NEW YORK — It was one thing to be a radical thinker, challenging most of the prevailing social notions of the day, and going head-to-head with a dominant and doctrinaire church. But as writer Harrison Salisbury told a group of fellow scribes here not long ago, "August Strindberg was able to beat the rap with the church, and with the rigid Swedish society of his time, but he was never able to beat the rap with his publisher."
Protest as the playwright might--and Strindberg did--"they kept deleting parts of his works that they found offensive."
Which made the late Swedish playwright a rather sterling example of the problems and issues these members of the Authors Guild of America, and others, had gathered to discuss: Pressures that impel publishers to withdraw books; the effects of such actions on authors, bookstores and readers; respective rights and obligations of authors and publishers; First Amendment considerations, and "procedures that might involve the aborting of controversial books."
On the surface, Salisbury said, "These issues do seem disparate," but in fact, "They really are interconnected and almost certainly do hover around the relationship of the author to his publisher, and the relationship of that author and that publisher to the society around them."
Outright censorship, certainly, is one thing. But "at the moment we are not discussing official censorship," Salisbury said. "But the pressures that come through unofficial channels, though very often they are quasi-official, may in fact become official." Indeed, Authors Guild lawyer Irwin Karp agreed: "It may be that you are better off being suppressed by the government than by the publisher. At least with the government you can go to court right away."
Speaking not as an official representative of Simon & Schuster (of which he is editor in chief), but as an author and editor, Michael Korda said, "I would take the view myself that the withdrawal of a book is one of the most serious things that can happen to a book or to an author."
In the '60s, Korda could readily recall "tremendous pressures (to withdraw)." For example, "there was a book by Jerry Rubin called 'Burn It Now,' which recommended that high school students should burn down their schools--the validity of which I question now in 1985 but which in the 1960s seemed like a new and exciting idea." Many consumers, however, apparently did not share this notion and urged the publisher to delete the incendiary volume from its inventory. "We did not withdraw," Korda said, "though many bookstores did not stock the book."
Tale of Children's Book
Then, Korda remembered, there was "an enormously successful children's book," the title of which his memory had managed to suppress. The book showed adults in their workaday lives, only instead of depicting people, animals were shown in place of grown-ups.
"For reasons that are obscure to me," Korda said, "the policeman was a pig." Presumably, "the author was apparently living in Nirvana, Ill., and was not aware that if you called a cop a pig, you got a night stick on your nose, if you were lucky."
And as a result of this little kiddies' book, Korda said, "We had pickets, we had bookstores urging us to withdraw. It ended up costing us a fortune." Years later, he said, "it's possible to laugh at it, but it wasn't possible to laugh at it then."
In any case, Korda said, "What is interesting about both of these cases is that in hindsight, both seem trivial and ludicrous. When the really serious things do happen, when we published 'All the Presidents' Men' and had our telephones tapped, when we published Seymour Hersh's book about Kissinger, and had Kissinger descend on us," the situation seemed vastly less monumental.
"So the biggest problems," Korda said, "have come in retrospect over books that were decisions that were merely inept." Rubin's book and the ill-fated children's book, he said, "cost us more than Watergate."
Not that Korda was in any way trying to minimize the seriousness of the withdrawal issue. One conspicuous example was entirely too prominent in most of his listeners' minds--the case of "Poor Little Rich Girl," author C. David Heymann's spicy biography of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Shortly before Christmas in 1983, a dispute erupted over the validity of portions of the book, and its publisher, Random House, hastily ordered its recall.
A Publishing Collision With 'Worlds'
And "many decades ago," said Macmillan Publishing Co. President Jeremiah Kaplan, his own publishing house yielded to pressure from academic circles and yanked in "Worlds in Collision," a book that contradicted "many of the widely held astronomical theories of the time." The sad reality, Kaplan said, was that "most of the business" of Macmillan was in textbooks, so the company buckled to outside demands. Still, Kaplan said, the incident was "viewed within the company as what was a cowardly act."