Five editors of independent presses specializing in translation discuss how they find new work from around the world, the challenges they face as publishers, and the future of literary translation.
This is all the info relevant to page 1 of the article.
In the years I worked as a bookseller after college, I had the good fortune to encounter a wide range of literatures in translation. The indie bookshop I worked at, the now-closed Canterbury Booksellers in Madison, Wisconsin, had a section devoted to the work of Nobel Prize winners, as well as an international-fiction section. One of my fondest and most surprising reading experiences came after picking up a pale-green galley of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Knopf, 1997), knowing nothing yet of this author, but soon tumbling in awe through Murakami’s (translated) prose.
It wasn’t until I began working with the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF), an organization dedicated to creating connections among Bulgarian, American, and British writers, that I truly began to learn about the challenges of international literature reaching our shores, as well as the importance of nurturing an audience for it. Only approximately 3 percent of the books published in this country are works in translation, and, as the editors of the website Three Percent state, “In terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7 percent.”
Yet what I was discovering each summer I visited Bulgaria was an incredibly rich and diverse literary tradition—one in which I deeply wanted to immerse myself but was unable to because so few of these books had been translated into English. And Bulgaria is but one small country in the region. What other marvelous books from nearby neighbors like Greece and Serbia and Turkey was I not finding on the shelves back in the United States? The world of English-language publishing suddenly felt extremely small.
Through my work with the EKF, I also started meeting the editors and publishers of presses and literary journals, each passionate about bringing the best of international literature to English-speaking readers—places like Dalkey Archive Press and New Vessel Press, as well as publications like Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation and Words Without Borders.
So, as part of this issue dedicated to independent publishing, I planned to sit down with five editors and publishers to talk with them about the state of international literature, the particular challenges of focusing on books in translation, how to find readers for their titles, and what the industry should be paying attention to in the future.
Joining me were Barbara Epler, publisher and editor in chief of New Directions; CJ Evans, editorial director of Two Lines Press and editor of the biannual journal Two Lines: World Writing in Translation; Chad Post, founder and editor of Open Letter Books and Three Percent; Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa Editions; and Jill Schoolman, founder and publisher of Archipelago Books.
How did you each come to publishing, particularly working with literature in translation? What drew you initially or continues to draw you today?
Michael Reynolds: I never imagined a career in publishing until I woke up one day and had one. I was living in Rome in the early 2000s, at about the same time the founders and publishers of Europa Editions, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, were thinking about opening an American publishing house. At the time, I was doing odd jobs, among them running a writers festival in Rome with a couple of friends. Thanks to this work I was meeting quite a few Italian writers and publishing people. I got wind of what Sandro and Sandra were planning to do and decided to knock on the door of their Italian publishing house and offer my services—I had no idea of what those services might be.
As with most things in life, timing is everything. I was in the right place at the right time, because Sandro and Sandra were getting ready to announce the opening of Europa Editions at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That was the summer of 2004.
The seed of the idea started growing in them right after 9/11, when it seemed that once again the world was balkanizing, that the free exchange of ideas and opinions was being threatened, and that a surreal hysteria was enveloping the world—remember Freedom Fries? At the time, people all over the world, common people not intellectuals or academics, seemed to have fewer and fewer channels for communicating or communing. Sandro and Sandra [who founded Europa’s sister company in Italy, Edizioni EO, in the 1970s with the purpose of bringing unpublished, unknown, and under-appreciated authors from Eastern Europe to the Italian market] asked themselves what, as publishers, they could do to help overcome that communication breakdown. At the time, it also seemed to them—and, incidentally, not to anyone else—that an American publishing house focused on work in translation was a good business opportunity.
But beyond the business opportunity and the ideological motivation, there was also a more basic impulse: the desire to share something good. The fact that many of their favorite writers from Europe and elsewhere were not available to American readers because no publisher was in a position or of a persuasion to publish them in the States seemed almost unbearable. The explosion of social media demonstrates the basic human urge to share something that you feel strongly about with others. Europa was founded with this idea of sharing, of exchange, as its cornerstone.
