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Will Publishing Survive?

A Symposium

February 25, 2001

Smaller literary and university presses (City Lights, New Directions, Welcome Rain, University of Nebraska Press, Northwestern University Press, Catbird, Columbia University Press, my own Green Integer and others) also published outstanding translations by such authors as Balthasar Porcel (Catalan), Daniela Fischerova (Czech), Jachym Topol (Czech), Brigette Aubert (Belgian), Eric Chevillard (French), Raymond Queneau (French), Maryse Conde (Guadeloupean), W.G. Sebald (German), Ingo Schulze (German), Robert Walser (Swiss), S.Y. Agnon (Israeli), Massimo Bontempelli (Italian), Shusaku Endo (Japanese), Jens Bjrneboe (Norwegian), Julio Cortazar (Argentinian), Javier Marias (Spanish), Antonio Jose Ponte (Cuban) and Jaiyer Masud (Indian, writing in Urdu). And this list represents only a portion of such publications.

Were such a wide diversity of brilliant work written in English, we would certainly be forced to recognize that British and American fiction is undergoing a literary revolution and we would be shocked to have anyone suggest there was trouble in the publishing industry.

Moreover, smaller and university presses have often become very clever in their publishing strategies, taking advantage of the very weaknesses in the commercial portion of the industry. For example, my own Green Integer press has bought the rights and published a number of works that larger houses could not afford to keep in print, and these same titles--such as Robert Bresson's "Notes on the Cinematograher," Henri Bergson's "Laughter" and Jose Donoso's "Hell Has No Limits"--represent some of our very best sellers. Younger presses such as Exact Change and Dalkey Archive Press, while publishing some original titles, have survived by reprinting titles that in previous decades were simply lost to readers. One could say that we have never been in a better time to rediscover our literary heritage.

Finally, it is hard to ignore the fact that the commercial presses' almost complete abandonment of poetry has had a kind of positive effect on the genre. Recognizing that they have little or no chance of being published by larger (and sometimes even smaller) publishers, some poets have banded together to create small publishing enterprises issuing work of their own and friends. The sales of many of these books have been as strong as those by more established publishers of new or experimental work. And, indeed, many have argued as I have that American poetry (as opposed to American fiction) has never been more exciting, with more diversity of forms and authors.

In short, it is the best of times and the worst of times in literary publishing. One would be a fool to be utterly optimistic about the future of serious literature in this country; but in our search for answers to the problems we see, we must look beyond our worst fears and the simplistic observations on which they are founded.

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Douglas Messerli founded Sun the and Moon Press in 1978, the largest independent literary book publisher in Los Angeles with more than 350 titles in print, including works by Aeschylus, Thomas Hardy, Knut Hamsun, F.T. Marinetti, Louis Ferdinand Celine and Djuna Barnes, as well as L.A. writers such as Martha Ronk, John Steppling and Fanny Howe.

JAMES ATLAS

Nostalgia is a dangerous emotion: Dwelling on a past we never knew encourages us to avert our eyes from the future. Sure, the old-fashioned world of books--the high-minded literary culture, the independent bookstores with "character," the eccentric publishers in their quaint brownstone offices--is a charming fairy tale. But is that the way things really were? My sense, as a reader and writer of biographies about literary figures who came of age in the postwar era, is that it was a lot harder to get published in those days than it is now. And just how anemic is our literary culture? It's a heartening experience to read The New York Review of Books, for instance. Consider the ads that adorn a recent issue: a biography of Marguerite Duras published by the University of Chicago Press; Christopher Hibbert's "Italian Cities," published by the Folio Society; a memoir entitled "Jew Boy" by Alan Kaufman, published by Fromm International. And consider the books reviewed: a selection of essays by the late Lionel Trilling from Farrar, Straus & Giroux; two hefty volumes of unpublished writings by Walter Benjamin; previously untranslated works by the Italian writer Giovanni Verga from three different publishers. Are there really worthy books that aren't seeing the light of day?

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