Research at the RBML | The Big Five and supersizing literature: Dan Sinykin on publishing conglomeration


Assistant Professor of English at Emory University Dan Sinykin recently visited the RBML to delve into the library’s massive publishing archives. Making sense of appropriately supersized collections will contribute to his book project, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed Book Publishing and American Literature. Below, Dan recounts some of his finds and how unexpected discoveries in the archive helped shape his research.


What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library? 

I am writing a book about how the conglomeration of publishing changed American fiction. Columbia holds the papers for Random House, which was a modestly sized publisher in the 1950s—its entire staff could be listed on a notecard—but today is the world’s largest, with a staff of more than 10,000. I wanted to learn everything I could about what such growth meant for Random House’s fiction by looking at the drafts and memos and editorial letters and various correspondence that Columbia holds.

How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)?

Oh boy. I think the first time I came to RBML was in 2017. I was already at work on this conglomeration project then, already looking at the Random House papers, which are so vast that even in the several trips I’ve taken since then, I’ve still more or less skimmed the surface.

What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here? (any photos of examples you might share?)

Columbia RBML, Random House Records MS #1048

I had no idea what I would find, and I found so much. Much more than fits in the book. There is a wealth of material, for example, from Toni Morrison, who worked as an editor at Random House in the 1970s and early 1980s. In one memo she argues for a raise on behalf of her assistant, in another she fights to publish Leon Forrest, one of many black writers she brought to the publisher. There is a letter in which she rails against the depiction of the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There is a lovely note she wrote to James Baldwin in 1973, thanking him for a blurb for Sula and lamenting that she couldn’t be the one to publish his latest, If Beale Street Could Talk.

I also found arguments between editorial and marketing over the size of print runs, schemes among editors to maintain Random House’s strong reputation among writers. And I found considerable evidence of sexism among the male staff, none more egregious than cofounder Bennett Cerf who often sent sexually harassing letters to female authors, such as the actress and writer Olivia de Haviland.

What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you?

So much! After some time with the materials, I began to notice sets of initials at the bottom of typed correspondence different from those of the author. I realized that those were the initials of the administrative assistants who actually typed the words. Given that I knew most were women, and that I was investigating sexism at the firm, I discerned the identities of several of these typists and reached out, inquiring about the possibility of an interview, and one, a former assistant to the legendary Jason Epstein, generously replied and assented.

I stumbled across many other curious documents. In one, the dominant literary agent Morton Janklow—he represented Judith Krantz, Ronald Reagan, and Danielle Steel—arranged a personal experience with a famed French chef for Jason Epstein and Gore Vidal. In a series of letters, I watched the emotional breakdown of the editorial and personal relationship between Joe Fox and Philip Roth, with Fox eventually scrawling in pen in an imagined reply to Roth: “This is childish! Why the fuck should I justify myself to you? Who needs this shit! Go screw yourself, baby!”

What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?

Do it! Go! That’s the most important thing. Once you decide to go, do it thoughtfully. Plan ahead. Spend time with the finding aids, determine the boxes and folders you are interested in. Get in touch with the archivists a few weeks ahead of time, send a reminder shortly before your visit, and stay in communication. Then, once you’re there, be psychologically open and physically prepared. I say physically prepared because you’ll be surprised by how demanding it is on the body to study archives all day. It takes a toll on mind and body both. Be well rested. Take breaks. Drink water. And document everything you find VERY carefully. Include the box and folder information for everything you record so that you can easily refer back weeks, months, or years later. And, finally, enjoy yourself.