My interest in international literature extends beyond the company that I work for, but I think it has found a natural home at Europa. And what continues to draw me to work with books in translation today is precisely this idea that something good is something that should be shared, in most cases with as many people as possible. I don’t believe that publishing work in translation should be considered a priori a noble endeavor. And I’m also dubious about the quantitative approach to evaluating where we’re at in terms of inclusiveness of literature in translation in the American culture of reading. I simply know that there are good, deserving, important, interesting, entertaining, provocative books being written in languages other than English. It’s a shame when those books cannot be read and talked about by people in America, the UK, Australia, etc. It impoverishes us all.
CJ Evans: Like Michael, I didn’t envision a career in publishing. I was working as the host in a “family brewpub”—which is as horrible as it sounds—in Portland in 2002 and a friend suggested I go up to Tin House magazine and see if they needed a poetry reader. I read for them for a while, then was hired as an editorial assistant for the magazine and to help with the development of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. When my wife and I moved to San Francisco in 2010, a friend suggested I check out the Center for the Art of Translation, which was, at the time, publishing an annual of international literature called Two Lines.
I came on as the managing editor of Two Lines shortly thereafter. From the time I started, Olivia Sears, the founder of Two Lines and the Center, was talking about what the next steps for the journal might be. We had all of these wonderful contacts, primarily translators, built up from the nearly two decades of publishing, and felt that we could be doing more. We considered doing regional anthologies, but in nearly every issue we put out there was an excerpt from a book that we thought should be published in English, but couldn’t think of quite the right fit for a press to send the translator to. So, in 2012, Olivia; Scott Esposito, the marketing manager; and I decided we’d go for it and start the press to publish those books ourselves.
Though I have always read literature in translation, my professional background had been much more focused on contemporary American literature. The way I like to think about it is that I don’t have any special interest in international literature. I’m, personally, very much not interested in the cultural dialogue aspects of it, even though I do see that there’s value in that. I’m interested in publishing the best books I can get my hands on, in a small press environment. And I firmly believe a huge percentage of the best books and writers are not in English. It is continually shocking to me how much amazing work hasn’t been published in translation yet. I think of a writer like Marie NDiaye, with whom we’ve done two books; she won the Prix Goncourt and was the youngest writer to ever be a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Someone of her stature would be unavailable to a press of our size in the US if she was writing in English. But because she’s French I’m able to publish her.
Barbara Epler: Not to be an echo chamber, but I also never thought I was going into publishing as a profession. If it is one!
I was disenchanted with staying on the professor track—and why I ever thought I would be one is long lost—and I was in love with someone in NYC and thrilled to get here. So I told my parents I was taking a year or two off before grad school and that I would get a job in publishing—thinking that that would be as easy as falling off a log. But then I couldn’t type and no one would hire me and it wasn't until I met Griselda Ohannessian, who was running New Directions, that I met anyone who would talk to me.
Now, it’s thirty-one years later.
Jill Schoolman: I, too, sort of stumbled into publishing after having wandered around for a while trying various things. I started out working in film; I did a film course in Maine, worked on a few films in New York and then in Paris. In Paris I was also doing other things to make ends meet, like delivering pizzas on mopeds. After a few years of freelance film work, I started sniffing around for other possibilities. I then met Dan Simon and started interning for Seven Stories Press, where I learned a great deal about the business and about how much fun it could be to publish books. I was instinctively drawn to international literature. I grew up on a diet of classics from different parts of the world, I love traveling, and I love discovering a culture through its books and films.
After working as an editor with Seven Stories for a few years, I started dreaming out loud about starting a press devoted to international literature. It felt like a good moment to do it, and the people around me encouraged me to try to make it happen. I decided that if we set up Archipelago Books as a not-for-profit press, we might be able to be less dependent on book sales for survival. I’m very glad we did this. I was working out of my studio apartment for about a year, even after I hired a colleague and we enlisted a couple interns. My cat never seemed to mind, until our first books appeared in 2004, and she urged us in her way to find some office space.
