This morning I feel beat to shit.
I woke up at 3am last night and began obsessing for a good two hours over Random House, the scumbag publishers and their editor Chris Schluep who keeps giving me a run-around on the book I did with Harvey Pekar. Harvey always spoke well of Schluep but I can’t help but think of him as a cog in a big machine that I never would have had any dealings with had I not been assured by Pekar that he was under contract for two new books, including the one I was doing with him.
My take on publishing jibes with the one depicted in the movie “Wolf”, starring Jack Nicholson as a top editor who gets shafted by a Rupert Murdoch type media mogul who has just taken over his company. After being bitten by a wolf, Nicholson not only becomes a werewolf, he develops the aggressiveness needed to succeed in the publishing business. In one memorable scene, he pisses on the shoes and pants legs of a rival who has landed his job after the takeover. That, to me, smacked of verisimilitude.
I first got warnings that the book was going to end up shit-canned after seeing an article in the NY Times titled “The Unsettled Afterlife of Harvey Pekar” that dealt with some prospective posthumous projects. It refers to a couple of Random House possibilities, but not mine:
Random House is publishing at least two more of his graphic books: one, called “Huntington, West Virginia, ‘On the Fly,’ ” in which Mr. Pekar reflects on promoting his movie and other books, and a second, written with Ms. Brabner, called “Harvey and Joyce’s Big Book of Marriage.”
Now I can understand why Random House would have prioritized these books since they appeal to his fan base, people who could never get enough of his tales of woe about working as a file clerk or butting heads with the rich and the powerful—like David Letterman. Too bad I don’t know how to draw; otherwise I’d have come up with a comic strip about my own frustrations dealing with a colossus like Random House.
I always felt skeptical about the idea of Random House coming out with a book about my own life. Who in their right mind would spend good money to read about the trials and tribulations of a Marxist activist when there were all sorts of books by celebrities like Bettheny Frankel or Rob Lowe that you could read on the beach?
As it turns out, Pekar decided to do something with me because he was probably tired of writing about himself. Like his earliest collaborator R. Crumb, he was exploring new ways of expressing himself. Crumb eventually wearied of doing comics about his own neurotic sexual and racial obsessions; likewise I am sure with Pekar’s sad sack tales. At least that’s my take. He told me numerous times that he was seeking to become the Studs Terkel of our generation. My story amounted to the sort of thing you can read in “Working” or any of his other “as told to” classics. Too bad that Harvey didn’t live into his nineties like Studs. And too bad for me that I got drawn into a project that had no future after his death.
What steams me up the most is the feeling that I have been ripped off. I spent a good four months writing and rewriting the material that would eventually be illustrated by Summer McClinton, a young and very gifted artist whose work Harvey raved about. Now Random House’s contract was with Harvey and not me obviously. His widow Joyce Brabner and the artist have been paid off, fulfilling Random House’s obligations for a book that is now dead and buried. A year ago Schluep assured me that the book would be published. It turns out he was probably bullshitting me. It would have been better for me not to have been left hanging. When I raised the topic with him again two months ago, he said that a decision had not been made but he would get back to me within the month. Of course, he did not get back to me. Like Jack Nicholson in “Wolf”, he has the power to piss on me metaphorically speaking. I am not under contract and under capitalism that is how things operate, as any lawyer will tell you.
I imagine that Schluep is not comfortable with all this, having assured me a while back that he is “not a scumbag”. I suppose he is not but the company he works for surely is.
In 1998 Random House was taken over by Bertelsmann, a German media company with 103,000 employees. Now Bertelsmann has a most interesting history—just the sort of venue for a memoir by an unrepentant Marxist as the BBC reported on October 8, 2002:
German media giant Bertelsmann has admitted it lied about its Nazi past and that it made big profits during Adolf Hitler’s reign in Germany using Jewish slave labour.
A commission set up by the firm found Bertelsmann rode the rise of the Nazi party to restructure itself from a religious and school book publisher to supply millions of anti-Semitic texts.
The IHC found Bertelsmann had targeted the youth market with its “Exciting Stories” series and the “The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth” annual which pushed its sales up 20 fold.
The IHC said the company’s “legend” that it was a victim of the Nazis was a lie.
The Commission found that Bertelsmann made “indirect” use of Jewish slave labour in Latvia, and Lithuania but not at its German headquarters.
The then head of the company, Heinrich Mohn, also made donations to the SS, Hitler’s special forces and concentration camp guards.
The company had close ties to the Nazi regime, particularly the Propaganda Ministry, and printed 19 million books during World War II, making it the largest publisher for the German army.
Bertelsmann used its “revised” history when it took over the biggest US book publisher Random house in 1998.
Harvey died before I had a chance to share this information with him. As a proud but non-observant Jew, I am sure he would have had a word or two to say about being under contract to a company that used Jewish slave labor.
