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Kurt Wolff (1887-1963) was a singular presence in the literary world of the twentieth century, a cultural force shaping modern literature itself and pioneering significant changes in publishing. During an intense, active career that spanned two continents and five decades, Wolff launched seven publishing houses and nurtured an extraordinary array of writers, among them Franz Kafka, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Boris Pasternak, Günter Grass, Robert Musil, Paul Valéry, Julian Green, Lampedusa, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
The Publisher's Profession
THE IMPRESSION laymen have of what a publisher does is amazingly primitive: they seem to think he reads manuscripts or has other people read them—manuscripts that apparently arrive automatically in great quantities—and then sends what he likes best to the printer s. Since the book is also supposed to be attractive in appearance, he hires an artist to design the cover and dust jacket. Success or failure is a matter of luck.
The reality is somewhat different, but it is hard to convey a clear sense of how immensely complicated this profession is, how many elements must come together to give the term "publisher" a truly legitimate and positive meaning, how some irrational event will come along to upset every rational plan and decision, over and over again, creating a situation of permanent uncertainty and tension, a constant source of joys and disappointments.
Before I continue speaking about publishers, their calling, and their profession, however, I should say that I personally am able to envision the genuine publisher only within certain limits of size. A publishing house that produces between one hundred and four hundred new titles each year (and the world contains a number of them) may be a very respectable business enterprise, and some of its many books will also be good ones—but naturally it can never bear the individual stamp of a publisher's personality. As a general rule it can be said, although the exception does exist, that the books of great writers have not been published by giant companies, and that important literary movements were supported and developed by small firms, that is to say by individual publishers. Stefan George and his circle were in the hands of the outsider Bondi; S. Fischer founded a house for the Naturalist movement at the beginning of the century, and Expressionism found a home in the Kurt Wolff Verlag. Outside Germany the situation is similar: Proust, Gide, and Valéry were not published by Hachette, nor did Hemingway and Ezra Pound have American publishers at first.
An author entrusts himself to a person he thinks understands him, not to the board of directors of the kind of company which in France goes by the very appropriate name of "Société Anonyme." The publisher is not anonymous, but rather synonymous with his work. It is only this individual type of publisher I am concerned with here. Whether or not he distinguishes himself; whether he is able, in however modest a way, to make a contribution to the cultural life of his times; whethe[down arrow]r he produces significant accomplishments or merely reduces the value of paper by printing on it—all this depends on an endless number of conditions, only a few of which can be sketched here.
Luck is an indispensable ingredient: fate determines the literary sterility or fruitfulness of the period in which a publisher works; if the times do not produce creative writers, he is condemned to inactivity.
In my view the essential tools a publisher must bring to his work are a level of education beyond that of a good secondary school; familiarity with world literature and not just the literature of one's own country; a sound and independent sense of intellectual and literary values, combined with the ability to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit, between what is original and what is imitation; and intuition for the meaningful currents of the times, those which will shape the future. A publisher must also be able to write clearly, not only in correspondence. The right form must be found to present authors and books to critics, readers, and book sellers; even the few words with which a book is described in advertisements can be decisive for triumph or defeat.
And finally there is the author, who cannot be seduced by good meals, cocktail parties, and a large advance alone. What he seeks is a human being, in whom he finds an echo and a subtle feeling of fellowship; someone who pays attention to his work, whose word of praise or criticism has weight for him, someone whose genuine interest in his creative future (and also in the material needs of the present, obviously) makes itself felt. Authors have sharp ears and cannot be fooled: in the first minute they know whether the publisher to whom they are speaking is really familiar with their work, or whether he has taken only a superficial glance at it, or even seen nothing at all except a reader's report.
Publishers can always find some plausible reason to hand an author over to an editor, of course. If an editor has the right sort of personality, and the author gets along with him, there is nothing wrong with it. It is even common practice nowadays. But then the publisher becomes merely a front in the author's eyes and also in reality—an administrator, the person who signs contracts and checks. A working partnership and intimacy come to exist between the author and his real collaborator; the author's loyalty will belong to him and to him alone.
Publishing important works from the past in new editions and works from other languages in translation can be rewarding and meaningful tasks—but at the center of every genuine publishers wishes and hopes stands the goal of acquiring the best contemporary writers in his own country and if possible other countries as well—and keeping them.
The author is a difficult person to handle, of course, and there are no rules for it, for how could all authors be the same, or even similar to one another? It is a great mistake to try to "use psychology" on them. We should remain entirely natural and human, but we should also never forget one thing: the creative artist is never balanced—he becomes creative only by enduring the tragic conflict between reality and the imagination.