Chad Post: After graduating from college, I worked at a couple of indie bookstores: Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina. I learned a ton of stuff from working in bookstores about the business end of things. But I ended up leaving [bookselling] because I wanted to get into the other side of things, helping decide which books would be sold, rather than hoping for someone else to make it possible for me to try and convince others to read these books.
At that time, Dalkey Archive had started a fellowship program, which was like grad school for publishing, but with a worse stipend. I was the first or second fellow to do this, back in the summer of 2000, and I quickly transitioned from working on editorial things to working with bookstores, and a year later was the director of marketing and sales. Fast forward seven years, and I ended up at the University of Rochester with two other former Dalkey employees, working on setting up a new publishing house that would support the literary translation programs the university wanted to launch.
I think the thing I like best about being here in Rochester is the varied nature of what I’m doing as a “publisher.” Open Letter is a component of the University of Rochester, so our reader outreach and educational opportunities come more directly from a place geared toward expanding minds and whatnot.
The publishing side of things has been pretty tough. It takes a lot to get established sales wise, and although we’ve had some decent successes—Zone by Mathias Enard, The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov, The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra—there hasn’t been that true breakout title that changes your fortunes or gets the big mainstream media outlets to start paying attention to you. We have no Sebald or Bolaño or Ferrante or Knausgaard. One day!
Point being, if my job were only predicated on sales and our NEA grant, it would be fine, but maybe unremarkable? I think the things that define our organization, and the reasons I’m still in publishing—which can be grueling, especially if you started your press and are too close to it, emotionally tied to the successes and failures of the books—are all the ancillary things we do for readers: the Three Percent blog; the Translation Database, which, thanks to the wealth of data I’ve accumulated, is allowing me to work on a research project about how many books by women are translated from various languages and countries; the Best Translated Book Award; the podcast I do with Tom Roberge; even the World Cup of Literature and Women’s World Cup of Literature—two fun projects that I put together just to help get more people talking about more international literature.
The other thing that I really like about my position is working with young translators. Four to six translators come here every fall to get their MA, and I work with them all on a weekly basis, through the two classes I teach, by talking with them in the office, reading their samples, and organizing a weekly translation workshop for all the translators in the Rochester area—of which there are many, including Kerri Pierce and Lytton Smith, who are two of the best in the country. Without this sort of interaction, I think we’d really be cut off from the book world. Especially since there is no indie bookstore in town.
What issues do you feel are most pressing for independent publishers in general and those working with literature in translation in particular?
Reynolds: In my mind, the No. 1 issue concerning the publication of work in translation is that of discoverability and promotion. I’m not entirely convinced that we have to dramatically increase the number of books in translation published here at all costs, but I definitely think that we need to grow the audience for those books that are published. Over the past ten to twenty years it seems to me that the focus has been on printing as many titles in translation as possible. But printing is not the same as publishing. I would like to see us all work more, and together, on innovative and effective ways of getting our books into the hands of a larger number of readers.
Evans: I very much agree with Michael that discoverability and promotion are the main difficulties we face, although I’m not ignoring the fact that editors at both small presses and major houses would identify the same challenge. Could any of us ever have enough readers? We made a very conscious decision early on to keep our list small so that we could continue to build the audience for our backlist and have every title we publish be a frontlist title.
In some ways I feel the literary community is coming around to translated literature, and the field has certainly grown in respect and readership since Olivia Sears started the journal Two Lines more than twenty years ago, but it still feels that we’re relegated to second class, that our books need to be classified in some category other than merely “books.” I love that organizations like PEN and Chad’s Best Translated Book Award exist, but I don’t understand why these translated books need to be distinguished from books written in English when it comes to awards and reviews. I don’t want our books to be “translated” books or “international” books, but just really good books. End stop.
