Independent Together: Profiles of Our Favorite Small Presses

Article by mark

For a serious reader, discovering a new independent publisher is like finding a new friend. You hold the book, study the cover design, inspect the spine and read the author’s bio. Next, you try the first few pages, nod at a turn of phrase, sigh at a great insight (none of this takes more than a minute or two), until something clicks, and you’re overwhelmed by the certainty of people you have never met, living in other parts of the world, who somehow understand you. The word “independent” almost isn’t right, is it? After all, such discoveries teach us that reading is--as readers know--a communal activity.

This month, we’ll profile several independent presses (including A Strange Object, Coffee House Press, and Milkweed Editions). For now, here’s a list of five indie presses that deserve your attention--and it must be said, this list is nowhere near exhaustive. There are dozens of other great indies, both high-profile (Algonquin, Counterpoint, Graywolf, Soho, Tin House) and more obscure (Civil Coping Mechanisms, Featherproof, Lazy Fascist, SF/LD, Tiny Hardcore). So consider this list merely an introduction to some of the wonderful alternatives to “mainstream” publishing, and then continue searching the secret places of American literature for your new friends.

Dalkey Archive is an incredible publisher that brings international and translated works to English readers. Swiss literature? Check. Korean literature? Check. Croatian and Iranian? Check and check (and yes, they do publish American writers). Consider OMEGA MINOR by Paul Verhaegen, an enormous, electrifying novel about cognitive psychology, quantum physics, Nazis and Neo-Nazis. The novel goes back and forth in time and place, visiting Berlin, Boston, and even Los Alamos. It is a stunning and audacious work which Verhaegen himself translated into English from the Dutch. OMEGA MINOR exemplifies the books published by Dalkey: brave, important, and infinitely more concerned with the quality of the work than the chances of being a best-seller.

Melville House is an indie publisher doing a host of exciting things, whether it’s publishing lost classics by forgotten greats, or groundbreaking contemporary authors, or other lines that celebrate literature as a whole--what other publisher has an entire series of books devoted to the wonderful art of the novella? Lars Iyer's thrilling trilogy SPURIOUS, DOGMA and EXODUS will surely leave a lasting impression on you. Vicious in its humor, simple in its style, and revelatory in its philosophy, this trilogy follows two wandering British intellectuals as they banter about the end of the world, the death of academia, and countless other subjects both high- and lowbrow. Think Nietzsche with a laugh track, or Kierkegaard with a whoopie cushion. In style, the writing is reminiscent of Austrian master Thomas Bernhard, but the comic timing and biting dialogue adds a layer of satire rarely experienced in fiction. Herman Melville would be proud of his namesake publisher.

Other Press is among the quintessential indies: they go about quietly publishing marvelous titles, seemingly modest about the virtues of their own books, when suddenly, quite mysteriously, it dawns on you that you’ve read four or five of their books, all which you have loved. Other Press publishes an array of fiction and nonfiction from all over the world. Among the best of these is Simon Mawer’s THE GLASS ROOM. The novel follows the events of the twentieth century through the lens of a single room. A young married couple commissions a German architect to build a house in Czechoslovakia. The house becomes a minimalist masterpiece, with a transparent glass room as its center. When World War II arrives, the couple flees. As the husband and wife struggle abroad, their home passes through several new owners, with each new inhabitant falling under the spell of the glass room. THE GLASS ROOM is a perfect introduction to Other Press--a novel of great beauty and originality, with a deep knowledge of the past.

Sarabande Books started in Louisville, one of those mid-sized American cities that seems to avoid the national spotlight. (They have sluggers there, right? and the band Slint?) Perhaps it makes sense that Sarabande was formed in a city of mystery, of question marks. There’s Ander Monson’s experimental novel OTHER ELECTRICITIES; there’s the bleak, intensely personal drama of Kyle Minor’s PRAYING DRUNK; there’s their varied roster of marvelous poetry; there’s a Lydia Davis chapbook about cows. Sarabande is one of the great shapeshifters of contemporary lit, and each book surprises. The notion of shapeshifting is most notable, perhaps, in Kerry Howley’s THROWN, a work of nonfiction tracing the attempts by the author--at the time a philosophy PhD student--to describe the experience of watching mixed martial arts. In the process, she becomes invested in two MMA fighters, each at a different place in his career. Is THROWN philosophy? poetry? journalism? a comeback story? a coming-of-age story? a satire of academic self-satisfaction? It’s all these things, ripe with ideas, bursting with invention and intelligence. THROWN won’t be out for another week--but brace yourself. (Howley, a former editor at Houstonia Magazine, will read at Brazos on 10/20.)

Sometimes Two Dollar Radio feels like an author, not a publisher. This isn’t to devalue the individual authors of Two Dollar Radio’s books--authors who are distinctive and marvelous--but somehow each release seems to come from the same brain and is instantly identifiable as the work of this trailblazing Columbus-based publisher. This is true not only in terms of design (Two Dollar Radio is one of America’s best branded presses), but also in terms of the prose itself--feverish, irreverent, and so worked up that you worry the words themselves will tear the pages before you get a chance to read them. Two Dollar Radio releases often seem to mine genre for inspiration, taking “low art” and treating it with seriousness (consider the vampires of Grace Krilanovich’s THE ORANGE EATS CREEPS, the zombies of Bennett Sims’s A QUESTIONABLE SHAPE, and the fairy tale inflections of Shane Jones’s CRYSTAL EATERS). But maybe the best place to start is D. Foy’s MADE TO BREAK, a novel of wit, scope, and horror, about a group of friends stranded in a cabin in the middle of a storm. Like the best Two Dollar Radio books, it takes a pulpy premise and makes it human and complex.

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