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Will Publishing Survive?

A Symposium

February 25, 2001

But it's pointless to bemoan the status quo; what we need to do is work as agiley and cannily as we can with the situation as given to get across the many exciting and provocative and challenging works that continue to be written--and widely read. Reading offers genuine relief from information-overload. We see it happening constantly--in the subways, in the parks, on the beaches--and the variety and complexity of what's being devoured is truly heartening. At Farrar, Straus & Giroux, we continue to find it's possible to offer a new novelist or short story writer (Akhil Sharma, Lois-Ann Yamanaka), or a splendid prose stylist (Philip Gourevitch, Jonathan Rosen), a powerful new poetic voice (Carl Phillips, Brenda Shaughnessy) or a book in translation by a major figure (Peter Nadas, Adam Zagajewski) and achieve some surprising results. Despite the problems, from our vantage point there is, if anything, greater opportunity today than ever before to reach the constant and enduring cadre of serious readers.

Jonathan Galassi and Roger W. Straus Jr. direct Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., a subsidiary since 1996 of Verlagsgrupp Georg von Holtzbrinck of Stuttgart, Germany, owners also of St. Martin's, Picador and Henry Holt and Co. Galassi has worked as an editor at several publishers, including Houghton Mifflin and Random House, before coming to Farrar Straus in 1986. Straus founded the firm in 1946 and remains its head. He has published many writers, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag, John McPhee, Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes.


On difficult days--and in the world of small press literary publishing there are many such days--it does indeed appear that the quality of publishing has greatly diminished, that the financial capabilities of presses publishing serious literary work have been substantially reduced, and that the audience itself for such writing has decreased, in part because--increasingly fed on writing with simplistic and cliched characters and action--it has come to expect less and to reject any work that is even somewhat complex. There is no doubt that it is not easy to publish the kind of literature to which my imprints, Sun and Moon Press and Green Integer, are committed.

On better days, I quickly realize, however, that this is not the whole story. This year I have been working on a book covering the fiction of 2000, and for that volume I have kept abreast of most of the works of fiction published throughout the year by American and British publishers. The American (and British) fiction has been quite disappointing, with the most notable works by older and well-established writers: Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, the late Joseph Heller, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal. These few books received the vast majority of review attention, with an only slightly younger group of authors (Frederick Barthelme, Russell Banks, T.C. Boyle, Ha Jin, Olson, Jane Smiley, William T. Vollmann and Joy Williams) receiving the remaining review attention. Only one of these authors, Toby Olson, was published by a smaller press; and not one of these authors could truly be described as writing innovative work or being representative of writing that could have new meaning for younger readers. The few works that might be described as challenging the genre (Dennis Barone's "Temple of the Rat," R.M. Berry's "Dictionary of Modern Anguish," or Jane Unrue's "The House," for example)--all works published by smaller presses--received very little, if any, critical attention; and none of these, unfortunately, could be described as a great work of literature.

On the other hand, the commercial book industry--which is often seen as having abandoned literary translation--published last year more than 40 books from other languages, including works by major and lesser known international authors who anyone interested in contemporary writing would have to acknowledge: Gao Xingjian (Chinese), Inger Christensen (Danish), Arthur Japin (Dutch), Helga Ruebsammen (Dutch), Mohsin Hamid (Pakistani), Roger Martin du Gard (French), Gunter Grass (German), Peter Handke (Austrian), George Konrad (Hungarian), Simona Vinci (Italian), Haruki Murakami (Japanese), Antoni Libera (Polish), Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portuguese), Jose Saramago (Portuguese), Victor Pelevin (Russian), Reinaldo Arenas (Cuban), Eliseo Alberto (Cuban), Carlos Fuentes (Mexican) and Torgny Lindgren (Swedish)--to name just a few.

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