For all the wreckage falling at the feet of the big houses, and for all the innovation, etc., of the small houses, vestiges of the old publishing world still stand: that is, expensive promotional campaigns and paid-for in-store placement in large retail chains lead to the big sales and in turn, larger audiences. Those titles at the front of Barnes and Noble, carefully stacked, both cover and spine prominently displayed, aren’t there based on merit, worthy or unworthy as they may be. For the most part, big publishers paid for them to be there, positioned just so. Aside from the fact that these are things that small indie houses can’t compete with, it raises some questions of ethics, sure. But this post isn’t aimed at a debate over the capitalism of publishing. Rather, I want to take a moment to point out some houses and books that aren’t front-and-center at Border’s, which may mean you’re missing out. Here are my top ten:
10: Mud Luscious Press & Molly Gaudry’s We Take Me Apart
I don’t read much “experimental” writing as a practice. I also generally steer clear of books with script typefaces on the cover (snooty, I know.) That said, Gaudry’s ambition is admirable and her talent wonderfully evident in this compelling debut that a big house probably wouldn’t have taken a chance on.
From PANK Magazine’s review
We Take Me Apart begins with an homage to Gertrude Stein and could be read as a reinterpretation of the three-line poem, “A Carafe that is a Blind Glass.” This approach is an act of pure courage on Gaudry’s part. Only a brave and talented writer would dare mess with the perfection of Gertrude Stein. Add this offense to your favorite childhood fairytale being reimagined and We Take Me Apart reads like a novella about to implode. And yet, as if by magic, the story holds even as the narrative spins out of control.
9: Wave Books & Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents
I covet the sense of authority with which Wave Books publishes its books. For example, I read poetry on occasion, and when that occasion comes along I read Wave’s books. Why? There titles are so consistently good (Zucker being an prime example,) that I needn’t worry about being disappointed. They’ve become a stage upon which new careers can begin to flourish.
from Publisher’s Weekly:
Zucker’s willingness to put her own pain on display may frighten or even disgust some readers, but most will be grateful to find themselves less alone in their own everyday suffering. This is a book for all who seek what Zucker calls ‘the antidote for despair,’ however elusive it may be.
8: Dzanc Books & Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us
Dzanc is becoming a something of a mini-empire in the indie world, with publications and entities like Best of the Web, Monkeybicycle, The Collagist, Keyhole Press, and Black Lawrence Press under its roof. But even as they grow, they consistently provide a platform for talented and fresh new voices, as is the case with van den Berg.
from Publisher’s Weekly:
In her affecting debut collection, van den Berg taps into her characters’ losses with an impressive clarity. Each of these stories is meticulously crafted, and often the protagonist is recovering emotionally from a staggering life’s blow.
7: Les Figues Press & Urs Allemann’s Baby Fucker
I hate to think that it is the fate of indie presses to take all the risks and then lose authors to larger publishers when they’ve been vetted on smaller stages. But, if it is to be our lot, so be it. Allemann will surely be gobbled up by a larger house, but Penguin wouldn’t touch a title like Baby Fucker with a ten-foot pole, regardless of it’s literary force and prowess. Germans have all the fun and culture.
A stunning, exquisite, perfect, and difficult little benchmark of a novel that makes literature that pre-dates it seem deprived.
6: Tarpaulin Sky Press & Mark Cunningham’s Body Language
Tarpaulin Sky is a press and lit journal–kind of our long-lost cousin. Their books are, by-and-large, extremely good and well-designed. Cunningham’s Body Language stands out on both fronts. His voice is unique and powerful–a poetic force to be reckoned with.
from Prick of the Spindle:
The appeal of Body Language is universal. Always thought-provoking, always enjoyable and unexpected, the combination of topics of math, language and symbolism via the alphabet and the body as a complex system, turns out to be an appropriate, engaging compendium.
5: New York Tyrant & Brian Evenson’s Baby Leg: Limited Edition
New York Tyrant is usually just a tri-annual lit journal. But when they get wild, they go all out. How they got Brian Evenson to do a book for them, I wish I knew. Furthermore, whoever came up with making it a limited edition hardcover with Evenson’s smearings of a “blood-like substance” on the front should be applauded.
from Blake Butler:
Via a series of sparely rendered dream loops, each wormed so deep into the other that it is no longer safe to say which might be which, Baby Leg extends the already wide mind-belt of Brian Evenson’s terror parade another mile, and well beyond.
4: McSweeney’s & John Brandon’s Arkansas
Is McSweeney’s still indie? Hmm. I mean, you still have to have a clerk order Brandon’s book at most stores. They don’t readily carry it at the chains. But most people outside of the lit world say “McSwchat?” when I mentioned them in passing. Think what you want about McSweeney’s, but their books are gorgeous, editor Eli Horowitz has that ever-sought-after eye for greatness, and most of the work they publish is, well, really, really good. Arkansas is really, really, really, really, really good. Shit. I mean really good.
from McSweeney’s description:
There are the days: the dappled grounds, the aimless yardwork, the hours in the booth giving directions to families in SUVs. And then there are the nights, crisscrossing the South with illicit goods, the shifty deals in dingy trailers, the vague orders from a boss they’ve never met. Sooner than Kyle and Swin can recognize how close to paradise they are, in this neglected state park in southern Arkansas, the lazy peace is shattered with a shot. Night blends into day. Dead bodies. Crooked superiors. Suspicious associates. It’s on-the-job training, with no time for slow learning, bad judgment, or foul luck.
3: Coffee House Press & Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star
Coffee House is kind of old school and only barely indie, but it’s still a place to go to find some exceedingly powerful new and/or relatively under-the-radar names in literature. Hunt’s Ray of the Star is phenomenal and deserves as wide a readership as anything on the front shelves of Borders. I don’t doubt that Hunt will someday find his books on many a syllabi as required reading for MFA students, and that his books will be reprinted by larger houses, once they catch on.
from Time Out Chicago:
Reminiscent of Camus’ The Stranger, Ray of the Star gives little consideration to the death that has sent Harry reeling, though the way he’s easily sent in various directions by the people he meets hints at a numb, almost deranged wanderlust—the type of confusion that follows deep loss—and it’s this kind of slow burning mania that reminds also of Paul Auster; all of which proves that Hunt, even when on a mad sprint, has what it takes to create timeless efforts.
2: Featherproof Books & Blake Butler’s Scorched Atlas
Featherproof is super-dope. Aside from giving away DIY mini-books and having one of the best colophons I’ve ever seen, they’ve also got Butler’s Scorched Atlas, an exceptionally well-written composite novel, pre-distressed and filled with black pages. I am a book design dork, and this design is absolutely superb. Sick. Dope. Dumb. Grand. Featherproof is a beautiful thing.
From Time Out New York:
Butler is an original force who is fearless with form… The design is appropriately disarming, an apt part of the overall barrage by this inventive and deeply promising young author.
1: Hobart & Michelle Orange’s The Sicily Papers
Can I just say, “Fuckin’ Hobart.” I mean, seriously, this book is printed to look like a goddamn passport. The editors at Hobart, Elizabeth Ellen and Aaron Burch, have taste for days and the eyes for talent. Their single-author titles, while rare, are so good that it’s stupid. The Sicily Papers was a find of Ellen’s and what a find it was!
from World Hum by Frank Bures:
The Sicily Papers embodies the aimless joy (of travel) in a way that most travel books don’t. It has the texture of the journey. It has the feel of the unstructured days. And in the end it is almost like being there for real.
And, since this is a list of books I love, I must quickly note Flatmancrooked and the Zero Emission Book, which is James Kaelan’s We’re Getting On. As far as we can tell, this is the first novel ever produced that 1) is entirely recycled and biodegradable, 2) grows trees from its seed-paper-cover, 3) is entirely carbon-neutral, and 4) will be toured by bike up the entire west coast (LA to Vancouver.) We are very proud of the whole project. Plus, it’s a really good book.