I think some of this comes from a strategic mistake of the international-lit community years ago, when many translated titles were marketed as being “good for you” literature—marketed as books that would broaden a reader’s horizons. Some of it is ignorance about the artistry and skill of translators. Some of it, perhaps, is merely a type of systemic high-minded xenophobia. I think battling these challenges both within this smaller community of translation presses and within the slightly larger pool of literary presses and readers is essential to continued growth and sustainability.
Epler: I agree, and also, I think the main concern is finding readers for amazing books. Not necessarily flooding the market with more and more translations—as if that vision of emulating the flood of new English-language titles will get anyone anywhere. Say we wanted to have the German ratio of translated titles. Really? If we approach 40 or 50 percent, then we would have, say, 100,000 new translated titles annually. That also seems crackers.
Schoolman: I’d say the most mysterious [issue] is how to survive. Someone should write a how-to book on the subject. How to keep our authors and translators writing, and how to stay afloat as a press when what trickles in doesn’t always amount to what’s flowing out in various directions. Because the dimensions of the industry—publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers and bloggers, distributors, readers, writers, agents, translators, educators—are changing so rapidly we need to find new ways of collaborating.
It’s an ongoing challenge to figure out what each book needs—they all have different needs and are born in different circumstances. It’s a creative process that involves instinct, energy, and luck. The most elusive question remains, How can we get our books noticed, and read?
Post: The publishing business can be really infuriating, and the fact that the main business model for the past few decades has been one of acceleration—acquire more presses; publish more books, faster; make them available quicker—is a good example of that. The field has created a glut that might have some benefits—more voices being published—but also ends up with a “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” way of promotion. For presses like the ones here, we need to be more innovative and interesting to cut through the six-figure marketing campaigns and seven-figure advances.
What are some of the means by which you have tried to break into the market as independent publishers?
Post: First and foremost, when I think of our five presses and how we distinguish ourselves from most of the others, I think of the cover design. Archipelago is maybe the most distinct with the square format, but four of us all use covers that go together as a sort of set. And although New Directions doesn’t have one overriding “look,” there are subsets, like the Pearl series, and an overarching sort of feel to the look of the books. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but it’s helped us in getting people to recognize the press and to be able to know right off the bat that they’re looking at an Open Letter title when they see it in the store. My hope is that a good experience with one of our books makes a reader more willing to pick up the others, trusting that we won’t lead them astray, even if they haven’t heard of the particular author. And being able to identify our books at a glance should, theoretically, help that.
This is also in line with why we offered subscriptions right from the start. Although the content and styles of the books range widely, they somehow fit together and look nice on a bookshelf.
Evans: I agree with Chad that it’s important to develop a strong, identifiable brand—though I loathe that word—and that also extends to the voice of the press. One of the things I love about the presses in this roundtable is that each has its own aesthetic in acquisitions as well. In addition, with each book we try to find and target what we call the “one bigger pond” of readers. We don’t want to just step into the biggest ponds and always be the smallest fish holding out to land the cover of the NYRB, we want to step into the slightly bigger pond and see if we can wreak a little havoc as medium fish. We’d love to have that breakout title, but a lot of presses have gone under waiting for their Roberto Bolaño or Nell Zink.
For most titles we also put aside a little bit of money to try…something. Whether [it’s] a funky mailing to bookstore buyers, some extra ARCs to target academic or library sales, special events with new partners, whatever we think will work best with the resources we have for that title, with the idea that we’re also trying to make new connections for the press as a whole.
Subscriptions have been essential, as has been our nonprofit status, which lets us take some risks on books and marketing as we build the press—we’re the new kids on the block so we’re still in a period of experimentation. I certainly agree with Barbara that more and more books is not the answer—not only in translation—and I think trying to “create” readers sounds like a pretty tall challenge; I’d rather just poach readers of contemporary American literature for translated literature.
Epler: Long ago New Directions was heavily branded by the old black-and-white paperbacks, but now it’s less so. I think I can detect a sort of spectrum of design for our books, but I imagine that’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder in this case. I’d say more that New Directions tries to always bring out books of a certain quality and originality, to maintain among book buyers, booksellers, reviewers, and readers a sort of sense of what you’ll be getting if you pick up a New Directions book, which we hope is real art and deep pleasure.