There were signs that Bertelsmann’s infatuation with Hitler continued well after WWII. In 1983, Stern Magazine, part of the German publisher’s empire, came out with the Hitler Diaries that turned out to be a hoax. A Nation Magazine article dated November 8, 1999 reported:
In 1980 Bertelsmann’s Stern magazine published poems and illustrations supposedly written and drawn by Hitler during World War I under the title “Rhymes by Private First Class H” (“Gereimtes vom Gefreiten H”). Dirk Bavendamm, a 61-year-old German historian who had been instrumental in helping Stern obtain the material, wrote an accompanying article noting that the poems and drawings show Hitler as an ordinary soldier. In one illustration a German soldier gently holds a baby; in another, a soldier helps a mother lying in bed while a baby nestles in a cradle. Subsequently the poems and drawings were determined to be forgeries. (Later, Mohn gave the green light to a Bertelsmann division to purchase the Hitler diaries, by the same forger, which also showed a milder Hitler. They were published in Stern in 1983.)
Bavendamm’s career was not affected. His book Roosevelt’s Way to War (Roosevelts Weg zum Krieg) was published in 1983. Rewriting history, he stated that Roosevelt, not Hitler, had caused World War II. He also wrote that American Jews “controlled most of the media,” and he claimed they gave a false picture of Hitler.
Even if Bertlesmann did not have Nazi skeletons in its closet, its role in turning Random House into another “bottom line” oriented corporation of the sort that has left the USA economically and culturally impoverished was obvious to Andre Schifrin, the founder of the New Press and a sharp critic of the publishing industry. In a February 17, 2003 Nation Magazine article titled “‘Random’ Destruction”, Schifrin commented on the firing of Ann Godoff, the head of Random House whose “mistake was to adhere to the higher standards of Random’s past.”
Bertelsmann sought to turn Random House into something much more commercial in the pursuit of higher profits, pumping out the kind of tripe that can soar to the top of the best-seller list. The NY Times reported that Godoff “considered her unit’s books above the merely commercial popular fiction published by other divisions. She candidly told associates that she felt little personal interest or affinity for commercial romances, thrillers and other page-turners–the meat and potatoes of much of the publishing business.” Hmm. Maybe that was my mistake. I should have put more steamy stuff into the memoir. I did include my romance with a comrade in Houston who had been working as a go-go dancer before I got to town. Harvey told me that I needed to put as much as that stuff in as I could.
In defending itself against charges that it was turning into the publishing counterpart of People Magazine, a Random House spokesman stated “Random House will continue to do many, many books for a niche audience, books that will continue to appeal to the literary critical world.” Sigh, if only that was true. On the other hand, maybe I’ve been selling myself short. They say that the Communist Manifesto became a best-seller in Germany in 2007, around the time that capitalism began its worldwide collapse. Maybe the Bertlesmann CEO decided that it was not in his class interests to publish anything favorable to Marxism, even if it appeared in the style of a Jewish stand-up comedian favored by both Harvey and me.
Ultimately Peter Olson, the guy who ran Bertlesmann’s American operations and who fired Ann Godoff, figured out that it was in his own interest to make Random House follow the short-term dictates of the market. Like so many of the crooks responsible for the collapse of the housing market, mass unemployment, and deepening class inequalities, he figured out what side of the bread was buttered: his own. Schifrin writes:
And there is yet one more factor that cannot be overlooked. Obviously, as the Times and others noted, Olson has “his own targets to meet” His compensation is based on his “success in meeting annual targets each year.” Thus, the personal income of a handful of managers is an essential factor in deciding what the future of American publishing will be.
I suppose I only have myself to blame for getting suckered into this time-wasting business. There’s a mystique about being published that is really quite powerful. It appeals to your sense of vanity in the same way that an appearance on the Letterman show might. If you read Harvey’s account of being in the limelight, however, you will be struck how ambivalent he was. While he hoped to get the word out about his comic books on Late Night, he mostly felt exploited—the butt of Letterman’s frat boy humor.
That’s what happens when you put yourself at the mercy of a powerful corporation. It will find one way or another to fuck you over.
My experiences with print publishing over the years are pretty negative. After submitting a book proposal to an editor at St. Martin’s on Marxism and the American Indian about 12 years ago, I never received a reply. I have to wonder whether editors get some kind of training when they go to work at places like St. Martin’s or Random House on how to make an unheralded writer feel like two cents. It’s about the same story with leftist academic journals that tend to treat you like a dissertation student, subjecting your submission to peer review—as if getting printed in a journal that has a circulation of 2000 is of any importance to me. I get that many visits to my blog every day.
As everybody knows, print publishing is going through a deep crisis. More and more of Harvey’s work began appearing on the Internet through the auspices of The Pekar Project that defines its role this way:
Harvey Pekar’s been mining the mundane for magic for more than 30 years in his autobiographical American Splendor comics. Now he has teamed with SMITH and some remarkable artists to create his first ongoing webcomics series—and some of his jazziest work to date. The new stories will appear every other week, with interviews, creator spotlights, and behind-the-scenes goodies, as well as essays and art from Pekar collaborators and inhabitants of the extended Pekarverse.
Obviously with Harvey’s death, the future of this project is very much in doubt. Clearly, I have the responsibility to make the work I did with him available to the general public on the Web. Ironically, Harvey never used a computer, finding it too confusing. He once told me that Joyce forbade him from using hers. I am quite sure that he would have been gratified to see “The Unrepentant Marxist”, the title of our collaboration, appearing on my blog. After all, that is the title of my blog and the best place for it to appear, all things considered.
Chris Schluep is no longer at Random House.