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The Formidable Susan Abrams

The U. of C. Press editor earned her reputation the old-fashioned way: sentence by sentence.



I was an editorial assistant in the books division of the University of Chicago Press for two and a half years, and for most of that time I was terrified of Susan Abrams. Actually, I was terrified in general. Publishing frequently feels like running for your life from a pack of minutiae: if you can't fend them off, they'll gnaw you to death. An unofficial motto hung on the wall of more than one editor's office: "The process of publishing consists of an infinite number of details, no one of which is important unless it is overlooked or improperly executed." Most of us had it memorized.

To anyone who cares about scholarly books, the press is an intimidating place. Founded with the school itself in 1891, it's one of the oldest continuously operating university presses in the United States, and the third largest in the world--only Oxford and Cambridge are bigger. It publishes about 180 new books and 70 paperback reprints a year along with 54 scholarly journals, and it distributes books for 25 other nonprofit publishers. The Chicago Manual of Style, which has been in print since 1906 and is now in its 14th edition, is one of the most revered reference works in the English language for writers and editors. The press has published many prominent scholars of the last century, from Milton Friedman to William Julius Wilson. (I remember making the discovery one day that the assistant who worked in the cubicle next to mine had Jacques Derrida's home phone number in her files. We thought about calling him up, but decided we'd rather keep our jobs.) It's also successfully moved into trade territory in recent years with general interest books like Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It and the posthumous collection One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko.

When I worked there, Abrams, the editor for history, philosophy, and social studies of science, as well as plant and tropical biology, had a carefully appointed office in the building. The walls were full of first editions of the books she'd edited over the last 20-odd years and pieces of her extensive ceramics collection, but she worked from home most of the time. When she was in the office, however, I never saw her not in motion. She moved down the halls like a fast, fierce bird, her mass of curly, graying hair flying out behind her. I hardly had occasion to speak with her--I was the assistant to the political science editor, and in most acquisitions departments editors in different subject areas can work side by side for years without ever collaborating. But I had heard the stories, and I knew she noticed everything.

Abrams came to the press in 1979 as the ninth sciences editor in ten years. She was in her 30s, and had worked at one publishing house previously, the CV Mosby Company in Saint Louis. During her interview at Chicago, Abrams says, the senior editor, Allen Fitchen (who functioned as the manager of the acquisitions department), asked, "What do you think of our science list?"

"You don't have a science list," she replied.

She was right, and she was hired. She had taken exactly two science courses in her life, both of them in high school.

She couldn't coast, as many new acquisitions editors do, on the successes of her predecessors, because they all had quit or been fired so quickly. A few important books had made it through, including Thomas Kuhn's 1962 classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (which introduced the concept of the paradigm shift), but many scholars saw no reason to publish with a house that couldn't keep an editor around. "I spent a year going out to lunch with the science faculty," Abrams says, "and having them tell me there was no way they would publish with Chicago, because there was nothing going on."

She took out ads in journals asking people to send suggestions for paperback reprints, and that helped; humorist Will Cuppy's satirical takes on scientific inquiry, How to Become Extinct and How to Attract the Wombat, both reprinted by the press in 1983, helped get the ball rolling. For weeks and weeks in the summer she schlepped books to every science association meeting she could find, from the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology to the American Ornithological Union. She talked to everyone, asking about their work, asking what they planned to do with it. That helped too. But the smartest thing she did, says Robert Richards, author of three books for the press, director of the U. of C.'s Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, and an old friend of Abrams's, was talk to the people no one else did: graduate students.

"That was flattering, and as they grew into assistant professors, their first thought about where to send a manuscript was Chicago, because Susan had chatted them up and gone to their presentations," says Richards. "She would make people feel guilty if they didn't submit to Chicago."

Her strategies paid off in spades. Over the next two decades, Abrams shepherded one influential, well-written, well-reviewed book after another into print: Martin J.S. Rudwick's The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge Among Gentlemanly Specialists (1985), Adrian Desmond's The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London (1989), Steven Shapin's The Scientific Revolution (1996).

