Friday, February 07, 2014

Anthony Powell and the publishing world of the past

As I promised on Monday, today I turn to Anthony Powell's letters for a glimpse at the publishing world of the not-so-distant past. The letters come from The Acceptance of Absurdity: Anthony Powell and Robert Vanderbilt, Letters 1952-1963, a slim volume that was published in a limited edition in 2011. Vanderbilt was a New York bookshop owner, and the correspondence began when he proposed to Powell that he reissue Venusberg and Agents and Patients in a single volume. They had been published in the UK years earlier, but had failed to find a US home and, as Powell himself noted in a reply to Vanderbilt, were hard to find:
My books are practically impossible to obtain secondhand, which, although satisfactory from one point of view, is most inconvenient from another.
Vanderbilt's proposal met with approval, and by the end of the year he had published the book, complete with cover illustrations by Powell's friend Osbert Lancaster.

That's when the publishing part of the story gets interesting, at least for someone who works as a publicist today. In its first three months on the market, the book--which, remember, was an edition, by a bookshop, rather than a proper publisher, of novels that were at that point twenty years old--Vanderbilt had sent Powell reviews from Newsweek, the New York Times (which Vanderbilt characterized as "doubtless . . . more like a press release of our own than any other we shall get"), the New Yorker (which Powell told Vanderbilt was so good that it "absolutely staggered" him--and which he viewed as useful in England, too, because "In some ways in certain circles, New Yorker book reviews are looked on with even more awe than in the States."), the Atlantic, the New York Herald Tribune (written by Elizabeth Bowen and, Vanderbilt wrote, "rapturously favorable" despite Powell's earlier worry that she wouldn't like his work), the San Francisco Chronicle (contributed by a woman of whom Vanderbilt wrote, "She's been described to me as a type who has gone a long way on self-confidence. She thinks BM [Powell's Dance novel A Buyer's Market] is like Trollope. A friend of mine remained calm, and said 'Also like Proust, don't you think?' This arrow was never recovered."), and Vogue (where it was listed as "a modish subject of conversation"). Oh, and after Vanderbilt poked his head in at the Scribner's bookshop, while they declined to devote a window to the book, they did take five copies.

This happens every once in a while: just when I think I've fully taken in just how different the publishing world, and especially the book review landscape, used to be, I'm surprised anew. The coverage Powell's book received would these days be viewed as a solid success for a new novel, and out of the realm of all possibility for a reissue. Wow.

The letters themselves are a pleasure: Vanderbilt is a congenial interlocutor for Powell, and Powell himself is just as amused, opinionated, and entertaining in his letters as one would hope. I look forward to what will surely be a larger, more complete selection somewhere down the line.

I'll close with another amusing glimpse at older ways. In a letter of February 11, 1953, Vanderbilt tells Powell,
A few days ago my mail included a small blue note saying the following.

Gentlemen: I ordered and received (for which I paid $4.00) a copy of Venusberg. After reading 11 pages of this book I knew it was not the kind of book that I could give as a birthday gift to an elderly, churchgoing lady. It is also not the type of story I enjoy or admire. The book shop from where I purchased it is not carrying any copies--it was a special order--so therefore I cannot expect them to refund my money. Therefore my request to you is will you allow me to return it to you and I shall be satisfied with the refund of the wholesale price. It is in the same perfect condition in which it was delivered to me. May I say in addition I think it a vulgar, salacious book and one which I do not care to read further. (Eleven pages are more than sufficient).
Which leads to two thoughts:

1. Elderly, churchgoing ladies differ in the States and England. Barbara Pym would have found such a gift perfectly suitable, as, I dare say, would a number of her characters. (Though I suppose it would likely have given rise to a flurry of quiet speculation about the motives and stance of the giver.)

2. The woman's understanding of the business, and willingness to adapt to its structures, impresses me. Asking only for the wholesale price is a remarkable concession considering how powerfully she reacted against the book.

Vanderbilt sent her the refund, and the story amused Powell, who replied with an anecdote of his own:
I remember when I was a publisher [with Duckworth] the illustrated catalogue designed by myself elicited a letter saying 'as I have a household of children and young servants I should be obliged if you would not deliver your cess on my door.'
Enjoy the weekend, folks.

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