Thursday, November 12, 2009

Max Perkins Lives!

When I am not wearing my Bloomsbury Press hat or my Dr. Syntax periwig, I serve on the board of the Center for Fiction--a literary organization formerly known as the Mercantile Library. The original name reflects its origin, in 1820, as a lending library organized by Wall Street businesses so their clerks could improve themselves through literature. This fall, the Library has renamed itself and embraced a new mission toward which it has been evolving for many years. It is now the only organization in America exclusively devoted to the art of fiction--including the reading, writing, publishing, and most importantly, enjoyment of it. I like to think this makes us simultaneously one of the oldest and one of the newest cultural centers in the country. 
Monday night was the Center's annual benefit dinner and awards ceremony. We awarded the our First Novel prize--chosen by a panel of first-class writers including last year's winner, Hannah Tinti--to John Pipkin's extraordinary Woodsburner. (For the full list of finalists, which all had ardent supporters, visit the Center's website.) And I had the enjoyable task of presenting the Maxwell Perkins Award to Doubleday editor Gerald Howard. 
The Perkins Award, named named after the legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, honors a publishing person who has, over a career, discovered, nurtured, and championed writers of fiction. (Past winners are Nan Talese, Gary Fisketjon, Drenka Willen, and Jonathan Galassi.) Launching and sustaining fiction writers is demanding and sometimes lonely work; we hope to provide one ink-stained wretch a year with some recognition, and at least one night away from the manuscripts. 
I can remember being an editorial assistant and shirking an hour of work with some colleagues while one of them read aloud from a hilarious and brilliant first novel by one David Foster Wallace. It had been published as a paperback original by Gerry Howard. He's still publishing surprising new writers twenty years later. 
One of our colleagues called Gerry “the champion of the transgressive,” and I know she meant that as a high compliment. It’s challenging enough, at this cultural moment, to publish books by authors that everyone admires and those who have a track record of success; it’s far more demanding to find writers whose work is unfamiliar, against the grain, or that makes people uncomfortable, and to publish them with skill, energy and commitment. But this is what Gerry has managed to do for a few decades now. He has published, among many others, Gordon Lish, Don DeLillo, William S. Burroughs, A. M. Homes, Walter Mosley, Paul Auster, Ana Castillo, Walter Kirn, Kate Christensen, and Gore Vidal. Chuck Palahniuk, who has published with Gerry since his first novel, flew to New York from the Pacific Northwest just to present a tribute to Gerry at Monday's event.
It's a wonderful irony that Gerald Howard once wrote an article titled “Mistah Perkins--He Dead.” In that essay, published in 1989, he unflinchingly considered the many pressures that squeeze editors in the commercial publishing business; how difficult it had become for a would-be Max Perkins to find and acquire work of the best quality; and how hard it was to publish that work with success in the crowded, noisy marketplace that we operate in.

Many of the problems Gerry identified back then have only grown more acute; but I think he himself has given the lie to his article. Even in a book industry dominated by blockbuster titles and mass marketing, dedicated editors still ply their trade. Whether you think they are bucking the system or justifying it, editors like Gerry--and many others, too many for the Perkins award to recognize all of them--continue to find and publish original, challenging, and enduring books. 

(Disclosure: some of the above is drawn from remarks I made in presenting the award. If you were there on Monday, please forgive redundancy. You also got to listen to Chuck Palahniuk's far funnier appreciation of Gerry so you've come out ahead.)