A Whole Lot of Blather
I’m back from Ireland! I was there for the past two weeks as part of a University of Rochester Travel Club trip for which I served as the “academic host” and gave four different lectures–two on Ulysses, one on Irish humor, and one on the relationship between contemporary Irish literature and language. I think they all went well. I mean, I didn’t die and no one openly complained, so I’ll count that as a win . . .
Overall it was an incredible experience: great sights, great people, great meals. The only downside was that I didn’t really have time to write any of these posts. But, as you’ll see below, I did keep reading, keeping up my goal of reading at least 52 new translations over the course of 2018. (And being more prepared for the next Best Translated Book Award longlist than I’ve ever been.)
But given that I’ve been away from this for a few weeks, I have like 900 ideas that I want to just cram in here, one after another. (And I already have a different set of 900 ideas for the post I’m planning about The Book of Riga, and will definitely have up next week.)
So here’s a bunch of random shit that probably only fits together in my busted mind.
Since I’m writing this during the All-Star Game (any form of baseball is better than no baseball), I had the very Lit Hub idea of creating an All-Star team of nonprofit presses. (I’ve been thinking a lot about nonprofit publishing, which will definitely come out below.) This is as far as I got:
1B: Graywolf Press, because their big contribution to the field is hitting a ton of homers.
C: Deep Vellum, because every catcher should be jibber-jabbering behind the dish, and ain’t no one who can talk quite like Will Evans.
2B: Coffee House, because, like their Minneapolis counterpart Brian Dozier, they’re short, with enough power to crush some dongers.
LF: Dalkey Archive, because you usually forget about your left fielder until they make a spectacular play or a giant goof.
CF: Open Letter, because we suck at offense, but are pretty good at defending the field as a whole.
P: Feminist Press, because they’re wily like the Max Scherzer of publishing.
3B: Copper Canyon, because they’re a stalwart, holding down the “hot” Pacific Northwest corner.
DH: Archipelago, because when you need a big hit, they drop a 1,200-page tome on your ass.
RF: BOA Editions, because that’s probably the best position for poets to play.
SS: Milkweed, because I’m sure there’s a joke in there about weeds and defense.
Whatever. This is a dumb idea. Only 899 left!
Both of the books I read while in Ireland can be grouped under the general category of “strange fiction.” Or, the slightly more detailed label–that I stole from Rodrigo Fresán–of “short, dark, and scary.”
Comemadre by Roque Larraquy, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Coffee House Press)
“I love Comemadre. But here I am, days after reading, still asking myself what kind of book it is. Is it humor? Horror? Is it about art? Science? Philosophy?”–Samanta Schweblin
Poso Wells by Gabriela Alemán, translated from the Spanish by Dick Cluster (City Lights)
“Poso Wells is ironic, audacious, and no-holds-barred. But what is it, exactly? A satire? A sci-fi novel? A political detective yarn?”–Samanta Schweblin
Based on Samanta’s questions, these books must be . . . unusual?
Like evaluating “underrated” or “overrated” baseball players/movies/books, I’m not entirely sure what the baseline is. Are “normal” novels only one thing all the way through? Romance, or science-fiction, or a thriller? Whenever I see a Twitter declaration or Buzzfeed-esque clickbait article title declaring that something is “one of the most unusual books of the year,” I’m more intrigued by what it is that the author of the article usually reads than I am by the book they’re pimping.
All the best books are “weird.”
Which is a backdoor way into some of the nonprofit stuff that I want to write about. All of this I’ve touched on before and will expand on later, but I’ve been noticing more and more how hard it is to distinguish between a “nonprofit publisher” and a “small independent” one.
To 99.99% of readers, this means absolutely nothing, but to funders, donors, and anyone in the field, it probably should.
Quickly breaking this down with a minimum of terminology but a bit of opinion making:
An Independent Press is a for-profit with the goal of publishing books that generate as much revenue as possible. They work with lower overhead than commercial presses, yet their underlying goals are rather similar. Indies are usually treated as their own breed because their size allows them to take more risks–they don’t need to sell 25,000 copies of a book to break even because they aren’t based on Broadway, so they can publish the charming French novel that may only shift 8,000 units.