However, I think this is so much more a preoccupation of publishers than of readers, who tend to follow writers, rather than thinking much about which house is bringing the writer out. I think it helps a lot if you can stick with authors and really represent them in English, and over time keep building their body of work here, which is a long and costly process but can really work, and result in a strong audience. Live events and getting the author and translator here is also key, as are appearances in magazines.
To put the books across, I think it’s a matter of trying everything you can think of and of having the sort of dedicated staff you need: It can be Crazy Town as far as how hard everyone here has to work. But it is immensely satisfying when you do find an audience for a great writer.
Reynolds: For Europa, it has been very much about branding. I gather there are more highfalutin words for this process—creating a personality, an identity, etc., that readers, retail partners, and members of the reviewing community learn to distinguish and trust over time—but I guess in the end it is just plain old branding. I like to think of what we do as being a conversation with these various players, meaning that I think of our publishing program as being a dialogue with readers. In the editorial choices we make and the way we go about publishing we are opening a conversation with an affirmation along the lines of: “This is what we think is important, interesting, significant, and entertaining. Take a look! What do you think?” We demarcate this conversation in a variety of ways: uniform design, acquisitions that fall within a certain range on the broad spectrum between experimental/densely literary and commercial, a way of approaching translation, etc. If we remain consistent with these aspects then we create an identity that can potentially ferry new, unknown, and foreign writers into the market.
In the end, I think it’s all about the books. This is a mantra I repeat to myself often. I don’t think publishers of our kind are in a position to make a success out of a really crappy book. The big guys and gals can do that; they have the marketing and leverage not only to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but also to fill that purse with gold. We can’t. We have to have good books, quality books that fit into the brand/identity/personality/conversation we have established with readers and retailers. What I’m sure we’ve all experienced, almost on a daily basis, is the opposite: failing to reach an audience with what we consider to be a really great book, one that sits perfectly on our list. You can do everything possible for a book and it still doesn’t work.
I’d like to talk a bit about the work of “outreach.” Obviously, this kind of activity fits more squarely into the mission of a nonprofit or a press connected with a university in the way Open Letter is. But I think it is also something that all presses should engage in. We have lost the ability to talk about books in meaningful ways. Most people are unable to go much further than a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, or appraise a work of literature with more than “I hated it” or “I loved it.” As a culture—I mean outside of our very limited clique—we have become critically illiterate; we no longer know how to understand, let alone express, the social, political, cultural, historical significance of a book. For that matter, we are almost incapable of expressing its significance for us even on a personal level. It may just be the way of the world—I think many people are conversant on the social and cultural significance of Breaking Bad, for example—and I should get over it. At the same time, I think a more critically literate readership would not only be important for the culture but would also mean that presses like ours would sell more books. Thus, perhaps efforts to grow this kind of critical literacy should be calculated more explicitly as part of our marketing budget. We are, after all, not simply trying to “break into the market” but also attempting to shape that market.
Let’s talk about a “critically literate readership,” the decline of which people often attribute, at least in part, to the shuttering of book pages in newspapers and decreased coverage for literature in periodicals. But at the same time, as the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review, I also know that there are a number of venues out there for thoughtful discussion of books. So where are people having the sorts of conversations about books that you wished more readers were aware of? Or what avenues for outreach would you either direct people toward to widen those conversations or propose creating, if you’re not already engaged in doing so?
Reynolds: I think you’re opening up a can of worms with this one. The conversation is long, deep, and broad. I’m going to try to condense some of my thoughts into morsels.
I like Fiction Writers Review and I respect what you’re doing there. In many ways it corresponds to exactly the kind of conversation about books that I suggested in my earlier answer we lack. But the context does not. This is not really because FWR and like-minded venues are doing something wrong, but rather because the media of mass culture are not behind you. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I imagine that the readers of FWR belong to a specific demographic and in many ways represent a cultural elite; and, perhaps even more poignantly, are mostly writers, who may or may not be real readers—a whole other can of worms. There is, as a result, an insularity to that kind of conversation that is unhelpful for the larger goal of making books and discussion about books relevant to “the masses.”