One of Abrams's favorite early projects, Costa Rican Natural History (1983), a collection of papers edited by Daniel H. Janzen, professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania, helped establish Chicago as a leader in tropical biology books. "Our main competition were Columbia, Oxford, Cambridge, and Princeton at that point, and they all had very well established and big lists. My problem was to try to find niches where we could scooch in there and do something interesting and different," she says. "I began talking with some people about tropical biology, which was nothing then, and I kept hearing about this book that a guy named Daniel Janzen at Penn had done or was doing, and I was sure it was committed somewhere. I thought, well, what I can do is just call him up and call up some other people and let them know that we'd like to do something.

"About six months later the phone rang, and it was Janzen, and he said, 'Were you serious about wanting to do something in tropical biology?' and I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'Well, I have this book.' I just was ecstatic. Originally he had planned to have it published in Spanish, and the Spanish-language publisher had finked out because it was so big. 'The manuscript weighs 50 pounds,' he said. 'If I give you a ticket, can you go to Costa Rica over the weekend and pick it up?' I didn't even have a passport, so he said, 'OK, I'll get the manuscript flown up here and xeroxed.' Eight-thirty Tuesday morning, this guy gets off the elevator carrying these two huge stacks of paper tied up with clothesline, wearing like a janitor's khaki shirt and a big key ring. It's Daniel Janzen. Probably the world's foremost tropical biologist."

She says she spent 20 hours a week for the next two years on the thing. "Janzen was doing the review of all the editing and the proofing, and it was very difficult to get it back and forth, because the mails weren't trustworthy. I'd have to call him in Costa Rica and let him know when somebody was bringing something down, and the only way to do it was by National Park Service radio. So I'd call the radio office in San Jose and ask to be patched through, and then every time you speak you have to say 'cambio,' which is 'over,' so that they would flip the switch so that he could talk." When the 816-page book was finally finished, the press did an initial print run of 500 hardback and 3,500 paperback copies--fairly standard for a scholarly book presumed to have limited general appeal. "We had to reprint in six months," says Abrams. "Nobody believed it. But I did."

Abrams's authors say she listens to them, she understands their work, and she devotes huge amounts of time to helping shape that work into thoughtful, accessible, respected books. She not only insists on clear, straightforward prose, but actually helps her authors achieve it. She gives her authors copies of George Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," which argues, among other things, that shoddy writing reveals and reinforces shoddy thinking.

"I have drafts of the intro to my book where she went through line by line," says Jim Secord, professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge. (His second book, Victorian Sensation, which addresses the social and cultural shock that accompanied the publication of the precursor-to-Darwin work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, was published by Chicago in 2000.) "Nobody does that," says Secord. "I mean, I hardly do that for my graduate students. I'm a professor now in the British system, which wouldn't have happened without Susan and what she did for my book."

Historian Alison Winter, whose first book, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain, was published by Chicago in 1998, is another fan. "I was in my MPhil year at Cambridge and visiting some friends in Chicago, and I went into the Seminary Co-op bookstore and saw all these fantastic history of science books. I spent all my spending money buying these things. A friend of mine was there, and he said that he knew the editor who had been involved in the publication of all the books I bought. It turned out he was Susan's assistant. I didn't think much more about it until a month or two later, when I was back in Cambridge, and this letter arrived from Susan, who said that she'd heard this story from him, and she expressed interest in my work. Well, I was an MPhil--I didn't have any work. I was 21, I hadn't done any serious research, and she took an interest in me. I certainly was going to send her my manuscript before I considered sending it to anyone else."

The intense attention Abrams gives her authors tends to draw them to her even after their books are published. "People have this really strong feeling about her even if they haven't been in touch with her for a while," says Winter, now an associate professor at the U. of C. "I think about her several times a week; I wonder what she's doing and imagine her in her apartment. She fosters a much closer bond of warmth and caring beyond just the transaction of whether the press is going to publish your book and under what circumstances."

The warmth and understanding she shows her authors, however, hasn't always been reflected in her relationships within the press. "There's a famous split between her authors, who were and are convinced, I think with reason, that Susan walks on water, and the people who had to work with her, some of whom had a hard time," says Doug Mitchell, the acquisitions editor for history, sociology, and gay and lesbian studies. "She has famously no patience for foolish questions and trivial concerns."

