Science's Doubtful Advance
By John Cornwell 10.2.1994
Could the talent he brought to promoting Andy Warhol harm science publishing? John Cornwell on John Brockman.
The launch by Robert Hughes, the minister for science, of the Science Masters book series at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature next week, sees the fulfilment of a strange and lucrative dream for one of publishing's more intriguing characters.
Science Masters, promoted by Weidenfeld and Nicolson as ''a truly major international publishing event'', is principally the brainchild of John Brockman, the American literary agent who has made a name, and a fortune, out of representing scientists.
As Brockman tells it, Anthony Cheetham of Orion Publishing Group suggested over breakfast in London two years back a series of 12 short books about science by distinguished scientists. A few days later, Maseo Kase, head of the Tokyo publishers Soshi Sha, asked Brockman to package ''a dozen neat books on science, easy to hold on a Japanese commuter train; 40,000 words please''.
That Cheetham in London and a publisher halfway round the world would call simultaneously on Brockman to mastermind such a project betokens his sway over many of the world's successful author scientists. That there is the perception of a market for such a series in the first place is a tribute to Brockman's own zealous pleading.
In 1992, in his private circulation newsletter, Edge, Brockman expatiated on a notion he calls the Third Culture a new age in which the author scientist will assume the role of torchbearer to high culture. Brockman acknowledges that his prophecy borrows from CPSnow's second thoughts on his 1959 essay, The Two Cultures And The Scientific Revolution. A third and reconciled culture might emerge, Snow reasoned in 1963, if only the humanities could get on speaking terms with the sciences.
Brockman, however, fancies a rather different third scenario: a culture that bestows higher dignity on the natural sciences than on the arts and the humanities. With chilling echoes of Allan Bloom's meditation on the closure of the American mind, Brockman welcomes the day when ''scientists will begin to communicate directly with the general public, leaving traditional intellectuals on the sidelines''. Membership of the new intellectual elite will be vouchsafed ''only to those scientists and others whose anchor is in the empirical world''; their task, he insists, will be nothing less than ''rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are in terms of our own species, the planet, the biosphere, and the cosmos''.
So far, Brockman's contribution to the coming ''Third Culture'' has been to increase author scientists' advances from a mere ''low four figures'', to the ''high sixes''; in some cases even to the tumescent ''sevens''. His client Murray Gell-Mann, the theoretical physicist, was signed to earn a whacking $2m before he had even finished his recent book, The Quark And The Jaguar. Also on Brockman's client list are Richard Dawkins (of The Blind Watchmaker), Daniel CDennett (of Consciousness Explained), Paul Davies (of God And The New Physics), Nicholas Humphreys (of A History Of The Mind), and many other ''brand names'', as Brockman terms the distinguished members of his stable.
Brockman has now commissioned his first 12 Science Masters and sold the ''package'' to more than 50 countries around the world. In addition to Dawkins, Dennett and Davies, the list includes neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, the cosmologist George Smoot and the biologist Stephen Jay Gould. With gross sales in ''seven figures'' and Brockman's share averaging 15%, he has pulled off a huge financial coup; but he would emphasise that he is no mere percentage merchant.
Ever since he first erupted on the New York and West Coast pop-art scenes in the 1960s as an impresario of ''multi-media happenings'' (he mounted some of Andy Warhol's public frolics), Brockman has been ambitious to make his mark among serious intellectuals.
Brockman, aged 53, and married to Katinka Matson daughter of the waspish New York agent Howard Matson is reticent about his origins and education. He had a ''virtual upbringing'', he says. According to one account, his Polish Jewish father was a Boston flower-seller who would send young John forth with a laden barrow, instructing him not to return until every bloom had been sold. He claims that he did business studies at Columbia University, New York, in the early 1960s, but decided against an orthodox business career.
His road to Damascus, he says, was when Marshall McLuhan he of ''the medium is the message'' introduced him to the ideas of JZ Young, the philosophising psychologist. ''Young's idea was that man creates tools and then moulds himself in their image. To me, this indicated that reality is manmade. The universe is an invention, a metaphor.'' Brockman's laid-back delivery lends a certain gravitas to such utterances; but then, he is not averse to giving the impression that he is the intellectual equal of the clients he promotes.
Certainly, Brockman has been skilful at reinventing his own reality over and again. On the strength of several books of gnomic musings, he sometimes describes himself as a writer: his published works include By The Late John Brockman (1969) an ''epistemological essay'' and Afterwords (1973) ''a Wittgensteinian essay''. ''Man is dead'', reads the first page; ''Nobody knows and you can't find out'', declares the last.
He founded his New York-based literary agency in 1973, concentrating on non-fiction, and began to make serious money by selling computer software copyright in the early 1980s. It was the phenomenal commercial success of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History Of Time in the late 1980s, coupled with the fact that few author scientists had agents, that set him on the path to specialising in author scientists.
Brockman speculated that the Hawking phenomenon was only the beginning of good times for general list science publishing and that the market could absorb up to 50 Stephen Hawkings. His eventual client-list of some 80 author scientists evinces his impressive contacts. He started networking some 20 years back, when he created a peripatetic salon of assorted academics, intellectuals and artists. By 1981, he had dubbed these evenings The Reality Club, nowadays supported by a non-profit-making foundation he set up called The Edge (hence the newsletter). According to one client, ''John has a genius for creating inner sanctums, giving the impression that there are hordes of outsiders hammering on the door to be let in.''
