When a publisher courts controversy
University presses sometimes publish books that lack the popular demand and large audiences required to attract a commercial publisher. But what happens when a book lacks popularity in a different domain? Suppose the manuscript supports a point of view that is not popular with its editors? Do university presses print or avoid such uncomfortable books? Can such manuscripts see the light of day, and are they well promoted if published? Luther Wilson, director of the University of New Mexico Press, welcomes the opportunity to talk about a controversial book his press published last year. `` `Let Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right,' '' he says, ``is a very important book we published, although very few of us agree with its perspective.'' The book is a logical defense of the right to bear arms written by a Virginia attorney, Stephen P. Halbrook, who argues that the right to possess and bear arms is a fundamental form of individual protection against possible state and federal infringement of civil liberties. ``Despite my opinion on that issue -- I just don't agree with the author -- I believe Halbrook's perspective needed to be presented in a thorough, scholarly manner,'' Mr. Wilson says.
Mr. Halbrook's argument is strongly but not stridently stated. Assistant director David Holtby elaborates, ``We would not publish the book if it was simply a half-baked or a polemical piece. No university press would. But the author engages both sides. He uses a lot of material never before drawn upon regarding the Constitution and the framing of the Second Amendment. This is a thorough study, grounded in law, written by a constitutional lawyer.''
Halbrook traces the traditions behind the right to bear arms from Greek and Roman law through the legal history of the issue in our country to the arguments surrounding the debate today. Mr. Holtby says, ``Whatever your stand may be, to make an informed argument on this heated issue, you must at least engage this book'' and look at the levelheaded arguments Halbrook makes. ``The book so elevates the debate that it is a responsible public service.''
Holtby remembers being ``horrified'' when the press first seriously considered publishing the book. Could he stand behind it and promote it strongly? ``I was afraid that some groups such as the National Rifle Association would use the book to promote ends with which I do not personally agree.'' But Holtby read the book carefully and with an open mind. He came to the conclusion that the book was well reasoned and that the author's viewpoint was a valid argument ``that ought to be brought out, whether or not certain groups would also use it to their own ends.''
Today ``Let Every Man Be Armed'' is a solid seller for the University of New Mexico Press. Yes, it has been embraced by the National Rifle Association, but it has also informed those who would like to prepare arguments on the other side of the issue. Holtby believes not all university presses would take on such a book. ``I think we're perhaps more willing to take on a title like this than some others who, well, who simply wouldn't be able to react favorably to the proposal.'' Wilson adds, ``I would certainly publish the other perspective, too, but only if it were equally well documented.''
How do university presses handle manuscripts that do not show the parent university in an entirely favorable light? Our March column will show how the University of Washington Press handled this question.
Rosemary Herbert is a free-lance writer who specializes in writing about the world of books.