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David Colbert

David Colbert

Posted: January 8, 2010 03:08 PM

Styron's Choice: Authors, Editors, and Loyalty

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Last week, publishing veteran Jonathan Galassi made the case in the New York Times that William Styron's ebook rights should have remained with Random House, instead of being sold to a different company. Styron's longtime editor, Robert Loomis, figured heavily into Galassi's argument that the Styron estate had an obligation to Random House.

Jonathan also mentioned Hiram Haydn, Styron's original editor, who had edited three of Styron's five novels. He died in 1973. Few people still active in publishing knew him. With regard to Styron, he's the professional equivalent of a forgotten first spouse. Jonathan was gracious to remember him.

Here's a revealing quote from a 1959 issue of Time Magazine that reported Haydn's departure from Random House, where he was editor-in-chief, to join two other editors in forming Atheneum: "[It is as if] the presidents of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford left their jobs to start an automobile company."

Originally a professor, and the editor of American Scholar for three decades, Haydn began his trade publishing career in 1945 at Crown, which at the time was a division of the Outlet Book Company, a remainder distributor. That's where he first signed Styron, who hadn't yet been published.

Before Styron's first book was completed, Haydn moved to Bobbs-Merrill (another forgotten name, at least in trade publishing). Styron moved with him, and in 1951 Bobbs-Merrill published Styron's first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, which was a huge success.

They moved together to Random House in 1955. But when Haydn left Random four years later to found Atheneum, Styron chose to stay. Mr. Loomis, an old college friend of Styron whom Haydn had hired a few years before, took over the editorial duties and everything else that went with handling Styron.

Below is an excerpt from Haydn's 1974 memoir, Words & Faces, that tells part of the story of his relationship with Styron.

It's full of thoughts about the issues Jonathan raised, questions of indebtedness and loyalty. The big difference is that a long time ago Random House was the publisher asking Styron to break from his past.

Funny how that works.

... I suppose that if an editor has ever been known generally as so-and-so's editor, that was the case with Bill and me. For a long time, I heard frequently, "Oh, you're William Styron's editor." And I suspect that he became infinitely weary over hearing how much I had done for him. Indeed, he said this in the letter in which he told me he was staying with Random House.

What I had done was one central thing: I had believed that he was one of the most talented writers, not only of his generation, but of our time - - and this when he was as yet wholly unknown. "So what?" as the banality goes. The fact that I literally staked my reputation as an editor on Lie Down in Darkness is to me - - and I mean every word of this - - quite simple, solid evidence that I am moderately intelligent and possessed of reasonably good editorial judgment. Supporting, promoting this book as a really outstanding one was the obvious thing to do; I was filled with joy at having such a work and such a writer walk in and say, "Here we are."

He had been told to come to see me in New York by his teacher at Duke, Bill Blackburn. He signed up at the New School for a fiction course in which he wrote several short stories, and then entered the novel workshop. When he turned in the first twenty pages of Lie Down in Darkness, I told him that he was out of place in a class, and took an option on the book for Crown. When I went to Bobbs, he followed, after staging an unusual sit-down strike at Crown until Nat Wartels would see him and release him. I remember that Bill told me he had taken his lunch with him, in case Nat held out until afternoon.

During the several years in which he worked on Lie Down in Darkness, the Haydns saw a great deal of him. He frequently visited us, and was really a de facto member of the family. Then, with only the final section of the book to complete, the situation in Korea worsened and, as a reserve officer in the Marines, he was called back to active duty.

This was crushing news. I inquired amongst publishing friends, and Jack Fischer told me of a brigadier general, an enlightened man who had an important part in reviewing cases of recall where unfairness might be involved. I asked Bill how much time he needed to finish the book, then called this man at the Pentagon, not without some trepidation. The general (I wish I could remember his name) was very courteous. A deferral of three months for the reasons I specified seemed to him entirely reasonable.

"In fact," he said, "it's the most valid grounds for deferment I've heard in a long time. If he's as good as you say he is. Are you sure?"

I was sure. He said that he must consult the others on his board; they were meeting the next morning; he would call me after their session, at 2:00 P.M. The next day, at 1:58, the telephone rang. It was the general, who announced with obvious pleasure that the deferment had been approved. He had a favor to ask: a copy of the book when it was published. Who ever thought there could be such a general!

So Bill finished, and went back to the Marines. I began work on establishing the novel's quality in the house immediately. I had solid backing from several of its early readers, and especially from Ross Baker. We ordered an unusually large number of bound galleys, and sent them out to critics. . . . We began a campaign directed at the bookstores, sending a postcard each week on which was printed extravagant praise for the book, signed by one of these critics. . . .

That familiar snowballing process that accompanies the establishment of an outstanding new talent had begun, and there was no stopping it. Within a week after the publication of Lie Down in Darkness, almost everyone interested in books knew who William Styron was. . . .

I shan't attempt to trace the rest of his career; it is too well known, from The Long March to The Confessions of Nat Turner. When I left Random House, I of course gave him advance notice, and without making a full commitment, he indicated he expected to accompany me to Atheneum.

Twice thereafter, Bill came to Atheneum - - once in the evening, so that I had the sense of participating in some sort of counterespionage. Each time he assured me that he would sign with us after Random House had published his next novel, Set This House on Fire. But on a third visit, when he and his lovely wife Rose joined Mary and me for an hour or so one afternoon, I began to have a premonition that he was changing his mind. He said nothing directly about such a change, but he appeared preoccupied, uneasy and impatient to get away to keep an appointment with [Random House owner] Bennett Cerf.

The Styrons left for Europe that week, and soon I received a long letter from him, saying that he had decided to stay at Random House. He was grateful and appreciative, but he was tired of having people think and say that he owed everything to me; he wanted to stand on his own feet. This was the chief reason for his decision - - an understandable one. But there were other factors: his old friend from Duke University days, Bob Loomis, was at hand to be his editor. Bennett had entertained lavishly for him, and Bill, like Bennett, loves glamour and celebrities. Moreover, despite the largely unfavorable reception of his second full-length novel, there was no diminution of Random's regard for him. Still, it was the imperative to leave the nest that mattered most, I think. . . .

Styron made a decision that he must have found difficult. Moreover, there was never any question of his being ungrateful; there is strong evidence to prove the reverse. Part of his reasoning in the letter was that he had twice gone with me to a different publishing house; if he did this a third time, it would only confirm the opinion he had often been exposed to - - that he couldn't make his way without me. Add his liking for Cerf and Loomis, and the strength of Random House - - and I think his decision a sound, logical one. Today we get together over a rowdy game of croquet now and then, but it took quite a while for the hurt to heal. . . .

I was wrong in feeling hurt that Styron stayed at Random House; what I wanted him to do was unrealistic. But perhaps it is unrealistic to expect us to be realistic in matters of emotional ties, old wounds and loyalties.

Loyalty is a slippery subject. I wish now that I had not invoked the word so often. Easy to appeal to but hard to anatomize and harder to practice intelligently, there are honorable loyalties, but there are also stupid ones, and destructive ones, and it is particularly self-righteous and futile to stress it in a relationship that involves careers, talent and business.

(Hiram Haydn, Words & Faces, 1974, pp 274-286)