October 29, 2007
Found in translation: New press brings world literature to English readers
Chad Post (left), director of the University’s new Open Letter press, is joined by Nathan Furl (center), art and operations manager, and E.J. Van Lanen (right), senior editor. Post will moderate a roundtable discussion on November 5 to examine the impact the book business has on how readers perceive and think about literature from the Americas.
Imagine a literary landscape without Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita or Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. For Chad Post, that possibility is what drives his passion for literary translation and what has brought him to Rochester as director of Open Letter, the University’s new publishing house.
Former associate director of Dalkey Archive Press, Post says Open Letter is one of only a handful of presses in the United States exclusively dedicated to identifying and publishing literature from around the world written by authors with fresh literary voices.
“We’re really looking to publish lasting, serious literature, the kind that should be discussed and read as widely as possible,” says Post. “Our mission is to reach readers, cultivate new readers, and make literature available, while benefiting students here in Rochester at the same time.”
The press recently finalized its fall 2008 book list with a lineup that includes authors from Croatia, Brazil, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, and France. The first book, Nobody’s Home, is scheduled for publication in September 2008. Written by a Croatian exile and one of Europe’s most respected writers, Dubravka Ugresic, the book is a collection of witty essays that offer an intimate look at life in exile.
Post says the first six titles and the diversity in their style and cultural point of view illustrate the broad range of literary talent he hopes to bring to English-reading audiences.
The press’s senior editor, E.J. Van Lanen, says finding the books is the easy part. The challenge, he explains, is winnowing down the more than 40 submissions a week to 12 titles a year.
“There are so many great books out there, so many that we could be publishing. It really comes down to tough choices.”
For Post, the decision on which books to publish is really a gut-level, emotional response as a reader.
“It’s all about pure love. We pick books that are amazing, mind blowing, so good that they deserve to be read by all sorts of people for years to come. They are books that need to be studied in classes and introduced to a new generation of students. Written by writers who need to be heard, all of these books have an element of surprise and invention. Every one of them is unique in some fashion. The authors are all doing something that seems risky and new,” says Post.
Post says in recent years a new model of literary publishing has started to emerge, and small presses, such as Open Letter, are playing a significant role in bringing authors from around the world to an increasingly global audience.
“While commercial presses are often constrained by profit margins, small presses are more nimble and, thanks to endowments and private funding, can focus less on the bottom line. The very notion that the work of small presses is lasting, important, and valuable is becoming more and more recognizable.”
Post says that while Open Letter is an example of this new publishing model in action, its close relationship with the University sets it apart from its peers.
“Most nonprofit presses exist on their own as an entity that ends up at universities with special arrangements. In this case, Open Letter organically came out of the things that are going on here at the University within the humanities and all the international and translation initiatives. We’re seamlessly integrated into the mission of the University and work really well within the structure, including as a key resource in the developing academic programs in literary translation. I know of only one other press that operates similarly as part of a university. You could say that this is an experiment of sorts, one we hope will be very successful.”
On Monday, November 5, Post will moderate a panel discussion titled “Commerce and Culture: The Impact of the Business of Books on the Literature of the Americas” from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in Schlegel Hall 309. Panelists include Lisa Dillman, translator from Spanish and a professor at Emory University; Jack Kirchhoff, a book review editor and paperbacks columnist for Toronto’s Globe & Mail; Daniel Shapiro, director of literature at the Americas Society and editor of Review; and Jonathon Welch, cofounder and buyer at Talking Leaves Books, an independent bookstore in Buffalo that specializes in distinctive literature. The roundtable is sponsored by the Humanities Project and is an overlapping event for two of this year’s projects—“Open Letter” and “Reimagining the Americas: Cultures, Identities, Formations and Transformations.”
“While it’s still an uphill battle for small publishers, there are exciting things happening, as this group of panelists will attest,” says Post. “Publishers really are reimagining the Americas in some sense by finding new authors with new voices. There’s an amazing amount of literary talent out there. No matter how well versed you are, there’s always more to discover.”