For Publisher Barney Rosset, Risk Has Its Rewards What's fit to print? For Barney Rosset, the answer is an invariable "anything." His Grove Press was known for printing books other publishers wouldn't touch — and for legal crusades that changed American censorship law.
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For Publisher Barney Rosset, Risk Has Its Rewards

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For Publisher Barney Rosset, Risk Has Its Rewards

For Publisher Barney Rosset, Risk Has Its Rewards

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On Wednesday, the National Book Foundation honored publisher Barney Rosset with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. The awards committee called Rosset a tenacious champion for writers who were struggling to be read in America. Through his publishing house, Grove Press, and his magazine, The Evergreen Review, Rosset introduced American readers to such authors as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco, as well as many of the writers of the Beat Generation.

He fought two landmark First Amendment battles in order to publish the uncensored version of the D. H. Lawrence's novel, "Lady Chatterley's Lover," and Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer." His publication of erotic Victorian novels was attacked by conservative Christian groups associated with Reverend Donald Wildmon, who demanded their removal from the shelves of Waldenbooks and Dalton Bookstores. Terry spoke to Barney Rosset in 1991. She asked him if his publishing choices were a reflection of his personal taste or based more on his social and political interests and his interest in challenging obscenity laws.

(Soundbite of NPR's WHYY, April 9, 1991)

Mr. BARNEY ROSSET (Publisher, Grove Press): Well, I think it was both of those things, plus a very important thing, which is what is available. I mean, when I started publishing, I most definitely would have liked to have published Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald, but they were already published, so they were eliminated. So, that's an important thing to remember. And the books I published which I felt were an affront to obscenity law I also happened to like very much as books.

TERRY GROSS: Have a lot of people misunderstood you over the years and sent you a lot of not very good pornography thinking oh, it's Grove Press; they'll love to publish this?

Mr. ROSSET: Yes, indeed, great amounts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSSET: But also, great amounts of other things equally bad that did not fit under that category.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What was the first book that you published that ended up getting taken to court over obscenity charges?

Mr. ROSSET: "Lady Chatterley's Lover," and that was a very deliberate, clear idea that - actually - I mean, we planned a battle plan which was to get the post office to take action against us as opposed to local government or whatever so that we could keep it as simple as possible and win or lose at a federal level. And it turned out that way, and we won.

GROSS: So, the attorney general, I think, accused it of being smutty pornography...

Mr. ROSSET: I think it was the postmaster general.

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. I meant to say the postmaster general. What were the grounds that you argued that case in court?

Mr. ROSSET: Well, my grounds has always been that anything should be - can be published. In this case, judicial or legal wisdom was that it should be argued on the basis that it was a good book and therefore not subject to any kind of censorship. And on that basis, we won very clearly.

GROSS: The trial, I think, demonstrated that "Lady Chatterley's Lover" had redeeming literary merit. Did you feel that books should have to prove that they have redeeming literary or social value in order to...?

Mr. ROSSET: No, I certainly don't think so.

GROSS: And why not?

Mr. ROSSET: I think that if you have freedom of speech, you have freedom of speech.

GROSS: Was there a period in which you or writers and publishers who you knew were testifying about a book's literary and social merits even if you didn't really like the book very much, but you felt the book had the right to exist so you would testify on the grounds that were needed?

Mr. ROSSET: Well, I mean, I don't think that happened with our books. But I was really aiming at was publishing "Tropic of Cancer," which I had read in 1940 when I was a freshman at Swarthmore College, and it made an enormous impression on me, and I kept it in the back of my mind for many years that someday, somehow, that book would be aired to the rest of the world. So, my way of getting to "Tropic of Cancer" was through "Lady Chatterley's Lover."

GROSS: How did you use "Lady Chatterley's Lover" to publish Henry Miller's book?

Mr. ROSSET: To show that a book of literary merit, whatever, could be published and go from there to showing that Henry Miller had the same merit of that. I felt that it would be more difficult to start with Miller.

GROSS: Because he didn't have the kind of literary track record that Lawrence did.

Mr. ROSSET: That's right, and it worked out that way.

GROSS: So, how difficult was it to prove for Henry Miller?

Mr. ROSSET: Very difficult.

GROSS: What did you have to do?

Mr. ROSSET: There, we had hundreds of court cases - hundreds in one state, I mean. Eleven in one city - it was a very strange chaos. But ultimately, it worked out all right.

