PRESTIGE IS OFTEN what we’re talking about when we talk about literature.

Literature, after all, was for a long time understood as that subspecies of writing, per Raymond Williams, “‘substantial’ and ‘important’” enough to merit the name. Determining and debating what counts has always been one of the central activities of literary critics and scholars. Some of the most influential works of literary history published in the last decade, like James English’s The Economy of Prestige and Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters, have focused their attention squarely on the creation and use of prestige within the literary field.

English and Casanova do not simply accept some vague sense that a work of literature is prestigious, or argue that it should or shouldn’t be, but rather examine how prestige has been conferred or accrued, and what it can accomplish. This approach marks them as part of a species of literary history that can be traced back through the canon wars, histories like Richard Brodhead’s Cultures of Letters, and Pierre Bourdieu’s essays on literature and art, where the investment of an object with “symbolic capital” is never assumed to be inevitable, but is understood as the effect produced by actions taken by players and various forces at work in the “cultural field.” One needn’t subscribe to anything like orthodox Bourdieuianism to acknowledge that institutionalized hierarchies of value, acknowledged or not, continue to play out in virtually every journal article and book review and proposal and pitch.

With this in mind, it would be hard to overstate the importance of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. In the 20th-century United States, what Barney Rosset’s Grove Press was to the avant-garde, Knopf Inc. was to literary prestige, rivaled (eventually) only by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Knopf may not have had a monopoly on literary prestige, but it is the firm that has most effectively and consistently commodified the quality.

Which is to say that the history of Knopf Inc. has a lot to teach us about literary prestige, and how it has been created, maintained, and put to work. Fortunately, after many decades in which, inexplicably, no one has written a full-length study of the publisher, we now have a small handful of well-researched books on the subject, the latest of which, Laura Claridge’s The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire, has just been published — by FSG, as it happens.

Claridge’s biography has a clear, polemical, and sympathetic aim: to recuperate Blanche Knopf’s position as a giant in modern publishing, despite the efforts of her husband to obscure and minimize her role. This couldn’t be more timely; at a moment when, despite the fact that “most publishing professionals are straight white women,” it has required VIDA’s tactics even to approach gender parity in the bylines of most literary journals, we can’t praise Blanche Knopf too much. And it’s at least a little satisfying, if you’re keeping score, that Blanche is now the subject of an admiring, dutiful, full-length biography, while there’s no such book about Alfred.

Blanche’s story, told by Claridge, astonishes. She comes across as a whirlwind of literary and sexual energy, with room for snobbery, suicide attempts, absurd mythmaking, many affairs, a brutal eating disorder, and Mr. Magoo–level blindness. She seems to have been both a victim and perpetrator of serious abuse. And of course she can be credited for the vitality of American detective fiction — she published Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain — and for much of the attention that French and Latin American literature has received in the United States, as well as for many other important contributions to American publishing.

But Claridge, like most popular historians of publishing, doesn’t really explain why or how Blanche and her company were so much more successful than all their competitors in arrogating to themselves the mantle of literary prestige. For that, it helps to refer to another recent book on the company, Amy Root Clements’s The Art of Prestige (2014). Clements focuses on Knopf Inc.’s first decade and a half, during which the firm conjured up its commercially invaluable mystique. How it managed to do so is a question that should matter to everyone who reads literature seriously, not least because Knopf Inc. still trades on its prestige today.

If it had just been a matter of Alfred and Blanche having exhibited consistently sharper literary tastes than their competitors, there might not be all that much for Clements to say: in that case, one would have to admit that prestige was accorded to extraordinary perception. But what makes the case of Knopf fascinating is how often the Knopfs screwed up. This is why Clements’s title works, too: prestige did not come effortlessly to the Knopfs, or flow inexorably out of their inheritances or lineage or innate genius. Instead, the prestige accrued and sold by Knopf Inc. was artfully fashioned, called into being through acts of will and salesmanship.