A publisher's relationship with his author must be like a love affair in which he asks nothing and has already forgiven every failing in advance: both small lapses and—as is always possible—unfaithfulness on a large scale.
On Publishing in General and the Question How Do an Author and Publisher Come Together?
THE QUESTION WHERE did you learn your profession? is one I have been hearing for the last fifty-five years. The answer is always the same: nowhere.
It seems to me that a particular attraction of our profession is that it cannot be learned. People respond, wouldn't it be useful to have worked at a printer's and a bindery? Why? I want neither to print books nor to bind them. Or, they say, it would at least be desirable to have worked in a book store for a short time. Why? Since the age of twelve I have spent hours and hours in book stores almost daily, at home and while traveling. Whether I stand behind or in front of the counter, whether I am the clerk or the customer, makes no difference. If someone has a passion for books and the publishing trade, he is at home in book stores. Nor do I believe in the importance of a Ph. D. To be well read in world literature is of course desirable, just as is knowledge of three or four living languages, so as to be able to read foreign literature yourself and not have to rely on the recommendations of others. But all this is no more than a so-called "general education." And that will not take you far in our profession.
One day I moved out of the German Department of the University of Leipzig and into the building at Königstraße 10 in the city, the premises of the Drugulin Printing Company and the two-room office of Ernst Rowohlt, who had a similar nature and obsession with books, and who had invited me to join him. I brought nothing with me except for the main thing, which cannot be learned but must be brought to the task in large quantities: enthusiasm. Naturally this enthusiasm must be combined with taste. Everything else is secondary and can be learned rapidly on the job.
To start with, you must of course be clear about the field in which you want to publish. In principle, however, this has already been determined by an individual's own taste and enthusiasms. By taste I mean not only judgment and a feeling for quality and literary values. Taste should also include a sure sense for the form—format, type area, type face, binding, dust jacket—in which a specific book should be presented. Literary taste, on the other hand, must be combined with an instinct for whether a particular book will interest only a small group of readers, or whether the subject and form make it suitable for a larger audience. This will have a decisive influence on the size of the edition and advertising, and care must be taken that personal enthusiasm does not entice us into false and over-optimistic expectations.
When I moved into Rowohlt's two-room office that day—the third room was Rowohlt's living quarters—my enthusiasm knew no bounds; my taste in typography, however, was limited to knowing whether the type area, title page, binding, and so forth were nice or hideous. It took quite a while before I was able to say to the printer: 2 points more leading, put the headings in italics, etc. In such matters Ernst Rowohlt was far ahead of me. He had worked at Drugulin's and learned a great deal. On matters of literary taste we got along extremely well: his idols at the time were Scheerbart and Dauthendey, and it was not hard for him to infect me with enthusiasm for both of them. Let it also be said without false modesty that we shared a love and admiration for the playwright Eulenberg. And when he received the Schiller Prize for his Belinde, we seemed to have some justification.
BUT HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS reach a publisher, and where do they come from? How does the encounter between writer and publisher come about? And above all, what are the decisive criteria in choosing what you are going to publish?
Either you publish books you think people ought to read, or books you think people want to read. Publishers in the second category, publishers, that is to say, who slavishly cater to the public's tastes, do not count in our scheme of things—wouldn't you agree? They belong to another "order," to use the nice Catholic term. For publishing activity of this kind you need neither enthusiasm nor taste. You simply supply the products for which there is a demand. You need to know what activates the tear glands, the sex glands, or any other glands, what makes the sportsman's heart beat faster, what makes the flesh crawl in horror, and so on.
Those of us publishers who belong to the other category make an effort—even though it is certainly of the most modest scope—to be creative; we try to win readers for works which appear to us to be original, of literary merit, and important for the future, no matter whether they are easily understood or not. This applies both to nonfiction and to fiction. It goes without saying that we can make mistakes, and we make mistakes very often. Sometimes we think we see future promise in the personality or the manuscript of an author, and this promise is not realized. The effort is what counts; success is not the determining factor—often it is an accident. Indeed, acquiring a good author is actually more a matter of chance than of merit—but let us leave the realm of the theoretical.
It so happened, because I had accepted a manuscript of Max Brod's and he felt he had found in Kurt Wolff a publisher for all his writings, that he sent to me a young fellow-countryman and friend named Franz Werfel, and one day brought along with him another friend and countryman named Franz Kafka. Whoever had ears to hear could not resist the magical tone of Werfels early poems, could not help falling immediately under the spell of Kafka's prose.