Subnote: All indie presses should, following the lead of their commercial counterparts, be forced, through legislation, to use the most MBA of terms ALL of the time. “Shifting product,” “ROI,” “Incentivize,” “Core Competency,” “Scalable.”
Non-profit Presses are also referred to as 501(c)3s in reference to the tax code exempting them from paying corporate tax and allowing them to accept tax-deductible donations from individuals and foundations. Here’s what qualifies as a 501(c)3:
a nonprofit organization may be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) if its primary activities are charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering amateur sports competition, preventing cruelty to children, or preventing cruelty to animals.
Most publishing houses qualify for this because their primary activities are “literary” and/or “educational.” But what does that really mean? Or, more pressing, how is that interpreted today?
Let’s come back to that in a minute. Two more ideas need to be mentioned first.
I fucked up in choosing to read these books in the order that I did. I started with Comemadre because I a) thought it was by a woman (wrong!), b) had read about 7,000,000 (or 4) tweets about its greatness, c) respect Heather Cleary as much as any other Spanish translator working today, and d) preferred the cover.
This is, in my opinion, a definite finalist for the 2019 BTBA. It’s made up of two parts. The first is set in 1907 at a mental asylum where a bunch of doctors scheme up an experiment to learn about the afterlife by recording the statements of heads in the 7 seconds they survive after being detached from their bodies. It’s grotesque, a bit thrilling, and ends in poetry. (There’s a subplot about the main character wanting to bone the only woman doctor, which figures later, but wasn’t really all that. And there are a couple references to ants walking in a perfect circle, which seems to be a synecdoche for the novel as a whole. If I’m using that word correctly, and I’m probably not.)
The second half is about a performance artist in 2009 who is responding to a thesis about his work (sorry, but that’s a boring set-up) and recounting his life and involvement with another artist who looks like him and a (too) fortuitous connection to our 1907 asylum and the comemadre plant which can be used to destroy a human body in, basically, a flesh-eating fashion.
Even though the second half isn’t nearly as creepy or interesting–writing about performance artists is never as compelling as authors seem to think it is–and the whole point of the book (bodies for science and bodies for art aren’t that much different, even if the objectives seem to be) is a bit of a let down, this is a well-crafted, well-written, well-translated novel. It’s power comes from the way it doesn’t make all the connections; instead, it drops a few set-pieces and allows the reader to puzzle out various linkages.
Then I read Poso Wells. Which, by every blurb in existence is exactly my sort of book. But its weird was weird compared to Comemadre. Too much connecting-the-dots between the initial scene–a politician gets electrocuted in a freak accident–and the missing women the protagonist is in Poso Wells to investigate, too all over the place with regard to overall tone (my variations on Schweblin’s questions: “Is this supposed to be funny? But why? Is abuse enough to transform a narrative from goofy satire to politically charged statement?”), too “conventional” in comparison. In comparison. (But what an amazing list of blurbers and blurbs!)
Had I read Poso Wells first, I think it would’ve been my jam. It has all the sort of shit I like: bit of a detective story, tonal shifts that disrupt expectations and drive this toward metafiction and away from Victorian bullshit, it’s translated by Dick Cluster, etc.
As Old Man Chad as it is to say this, there are small cultural happenings that fuck the future right good. Like Bush’s “Gylcerine.” In my world, this is the beginning of the downfall of 1990s music. Before that, we had the advent of Nirvana, Pavement, Lou Barlow, garage band lo-fi shit that actually rocked and had things to say. Then “Glycerine.” In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, here:
Fuck that song. Fuck Bush. So much growled emotion, up-close face shots, and over-produced vocals. This song makes my skin crawl. And opens up the music-sphere to Live (UGH NO), Third Eye Blind, Blink-182, and Sugar Ray. And it didn’t get better when the Disney kids hit the scene. (LOOKING AT YOU BRITNEY AND SELENA.)
Here are three mission statements from nonprofit presses:
Coffee House Press creates new spaces for audiences and artists to interact, inspiring readers and enriching communities by expanding the definition of what literature is, what it can do, and who it belongs to.
Dalkey Archive Press. “So I started the Review out of a sense of isolation, as well as a kind of outrage at the fact that books and authors were reduced only to marketplace value. And I should say that, from the start, I wanted the magazine to break down the artificial barriers that exist among countries and cultures.”