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We shouldn’t minimize the family help the Knopfs had in getting the firm off the ground. On the contrary, virtually everything that positioned Alfred for his role as a publisher flowed from the reputation and connections of his father, Samuel Knopf, who parlayed experience in the garment industry into a career in promotion and marketing, and then founded his own advertising firm. Whatever influence his professors at Columbia, like Brander Matthews and especially Joel Spingarn, had on the young Alfred’s tastes, it was Samuel’s connections that won Knopf his first job, as an advertising sales rep for The New York Times; then, his first sale in that job; and, soon after that, his first publishing job, in the accounting office of Doubleday, Page & Co. When Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. was founded, Samuel Knopf was installed as one of the first employees, and he stayed on with the firm as a director and treasurer — which role, Clements notes, “gave him control over editorial decisions, salaries, and other matters,” such that “Blanche and Alfred frequently deferred” to him — until his death in 1932. Claridge’s biography, sympathetic to Blanche, paints Samuel harshly, quoting an employee who called him “aggressive and insensitive” and describing the ongoing triangular struggle for control at the company, in which Alfred and Samuel were consistently allied against Blanche.

Samuel Knopf was a salesman, a hustler, and though he was able to secure capital when the firm needed it, he didn’t have the same combination of lineage and wealth that secured other publishers, including Bennett Cerf and Roger W. Straus Jr., their beginnings in the field. Knopf’s was Eastern European Jewish stock, and Samuel was the kind of Jew sneered at in the early 20th century not just by patrician gentiles, but by the German-Jewish elite from which Cerf and Straus descended. So the Knopf patrimony was no shortcut to prestige: when Blanche met Alfred in 1911, she thought him “the crudest young man she had ever met.” This, coming from a young woman whose family money came from slaughterhouses and the shmatte business. Throughout her life, Claridge makes clear, Blanche lied about her family, claiming her childhood had been much more sophisticated than it actually was.

Eastern European Jewish family backgrounds may have helped the Knopfs in other ways, though. Clements argues that the emphasis on Russian titles on the first Knopf list — six of the first 11 books the Knopfs published were translations from Russian, plus one translated from Polish — owed to the financial attractions of publishing British translations that lacked copyright protection. That’s true, but surely it helped that Knopf’s family and social networks included more Russian and Polish speakers than most other Americans’. Here, as with Samuel Knopf’s background, one of Alfred Knopf’s real talents was the ability to frame his experiences so as to profit from them rather than allowing them to be deployed against him. Bringing his dad into the office seems to have been, among other things, a way of announcing he was unembarrassed about where he came from. And the Russian emphasis of the first list, which surely must have come off to Knopf’s competitors, if no one else, as a little desperate, was spun as a coup in a 1916 New York Times Book Review piece, in which Knopf “claimed that he wanted to protect these books from being snapped up by American publishers who would not do a very good job of promoting them.”

Such statements imputing editorial authority and acumen — by Alfred and others — may or may not have had any basis in reality, but the company trumpeted them nonetheless. Clements thoroughly examines Knopf’s advertising tactics, including a campaign for the firm, in 1923, that ran “over a four-month period […] without ever mentioning a single author or title,” instead emphasizing the selectivity and the putatively consistent quality of both the content and design of Knopf’s books. The personal tone of the company’s advertisements (“Mr. Knopf recommends …” and similar ad copy) made the case that individual curatorial sophistication was leading the company, as perhaps it was — though what’s clear from Claridge’s biography and other reminiscences of the Knopfs is that Alfred didn’t really like fiction or poetry much at all, and by midcentury, at least, Blanche couldn’t see well enough to read.

Along with plenty of distinctive works of European and American literature, Clements notes, “their early lists included a considerable number of highly accessible titles, from diet books to detective novels.” Knopf’s “most frequently advertised book during the company’s first five years,” it is worth noting, was Eat and Be Well by Eugene Christian, a handy, how-to guide to practical nutrition — not exactly Nobel Prize material, to say the least. Few of the most important literary works published in the firm’s first several decades, though Claridge tends to treat them reverently, stand up in retrospect. One way of describing the output of Knopf Inc. is that they didn’t publish Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Faulkner, but Joseph Hergesheimer, Robert Nathan, and Carl Van Vechten.

