McDonald, Erroll 1954(?)—
Erroll McDonald 1954(?)—
Erroll McDonald, the executive editor of Pantheon Books, is a high-ranking executive in New York’s vast and lucrative publishing industry. McDonald—an urbane and outspoken businessman—has cut a controversial swath across the publishing market and has become better known than some of the writers whose books he edits. Esquire contributor Vince Passaro calls McDonald “a fast-rising and high-profile editor considered brilliant even by the people who don’t like him,” adding: “McDonald is something of a loose cannon on the slippery decks of His Majesty’s Ship Random House.”
Pantheon Books, a subsidiary of Random House, specializes in so-called highbrow works of literature and nonfiction—books with literary value and social awareness by American and foreign authors. McDonald brings to his new position extensive experience editing and publishing important Third World authors, including Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The Yale-educated editor has many admirers in his business, but he also has made enemies across the publishing spectrum, still something of a good-old-boy network. “Many people think I’m an asshole,” McDonald bluntly told Esquire. “… The reaction to me of many people in this business has been one of condescension and contempt.”
McDonald is a self-made man in every respect of the word. He was born in Limon, a village in Costa Rica, and was an illegitimate child who barely knew his father. When he was ten he and his mother moved to New York, to the crowded and rough Bed-ford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn. According to Passaro, McDonald largely missed the debilitating effects of racial antagonism in his youth because he lived first in a country with less racial strife and then in an almost all-black neighborhood. “McDonald didn’t perceive himself as a minority until he reached high school,” Passaro wrote.
That may be the case, but history caught up with McDonald when he attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, commuting across boroughs on the bus for his education. He intended to study elementary particle physics—even in high school—but his experiences of the wider world made him change his mind. “That was when the explosion of the civil rights movement and the black nationalist movement occurred,” he told Publishers
Random House Publishing Company, New York, NY, employee, 1978—. Began as sub-rights assistant, became editor, 1979, and senior editor, 1983. Named executive editor and vice-president of Vintage Books (a subsidiary of Random House), 1988, originator of Vintage Book’s Aventura line of trade paperbacks; executive editor of Pantheon Books, also a subsidiary of Random House, 1990—.
Addresses: Office—c/o Pantheon Books, 201 E. 50th St., New York NY 10022.
Weekly. “I became more political than scientific.” Whatever his interests, McDonald was an excellent student who attended Yale University on scholarship.
At Yale McDonald pursued a number of options—prelaw, political science, economics, and history—before discovering a passion for literature. “I just started reading fiction,” he told Publishers Weekly. “I decided to take courses in literature, just to see what they were all about. In fact, even after I decided to become an English major I thought I would go to law school. Literature was just something I thought I should read, not something I wanted to get a job in. “Comparative literature intrigued McDonald, and he added a knowledge of French, Russian, and German to his fluency in English and Spanish. Remembering his earliest exposure to books in Esquire, McDonald said: “I was amazed at reading this English I didn’t understand, this English that didn’t have anything to do with the English I knew. It made me feel challenged in an aggressive way.’
That challenge extended itself into graduate work. McDonald turned down a place at Yale’s law school and continued his studies in literature instead. He earned a Master’s Degree in philosophy and comparative literature from Yale and was contemplating his doctoral dissertation when he decided to take a break from the academic world. Author Toni Morrison was teaching at Yale in those years, and she helped McDonald secure summer employment at Random House, where she served as an editor. At summer’s end, McDonald decided to pursue a career in publishing. “The more I stayed in New York, the more arcane comparative literature seemed,”he told Publishers Weekly.
McDonald ascended quickly through the ranks at Random House, beginning as a sub-rights assistant and moving to junior editor in only fourteen months. By 1981 he was editing some of the company’s most thought-provoking books, including convicted felon Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast, an account of life in a penitentiary. That project dragged McDonald’s name into the news for the first time, because just as the book was published, Abbott—on parole—killed another man. Passaro notes of the incident: “McDonald, Norman Mailer (Abbott’s chief sponsor), and a number of others were accused of pandering to a homicidal maniac for the sake of literary fashion.” McDonald has called the press treatment of the affair “a big distortion,” maintaining that neither he nor anyone else in publishing had any influence on Abbott’s early parole or on his subsequent manic behavior.
