Saturday, July 11, 2009

Way to go Jonathan Sanchez!

My long-time friend Peter Finch stopped by the bookstore this morning, and in the midst of a bustling weekend crowd, we were able to carve out a few minutes to discuss the future of the book for a new radio show he's hosting. No shortage of thoughts on that subject, as you can well imagine. More details right here on Wed. in my next blog post, but if you aren't already familiar with Peter's work on the KFOG Morning Show (or his theatrical prowess with The Thunderbird Theatre Company) I encourage you to visit his FogFiles archive page and give a listen. I especially enjoyed the one from June 7th: Reading to Kids. Check it out!

Then later this afternoon, I was walking back to the bookstore with another chum: author, musician and all-around literary hero, Sam Barry. While he was regaling me with tales from his honeymoon trip to Europe (his recent marriage to author,musician, and all-around literary hero Kathi Goldmark, was the single best thing to happen to the future of the book since Guttenberg. Truly peas in a pod, those two.) I glanced down and noticed a funny book in our free box. Funny like, "HaHa" funny, because it was Dave Barry's Guide to Life, and he's a very funny writer. He's also Sam's brother. "Hey, Sam. . .dig what's in the free box." Sam snatched the copy, flipped through the pages of the collection, considered keeping it for a second, and then put it back. "He's probably got it already." Humor must run in the blood of that family.

Thanks to BoingBoing for linking to the cool (yet disheartening) info graphic above: Where Does the Money Go? Click it to go big, because I was thinking that my eyes were playing tricks on me at first. Only .2% spent on reading ($118 from ~$50k)? Wow! Least by a long margin. More than triple that amount goes to buying cigarettes each year, and it's illegal to smoke, like, everywhere these days, isn't it?!? So what do you think? Is the future of the book alive and well thanks to folks like Peter, Sam, Kathi and You? Or is it in danger of going up in smoke?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Interview with Martin Riker of Dalkey Archive Press


Continuing our series of interviews with independent publishers, this week we have an interview with Martin Riker, associate director of Dalkey Archive Press. Like Open Letter Books, which was featured in our previous segment, Dalkey Archive is a non-profit publisher (affiliated with the University of Illinois) engaged in what founder John O'Brien calls a "quixotic venture" of publishing the best of contemporary and seminal world literature. As can be seen in the following interview, Dalkey Archive represents something of an anomaly in the publishing industry, being concerned less with sales than with making available engaging and challenging books.

We'd like to thank Martin for his time.

GA: Instead of a reductive mission statement, Dalkey Archive seems to take a broader view of publishing. John O’Brien, founder of the Press, adheres to a belief in literature's capacity to alter perceptions. Can you explain how this plays out practically? In other words, what is a "Dalkey Archive" book?

MR: It's a question of aesthetics, of what sorts of art we are most interested in. That might seem obvious, but it's the best place to start, since what that means is that we do not start from questions of marketability (sales potential) or "cultural relevance" (we don't publish translated books just because they're translated, for example), but simply ask ourselves, "is this a book we love?" Once the answer is "yes" and the decision is made to publish a book, then we immediately forget about aesthetics and art and focus on how best to sell the book, or how to get it to the widest audience in the most meaningful way. We're a nonprofit mission-based organization, but publishing books we think are important is only half of that mission; getting them read is the other.

GA: As a follow-up to the first questions: the Submissions Guidelines on the website states that Dalkey is looking for works of fiction belonging to the tradition of Sterne, Joyce, Rabelais, Flann O'Brien, Beckett, Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. Do you see a unifying approach or theme in the work of these writers?

MR: I sort of didn't answer your first question because I thought I'd answer it here with your second. I could write a dissertation on this question (actually, I did write my dissertation on this question, or something quite like it) but the short answer that I like to give is that these are writers who take the long view of literature. People will talk about Dalkey Archive books as "experimental"---our publisher uses the term "subversive"---but in my mind it is fundamentally a question of perceiving literary art as a thing that is both of its time and part of a conversation that spans over many eras. A writer who views literature this way is not likely to be interested in what's currently popular, and therefore doesn't really care whether he/she is "avant-garde"; at the same time, such a writer is not going to see him/herself as being in conversation strictly with the dominant stylistic modes of the time. Many of the writers who look "experimental" to us today only look that way because the writers they are responding to (or stealing from) are not their immediate predecessors. Another way of saying that is that everything looks "experimental" to people who haven't read very many books. If all you've read are romance novels, the Yellow Pages will look experimental. Taking the long view of literature, on the other hand, means being interested in literature as an art form, with its own history and with various traditions that can be played with, reinvented, and subverted in order to make a compelling word-filled object that carries some real liveliness. Once you make the shift to caring about art, the innovation and experimentation is just standard.

GA: Besides the publishing books, Dalkey is also involved in producing the Review of Contemporary Fiction and Context. Can you give a brief description of these publications and their aims?

MR: Our origins are in literary criticism, in talking about books and in seeing critical discussion as a relevant part of the (literary) artistic experience. The Review was our first publication (in 1981) and is still publishing three issues per year today. We just published an updated version of our Georges Perec issue, which happens to be my favorite. Context is a free newsprint and web magazine that we started in 2000 as a way of reaching younger readers. Over the years we've had some incredible contributors and published some extraordinary pieces, which are all available free on our website.

GA: A question made especially pertinent now: How does a non-profit publisher survive in tough economic times?

MR: It would be nice to be able to answer that nonprofit publishers are immune to the economy because we can turn to grants and donations for support, but the truth is that the philanthropic community has been hurt as badly as anyone. We're fortunate to have the support of the University of Illinois, where our main office is located, and a broad range of funders in both the US and Europe. And of course we sell books. Having a lot of different sources of income, rather than relying on one source, is no doubt an advantage.

