Laboratories against the literati John Brockman is the agent who made top scientists sexy – and he loathes the ignorant literary world

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[ Thu. Mar. 23. 2000 ]

The John Brockman who welcomes me to his suite in a Belgravia hotel is not the John Brockman I have been led to expect. He is just off the plane from the States, he explains, and thus neither here nor there. It is surely not just jet lag, though, that makes his manner seem seasoned and reflective. 
 

If you didn't know who he was, you might take Brockman for a professor on the high plateau of his career. But this is a man legendary for forcing a publishing culture with its spiritual home in Bloomsbury to do business the Wall Street way. A striking picture had emerged from my background inquiries: he is brusque, aggressive, ruthless and proud of it; he makes editors feels bullied; he doesn't care about authors, only the next deal. And that was from people who work with him.

The man himself delivers a similar verdict. "I run my agency as a business," he says. "There's nothing literary or genteel about it. I'm in business to make money. I don't pretend I'm there to help people. If I make money, my clients make a lot of money. If they want somebody to hold their hands, let them go somewhere else.

"It's a very refreshing message for the clients, because it depersonalises it. They're the geniuses, they write the books; I do the best I can to get them what they're worth. It's very simple: it's a bullshit industry, with a bunch of phoneys in it, and I'm just a business person."

The tone is matter of fact, as though he is describing the décor of his office. But he seems to relish the opportunity to insult his customers. I mention one frequent criticism: that he sells books on the basis of sketchy synopses, often knocked up on the fly. "Absolutely," he agrees. So it's fair criticism? "Fair compliment," he replies. "Why give lazy people too much to do?"

Nowadays, he provides text aplenty, but requires publishers to visit a Web site called rightscenter.com in order to read it. It's like buying a car, he explains. If you want a Rolls-Royce, you have to go to a Rolls-Royce dealership.

Brockman picked up the basics of business from his father, a Boston flower trader. "I used to be sitting talking to publishers in less than a genteel manner and realising that it was my father's voice coming out." It was, he observes, a direct business. You looked your trading partner in the eye; you didn't refer his proposals to a committee. And flowers don't keep. You pick up the habit of closing deals quickly.

Ideas are not flowers, but the strategy works. Perhaps scientists are reassured by the attitude of an agent for whom "literary" is a dirty word; who spurns membership of a club from which they are excluded. He has helped make some of them, such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, winners in the winner-takes-all market that publishing has now become. What, I ask him, does he consider he has done for his scientists?

"I've gotten some of them one tenth the amount of money the Pope gets for writing a book," he answers. Is that what they want, though? "No. I've never encountered a group of people less interested in material things."

And that's the odd thing about Brockman's relationship with the many scientists among his clients. His reputation rests on his ability to obtain the highest price in the marketplace, but he obtains these prices for authors who appreciate them less than most.

If scientists really wanted money, then they wouldn't have set out to be scientists. Likewise, if Brockman was only interested in money, he would presumably buy and sell the pure stuff, without the nuisance of manuscripts.

He does like the taste of it, judging by the coverage he gives on his Edge webzine to the "billionaires' dinner" he gave for associates in the computer industry. But a postscript to the interview suggests a degree of sensitivity on the money question. He sends me two e-mails, both asserting that it's the journalists, not his clients, who are obsessed with advances.

The real significance of the money lies in the fact that it has consolidated a genre. While a few authors hit the big time, the rest get more modest sums that make writing books a reasonably attractive proposition. Brockman has brought about this state of affairs because he sees that science is a global genre, and because he recognises that "we're in a science world; we're in a software world".

He is also a partisan. "We have this bifurcation in the States where you have the business pages, which are filled with new technology and new exciting advances, and then you have the arts and books section, where people seem to have been brain-dead for 50 years."

This feeling dates back to the mid-1960s, when Brockman began to hang out with artists, and "found that the artists were all reading science. They weren't reading the literary people. The literary people were still fighting the same fights – who was a Trotskyist in 1937? They're still doing it today. These are the people that hi-jacked the word 'intellectual' in the Thirties from the scientists."

Brockman recalls how, as a graduate student back in 1963, he "used to run to the news-stand to get the latest Encounter, to see what people like Stephen Spender and Hannah Arendt were arguing about." It might have been the case of Adolf Eichmann, or something like that. Now the arguments that excite him are the kind that take place between the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and philosopher Daniel Dennett, the latter a Brockman author, over the nature of evolution.

His anecdote prompts me to suggest that science has largely replaced politics in shaping world-views. "I'm not equipped to compare it to politics, which I find enervating," he replies.

He simply is not a political animal. Although he recognises that science will raise increasingly political questions, about human nature and social equality, the ideas that appear under Edge auspices tend to be upbeat.

Brockman's vision of the future is of a human intelligence unified by digital technology, rather than of a humanity divided by genetic classification. While he has a stake in both sides of the Gould-Dennett clashes, he backed only the liberal side in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, an implicit riposte to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's conservative book on IQ and destiny,The Bell Curve.

Brockman's idea of the Third Culture is based on the conviction that scientists are the new public intellectuals. "C P Snow talked about a third culture. He wrote an addendum to his 'Two Cultures', and he said eventually the literary people will learn science and explain science to the people. It didn't happen. What happened is the scientists went direct, writing their own books."

Brockman's Third Culture was anticipated by British scientists like J B S Haldane and Julian Huxley in the 1930s and 1940s. But, for Brockman, the slim blue Pelicans of the time were mere popularisation. The Third Culture, he says, is about scientists writing for their peers in other disciplines.

"When a physicist like Brian Greene [author of The Elegant Universe] writes a book, he knows that if he wants his colleagues in biology to read it, he has to write it in English. And if he writes it without the jargon of his field, then I can read it." Science becomes a spectator sport, in which the elite conducts conversations "and the public gets to look over their shoulder".

So does Brockman himself. As a Web publisher, he's a one-man band with a PowerBook and a Dreamweaver editing package. He does his own links.

"It will take me three or four hours to get a new edition out, "he says. "While I'm doing it, I'm thinking about these ideas, and whose ideas are they? Well, you could argue that it's as good a list as any of thinkers in the world today. To me it's a graduate school; it's the best one in the world, and there's one student. So while I'm sitting there doing HTML coding, I'm thinking about evolutionary biology or the human genome, and learning about stuff at 59 that most people stop thinking about when they leave college.

"But I do have a 19-year-old who scorns this activity, and says 'Dad, you couldn't even get a 14-year-old to do this'."

  • Marek Kohn's book 'As We Know It: coming to cerms with an evolved mind' is published by Granta

Published in The Independent, March 24, 2000. Copyright©2000 by Marek Kohn


Marek Kohn's Edge Bio page
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John Brockman's Edge Bio page.

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