The controversy simmered down shortly thereafter, and McDonald continued to work at Random House, eventually becoming a senior editor. Some of the titles he edited include Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, Wallace Terry’s Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, and Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie. In 1983 he founded the Aventura series for Random House’s Vintage Paperback division. The series brought into English translation works by foreign authors who were well known and respected in their own countries, people such as Timothy Mo, Elsa Morante, Julio Cortazar, and Jamaica Kincaid. Emerge magazine contributor Randall Kenan noted that the Aventura series reflected “not only a discriminating sense of high quality but also concern about and commitment to a ’First World’ or multicultural vision.”
One of the authors published under the Aventura signature was Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Laureate for literature. McDonald still considers Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood one of the best titles he edited. He was invited to the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, where he celebrated with the author in high style. In Publishers Weekly, McDonald called Ake a book “by which I can justify to myself my presence in publishing.”
Publishing is a business, and like any other business, the profit margin is paramount. Soon after Sonny Mehta was named president of Random House’s Knopf imprint— which oversees both the Vintage and Pantheon divisions—he discontinued the Aventura line. The end of Aventura did not mean the end of McDonald, however. Within months he had been named executive editor of Vintage Books, and he inaugurated yet another series, Vintage International, that bore great similarities to Aventura. Still, McDonald’s experience with Aventura convinced him that his company had a responsibility not only to the stockholders, but to the book authors themselves, to make substantial profits wherever possible.
This philosophy found its way into the public eye in 1990, when Random House ordered severe cost-cutting measures for Pantheon Books, a division long renowned for publishing works of serious literary merit. Rather than face what they considered politically-motivated frugality, the chief of Pantheon and five of his top editors resigned. Shortly thereafter, a group of editors, authors, and assistants staged a protest march outside the Random House offices. McDonald responded to the protests by penning a blistering article for the New York Times opinion page, a piece in which he blasted the resignees for their “support of the welfare mentality.” McDonald went on to point out that editors must remain accountable for profitability of their merchandise, or else they would face charges of pandering to the notion that “culture, lofty though it might be, is necessarily unprofitable.”
A few weeks later, McDonald was named the new chief of Pantheon—and two more editors quit. Fred Jordan, Pantheon’s president and publisher, defended McDonald’s choice in Publishers Weekly by stating: “I maintain that he is an important editor and I would hire him again. It is important to have someone strong, and he has a wonderful reputation among his generation of editors.” Shrugging off the mass exodus from Pantheon, Jordan added: “There are thousands who would give their eye teeth to work here, and everybody who comes here will be coming to a new situation.”
“Strong” is a word that aptly describes McDonald. He is loved by some people and hated by others for his aggressive, forthright stance. One friend, scholar Henry Louis Gates, told Esquire that race indeed plays a part in the perception of McDonald as abrasive and arrogant. Gates said that McDonald “makes for a forbidding and intimidating presence that only adds to his woes. It spells danger, given the stereotypes of black men in American culture, and he has had to develop strategies to counter that.”
McDonald is well aware that some of his associates in the predominantly white publishing industry will react to him in a racially-motivated manner. He intends to press on with his agenda, however, and that agenda does not include any limits set by race. Kenan wrote: “All eyes are on McDonald, waiting to see how well he will walk the tightrope between art and commerce.”
McDonald and his wife Klara live on the Upper West Side of New York. Lean and handsome, the editor presents a picture of his intellectual background and decade-and-a-half of achievements in a high-risk industry. Fred Jordan offers nothing but praise for his new associate, a man Jordan feels will be able to find and make profitable the best literature in the world. “It’s fun to work with [McDonald],” Jordan told Esquire. “He has a deep sense of social issues and social consciousness, he’s known as an editor with a passion for books. There aren’t that many people left who do this kind of publishing.”
Black Enterprise, February 1991.
Emerge, January 1991.
Esquire, January 1991.
Publishers Weekly, March 6, 1987; May 11, 1990.
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