Graywolf Press is a leading independent publisher committed to the discovery and energetic publication of contemporary American and international literature. We champion outstanding writers at all stages of their careers to ensure that diverse voices can be heard in a crowded marketplace. We believe books that nourish the individual spirit and enrich the broader culture must be supported by attentive editing, superior design, and creative promotion.
All of this is cool, and I’m going to keep my cynical nature one arm’s length away, but . . . well . . . how is this not just publishing? OK, fair, missions are all bullshit double-speak, and can really test the concept of words meaning things. Especially because of the abstract nature of one’s goals: “publish energetically” (like, print the books with a lot of effort?), “create new spaces” (I wish this was some Ant Man, cosmic cube related shit), or my old “maintain a vibrant book culture” (which is just Twitter voices screaming at each other).
Again, mission statements are only for the wealthy looking to donate, and the activities of each of these presses are where you can actually see nonprofit-ness, but still. For the most part, if I were just some normal occasional book reader (2 titles a year?), I’m not sure I’d really get what makes a nonprofit press special based on their mission statement. There are so many books! Given Kindle Direct, is there a book out there that isn’t being published?
(This is a bit of a spoiler, since I plan on writing two more posts that dig a bit deeper into the roles of literary nonprofits, their place within culture, how they can and should function, and what really makes them different and unique, but if you want to know what Coffee House’s mission actually means, check out this list of activities. I can’t find anything quite so concise on Graywolf’s or Dalkey’s sites, but rest assured that they’re transforming the funding speak above into tangible things. I’ll pick up some of this next post, but for now, I just want to raise some general questions that a reader who isn’t part of the–very small–literary scene might wonder about. Readers rarely know the names of the publishers of the books they read, they almost assuredly don’t know which presses are nonprofits or what that really means.)
I know I’m painting with a narrow brush here, intentionally, but for all the financial benefits they receive, nonprofits should be doing something other than what indie presses do. They should be “educating” by fulfilling a gap or providing some sort of novel contribution to the literary field as a whole. (I know “literary” is also a criteria for 501(c)3 status, but on it’s own, that’s pretty weak. Such a broad statement, and as true as it might be that artistic works need some protection in the marketplace, it’s such a slippery word that it doesn’t accurately denote what any nonprofit is actually publishing.)
But what would that look like?
When I joined Dalkey Archive in 2000, the mission was mostly centered around reissuing books that were culturally valuable yet didn’t sell enough to stay in print. VALID!
It then expanded to books that were culturally valuable, but too aesthetically weird (that word again) to sell enough to find a publisher. This is premised on a belief that there’s a commercial aesthetic and one that’s not, but, to be honest, that’s the way nonprofit publishers talk all the time. “It’s not upmarket enough.” “Who would buy such a sad book?” “Can’t do that unless you pay me?” “At least I sell more copies than _____.”
This isn’t always the case, but the overall industry narrative has changed in ways that I find unsettling. From the agents through potential funders, there’s a heightened attention being paid to how well you can sell something, which–and I want to argue this later–is different from a nonprofits stated goals about community and reaching readers. Instead, if you’re publishing books that don’t sell as well, that need additional funding to reach their small, yet still important readership, you may find yourself at a disadvantage with major funding sources because of this track record.
And all of the presses that were indie and failed at the making money part and decided that the best option is to become nonprofit? Eat shit. Sorry, that’s mean. You’re all wonderful. I just get really annoyed by organizations who view nonprofit status as a way out from losing money as a for profit. It should be in your organization’s DNA to act in nonprofit ways. This should be more than just tax benefits. You don’t become a nonprofit press to become profitable, you do it because you have a way of bettering the world in which books play a significant role.
I prefer the nonprofit presses that pursue the books that are actually strange. That rebuff current trends and will never find an audience without a house interested in expanding voices for the sake of expansion and not just when the Profit & Loss sheet is rosy. Books that probably wouldn’t get published otherwise, because of who the writer is, the prevailing aesthetic of the moment, or any other number of reasons. Nonprofits protect literature from becoming nothing but James Patterson “BookShots” and celebrity memoirs.
There’s a wicked counterargument to all of this that’s washing over my brain, so I’m going to stop here for now.