By Elise Blackwell
This year I attended two very different writing-centered extravaganzas: the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) and BookExpo America (BEA). There’s overlap between the two. Some of the writers-with-cachet (think Colson Whitehead) and industrious editors show up at both, and at both you can smell the mix of optimism and desperation that pervades the writing industry.
But it’s the differences between the two events that point to the sometimes precarious situation of college-based writers. While the AWP conference is geared toward teachers of writing and aspiring writers, BEA is about publishing as commerce. You won’t find poetry or small literary journals well represented at BEA, and at AWP you won’t spot chain-store buyers or the few editors who sport William Fioravanti suits.
Yet most prose writers in the academy must succeed in both worlds. This has become harder for many. Writers who aspire to faculty positions often find it difficult to gain the credentials needed to land and keep a job even when they do excellent work. There are still plenty of good homes for individual short stories and essays, but nearly every tenure-track position in creative writing requires a book contract. A second published book is the usual height of the tenure bar. In trade publishing, a second book can be difficult to come by if the debut doesn’t splash sales figures. And literary-fiction writers compete for catalogue space with genre fiction, biographies, cookbooks, picture books, novelty books, and self-help manuals.
I hear from colleagues that the review process for scholarly books isn’t sheltered from considerations extraneous to merit. But the large trade houses that once published, and so provided employment insurance to, a legion of college-based creative writers is now explicitly and nearly fully guided by market concerns. (I discuss some causes and effects of this situation at greater length here.) Many writers have turned—whether out of conviction or panic—to one of the versions of self-publishing that proliferate. Whether or not this is a good idea for writers generally is an unanswered question, but it’s clearly not a wise option for any writer hoping to score an academic job interview.
Fortunately, independent publishing survives and in many cases thrives. While most small- and mid-sized independent publishers also need to make a buck, their acquisitions decisions are generally made by smart editors rather than marketing departments populated by the underpaid, unseasoned, and sometimes literarily uninterested. They tend to be owned and run by lovers of literature rather than multinational corporations also invested in aerospace, broadcasting, defense, or sports management. (Yes, I’m generalizing.)
Independent publishers may well be saving literary fiction in this country; they are certainly helping to save it. As commercial concerns increasingly dominate the New York publishing world, large houses abandon their midlist writers, and university presses back away from publishing new fiction, these publishers’ colophons are the ones that many writers and readers of literary fiction—both within the academy and outside of it—seek out.
Dedicated to what it calls “the reverse-gentrification of the literary world,” Akashic was founded by rock bassist Johnny Temple from Girls Against Boys. Its fiction tends toward the edgy, exemplified by its series of noir anthologies (New Orleans Noir, Cape Cod Noir, Baltimore Noir, etc.). This press is also committed to publishing a large percentage of African-American writers and has a strong gay and lesbian list.
This energetic small press publishes innovative short-story collections and novels by such writers as Matt Bell, Roy Kesey, Dawn Raffel, Terese Svoboda, and Laura van den Berg. Dzanc also publishes the monthly online literary journal The Collagist and offers an assortment of readings and workshops around the country. Unlike many of the publishers on this list, Dzanc operates as a nonprofit.
Around for decades, Graywolf continues to publish high-quality literary fiction. It’s the house of Percival Everett and Per Petterson and has also shown a willingness to take a chance on emerging writers, as evidenced by the recent publication of Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Picking Bones from Ash, Alan Heathcock’s Volt, and Jessica Francis Kane’s The Report.
Because it is old and relatively large, it is sometimes easy to forget that Grove is an independent. Though new editions of older works (think classics by Henry Miller and Juan Rulfo) make up a substantial portion of its literary-fiction list, it also publishes fine new work, not least Francisco Goldman’s latest novel Say Her Name and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn.
Initially founded as a literary journal intending to publish only works rejected by other magazines, McSweeney’s quickly became a publisher of short prose by some of the country’s heaviest literary hitters and then expanded into book publishing. Its fiction imprint includes a strong list of award-winning novels from the likes of Dave Eggers and Robert Coover.
This Minneapolis-based nonprofit publishes poetry and nonfiction as well as fiction. In addition to the books it publishes as winners of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, it maintains a small list of other novels. While many of the books have an international flavor or sense of social consciousness, the main criterion for publishing with Milkweed is literary quality.
This award-winning publisher of mostly literary fiction and nonfiction has published Michael Crummy, Leslie Epstein, Eva Hoffman, Herve Le Tellier, Peter Stamm, and many others. Its stated aim is to publish works that “represent literature at its best.”
As would be expected from a press whose philosophy is to publish books of literary merit that are “too loud to ignore,” Two Dollar Radio’s fiction list tends toward the young and gritty, particularly descendants of Bukowski. It garnered significant recent attention with Joshua Mohr’s novels as well as Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps.
Perhaps I shouldn’t list my own publisher, but I signed with Unbridled after first publishing with a large house because I was already a fan. Editorially driven, it publishes exclusively literary prose, mostly fiction with a few carefully selected nonfiction titles. Recent successes include novels by Timothy Schaffert, Masha Hamilton, and Emily St. John Mandel.
Some of the academic publishers who formerly published significant amounts of literary fiction—even those that still publish new poetry—have shuttered. Others have stopped publishing fiction beyond the occasional translation, a new edition of a historically important novel, a novel or collection that coincides with a regional publishing mandate, a book by an old friend of an editor, or the single winner of an annual contest. For instance, Southern Methodist University Press’s excellent list of literary fiction disappeared when the whole press was cut, and still-terrific LSU Press publishes only two fiction titles per year. Still, at least a few university presses publish original fiction here and there, much of it excellent.
The above list comprises publishers who concentrate on new English-language fiction. Many excellent small publishers focus on translated and reprinted fiction. Some of the best are Archipelago Books, Dalkey Archive Press, Europa Editions, Melville House, New Directions, NYRB Classics, and Open Letter Books. When I see one of these books in a bookstore, I at least pick it up and usually take it home.
Elise Blackwell is the author of four novels and directs the M.F.A. program at the University of South Carolina, where she also teaches undergraduate creative writing.
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