12 September 2008

The One That Got Away

In connection with the death of respected literary editor Robert Giroux last week, the New York Times printed Giroux's recollection (from Al Silverman's The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors) about how he didn't acquire J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

It shows old-school, handshake literary publishing coming in conflict with the business needs of a conglomerate--in 1950. Even then, there was more money in textbooks than in literary novels. Giroux's story:

He was very tall, dark-haired, had a horse face. He was melancholy looking. It’s the truth--the first person I thought of when I saw him was Hamlet.

“Giroux,” he said. I said something like, “Right. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Salinger.”

“Giroux,” he said again. “Mr. Shawn has recommended you to me. But I want to tell you that to start me out it would be much better to publish my first novel instead of my stories.” I laughed, thinking, you want to be the publisher, you can have my seat. But I said, “I’m sure you’re right about that.” And I said, “I will publish your novel. Tell me about it.” He said, “Well, I can’t show it to you yet. It’s about half finished.” I said, “Well, let me be the publisher.” And he said yes, and we shook hands. ...

A year later a messenger came to the office with a package from Dorothy Olding, Salinger’s agent. ... There on the top page I read the title: “The Catcher in the Rye.” ...

I gave [my boss at Harcourt, Eugene Reynal] the book to read. He didn’t like it, didn’t understand it. He asked me, “Is this kid in the book supposed to be crazy?” ...“Gene,” I said, “I’ve shaken hands with this author. I agreed to publish this book.”

“Yes,” he said, “but, Bob, you’ve got to remember, we have a textbook department.” And I said, “What’s that got to do with it?” He said, “This is a book about a kid going to prep school.” So he sent it to the textbook people, who read it and said, “It’s not for us.” ...
The implication is that Harcourt's textbook division thought that Catcher would be bad for business. Shortly after this, Giroux left Harcourt for Farrar & Straus, and eventually became a partner there.

Ironically, Catcher (eventually published by Little, Brown) has sold extremely well into the school market for the last fifty years. It's well written and serious, but it's also about a teenager and short--kids will love it, right? Anne Trubek recently wrote in Good magazine about "Why We Shouldn’t Still Be Learning Catcher in the Rye"--or, to be less incendiary than a headline has to be, why Salinger's novel of a depressed preppy boy in 1950 may feel as remote to today's high-school readers as David Copperfield was to Holden.

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