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Pantheon Is Dead, Long Live Pantheon

March 18, 1990|JACK MILES | Miles, The Times' book editor, was elected president of the National Book Critics' Circle last week in New York

Two years ago, when Kurt Waldheim's Nazi past was making headlines, the Los Angeles Times published an unusually thoughtful review, one that compared Waldheim's amnesia with the amnesia of Austria itself and contrasted it to West Germany's " Vergangenheitsbewaltigung-- a truthful and cathartic confrontation with the unhappy and long-suppressed past." The German word came to the reviewer honestly enough: He was born in Vienna. So too did the cold eye on Austrian politics: Having witnessed at age 12 Hitler's arrival in Vienna, he escaped to Britain and, when he was old enough, fought in the British infantry. His mother, tragically, died in Auschwitz.

Fred Jordan, author of this review (of Bernard Cohen's "Waldheim"), made publishing news recently when he agreed to replace Andre Schiffrin as publisher of Pantheon Books. Schiffrin, son of one of the founders of Pantheon, has resigned and, by the terms of his settlement with Random House, Pantheon's parent company, has agreed not to discuss the reasons for his resignation. Random House itself has issued no formal statement of those reasons. But New York has filled this near-vacuum of information with the fog of speculation as perhaps no city less dense with book trade talk ever could. Doug Ireland in the Village Voice, John Baker in Publishers Weekly, John Leonard in Newsday, a parade of writers and critics at the March 8 National Book Critics' Circle awards ceremony, scores of other writers in an open letter forthcoming in the New York Review of Books--all have seen fit to lament the "death" of Pantheon and to denounce Random House for putting profit before social and literary merit.

During a week-long visit to New York for the annual meeting of the National Book Critics' Circle, I heard on allegedly good authority such wildly conflicting reports as that Andre Schiffrin had been told to slash Pantheon's list by three- quarters and had refused; that he had not been told to cut the list at all but only to cut the staff; that 1989 was one of the better years in recent Pantheon history; that Pantheon had lost a staggering $3.5 million in 1989 on sales of $20 million; that Schiffrin had been told to present a plan of his own for the reform of Pantheon and had refused; that he had volunteered a plan and had it rejected because Alberto Vitale, CEO of Random House, refused outright to deal with him. But murky as the economics of the change at Pantheon may be, the politics seemed murkier still.

In Publishers Weekly, whose account Andre Schiffrin endorsed when we met for supper, John Baker wrote on March 9: "We hear that one of the complaints directed by current Random management against Pantheon, apart from its too-large list and unprofitability, was that it published too many left-wing books, and why could these not be better balanced by some right-wing ones?" Baker does not state from whom he heard this, and I certainly cannot refute it. I would suggest only that if a purge of the left is the end, Fred Jordan is a bit unlikely as the means.

According to one Random House employee, Jordan was labeled a "scab" and hanged in effigy during a demonstration outside the publisher's headquarters. The Village Voice saw fit to quote, without attribution, a description of him as "not very bright, not very sophisticated, can't write his way out of a sentence, and is a lousy line editor." But this is the same editor who, during a long career, much of it at Grove Press, published Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Marguerite Duras, David Mamet, Jules Feifer and others. Jordan was Vaclav Havel's first U. S. publisher.

It may be true, as one agent with several authors under contract at Pantheon objected to me, that Fred Jordan's left is the literary left, not the political or social left. But why would Vitale or S. I. Newhouse of Advance Publications, parent corporation of Random House, need to temporize even this much? Why hire a literary leftist when nonfiction editors squarely on the right or the center-right or in the anonymous and malleable middle can so easily be found?

Schiffrin told me, when I asked him, that all of the five Pantheon editors who resigned in protest (three others remain at work) had received job offers. Schiffrin himself, a brilliant and internationally renowned publisher whose departure was noted in Le Monde, has been mentioned as a possible next director of the Harvard University Press, and he might well excel in that role. If the direct human cost of this change at Pantheon should prove slight, so much the better.

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