At that time, when I was still a student and already a publisher, I was taking Albert Köster's seminar at the University of Leipzig and sat next to a young man I took a liking to; we began to talk, and over the course of time he became a close friend. He was Walter Hasenclever. And one day after Walter had written a play, he brought it to me for publication. It was Der Sohn [The Son], and its literary qualities are not at issue here. In any event it offered more than mere entertainment, and the father-son conflict it dealt with had an explosive effect on the generation born around 1890. It was performed at a number of German theaters, but the excitement it caused then must be incomprehensible in our time and in our world.
Kafka, Brod, Werfel, Hasenclever—these were the first authors of the Kurt Wolff Verlag, and it was, as you can see, more accident than our merit that brought them. Of course one did have to have a sense that each, in his own way, was worthy of a publisher's efforts.
In the Innsbruck magazine Der Brenner I read the poems of an unknown writer named Georg Trakl. So immediate was the sense of a great poets voice that I wrote him at once—it was April 1, 1913—proposing the publication of a volume of poetry. In the same year Gedichte [Poems] appeared in the series Der jüngste Tag [The Last Judgment], and only eleven months later, in March 1914, Trakl sent the manuscript of a new book, which he called Sebastian im Traum [Sebastian Dreaming] and which is perhaps the purest, most beautiful book of poetry of that era. What great expectations we had for the future of this young poet! Then on October 9 a telegram arrived from Trakl from the military hospital in Cracow, where he had been taken when he proved unequal to the horrors of the war. The famous telegram reads:
YOU WOULD DO ME A GREAT FAVOR IF YOU WOULD SEND ME A COPY OF MY NEW BOOK SEBASTIAN DREAMING. AM ILL HERE IN THE MILITARY HOSPITAL CRACOW.
We were unable to do him this favor. The book was not yet ready. And the poet committed suicide three weeks later. With poison.
From a Swiss by the name of Robert Walser there arrived, also in the spring of 1913, the first letters in a delicate hand straight out of the eighteenth century, letters whose contents could not have been simpler and whose tone was recognizably unique. The first letters have been lost, but listen to a few lines from a later one:
I have just completed a new book ... in which I have bound together twenty-seven pieces ... All the pieces have been given a new form, every single one, so as to make them as good as possible. Choosing them and deciding on their order has been done with thought and care, in a conscious effort. I believe I can say that the book makes a solid, round, and pleasing whole. There are shifts in it from landscapes to concrete humor, from comedy to complete seriousness, even now and then to tragic form ... It contains some older pieces and some quite new ones as well, ones that have only just occurred to me ... I see the work as a kind of modest but quite cozy and livable house ...
That was the tone of the letters—who could have resisted it? And still there could be no doubt that the pieces of prose bound together would find fewer than a hundred readers. I published three volumes of Walser's stories for these one hundred readers, with illustrations by his famous brother; in appearance, too, they were most attractive books. And yet the stories were not as simple as they might seem on first reading. Walter Benjamin wrote an intelligent essay on them, and in the Neue Rundschau in August 1914 Robert Musil wrote:
Walser makes his characters suddenly fall silent and lets the story speak as if it were a character. An atmosphere of marionettes, romantic irony; but also something in this joke that reminds one faintly of Morgensterns poems, where the gravity of real circumstances suddenly begins to slide along a train of verbal associations; only with Walser the association is never purely verbal, but always one of meaning as well, so that the emotional tack he happens to be on at the moment suddenly appears to be about to take a great leap, veers, and then goes on contentedly rocking in the direction of a new enticement. I would not actually want to claim that this is not playfulness, but it is no mere writers game—despite the way one could fall in love with his uncommon command of language; it is a very human kind of playfulness, gentle, dreamy, and free, with the moral richness of one of those lazy, apparently useless days when our most firmly held convictions relax into a pleasant indifference.
Excerpted from Kurt Wolff by MICHAEL ERMARTH, Deborah Lucas Schneider. Copyright © 1991 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Kurt Wolff: A Biographical Sketch
Essays on Publishing
The Publisher's Profession
On Publishing in General and the Question How Do an Author and Publisher Come Together?
On "Luring Away" Authors, or How Authors and Publishers Part Company
Adventures in Publishing
Essays on Individual Authors
Rainer Maria Rilke
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Laudatio for Kurt Wolff by Lambert Schneider, on behalf of the German Booksellers Association, May 15, 1960
Acceptance Speech by Kurt Wolff
Kurt Wolff Bibliography
Selected Titles from the Publishing Houses of Kurt Wolff
Glossary of Selected Names