Abrams admits she doesn't suffer fools gladly. Actually, she doesn't seem to suffer them at all: she has a reputation for going through assistants like Kleenex. Before her current collaboration with Christie Henry, who began as Abrams's assistant in 1993 and is now the editor for biological sciences, geography, and math at the press, there were occasional covert bets on how long the latest one would last. Someone once suggested that Abrams's ex-assistants go to a Halloween party as the six wives of Henry VIII. One walked into Abrams's office after a month and asked to be put out of her misery. Another passed into press legend by lasting either two days or one week, depending who's telling the story. (Abrams says, "She couldn't spell, she couldn't type. Nobody would have kept her, believe me.")

"I've never been so scared at work," says Elizabeth Knoll, now the senior editor for behavioral sciences at Harvard University Press. "I was her third assistant that year, and I started in August. If it weren't for working for Susan, I'd think that 'breaking out into a cold sweat' or 'seeing red' were mere metaphors."

The assistants' panic came about in part because Abrams could seem so mercurial. "You were never going to meet Susan's expectations unless you had some amazing intuitive sense for what she wanted, and I didn't," says another former assistant, who asked not to be named. "She was circuitous in her talking. I'd spend a lot of time in her office talking with her and then walk out wondering what happened. It was a sinking ship. [After nine months] I left her a voice mail and said, 'You clearly don't like me, I don't like you, I won't be returning.'"

Another former assistant, Susana Darwin, was thrown by Abrams's habit of using "woof" as an all-purpose slang word. "She would say 'woof' to everything, and it could mean anything. 'Woof,' palms clasped, might mean 'please' or 'thank you.' 'Woof!' could mean 'Great news!' or 'Do it now!' or 'I like that!' A lingering "Woof..." could mean 'This makes me very unhappy.' You could never be certain."

Part of the assistants' difficulties stemmed from Abrams's frequent absences from the office. "Given that she was there 30 percent of the time, and at that point trying to catch up with whatever she had missed, I would say she didn't have much time to devote" to training the people who worked for her, says one past assistant.

Then, too, Abrams's work relationships have been affected by her well-known lack of emotional restraint. "I remember talking to her a few years ago about her then new absorption in opera," says Knoll. "She gave a long, vivid, heartfelt description of how beautiful Pavarotti's voice was...and then she followed it immediately with this vehement, name-calling put-down of Jose Carreras. I have the impression that Susan doesn't have many beige emotions."

Her tendency to take her work personally may have contributed to her reputation as a difficult boss and coworker. She's never seemed to make much distinction between her authors' successes and her own, and for most of her career she has had, by her own account, almost no private life. "I never met a guy as interesting as my work," she says. She lives in Hyde Park with three beloved cats, hundreds of books, and an Asian ceramics collection.

"Her books are like her children--she's intensely involved in all of them and in having them succeed," says Carol Kasper, director of marketing at the press. "If you aren't equally intense, that frustrates her."

It wasn't that Abrams asked her assistants or colleagues to do anything she didn't do--she worked marathon days for years, and loved Christmas because she could work in the office with no one else around. (Before she began working at home, says Mitchell, "she would greet you in the morning when you came into the office, and it didn't matter if you showed up at six, seven, eight, or nine--she was there.") It was that hardly anyone else could do what she did.

Fiercely protective of her author relationships, Abrams seems to have difficulty forgiving anyone who appears to threaten those relationships through neglect or error. When Costa Rican Natural History had to be remade at the last minute and at great expense because of major design and printing mistakes, Abrams was sure it was deliberate. "Well," Abrams says now, "how else could that huge number of problems occur?" Pedestrian explanations--misfortune, miscommunication, ordinary stupidity--don't seem to be possibilities.

"People like Susan are almost inevitably very difficult to work for," says Barbara Hanrahan, director of the University of Notre Dame Press, who worked for another Chicago editor early in Abrams's tenure. "She can't comprehend not being there 100 percent. It's part of the package. Some of the aggravation with Susan was sour grapes because she had command of the details and they didn't. But damn it, she was always right."

A recurring point of contention at the press has been Abrams's insistence that science books have unique design needs. They can't be designed, she says, to look like something in literary criticism--lush, elaborate, artsy. Science books can have hundreds of tables, figures, charts, graphs, photographs, legends, and equations, so their interior design needs to be clean and accessible. In 23 years at Chicago, Abrams doesn't feel she's gotten that point across.