Consider the sheer number and the production quality of television programs about sports, movies, celebrities, TV, and the immense creativity that goes into developing and duplicating formats on these subjects. These programs cater to and shape the opinions and the conversations of many millions of people. As far as I know, there is currently no TV format dealing with books. Do we need one? Christ, I don’t know. I haven’t owned a TV for thirty-five years. But I do find the idea of using the means of mass culture to diffuse a vocabulary for talking about books appealing.
To be honest, the place where I see the kind of conversation about books that I desire happening most often is in the good old-fashioned book group. Book-group members, if you exclude New York, mostly don’t work in publishing and are not connected to the book industry at all. They are not academics. They are working people, housewives, the elderly, etc., who seek a congenial “third place” connected to their passion for reading and for talking. If the label and the formalities of running a book group fell away, this kind of atmosphere, and this kind of conversation, is my ideal. This “third place/great good place” idea that, frankly, I first heard about only a few years ago at Winter Institute, has crystallized a lot of my thinking on these questions. When I imagine “conversation about books” I don’t think of a lecture hall, an online magazine, publishing parties, or the pages of the New York Times; I think of a pub. Specifically I think of the pub on the corner of my street where I sometimes stop for a beer on my way home. If, in that context, in cities and towns across the country, in addition to talking about the merits of a sports player or a celebrity, patrons were also hotly debating the merits of a recent novel and pulling apart what was innovative about it and what had been rehashed from the literary tradition, I would feel that we had gone a long way to becoming “critically literate” as a culture.
Fostering this dialogue cannot be simply a question of preaching to the choir or making privileged people more privileged. As such, in my opinion, the organizations we must entrust to foster the ability to appreciate, place, understand, and talk about books are: public schools, libraries, community and continuing-education systems, universities. Other noninstitutional organizations whose efforts I feel run in this direction are in-school initiatives like Girls Write Now and writers and poets in the schools; failed experiments like Book Night, and more successful ones like One City, One Book; college “freshman reads” programs; etc.
We, as an industry, have our share of the blame in all this. We publish too many books. We publish too many insignificant books. As a result it becomes very difficult for an important book, one that can be enjoyed and talked about by people from many walks of life, to make its way amid the dreck to readers.
This will sound like a cop-out—we haven’t really initiated or engaged in any specific outreach programs—but I think our publishing program itself, and the readership it targets, are both conceived partially as a response to this crisis in critical literacy.
I also agree that online journals, book sites, and the like can be a bit of an echo chamber and perhaps broadcast to a narrow audience. This is partly the reason FWR founded an annual daylong literary symposium in Ann Arbor, free and open to the public, called the State of the Book, and why we now are one of the sponsors for the Voices of the Middle West festival each spring—a similar event that tries to nurture a broader conversation about books in collaboration with the university and some local community organizations. We especially try to reach out to younger readers and college students through these various channels. I’m curious to hear from others about similar programs that you’ve found equally beneficial on this front, or initiatives that might be adopted elsewhere, whether they’re projects of your own or others. And, of course, those engines—whether online or on the ground—that are helping foster the most productive conversations.
Schoolman: I love the long-form critical essay, in which the lines between writer, reader, and critic blur, where there is room to explore the inner world of a book and its cultural context, where there is room for the critic-writer’s own ideas to emerge and breathe. There are still places where this is possible: the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Threepenny Review, Guernica, Asymptote, Music & Literature, the White Review, the Quarterly Conversation.
I agree with Michael that the best, most far-reaching conversations about books can happen in a local bar—the relationship between the overworked editor and the local bar is of course another question to explore—where people can express themselves without a lot of literary jargon. Archipelago has an ongoing relationship with a fantastic organization based in Staten Island, New York, called OutLOUD. It does an inspiring job of bringing people of all ages together from various walks of life to read and think about books and art. The conversations about our books and the worlds each has emerged from are always alive and move in surprising directions.
