On Barney Rosset

Gore Vidal once quipped that at his age the only thing that really got him going in the morning was the prospect of a good lawsuit. The late publisher Barney Rosset had a similar appetite for going to law, though in his case the taste for litigation arrived earlier, and he tended to be the defendant rather than the plaintiff. Obituaries of the incorrigibly maverick head of Grove Press have justly emphasized the epic court battles he waged on behalf of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Naked Lunch, Tropic of Cancer, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and other works that blasted open the doors of free expression in language, sexual expression, and subject matter. It is no exaggeration that the freedoms writers enjoy today to say what they want in exactly the way they want to derive from the often cripplingly expensive court battles that Rosset fought. We are all in his debt for this, although his equal complicity in the pornified world we now inhabit also deserves a moment’s thought, or four.

But we might also pause, as most obituaries have not, to savor the more purely literary and cultural effects that Rosset’s activities as a publisher had, and for which we are unambiguously in his debt. In college in faraway 1970 I took one of those useful survey courses that furnish the mind, Major Dramatic Works of the 20th Century. And Grove Press just owned that syllabus. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Brecht’s Mother Courage and Galileo, Pinter’s The Homecoming and The Birthday Party, Genet’s The Balcony, LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman, Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead—it’s lucky there was any room left for Shaw, Miller, Williams, and O’Neill. Every one of those books is in print four decades later, a record nothing short of staggering, and a look at Grove’s drama list today shows that important work by such playwrights as David Mamet and David Ives continued to be added. This is not simply a backlist, it’s a monument to 20th century theatrical and adversary culture.

In its glory years of the sixties, Grove Press was virtually the publisher of record for the emerging counterculture. Barney Rosset not only had taste, he had nerve and he was shrewd as hell. When Doubleday, frightened by the assassination of Malcolm X, refused to publish the Alex Haley–ghosted Autobiography, Grove stepped up to the plate and acquired one of the most important books in the history of American race relations—and made a boatload of money in the bargain. Rosset had an eye for what you might call “product” as well as literature, from the pop-psych bestseller on transactional analysis I’m OK, You’re OK to Pauline Réage’s ode to masochistic sexual abasement, The Story of O. In fact a certain strain of stylish smut was always one of Grove’s specialties, the proverbial “books written to be read with one hand.” Like his European counterpart, Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press, who first brought out Lolita, Naked Lunch, and The Ginger Man, Rosset was adept at playing the high lit card whenever he had to while booking profits from his seamier and/or less prestigious product lines. In one way or another, every publisher of taste does this.

For all the glory that was Grove, it must be said (and often was) that Barney Rosset was not a sensible businessman. At certain peaks he would be tempted to hubristic expansions, which led to humiliating retrenchments. The most notable of these came in 1971 or so, when, flush with cash from the distribution of the soft-core art film I am Curious (Yellow), Grove bought a seven-story office building in Greenwich Village and embarked on an ambitious program of further art film distribution; a couple of years later the company was forced to sell the building at a great loss and soon after exited the film business. And every publishing person of my generation remembers the grim drama of the sale of Grove Press to the heiress Ann Getty and the British publisher George Weidenfeld. Barney Rosset was supposed to stay on as publisher, but one year later, as everyone except him must have expected, he was canned. One heard that certain expedient deals, such as slicing off portions of the profits of such financial mainstays as Waiting for Godot for a short-term infusion of cash, came to light, and I don’t doubt it. I had my own Barney Rosset experience when my company made him an offer for his autobiography, for which I would have served as the editor (and let me tell you, I was plenty keen for that) only to discover not one but two prior existing contracts.

And of course there were more whispered things to acknowledge: Barney Rosset’s relationship to the truth could be self-serving, and he was an anti-authoritarian authoritarian who was not necessarily fun to work for or be married to, as some of his five wives and the feminists who picketed Grove Press in the seventies (and had the cops called on them) would testify. Fuck it (and thanks, Barney, for making it possible for me to say that here). There isn’t another figure in American publishing in the 20th century who better embodies the romance of the enterprise. I have read a couple of appreciations that call Barney Rosset the most important publisher of the 20th century, and while I myself would award the palm to Alfred Knopf, it’s a reasonable claim. He leaves behind him a list of books that will endure for many decades to come as evidence of a glorious extended moment in our literary culture and a stirring example of American dissent at its most cussed and principled.

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