Robin Robertson, the formidable deputy publisher of literary powerhouse Jonathan Cape, has much to crow about. His long-nurtured authors are enjoying a run of laurels: Anne Enright scooped last year's Man Booker Prize, while A L Kennedy and Jean Sprackland have won their respective categories in the Costa Book Awards— leaving Robertson in the enviable position of having to switch between tables at this Tuesday's ceremony.
Meanwhile Robertson is himself now a poet of genuine international renown. His highly-charged third collection, Swithering (Picador), won the 2006 Forward Prize for Best Collection, the Sundial Scottish Arts Council Poetry Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. Then there's the matter of his fresh translation of Euripides' great tragedy Medea (Vintage Classics, March), already hailed as "triumphant" by John Banville.
Yet while Robertson is deeply satisfied that "some writers who I've worked with for 17 or 18 years are finally getting the kind of rewards they deserve", he prefers to dwell on the missed chances. "For every success there are dozens of failures— books that deserved major attention but slipped away. Part of you dies every time." It's no surprise that his cluttered desk is piled with unsold copies of his 2003 anthology Mortification, where writers told toe-curling stories of their public shame.
When asked to name his publishing landmarks, he reluctantly cites Irvine Welsh's 1993 Trainspotting. "It hit the dreaded 'Z-word', the zeitgeist, and sold a million copies," he recalls. "But none of that had anything to do with me— so much is always luck. At least it made my life easier: all editors have books they carry with them as talismans to offer protection from the dark side." He'd rather discuss forgotten gems like Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe or Ulverton by Adam Thorpe ("I can't think of a more perfectly formed and thrillingly inventive first novel—it had everything").
A Random House colleague describes Robertson as "taciturn". He's certainly considered and precise, but his manner belies a dry humour. Not a regular on the launch or lunch circuits, he prefers to spend his time in the company of novelists and poets, and refuses to play the hyping game. "I'm not one of those editors who runs around with a megaphone— 'building a book in-house' is the ghastly phraseology," he winces. "There's an awful lot of ego in publishing which I find distracting and distasteful."
Instead his attention is on that unfashionable concept: literary quality, and writers who have an "unswerving belief" in their art. "I can only trust my visceral instinct. If the work is powerful and fresh and intellectually nutritious to me, then it is worth taking on. The last thing I think about is how many copies it will sell. I've never been in a job where I've had to consider any commercial aspects. I'm not interested in the industrial side of publishing— it's a cultural pursuit with grave responsibilities and enormous excitements. This isn't DC Thomson, this is Jonathan Cape."
It is a mark of how quickly the trade has changed that this uncompromising approach is so shocking. "I'm in an unusually lucky position to maintain this rather grand aesthetic," he admits. "Cape is protected by its extraordinary backlist and some of the wonderful writers Dan [Franklin, publisher] has taken on. The only restraints are the size of the list—we can't buy everything we want to buy because the stable is so strong."
One can see why his authors are so loyal, and take his forthright feedback with utmost seriousness. "Writing, indeed all art, is not about success or money, though both are very useful. It's a much more arcane journey, and one has to commit to it. You need freedom—spacial, financial, temporal—to do what you want to do, and support from your publisher through thick and thin." Practically, this can translate into paying an "advance on the advance" to help a struggling writer through, or even monthly stipends.
He's depressed about the prospects of those who don't win a major prize, get big marketing spend or appear on "Richard & Judy" (which he charmingly describes as a "breakfast talent show").
"We've reached a very dangerous moment culturally in this country," he intones. "Somebody has to take cultural responsibility—there aren't any arbiters in place." When he started out in the 1980s, editors, booksellers and newspaper literary sections were "working vigorously, with some cohesion, to try to bring the best work into the hands of the public. I don't think anybody could argue that's the situation now." Meanwhile the market is "flooded with the second, third and fourth rate. So how does anybody know what to read?"
One of his personal responses is to turn to the ancients. Hating the "dusty" Penguin and OUP translations of Medea, he wants his version to show how the play is "utterly fresh and valid . . . twisted relationships, hidden desire— this isn't 2,500 years old, it's hardwired into our make-up."
Robertson's poetry is rural—stark imagery of falconry, forests, fishermen—and riven with his native Scots dialect. So it is a surprise to find he commutes full-time to Vauxhall Bridge Road from Hammersmith, where he lives with his two teenage daughters, and only puts pen to paper at occasional writers' retreats. "I don't live in London," he insists, "or rather emotionally I don't. It's not at all satisfactory and I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the job. But only two or three people in this country can earn a living from poetry."
Nor does he feel the need to pretend that the editing and writing sides of his life are in glorious harmony. "They are almost entirely in opposition, in a frictional and damaging way. I don't know anyone else who suffers quite in this fashion." Dwelling in other authors' worlds stymies his own creativity, he says. "To be a successful editor you have to steep yourself in their style, adapt your sensibility to theirs. You can't then go home and write a poem. You need to detox from those voices, the work, the whole London despoilation."
Perhaps this struggle fuels his muse—Kennedy describes Robertson the poet as "master of the dark and wounded, the torn complexities of human relations". At various points in our interview he mockingly refers to himself as "outmoded", a King Canute figure, and "some sort of flagellant". But his final message is typically uncompromising: "Art is difficult and I don't see why we should shy away from it. We live in such a disposable age that anything that needs a second thought is ignored. We are missing out on the real sustenance."