I’m intrigued by Michael’s comment about writers not necessarily counting as readers. Are you saying that they read in a different way? That reading is perhaps more essential to them than to other people? Or...?
Reynolds: Sorry, Jill. My comment about writers/readers wasn’t clear at all. I just meant that I am often surprised at how writers or those who have aspirations to be writers are not careful, prolific readers and converse about books in too businesslike a way, if at all. In addition, a high number of visitors to FWR and other similar venues may not be an indication of a largish public engaging in meaningful discussion about books and their place in the culture and society because many of those visitors may be aspiring writers engaging in the conversation in order to advance their careers rather than to pursue a genuine, disinterested engagement with the literary and artistic questions being raised. I’m not necessarily against writers advancing their careers! But this is not the kind of critical literacy, nor the kind of disinterested dialogue, I was talking about in my original comment.
Post: All the places Jill mentions are ones I would think to recommend as well. Drawing on Michael’s response, though, I do think there is a difference between the audiences reading the White Review or Quarterly Conversation—mostly people looking for high-minded discussion of capital-L Literature—and casual readers discussing books in a bar. To create and sustain a vibrant book culture we need to have outlets from both ends of the spectrum—along with Twitter conversations that range in quality from witty banter to knee-jerk reactions to measured comments [from] book clubs and mainstream reviews—since there’s no single way people can, or should, be interacting with and talking about books. Although what’s most important, in my opinion, is getting people who aren’t writers or publishing people talking about books. That’s what we exist for, right?
When I worked in independent bookstores, the sort of conversation Michael and I are pining for seemed to happen on a regular basis, both among booksellers and with customers. It probably still does, but there’s no bookstore in Rochester where this experience could possibly take place—something that’s likely the case in a lot of other midsize cities. My local bar, NOX, is actually book-themed, so it could be a bar where books are discussed. I would very much like that.
Reynolds: The conclusion to this whole conversation: books and booze, together forever!
Epler: That sort of sounds like a wrap. Or last call? Just a final note so I don’t feel like a liar: I hands-down agree with talking up books anywhere and everywhere—which is why we have canaries here tweeting away, though I don’t know what they might be twittering—and we love any book talk from the highbrow journals to suburban book clubs to bar chats, but I do have to say—just to be honest—that New Directions just doesn’t do the sort of outreach that’s been mentioned, and much admired by me, such as Jill’s OutLOUD efforts and FWR’s engagement with local community organizations. We donate books to prisons and to some libraries, and give time to PEN and whatnot, but really we’re not that socially conscious. Maybe the old dog can learn new tricks, but that’s the truth these days. Now, back to the bar!
Evans: Practically, I’d love to see an organized effort in MFA programs and colleges to encourage the next generation who want to get into publishing to pursue some of the areas behind the scenes. If every person who starts a new literary journal in the next year would instead focus on hosting a book club at a local bookstore—or bar!—we’d be a healthier community. Or tackle the problems in literary magazine distribution. Or work at nonprofit fund-raising and/or lobbying for literary nonprofits. These are not as sexy as being an editor—although I assume my fellow panelists will agree that there’s very little that’s sexy about actually being an editor—but the same attention in the MFA programs to the real health of publishing as to pedagogy could do a lot for the industry.
I apologize for ending on a down note, but a certain amount of the reading audience is just gone—there’s simply other media that appeals more to a lot of the broader audience. But we’ve hopefully learned, after the rise and leveling of the e-book panic, that there continues to be an audience, and a sizable one, for literary books. But we need to rebuild the base of our industry and foster not readers necessarily, but rather those who will get the books into the readers’ hands. More book clubs. More diversity. More lobbying. More education nonprofits. More pop-up bookstores. More ideas and risks and people to start the casual conversations in the bar that end deep at last call.
Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the assistant director of the English Department Writing Program. He is also the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review as well as a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.