By the late 1980s, most top scientists who thought they had a book in them were clamouring for Brockman's attention. According to one of his first authors, the psychologist Nicholas Humphreys, Brockman's chief talent is ''making people feel special''. ''There's a sense of excitement about the association,'' says Humphreys. ''He persuades you that you are undervalued, and he is going to put that right. You feel that you're joining him on a trip that's going to take you to a very different world from that normally inhabited by science researchers a world of bestselling writers.''
Brockman, who dresses in unstructured designer clothes, invariably blacks and greys, is famous for his lavish hospitality. For a typical cosy dinner at Shun Lee West restaurant in New York, he might arrange to jet in scientists from Moscow, Oslo, and Chicago. Or the venue might be his 18th-century house, Eastover Farm, Connecticut, where he entertains clients and publishers 50 at a time and styles himself ''John of Eastover''.
Brockman enjoyed a euphoric three or four years as he signed up one eager scientist after another, and publishers fell over themselves to bid for them. Not everyone succumbed. Nobel prizewinner Gerald Edelman says that Brockman called him, promising a million dollars for a book on the brain. ''I told him,'' says Edelman, ''that if I were interested in money, a million wouldn't be nearly enough.'' Edelman's expensive mistake was not to take Brockman seriously.
There is little doubt that, in securing high advances, Brockman has forced publishers to work uncharacteristically hard in the cause of science. Not surprisingly, there was disgruntlement when authors nevertheless failed to earn back their prodigious advances. Uncontrite, Brockman admitted to Publishing News last year that he would have considered himself a failure had he secured a single advance that failed to outstrip future earnings.
All the same, Brockman continues to enjoy support among publishers, who believe he has been good for the trade. According to one London editor, ''Publishers have nobody to blame but themselves if they come off badly; you can see Brockman's fin circling a long way off.'' As Brockman sees it, ''I'm in business to make money for myself and my clients. Publishers are in business to make money. There are two powerful forces at work, and where they meet, there's the market.'' In the case of the Science Masters, Brockman's deft equation seems to have overlooked a third force the interest of the readers in anything so seemingly authoritative as a ''master'' series. The genesis of Brockman's ''package'', the marriage of authors and themes, patently has less to do with editorial inspiration than the brokering of the deals. The Science Masters may well be the first series of its kind to have been created by a literary agent rather than a publisher or freelance general editor: the choice of authors, and therefore intellectual bias, is dictated not so much by editorial policy as by membership of Brockman's client list, or, at least, his ability to cut a deal with other agents' clients.
At a time when such books are reshaping our notions about nature, and about human nature in particular, it is hardly churlish to protest that readers deserve better than a science series devised by a literary agent. The spate of books that includes Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, Colin Blakemore's The Mind Machine, and Brockman's Science Masters, is more correctly described as history and philosophy of science. Even though such authors habitually endow their utterances with the oracular certitude of a proven experiment, they are engaged in a highly contentious intellectual exercise in which there is no such thing as a monopoly of the truth.
From the readers' point of view, the most urgent need is for a series that encourages an appreciation of the pluralistic scope of philosophical speculation in science. A case in point in the Science Masters: three upcoming books cover crucial areas of artificial intelligence, mind, and human psychology. The proposed authors and their titles are Colin Blakemore (Mind And Brain), Daniel CDennett (The Sciences Of Cognition) and Marvin Minsky (Computers And Artificial Intelligence), all well known for their radically reductionist and deterministic views on human identity, as well as their combative dismissal of their opponents.
Despite John Brockman's waffle about promoting only those authors whose anchor is solidly in ''the empirical world'', there is no suggestion of anything so sinister as a reductionist conspiracy here. The fact remains that Brockman assembled his trio (all of them excellent writers) because they were available for signing, whereas others such as Roger Penrose, Gerald Edelman, Stephen Rose (equally excellent, yet who might have expressed alternative viewpoints) were not.
At the same time, it might be objected that a flood of simplistic philosophy-of-science books (''no knowledge of science or mathematics is necessary,'' says the promotion), makes it all the more difficult for publishers to launch more complex, more rigorous books on the same subject for general list readers. A recent example is Steven Pinker's magisterial 500-page The Language Instinct, published earlier this year by Allan Lane. Many editors and academics believe that the publication of Pinker's book, which ranges widely over linguistics, anthropology, archeology and neurobiology, indicates a sea-change in general list history and philosophy of science. ''It would be a pity,'' a senior editor at Allan Lane remarked to me recently, ''if books like this ceased to be promoted because the market is dominated by pap like the Science Masters.''
The irony of the situation is that Pinker's agent is none other than John Brockman. And the irony deepens. Despite his animadversions on a third culture exclusive to author scientists, Brockman has recently struck a new deal with Cheetham to produce a so-called ''Master Class'' series 60 of them, just for starters, to cover all the rest: philosophy, archeology, anthropology, literature, music, history, you name it and this time we're talking ''eight figures''.
One consolation in all this is that Brockman's career, akin to a model of the universe described in the first of his Science Masters, is a series of expanding bubbles all destined, one by one, to burst in the fullness of time. ■
First published by The Sunday Times October 2, 1994.