Barney Rosset: The Subject Is Our Patron Saint

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INTERVIEWER

You’re known in publishing circles to be the only publisher who would say no to a book because another publisher wanted to do it. If you were told that Knopf wanted a book, you’d say, Let them have it.

ROSSET

Well, that makes sense, because if Knopf could publish it, then it was a Knopf book not a Grove book. Many of the books that we did were rejected by thirty or forty publishers. Some of the best books, in fact.

 

[from The Paris Review, “Barney Rosset, The Art of Publishing No. 2. Interviewed by Ken Jordan.

It was with great sadness that I learned of Barney Rosset’s death, at 89, earlier this week. Long-time owner of Grove Press and editor of the Evergreen Review, he published and championed writers like Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Malcolm X, Franz Fanon, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, Harold Pinter, Pauline Reage, Pablo Neruda, Kenzaburo Oe, and Octavio Paz, especially when no one else could or would. Eventually five would win the Nobel Prize.

He was working on his autobiography with Bradford Morrow, author and founder of literary journal Conjunctions. The title of the book, The Subject Was Left-Handed, refers to the extensive file the FBI kept on him, tracking deviant behavior that dated to grade school when he called Benito Mussolini the most important man in the world. His publisher, Algonquin Books, is expected to publish later this year.

His New York Times obituary of February 22 is titled “Defied Censors, Making Racy a Literary Staple.” But it wasn’t just the censors he was after, it was the status quo. He did not want to live in a complacent world; he wanted to get to the meat of things. Racy doesn’t merely refer to sexiness; he was out to encourage critical, politically motivated, experimental, and otherwise difficult literature and film. His battles against censorship are perhaps his greatest legacy, his dedication to publishing the rejected, outsider, and socially unacceptable writers and texts having taken him and his supportive team of lawyers, editors, and authors, to court several times in the 1960s and early 1970s.

In my five and a half years at the Borchardt agency I was surrounded with stories of Samuel Beckett and Rosset (who even named his son Beckett), The Story of O, The City of Night, and Grove Press. Our offices and hallways stacked with bookshelves full of these and similarly radical titles. Several important Grove titles were ones for which Georges and Anne Borchardt brokered deals and maintained contracts. When it seemed impossible to find homes for apparently ill-fitting manuscripts, when the advances were truly miniature, when distribution was more an obstacle than anything else, Rosset took risks and proved the merit therein. Taste, excellent sources, interesting connections, and even the historical context helped. Most importantly, the books found a home, and they’re still in print today.

His good friend Henry Miller may have been Rosset’s greatest inspiration, but his goal was ultimately about achieving what was right rather than demonstrating an affinity for obvious talent. Martin Garbus introduced him at the 2008 National Book Foundation ceremony (in a video you can see via Publishers Weekly, here) in which he was given that year’s Literarian Award, describing Rosset, like Miller, as “anti-everything, except what he was for.” Such a philosophy took him on a wild ride, and perhaps consequently he (and Grove) profited and lost in equal, great measures.

I have never heard Barney Rosset described as an easy-going person. In fact, he was by all accounts quite the opposite—quite difficult to work with unless one shared his vision and interests. With each success he reinvested in Grove, and in the end he lost it all. Under dire financial circumstances he sold the press in 1985, and he was fired by the new owners soon after.

As he said in his 2008 acceptance speech, “The freedom to read what we want… that no one has the right to tell us what we can and cannot read, has always been one that is dear to me.” Literature, he reminds us, is not just symbolic. Books aren’t purely entertaining or informative—they are political, bear weight. Publishers don’t just have a complicated task, they have a very important one.

Barney Rosset, the patron saint of those of us who are just as tough on ourselves as we are on the status quo. The devil over our shoulder, egging us on. Let him serve as an inspiration to us all.

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Barbara Galletly

About Barbara Galletly

Barbara Galletly is pursuing a master’s degree in information studies at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Information. She is studying archives, libraries, and other forms of collections. Previously, she was an associate agent and associate director of foreign rights at New York literary agency Georges Borchardt, Inc., until she left New York to explore the wider world of books. She also writes, usually about books, for This Recording. Follow her at her website and on Twitter.

One thought on “Barney Rosset: The Subject Is Our Patron Saint

  1. Colleen

    Thank you, Ms Galletly, for this thoughtful tribute to Barney Rossetti. May we each strive for such a meaningful legacy in our own sphere of influence!

    Reply

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