 1957-81
VS Pritchett – Complete Stories; Complete Essays
Marianne Moore – Complete Poems
Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children; The Satanic Verses
Anthony Burgess – Earthly Powers
Alan Sillitoe – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Graham Swift – Waterland
Iain Sinclair – Downriver
Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited; The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

Books (and/or Authors) I’ve Never Heard Of
JG Farrell – The Siege of Krishnapur
Jane Bowles – Collected Works
Tim O’Brien – If I Die In A Combat Zone
LP Hartley – The Go-Between
Cynthia Ozick – The Messiah of Stockholm; Art and Ardour
Angus Wilson – The Wrong Set; Hemlock and After; Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
Randall Jarrell – Poetry and the Age
Robert Lowell – Life Studies; For the Union Dead; Near the Ocean
Henry Green – Loving; Concluding; Nothing
Susan Sontag – Styles of Radical Will
Paul Bailey – Gabriel’s Lament
Jeanette Winterson – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Craig Raine – A Martian Sends A Postcard Home
Tom Paulin – Fivemiletown
James Fenton – The Memory of War
Denton Welch – A Voice Through a Cloud
Christine Brook-Rose – The Christine Brook-Rose Reader
Elizabeth Taylor – The Wedding Group

At dinner last night, Amy asked me what my next giganto-reading project will be, now that I’ve finished reading Montaigne. The first three things to flash through my mind were Plutarch, Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, and Shakespeare. I told her, “I’m gonna take a break for a while.”