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The Publishing Life

Celebrating 20 Years of Sun & Moon Press

December 27, 1998|THOMAS CURWEN | Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of Book Review

One of the best-kept secrets of Los Angeles is Sun & Moon Press, a near institution as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, whose accomplishments happily prove that literary ambitions are not inimical to success. Today, with more than 350 titles in print, Sun & Moon is the largest publisher in Los Angeles--one of nearly 70 independent houses, none of which maintains as diverse and eclectic a list--and it is one of the few literary presses in America exercising the same fealty and daring commitment to poetry and fiction that characterized its debut. Messerli's backlist is a rich chorus of classics and the avant-garde, including Aeschylus, Thomas Hardy, Knut Hamsun, Marinetti, Celine and Djuna Barnes, as well as local L.A. writers such as Martha Ronk, John Steppling and Fanny Howe.

Step into its offices on Wilshire Boulevard not far from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and you'll encounter a vitality that is increasingly hard to find in mainstream trade book publishing, an industry numbed by mergers and consolidations that seem far removed from the more bookish passions once at the center of the trade. The vitality at Sun & Moon is generated almost single-handedly by Douglas Messerli, its smiling, bearded and bespectacled owner. Guiding you down the hallway to his office, past rooms filled with neat stacks of manuscripts and shelves of the hundreds of books he has published and kept in print for two decades, he speaks with the zeal of543236097man on a mission.

"I want people to grapple with different minds and different ideas and, most important, with the language itself. Language is the way we all have meaning. If our culture can't keep language alive, the culture will become empty. We won't think of new ideas, and the less adept we'll be at dealing with the world and all its complications. Every book is transformative. They're like human beings. Literature takes you into someone's mind. When you enter their language, you rethink your values and ideas. Our relationship with them should be complex and difficult; they won't always fit your notion of what life should be."

Messerli's enthusiasm and moral conviction have charged his work since 1978 when he was in his 20s, teaching at Temple University in Philiadelphia and publishing a literary magazine in Washington, D.C. He and Howard Fox had started Sun & Moon as a literary journal. Eventually they began to print books as well--at first, mimeographed and side-stapled, then printed and perfect bound. Before long, they found themselves full-fledged publishers. Their first published book, "Smoke" by Djuna Barnes, was a compilation of stories Messerli found in various books and magazines housed in the Library of Congress. Barnes' book is among the best-selling in the Sun & Moon catalogue.

Almost half of Sun & Moon's titles are translations. Los Angeles, Messerli will tell you, is a city rich with excellent translators; his books reflect their extraordinary range. They also reflect his extraordinary mission: to explore possibilities of meaning and the concomitant eros of thought. "For good writing and publishing to occur," Messerli said, "the doors must be open and the full context of human experience embraced. Only then can the miracle happen, can the poet and reader get carried away." Generating this miracle is not easy, but Messerli's ambition--in his own work as a poet ("Dinner on the Lawn"), novelist ("The Structure of Destructions") and playwright ("Past Present and Future") and as publisher at Sun & Moon--is to create a place where language leaps from the page, tackles the reader in a fit of anger or love and then departs, leaving the room forever changed.

Messerli plunged wholeheartedly into publishing and gave up teaching when he realized that his colleagues in the university had stopped reading contemporary writers and that, somewhere along the way, publishers had stopped accepting their work. For Messerli, such a state of affairs was tantamount to the loss of an entire generation of writers. "Publishers have abandoned all experimental American fiction writers," he declared. "But, for me, that's where exciting writing comes from. There are hundreds of writers in this country who write to be published by Alfred A. Knopf. It's a certain kind of fiction. But publishers have abandoned the environment that produced James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. The houses that published Faulkner would be scandalized by publishing them today."

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