Of course that’s unfair. Any publisher misses more important books than she catches, and it isn’t a stretch to say the Knopfs possessed exemplary editorial judgment. In just the firm’s first 15 years, it published nine authors who would go on to win a Nobel Prize — some, but not nearly all of whom, are still well known in the United States today — Verner von Heidenstam and Władysław Reymont, anyone?

Nothing illustrates the blind spots that Alfred and Blanche shared (even when they were sharing little else), better than the question of obscenity. From the start, they caved rather than fight battles with the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. In Clements’s words, the Knopfs followed “the path of least resistance on several potential encounters with censorship,” while other publishers, notably Thomas Seltzer, Horace Liveright, Pascal Covici, and Bennett Cerf, took on court battles on behalf of the work of writers like D. H. Lawrence, Theodore Dreiser, Radclyffe Hall, and James Joyce. Clements argues that this conservative tendency of the Knopfs is what most distinguishes them from their peers among the group of new publishers, and thanks to Claridge, we know that their prudishness held sway into the 1950s, when they bowdlerized passages in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and passed on Giovanni’s Room because it was too frank. Meanwhile, Alfred and Blanche’s own private sexual practices, which Claridge treats in some detail, align them nicely with our stereotypes about hypocritical Victorians: while they wouldn’t publish Baldwin, Alfred apparently liked to hire couples whom he could watch have sex during his trips to Los Angeles, and Blanche conducted affairs with famous musicians and others so openly that she dismayed her close friends.

Clements shows how even the Knopfs’ attention to design, vaunted by the firm and by its admirers alike, was far from consistent, at least at first. She examined nine hundred Knopf books published before 1930, and notes that “75 percent have rough-front edges” — those uneven pages, signifying literary luxury, still found on plenty of Knopf books today — but “only 16 percent use colored paper or decorations” for their endpapers. So: Some expense was spared, pretty regularly.

The rhetorical flourishes intended to make the books sound as luxurious as possible also, occasionally, verged on puffery. Clements notes that when information about paper suppliers, binderies, and typesetting firms began to appear on Knopf books’ copyright pages — a precursor of the famous “A Note on the Type in which This Book Is Set,” which debuted in 1925 — the very earliest example “informs us that [the novel] was … bound by H. Wolff Estate.” To Clements’s mind, “the word ‘estate’ belies Wolff’s decidedly industrial home” on West 26th Street in Manhattan.

The Knopfs had a mixed record selling books. As Claridge notes, between its founding in 1915 and its sale to Random House in 1960, Knopf Inc. “published only twelve books that sold more than a hundred thousand copies.” Where that would have spelled failure for just about any other house, they could consistently sell 40 or 50 thousand upon a book’s initial release. That and the strength of their backlist helped them survive with fewer best sellers than other publishers, and this profile helped add to their reputation for being more committed to quality than sales.

More important than any single book or consistent practice was the Knopfs’ creation, as Clements puts it, of “a lasting reputation for obsession with design, regardless of whether that reputation was an exaggeration.” The same goes for the press’s renown as a publisher committed to making available serious and celebrated works of American, European, and Asian literature. It is in the reputation itself, rather than in particular books’ designs or contents, that prestige inheres.

So, how did they do it? What was it about Knopf Inc. that allowed it to rise above many competitors — even commercial behemoths like Random House and Simon & Schuster, which were founded around the same time — in the general reading public’s esteem, if not in sales? There is so much about what succeeds and fails in literature that remains inexplicable — even to those in the business —and Claridge’s and Clements’s books, for all their insights, don’t quite explain it, either. We can say, thanks to these books, that Alfred and Blanche Knopf, despite their eccentricities and failings, managed always to play the parts of the publishers they had wanted to be from the time they were teenagers. They threw the right parties, hired the right designers, and just seemed, to many authors, like the kind of people you would want to publish your books. They faked it until they made it.

As such, they are a reminder that even after American publishing became more democratic, open to Jews and women, no longer the exclusive demesne of New England old money, literary prestige continued to boil down more often than not to the way a publisher talked and dressed and entertained — to all those qualities, in other words, that have nothing at all to do with the words on the pages of any particular book.

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Josh Lambert is a writer, editor, and professor from Toronto, Canada, and his book, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture, has been published by New York University Press.