Somewhere in between
by Kelvin Smith
“Great publishers were not always good readers, and good readers seldom made good publishers, but Bowman was somewhere in between.”
In All That Is, James Salter follows the adult life of Philip Bowman after his wartime navy service in the Pacific. Following an initial attraction of journalism – “the romance of reporters like Murrow and Quentin Reynolds, at the typewriter late at night finishing their stories” – he becomes an editor with Braden and Baum in New York.
Bob Baum has “confidence and charm, neither of them false” and keeps a framed letter on his office wall which damns the submitted manuscript of a title that was to become “the biggest book we’ve ever had”. He “himself had disliked the book and had only been persuade to publish it by his wife, who said it would touch something in people”.
The story follows Bowman and a number of other (mostly male) publishers and editors through the following decades and covers their relationships with a variety of women, many of whom work in the lower echelons or at the fringes of publishing. This network includes Bernard Wiborg, a German refugee who came to London before the war and “looked more and more like a lord”, and a major force in international literary publishing. He wants “to have Nobel winners inscribe books to him, to have a beautiful house and give parties”.
In addition we meet (very briefly) Berggren from Sweden and Karl Maria Löhr from German. A French publisher late in the book is identified only as “Christian something, a big, white-haired man with manicured hands”. Bowman’s friend Eddins leaves publishing to join forces with major literary agent Charles Delovet.
What of the women? Glenda Wallace (New York, unmarried, “published books on politics and history”) and Edina Dell (London, married to a one-time Greek encyclopedia salesman) move the plot forward but are of no interest to Bowman. When Baum gives a party for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publishing house, Bowman spots Gretchen “who had long since become an editor herself, at a paperback house”. Not real books then.
In New York in the late twentieth century the air is charged. “Sometimes there were publishing parties, the young women who longed to make a life of it in their black dresses and glowing faces, girls who lived in small apartments with clothes piled near the bed and the photos from the summer curling.” How does he know? Bowman’s sex life and his numerous failed relationships provide a main thrust to the narrative. He really is not a very nice man.
Bowman always draws a distinction between publisher and editor, and explains to Christine when he meets her on the plane back from London to New York.
“Were you in London on business?”
“Yes, business. The London Book Fair.”
“Are you a publisher?”
“Not really. I am an editor. A publisher has different responsibilities.”
We wonder if Bowman just doesn’t have it in him to be a publisher, lacking the grand sweep, focusing on detail in both books and life, eager for sometimes vindictive sexual conquests.
Near the end of the book he has a first lunch with Katherine.
“No, no,” he said. “It’s my lunch. Publishers always pay for lunch.”
Has he become a publisher at last?
James Salter, All That Is, 2013