Stanford U. Press director relishes `the last refuge of the generalist'
Grant Barnes's position as director of Stanford University Press is envied by many in scholarly publishing. ``My job presents me with an amazing opportunity. I consider I have one of the best jobs in university publishing right now in the world,'' Mr. Barnes said in an interview, not boastfully but rather with a sense of gratitude.
Why is the directorship of Stanford University Press such a plum? And what experience and personal philosophy does Barnes bring to the job?
Barnes's job is such an opportunity because the university recently decided to strengthen its publishing program to match its high-powered image as one of America's top-ranked academic institutions.
Stanford has long been the home of a highly respected but small university press. Barnes reflects, ``What Stanford has been noted for is publishing a small number of books in a small number of fields and polishing each one as though it were a gem.''
Funding has guaranteed several years of expansion, and after a national search, Grant Barnes was chosen as press director in 1983. He brought with him valuable experience gained as a university administrator and as an editor at the comparatively huge University of California Press.
``When I came to Stanford, the university was really clear about only one thing,'' Barnes recalls. ``They wanted the press to become more important. It was left up to me to sound out people and come up with a plan. And at the same time, the more I worked at Stanford Press, the more clear it became to me that it would be a tremendous mistake if I were just to launch in and remake Stanford in California's image -- or in the image of any other big multidisciplined program.''
While Stanford has been putting out about 25 to 30 books a year, the University of California Press annually publishes about 100 and is known for its successful trade list.
``Growth of the press at Stanford is taken for granted,'' Barnes says, but ``the question is how commercial to become, how far should we go in that direction? . . . One of the things that I stand for that is a little different than what Stanford has stood for in the past has been [to add] a kind of leavening into the essentially scholarly press.''
Barnes is in favor of producing some books that are ``interpretative of scholarship for a general, educated audience -- such as books that address public policy issues and, without polemics, provide reliable information. . . . If this sort of book is done well it can support a list that also includes works that represent the raison d'^etre of university press publishing: well-chosen academic monographs that report on research and represent communication among scholars.''
Editing is one area of Stanford's traditional strength. For Barnes, it is the key to his hopes for continuing success as the press grows. While authors usually manage content issues, it is the editor who is concerned with the presentation of the text.
``Editors have that rare position in the development of a book in actually effecting the communicability of the material, in shaping the manuscript,'' says Barnes.
He also entrusts certain editors, such as senior editor Helen Tartar, with building up lists in areas that Stanford has not previously emphasized. Ms. Tartar, with a PhD in literature from Yale, is responsible for developing the humanities list. ``She will be guiding us through the thickets of new areas of literary criticism and bringing in good books,'' Barnes notes.
After working at a state institution, Barnes finds an interesting and subtle change at Stanford's private halls. ``At Berkeley, where I worked at one job or another from 1960 to 1983, there was a very pleasant myth of egalitarianism, although it was really an elitist institution; while at Stanford there really isn't any such myth. It's an elitist institution which knows that that's what it is and, in a sense, revels in it. It's a refreshing change. There isn't this tension between what it really is and what it wants to be. However, Stanford has certainly worked hard to bring minorities and women into the university as students and at high levels in the administration.''
Barnes, though, does not rest on his laurels as he undertakes the new job. ``I've always gone from one sort of challenge to another and been happiest when I've been making some effort that seemed to call forth a lot of reserves of strength and persistence,'' he says. From the beginning of his adulthood, when ``married too young,'' Barnes and his wife, Irina, faced the challenges of raising a family, working full time, and earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. ``There was one kind of challenge. People said, `You can't do that,' but somehow we did and we're still married and happy together 30 years later,'' Barnes says.
``Other challenges have been much more ephemeral but fun. . . . I enjoy mountaineering and attempting things that people in my age bracket usually don't attempt -- and sometimes succeeding!''
For instance, Barnes successfully scaled Mt. McKinley two years ago. He also runs marathons and looks forward to attempting a 100-mile race across the Sierra Nevadas. ``The trick is to do it in under 24 hours and not kill yourself,'' he says with a grin. ``I might make it and I might not, but it would be fun to try.
``I've always been interested in a variety of things, and that turns out to be good in my work,'' Barnes explains. ``One of my favorite one-liners about publishing is that it's the last refuge of the generalist.'' Barnes's career proves that a top publisher needs more than wide interests and a generalist's background. He needs drive, stamina, intelligence, and the view that a good challenge can be fun.
Rosemary Herbert is the Monitor's university press columnist.