Acolytes of Gutenberg

Seven publishers on what they wish they'd published.

Every year end I stew in my own vexation as we’re bombarded by various cultural gatekeepers’ lists of the top/best/sexiest/favorite/hottest/most important books of the year. The meaninglessness of this enterprise occasionally hits critical mass when some media genius becomes enamored with the—for lack of a better word, let’s say idea—of polling people who should know better for the name of a book that will be designated the best of the past 25 years. Yikes!

Anyway, it was in that spirit and additionally my fondness and regard for the efforts of small publishers that I approached a number of these worthies with a question that might illuminate something about the them or the way they look at the book world. Favorite color was out—so I asked, what book would they have liked to publish in the last calendar year? Not a trick question. Or even tough.

So here they are.

Eric Reynolds, Fantagraphics:
That’s a really interesting question. These four books came immediately to mind:

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle. Like all four of these books, I’d been looking forward to this one for some time in advance of publication. But unlike the others, there was also that side of me that kind of thought, well, I’ve seen everything from Harvey, I already appreciate him as much as I possibly could. I was wrong, the book is a treasure and it has completely made me fall in love with his work all over again.

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco. Joe Sacco is one of the world’s greatest living cartoonists, and this might be his best book yet. ‘Nuff said!

The Book of Genesis by R. Crumb. Crumb is the world’s greatest living cartoonist, and this is his magnum opus. Even more ‘nuff said!

The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics. Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly are the greatest comics anthologists of all time, and this is one of their best ever. I can’t wait until my one-year-old is able to enjoy it with me.

These are four relatively obvious choices, but they’re four obviously excellent books.
Fred Ramey, Unbridled:
Now there’s a question to ponder…. Let’s fold in (and so get out of the way) that in 2009 the mainstream media struck an attitude with respect to independent publishers, which means wishing, for fiscal reasons, that any one of the year’s most commercially successful novels had been ours would be somewhat, uhm, naïve. (But then I probably wouldn’t mean any such wish, anyway.) And so, I thought I would name Roberto Bolaño’s 2666—would that be the obvious answer? Then I checked; its pub date was actually in November 2008. And so, after much brain-wringing, some contemplative shelf scanning, and precious little research, I choose Rudolph Wurlitzer’s trilogy: Nog, Flats, and Quake.

I had always wanted to bring Wurlitzer back into print myself and so am both joyful and envious that Two Dollar Radio has done just that. In addition to celebrating Wurlitzer’s searing vision and rangy inventiveness, what re-releasing his trilogy asserts is a faith in fiction that lasts, fiction that counts. (Dare I say “faith in the fiction backlist”?) Two Dollar Radio’s re-issuing—in (paperback) print format—the primary works of an otherwise unavailable American literary master is a hopeful act, and I know there are readers who are as grateful for it as I am. It’s not just believing in the author’s worth; it’s believing in readers and in the enterprise of long-view publishing. (Yes, I know the question was, “What one book…?” I don’t know why I find it so hard to follow instructions.)
Eric Obenauf, Two Dollar Radio:
Most of my reading last year came in the form of submissions and editing, so I’m far from an informed source on what was actually published. There was a period in 2007/2008 when we were toying with the idea of publishing some non-fiction at Two Dollar Radio, and I wrote to Erick Lyle, who put out a ‘zine that I loved called ‘Scam’ under the name Iggy Scam. He said that he was already in the process of working on a compilation for Soft Skull, which came out late 2008, called On the Lower Frequencies. I bought a copy last year, though I haven’t read it all. It seems to have worked out for the best, because I enjoy sticking with fiction. Another one that I’m reading now, that came out in paperback in ‘09 is The Mayor’s Tongue, by Nathaniel Rich. I haven’t finished, but so far it seems highly imaginative and well-written.
Erika Goldman, Bellevue Literary Press:
Much to my shock, I can honestly say “I published that book—Tinkers by Paul Harding!” We never could have imagined the enormous response we’ve gotten for it, as deserving as it is. The experience has been tremendously exciting for us, particularly since we haven’t been around that long (our first list was Spring 2007). So I have no envious (publishing) thoughts at the end of 2009.
Judith Gurewich, Other Press
There is one book I would have liked to publish and I lost it to Knopf, and money was not the issue, it seems. It is Trois Femmes Puissantes by the Senegalese author Marie Ndiaye, who won the Prix Goncourt this year. I made an offer before the Goncourt was announced and was prepared to pay whatever it took to get it. This is a wonderful collection of three novellas where the author, who lives in France, went deep into the soul of three protagonists in the grips of their inability to come to terms with the terrible side effects of post-colonialism. The book really hit a chord for the author—she succeeds to create suspenseful stories based on the difficult question of emigration, where traumatic events, hypocrisy, and denial inhabit the lives of three protagonists caught between African disarray and French racism. The author’s prose, which evokes the best French classics, is resolutely modern as the novellas use brilliantly the decoy of an unreliable narrator, reminiscent of the musings of a patient on a couch, where the causes of the traumas are revealed only at the end of each story—mimicking at once the works of psychoanalysis and the best of thrillers. I showed my passion, my determination, and my willingness to invest large sums of money in this project, for I understood fully what it would take to give this book proper visibility in this country. I read the book in French and understood deeply its thrust since I am myself a psychoanalyst and felt very close to the project. But for no avail. I am sad that I missed the opportunity. In January I am publishing The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, the winner of the Goncourt of 2008. It would have been wonderful to continue this tradition, and I can only console myself that maybe it is not such a failure to lose a book to Knopf.
Dan Wickett, Dzanc Books
Assuming that I should not consider any titles that we published at Dzanc Books, as those would not qualify as we did indeed publish them, I’d have to go with Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier. The reason would simply be I’d love to say that I published a Percival Everett novel. I think he’s one of the best writers of his generation, and anxiously await each new outing from him. While this particular novel may not have been his most focused, I still relish the chance to get to read what I believe Everett is thinking about race, education, fame, or whatever else he’s included this time around.
Martin Riker, Dalkey Archive
It’s an interesting question as it assumes I was able to find time to read anything other than Dalkey Archive books this year, when in fact I’m deeply embarrassed to say I read very little outside the Dalkeysphere, in part because my first child was born and it turns out he actually eats time.

Of the few that I did read, two that stuck with me are an interesting little scholarly study called Friendship and Literature by Ronald Sharp published in the 1980s, and Devin Johnston’s wonderful lyrical essay collection “Creaturely,” both books that I loved but not necessarily books that I would have published. This has less to do with my personal affection for them and more to do with my sense of responsibility as a publishing person toward Dalkey Archive’s “vision,” which even if I can’t put it into words is nonetheless entirely clear to me: Dalkey exists to publish certain books that need to be published, which is not all books that need to be published, but rather this certain group. I would propose that the fun of being a publisher is not deciding what that group of books or “vision” will be, but rather watching as it is revealed to you, finding out with each new book a little bit more about this vision of literature that you can palpably intuit but can only define by pointing at these books and saying, Yes that’s it.
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