2018 Literary Gala: Carolyn Reidy, 2018 PEN America Publisher Honoree
Carolyn Reidy marked 10 years as CEO of Simon & Schuster, Inc., in January 2018. Under her leadership, Simon & Schuster has published many acclaimed and award-winning works of lasting cultural significance, has greatly expanded its publishing activities in international territories, and has been an industry leader in finding new audiences through digital capabilities. Reidy’s commitment to diversity at Simon & Schuster has led the company to make substantial progress in creating a more diverse workforce and to publish a wider range of voices that is more truly reflective of our larger culture today. Reidy also serves on the Boards of Directors of the Association of American Publishers and the National Book Foundation, and, as a former long-serving board member of Literacy Partners, has provided vital support to literacy programs to engender a new generation of readers and writers.
Below are her full remarks from the 2018 PEN America Literary Gala, including an introduction by Simon & Schuster Publisher Jon Karp.
Jon Karp, publisher at Simon & Schuster
Thank you. Although Doris Kearns Goodwin couldn’t be here, she was kind enough and generous enough to write this introduction, which I’d now like to read to you. It’s my privilege.
What a special honor for me to introduce Carolyn Reidy, my longtime publisher at Simon & Schuster, my good friend, and this year’s PEN America Publisher Honoree.
The story of Carolyn’s love affair with books begins with the image of a little girl holding a flashlight under the covers so she could read her favorite books long past the time she was supposed to be asleep, into the early hours of the morning.
Her love affair deepened in college and graduate school where she studied English literature on her way to obtaining a Ph.D and becoming an English professor. Little could she have realized or imagined that the focus of her dissertation—the complex relationship between the writer and the reader in the High Victorian novel—would come to fruition from the heights of the publishing industry, where, in a profoundly personal way, she would help thousands of writers across all genres to bridge the magical space between the act of writing and the act of reading.
When her husband Stephen came to Columbia Business School, Carolyn left her Ph.D program (although she did eventually finish her dissertation), and on the strength of her spectacular ability to type 90 words a minute, secured an entry-level job in publishing where through a meandering series of positions that covered all aspects of the business, she found her calling.
Carolyn has said that it was through her study of the Victorian classics that she came to understand the qualities that underpin successful books of all kinds. Her goal, she has repeatedly said, is to make each book her company publishes great on its own terms, and then to find the largest possible audience for that book. The evidence indicates she has done just that thousands of times over the course of her career, whether for enduring prize-winning titles or popular books of the moment.
Relentless curiosity is at the heart of her success. On her vacations, she lugs along a dozen bound manuscripts, perusing them and then invariably calling or sending a note to the author. And I can testify, after quite a few of those phone calls, that she is a reader of great insight and perception.
I can still remember the conversation we had about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt after she read No Ordinary Time. She talked with me about their complicated marriage as if she, too, had actually known them over the years—the greatest tribute a reader can give to a writer.
Her phone call after reading my memoir about growing up in love with the Brooklyn Dodgers touched an even more personal chord. She zeroed in on the role that books had played in my relationship with my mother, who had only an eighth grade education, but who read books in every spare moment she could find. And though she was essentially housebound and died when I had just turned 15, as Carolyn pointed out to me, books and storytelling had already become the anchor of my life.
When Carolyn finished reading Team of Rivals, books were once again at the center of our conversation. We talked about the deep hunger for reading that led Abraham Lincoln to scour the countryside to borrow books, and when he found a copy of Shakespeare, Aesop’s Fables, or the King James, he was so excited he couldn’t eat or sleep. It’s that same sense of excitement that Carolyn radiates when she helps with the birth of a new young writer or savors the continued success of one of her veteran authors.
The publishing industry has experienced profound changes in the decade Carolyn as served as president and CEO of Simon & Schuster. She led the company through the worst recession since the Great Depression; she has navigated the digital revolution, the birth of social media, and the ever-increasing competition for a reader’s attention that makes hefty 800-page books like mine an even greater challenge.
Through it all, my editor Alice Mayhew told me, Carolyn has remained optimistic about the future of publishing, ever ready to experiment, and yet maintaining a steady hand. “Thank God Carolyn is here” is the common refrain among the entire Simon & Schuster family. As it is for all of us associated with the publishing industry, which she has served with such dedication for so many years.
Can the curiosity of the little girl holding the flashlight, illuminating the book pages under the blankets, last a lifetime? Carolyn Reidy is proof that it can. And along the way her contagious curiosity and enthusiasm has been conveyed to millions of readers.
Congratulations to a great publisher and a great leader, Carolyn Reidy.
Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster
First I’d like to thank John for reading that lovely introduction by Doris, and say, of course, we’re very sorry she couldn’t be here tonight. Good evening to everyone here. Whether you are an author, a publishing colleague, a Simon & Schuster business contact, or are here for any other reason, I want to thank you for standing—well, actually sitting—with us to support the important work of PEN America. And I would also like to thank the PEN staff and everyone at Simon & Schuster who has worked so hard to make this evening such a success.
And thanks, of course, to Stephen King: It has been a singular honor for Scribner and Simon & Schuster to be his publisher for 20 years, as during all that time, he has kept us fully engaged and working to keep up with his vast creativity and energy. For his lifetime work and generosity to other authors and artists, Stephen is richly deserving of tonight’s honor. Morgan Freeman, a big thanks to you for taking the time to travel to New York to introduce Stephen and be a part of tonight’s festivities.
I am truly flattered to accept this honor from such a distinguished organization that has for decades fought so valiantly and effectively for human rights and the right of free speech and expression, while promoting literature and the right to publish in so many places around the world.
For those of us dedicated to introducing the work of writers to the world, it is repugnant when someone, anyone—whether it is the general public, media pundits, local school boards, or the government—tries stop us from publishing; to dictate who or what we can publish; or to limit who can purchase or read our books. Even worse, of course, are punitive actions against a writer or journalist.
And while it is true that the public square has always been a noisy and unruly place, the fact is we are living in a time when the issue of free speech is incredibly fraught, and more complicate than ever, as we grapple not only with the political currents of our times but also with the explosive growth and ubiquity of powerful social media platforms and their effect on human interaction and communication.
In today’s world, when arguments or debates are taking place at lightning speed, on forums where nuance is either impossible, or worse, not sought, we are too often witness to the crush of hive-minded crowds that seek only to affirm their rightness. In too many instances we have ceded any effort toward a rational, higher-level discourse that can elucidate rather than exasperate our differences; we have ceased to actually exchange or evaluate ideas; and we have watched as discussion is hijacked into what is essentially a phony debate over free speech—the political sideshow that diverts us from the original topics.
Opinions differ, and opinions matter, and they have the ability to spark genuine debate about issues and ideas of real substance, discussions that can help, in the words of PEN, to “bridge divisions that hinder our mutual understanding on contentious issues.” And I would add that the writers, journalists, and publishers that constitute so much of PEN America and its membership are uniquely positioned to provide the outlets where those discussions can happen, and to add critical insight and perspective of the highest level.
It is thus all the more important to reassert our core belief that free speech, the actual discussion and debate of ideas—ideas that can be good or bad, progressive or regressive, new or antiquated, revolutionary or status quo, mild or offensive, half-baked or fully cooked, and yes, liberal or conservative—is and needs to remain the right of every citizen in our civil society, along with our obligation to protect that speech. When it comes to the right of unfettered discourse we cannot and should not accept dissent-quashing tyranny from any side of the political equation.
Yes, in our country too many voices are marginalized, or powerless, and through our choices of what to publish we have the ability and the obligation to help change that. It would be very easy to publish only those voices and perspectives with which we identify or feel comfortable. I have always felt that it is our responsibility as publishers to step outside of our comfort zone and engage with different points of view, and to publish for the many different audiences that comprise our nation’s readership.
In the words of the late and brilliant publisher Peter Mayer, “Trouble is the heart of what we do, in the sense that worthwhile books trouble our complacency, sharpening our minds and senses. Some are even dangerous, and they, too, must be published.”
But for all the noise, the demonization of the media, the bellicose threats to press freedoms, the outrage over politically incorrect speech, and the backlash against the politically correct, at the end of the day we are fortunate to live in a nation where the First Amendment has so long protected our right to expression. And our presence here tonight signifies that we do not take and cannot take this right for granted.
As we watch with alarm the rise of authoritarians, autocrats, and strongmen in so many nations around the world, where a free media and a genuine opposition party are often the first casualty, our longstanding arguments about the limits of free, as fierce and aggravating as they sometimes may be, provide a sobering reminder of the plight of many our colleagues—writers, journalists, publishers and free thinkers—in so many other nations.
We are in a unique position in that we have the freedom and place from which we can advocate, as PEN America unceasingly does, on behalf of others who are not so fortunate.
Tonight we heard of the plight of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, arrested for exposing a massacre in a Rohingya village, and still incarcerated: They have sacrificed more than most of us can even imagine to speak truth to power.
I applaud and thank PEN America for its constant efforts to set them, and so many others, free, and to shine a light into those dark corners of the world where truth, honesty, and free expression are so brutally suppressed.
And in a few minutes we will honor Cameron Kasky, Samantha Fuentes, and Zion Kelly. Their courage, bravery, and determination to speak out in the aftermath of the horrific events in their schools—places that by all rights should be safe harbors and sanctuaries for learning—is a bright shining example and inspiration to us all.
Thank you, again, for being here tonight.