GROSS: What spoke to you about the book? Why did you want to publish it so much?

Mr. ROSSET: Well, when I read it, the sex part of it I didn't even notice, which I say is amazing. To me, it was a tract about the United States, and it went along with another book called "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare." It's sort of funny because there wasn't much air-conditioning then, but Miller had a very unusual and cynical viewpoint of modern American life of his time of the '30, '40s. I was living in it. Everything he said struck something inside of me, excited me, made me want to be creative and do things like run away from Swarthmore. But other things, I thought it was a marvelous expression of one human being.

GROSS: An expression of alienation.

Mr. ROSSET: Of alienation, I think, is good way to put it. And so, I just remembered that from 1940 until whenever it was - we published in the '60s.

GROSS: Let's go back to the very beginning when you started to publish. You've told us that part of how you made your choice of who to publish was who was available, who was already taken. Some of the first authors you published are now celebrated authors - Jean Genet, Ionesco, Samuel Beckett. These were, I think, among - these were the first three authors you published, weren't they?

Mr. ROSSET: No, they weren't. The first author I published was Henry James.

GROSS: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSSET: I republished "The Golden Bowl" of James and another old English novel, "The Monk" of Matthew Lewis, and eventually worked up to Samuel Beckett and Ionesco and Jean Genet, but it took a few years. These people, though, I had learned about them, had read things by them, I admired them, and the mainstream - so-called mainstream of American publishing - had bypassed them.

GROSS: No one wanted to publish Beckett or Genet or Ionesco in those days?

Mr. ROSSET: No, no, no, no.

GROSS: You must have felt really lucky to have a field to yourself, you know, untouchables who you thought were very, very important.

Mr. ROSSET: I certainly did. I certainly felt exactly that way, that it was very fortunate for me, in a certain sense, that these people whom I felt were amongst the greatest of the living writers of our time somehow were overlooked by the American establishment.

GROSS: In 1985, you sold Grove Press to another house.

Mr. ROSSET: Not to another house - to a woman.

GROSS: Oh, to an individual?

Mr. ROSSET: Yes.


Mr. ROSSET: Ann Getty.

GROSS: Why did you want to sell?

Mr. ROSSET: Well, we were always on the brink of severe financial problems, and incidentally, I didn't own Grove Press. It was, for 20 years or so, a publicly held company of which I was a minority stockholder, the biggest but still definitely a minority. And I was promised that if the Gettys came in, there would be a great deal of money made available to buy new manuscripts, books and so on, and that I would have a contract to stay there and it all seemed very appealing. And I was wrong.

GROSS: Right. You ended up leaving.

Mr. ROSSET: They threw me out.

GROSS: So, who owns the backlist now to...

Mr. ROSSET: Grove Press.

GROSS: Right. So, you don't have access anymore to the books that you brought out.

Mr. ROSSET: Access? I can read them.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSSET: I have them, individual copies.

GROSS: I've always wondered what that feels like, you know, when you're the head of a company for a long time and then you're out of that company and works that you acquired over the years are no longer under your control.

Mr. ROSSET: Well, I mean, I - I mean, for example, Samuel Beckett remained a close friend of mine, and Ionesco and so on. So, I mean, I like the books as much as I've ever, and anything I can do to help them, you know, to continue with the books I'm happy to do. I feel terribly disappointed personally, but that certainly doesn't change my feelings about the books.

GROSS: How come when you sold Grove Press you didn't just retire?

Mr. ROSSET: Why would I retire? I feel the same today as I did when I was 17. First of all, I have no money. I have no pension. So, that's, again, like saying, what books are available amongst those you'll have to publish? What are my options? I'm going to retire to where?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSSET: That's number one. Number two, I don't understand the idea of retiring. I mean, that, to me, is another word for death.

GROSS: Do you feel strongly about the books you're publishing now?

Mr. ROSSET: I do.

GROSS: What is it about them that makes you feel strong?

Mr. ROSSET: I like them.

DAVIES: Publisher Barney Rosset speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Rosset was just honored by the National Book Foundation with the Literarian Award. Let's hear a track from the new live Sonny Rollins album, "Road Shows." This is "Some Enchanted Evening."

(Soundbite of song "Some Enchanted Evening")

DAVIES: Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new teen vampire film, "Twilight." This is Fresh Air.

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