GA: What's up next for Dalkey Archive?

MR: We've joined up with Norton, who will be distributing our books as of Fall. We're launching an annual anthology of European fiction (Best European Fiction 2010) starting in January. Aleksandar Hemon is the series editor, and Zadie Smith's agreed to write a preface. We're publishing about 50 titles this year---more than in past years---including a lot of my favorite writers (Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Gert Jonke) as well as writers new to our list (Andrej Stasiuk, Goncalo Tavares). Our London office is about to become one of the originating members of a exciting project called the Free Word Centre, which will be officially opening in September, and will serve as an international center for advocacy on behalf of free speech (PEN is another member), literature, and culture. We're working with the Center for Translation Studies here at the University of Illinois; they've put together a number of translation studies programs that involve students with working at Dalkey Archive . . . I could go on. There's a lot.

GA: Finally, if you were given the opportunity to choose a book for Green Apple's "Staff Picks" display, what would you choose?

MR: Only one? Probably Jacques Roubaud's The Loop, which I think is one of the greatest books we've ever published---although there are a lot of great books on the current (spring) list. Maybe also Ignacio de Loyola Brandao's Anonymous Celebrity, which is at the printers right now. A sort of Swiftean send up of the international cult of celebrity, by one of my favorite Brazilian writers. That comes out in August.

(As a postscript: my favorite Dalkey Archive book is Stanley Crawford's criminally neglected masterpiece The Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine. It's safe to say this is a book unlike any other.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Hey do you ever look at books?

I'm pretty sure I can assume with some degree of accuracy that if you're reading this blog you have an interest in literature, read novels, poetry, history, etc. Aside from reading though, do you ever take a good long look at the book you're actually holding in your hand? What's on the cover? How is it bound? Is it embossed? Is its viewing pleasure increased with the addition 3D glasses? What?

Five days a week I pass truckloads of books through my hands at Green Apple, and as I move them about I can't help but be taken from time to time with some of the creative, occasionally downright strange things printed on them. Now I could prattle on for ages about what strikes me as an effective cover, but that topic can be stretched so broad it could probably fill a book itself. So to the point I'll write a bit on a trend that excites me very much right now, publishers who are calling on underground comic artists to do cover designs. It seems like such a no-brainer to me, but if you know much about the comic artist's long struggle for recognition in the American literary/art world then it really does become clear as to why we're only just now seeing this.

Since we're long past the "ten cent plague" years of the comic world, and even a little beyond Dan Clowes' (brilliant in my opinion) 1997 Modern Cartoonist essay, great publishers like Penguin and Random House have been calling upon many of the giants of the underground. Above is Sammy Harkham's design for the most recent reprint of Kafka's stories. Now what's great about knowing who the cover artist of this particular edition is, is finding that Harkham also edits the critically acclaimed Kramer's Ergot compilations, which features works by several little known (and some a lot known) comic artists (and yes we are carrying it).

I suppose my point is this: You may not be able to judge a book by it's cover, but if you choose to, if something is particularly striking about it, I implore that you track down it's origin. One great piece of literature can lead to another and the clues may not merely lie in the words themselves.

On the fly I've come up with a short list of book covers which I can readily supply you with the name and career of the brilliant artist(s) behind them.

Cover design by Peter Bagge.

Cover design by Charles Burns.

Cover Design by Jason.

Cover design by Dan Clowes.
(extra points if you can tell me the pseudonym Daniel Handler uses for his young adult series)

And lastly here's a little gem by Chris Ware for the upcoming edition of Voltaire's Candide. I just can't do this one justice by shrinking it down for the blog.

Of course comic artists aren't the only ones out there coming up with great designs, and if you don't like comic art I'm cool with that (sort of). Check out the New York Times Book Design Review if you're looking for a aesthetic that suits you better.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

GBL - Drinkin'

A few months ago, I introduced to the virtual world one of the more cramped displays in our store, the twelve shelves on the landing of our main stairs we call the GBL. (That post, about our Literary Feuds display, can be found here.) (Don't think too hard about what GBL means. It's not something we can divulge to the general public.)

Before I blacked out from yesterday's holiday drinking, I got thinking, in an admittedly muddled sort of way, about another of our GBL shelves, which for lack of imagination we call simply the Drinkin' display.

Writers have long been known to drown their angst in the bottle. And some writers have a lot of angst. Our national literature is full of plastered heroes: Jack London wrote a book called John Barleycorn which documented his lifelong problem with hooch; Hemingway, apparently, could go head-to-head with the more prolific of his characters, one of whom downed three martinis and a few bottles of wine before lunch; and then of course there's Edgar Allen Poe, John Cheever, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, Hunter S. Thompson... Well, you get the point.

So, in celebration of (er...) the besotted, we've lined up seven books written by or featuring (or both) stumbling drunks:

Appointment in Samarra: John O'Hara's classic novel of Julian English's swift and terrible decline, featuring the infamous scene in which English throws his drink in another man's face.

Frederick Exley's savage indictment of the 1950s and one of Pete's favorites, A Fan's Notes.

In the Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler wrote: "Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off."

My personal demon isn't booze, but it's a book about booze: Under the Volcano.

No list like this would be complete without the work of Charles Bukowski (pictured above) who once wrote that "Drinking is an emotional thing." We chose Factotum as a fair representative of his alcoholic genius.

Naturally, we can't ignore my people, the Irish:

Of Flann O'Brien's novel, At-Swim-Two-Birds, Dylan Thomas said: "This is just the book to give your sister – if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl."

Finally, there's A Drink With Shane MacGowan. The collage below (via J-Walk Blog) says it all: