Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Conundrum of the Small Literary Gem

Last night's National Book Awards were a thrill to behold, and with three predicted, well-deserved wins: Patti Smith won the non-fiction prize for Just Kids, her memoir of her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Kathryn Eskine won for the young-adult fiction prize for Mockingbird, her story about an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger's. And the poetry prize went to Terrance Hayes for Lighthead, a collection of poems considering fate and destiny with a consistent dash of wit and whimsy. All three of these titles were promoted by major publishers (Ecco/HarperCollins for Smith, and imprints of Penguin for both Eskine and Hayes), and so they had behind them major teams of publicists and marketers constantly rallying and cheering for them to succeed. (It also doesn't hurt that, apart from being an extraordinary writer, Smith is a national treasure, and has a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.)

But the one that got me thinking was the fiction prize: Jaimy Gordon won for her novel about horse racing in West Virginia, Lord of Misrule. A professor at Kalamazzo, Gordon has written several novels before (and collections of poetry, plays, stories, and essays), but has always been published by small independent presses. Lord of Misrule was published by McPherson & Company, a small literary publisher based in Kingston, New York (as agents move to Brooklyn, perhaps publishers move wherever they like.) I know we've discussed the difficulties of small presses on the blog before, and so I need not draw out a long portrait of the great struggles these publishers face to get shelf space, review attention, and national prominence. But when a small glittering novel such as Gordon's gets catapulted into a moment of acclaim, it can transform both the author and the publisher's fate . . . until the next book is scooped up by a major publisher. (The paperback of Lord of Misrule, as well as Gordon's next book, will be published by a much larger imprint.)

When a little book makes a big splash, should it be scooped up by a major publisher? You can make the case that a writer who deserves a wider audience should get the widest possible distribution--with all the sales force of a major publisher behind it. And it is undoubtably a huge coup for a major publisher to get their hands on a little gem of a book before it's cannibalized by everyone else. But it also sometimes feels like the "man" gets to scoop in and take over the title, and possibly change the future direction of the author's work. It's a lazy assumption to equate obscurity with authenticity and to call a big book disingenuous, but surely a great many people get to make that assumption. Authors certainly might--but then again, that's the nature of the business: when you walk into a bookstore, it's rare that the small-size literary novel will catch your attention when the big displays are reserved for the sure-fire sellers.

But then again, sometimes being small and famous has its virtues: when Paul Harding's novel Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, it took many major publishers and the media by surprise. (The book had been published by Bellevue Literary Press, a small publisher based out of the NYU School of Medicine.) The New York Times went so far as to call Tinkers "the one that got away." And with Harding's next book (a sort of sequel to Tinkers) under contract to Random House, it may be that he'll take no one by surprise if he writes something extraordinary. But back when he had first won the Pulitzer, independent book publishers took stacks of Tinkers and placed them up close to the register. As people brought their copies of bigger sellers up for purchase, they could take a glance over to this lovely small-format novel, suddenly emblazoned with a sticker declaring "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize", and feel as if they'd missed the boat on something truly extraordinary. And into their shopping bags it went.

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