"You're dealing with a group of people who's used to thinking it's the best manuscript-editing group, the best design group, the best production group of any university press--and they're not doing it right when it comes to these books, and they're not happy to hear that," she says. "I tried being very accommodating and very practical for several years, and it didn't work at all. I finally just started saying 'This is not acceptable.'"

Does she worry that she's going to have to work with the same people on other projects? She replies: "They're still going to have to work with me."

Sylvia Hecimovich, head of production at the press, believes that Abrams's intentions have always been good. "I always felt that Susan cared more about the entire process," she says. "Many editors just care about their piece of the pie. I saw her not so much interfering as wanting to learn. My experience with Susan was, when I thought she was overstepping her bounds, I could always say that to her, and most of the time she was very open to that." Kasper adds that "you tended to forgive Susan a lot because she was so passionate about what she did and she often did things that were so good."

The coworkers who have connected with Abrams agree that she's demanding but stress that her interest in and generosity to them have been boundless. "I look at her as my mentor," says Jackie Rubenstein, Abrams's assistant in 1981 and 1982. "She treated me as her equal. If there was a proposal coming in, she would talk to me about it as if I knew what she knew, which of course I didn't. When I first moved there, I was living in Lincoln Park and I didn't have a car, and to get down to the U. of C. Press in the morning was, you know, three buses and a walk from the Jeffery Express. She wasn't going to stop until she found me a carpool. And she did. It's this kind of thing that she does by nature."

T. David Brent, the editor for psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and ethnomusicology, concedes that he and Abrams have "disagreed over the years about more things than one" but adds, "Susan's reputation as a brilliant and accomplished editor is far more deserved than her reputation as being difficult to work with." Chicago has won the History of Science Society's Pfizer Award, the field's highest honor for a book, seven times, more than any other press; six of the winning books were edited by Abrams.

Despite her difficult experience as Abrams's assistant, Elizabeth Knoll stresses that she admires her work very much. "I have always wanted to be that dedicated, that attentive, that supportive, that useful, that smart an editor," she says. "I'm glad and grateful that she was my first model of an editor, the one I imprinted on." In March Chicago announced the creation of the Susan Elizabeth Abrams Prize, for the best history of science manuscript or book accepted for publication by the press's board in a two-year period. It'll be awarded for the first time this November.

Abrams has been on medical leave since her diagnosis with lung cancer a year ago; Christie Henry is handling her projects these days. Abrams has been through some rough patches, "but it's not the worst thing in the world," she says. After years of working seven days a week, she enjoys the quiet: "It's good to have this chance to see what it's like to just sort of be a peaceful person." For the first time in decades, she's able to sit still, to talk about something besides a manuscript.

I had heard that Abrams could be solicitous of younger colleagues, and when I left the press last fall she invited me over for a drink. Her apartment was dark and cool, and the table where we sat was divided into a sprawl of books and papers on one side, two beautiful place settings on the other. While her cats ambled in and out of the room, she told me stories of her life with books.

My favorite was the one about Norman Mailer. In college at Washington University, she had to write a six-to-eight-page paper on An American Dream, and in trying to make sense of the book's symbolism, wrote more than 300 pages. "I thought it was making me crazy," she says. She happened to have Mailer's phone number from a political fund-raiser she had worked on, and "called him up collect, hysterical, from the library at two o'clock in the morning. And he was wonderful. He accepted the call, and he just was very calming and very supportive, and he just kept saying, 'It's OK. You can't peg a symbol too exactly or you kill it.' So I calmed down and I got the damn paper done. After that...that was a couple of very ugly years in history--'64, '65, '66. The civil rights movement and the Vietnam war and lots of brutality everywhere, and it was making me very depressed. And I would call him up and inevitably he would take the call, and he was just great. He was just a great surrogate father.

"I said to him once, 'Why is it that you're so supportive and wonderful to me when most people think of you as very tough and very nasty?'" She paused and looked at me. "He said, 'Just think of me as a subway wheel. You're getting the flat side, and not the one that cuts.'"

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