The Writing's Not on the Wall Yet
Austin's print culture gets a boost from a new batch of indie presses and literary magazines
You are holding a relic. Its pages smell of newsprint and flop over at the corners. The ink is rubbing off a little on your fingers, and on your nose too, if you are absentmindedly scratching it while reading this sentence. There's a coffee ring on the front page due to an overflow situation (you're pretty sure you said "room for cream"). Outside, the pages flutter in the breeze; maybe this is why paper pages are sometimes called "leaves."
Paper leaves may not be alive, but they can still die. Digital books have been good for reading, but bad for the printed page. As books and magazines increasingly take the shape of ones and zeros, literature is becoming a ghost in the machine – the Kindle, to be precise. With BookPeople now carrying e-readers, smaller local independent bookstores like Domy and BookWoman struggling, and Austin's flagship literary journal, American Short Fiction, on hold due to financial problems, it's no wonder that a symposium on "The Fate of the Book" drew big crowds to the Harry Ransom Center this fall.
Don't start the funeral yet, though. Austin is in the middle of a print culture renaissance that, if it holds, will provide book lovers with locally printed and gorgeously designed literary treasures for years to come. The five literary journals and small presses featured below are produced by an eclectic group: In addition to MFA graduates, they include slam poets, paratroopers, comic book geeks, lawyers, and print evangelists. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the faces of Austin's new print culture.
Jill Meyers' name will be familiar to anyone who's been following the Austin literary scene. As editor of American Short Fiction from 2009 to 2012, she helped push the magazine to new heights, collaborating on high-profile literary events like the New Fiction Confab and Lit Crawl Austin. When Badgerdog Literary Publishing put American Short Fiction on hiatus this year due to financial difficulties, Meyers and Associate Editor Callie Collins resigned and founded A Strange Object (www.astrangeobject.com), an independent press that will produce "beautiful books" alongside well-designed online projects starting in 2013.
Speaking to the Chronicle about their new baby, Meyers tempers her optimism with careful reserve, while Collins, who started at ASF as an editorial fellow in 2009, beams with bookish enthusiasm. The two have a rapport that comes, no doubt, from working together on the top-ranked literary journal just when the recession kneecapped Badgerdog's funding structure. This August, Badgerdog announced that the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation had purchased its education programs, but the literary magazine wasn't included in the deal. In the midst of conflict over the future of the magazine, Meyers and Collins resigned.
Despite the bittersweet circumstances, Meyers welcomed the change. "After six years [at ASF], I was getting to that point where I was asking, well, what's next? I love this, but how can I expand or push myself?"
Collins adds, "We had always talked really dreamily about starting a books division, it just never really seemed possible. So when we had the opportunity, that was what felt most enchanting for us."
When asked what type of books A Strange Object will publish, Collins quotes David Foster Wallace's description of fiction that "makes the head throb, heartlike," adding that it should "make the heart think" as well. Meyers and Collins are both quick with the quotes, and in fact, the name of the press is a reference to experimental author Donald Barthelme, who founded the University of Houston creative writing program where Meyers got her MFA. "'The aim of literature," Meyers quotes from memory, "is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.'"
Which leaves us, naturally, with one burning question: Will A Strange Object be publishing any books covered with fur?
"It's always on the table," Collins says. She looks at Meyers, and the two of them laugh. "Maybe a collector's edition?"
If a furry book is a bit too strange for A Strange Object, the concept, at least, would seem right at home in the pages of Unstuck (www.unstuckbooks.org), a journal for "new literature of the fantastic, the futuristic, the surreal, and the strange." Founded last year by Matt Williamson, Unstuck drew attention from fans of speculative fiction – that is, science fiction and fantasy – as well as from a more traditionally "literary" audience. Williamson, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop with a law degree from the University of Texas, compares Unstuck to a "wild party with a weird guest list" where authors of genre fiction rub elbows with quote-unquote "literary" authors. He says, with a touch of irony that doesn't quite cover his intense seriousness, "I'm hoping that Unstuck feels like the least boring journal on earth."
For Williamson, who chose the literary life over careers in law or teaching, speculative fiction is serious business. "When we're kids, it's understood that we can read books set in the recognizable world and books that are set in the fantastic world. I'm not sure exactly when we decided there's a certain age when you stop casting your imagination as widely and confine yourself to imagining things that could actually happen. I don't think fiction has to resemble everyday life in order to show us how to live our everyday life." The name of the journal, Unstuck, alludes to its desire to shake off labels like "science fiction," "fantasy," and "literary fiction," allowing readers to roam freely in the spaces in between.
To that end, you won't find spaceships or dragons on the cover of Unstuck; the first issue features a metal staircase railing rising out of a field of snow, an austere image that on first glance looks like an abstract black line creeping spiderlike up the page. Williamson modeled the magazine's style after the grand dame of literary magazines, Poetry, in a bid for more diverse audiences. It worked: This year the journal scored mentions on both sci-fi blog Io9 and The New York Times Magazine. "One of the reasons I want it to look as classy as it is, is because I feel like the classier it looks, the less we have to worry about having classy content," he admits. "We can have fun, rambunctious, rude content." With its next book-length anthology of stories, fiction, and essays coming out on Dec. 15, Williamson has a chance to not bore us all over again.
Daniel Mejia's approach to "fun and rambunctious" looks decidedly different. Foxing Quarterly (www.foxingquarterly.com), the print-only literary journal he founded that released its first issue last month, looks a bit like it's made of candy. Named after the brown damage spots that appear on antique books, the journal itself radiates newness, bright pops of neon pink and yellow alternating with cartoons and line drawings. The poetry and fiction inside are set among dazzling visual effects that give the journal the look of a comic book.
This is no coincidence. Growing up in El Paso, Mejia taught himself to read on superhero comics – "kid stuff mostly, Batman and X-Men," he says a bit self-consciously – which were a "gateway" to his lifelong love of literature. Mejia and his co-editor Jane Robbins Mize reached out to Pittsburgh-based cartoonist Jim Rugg, who is known for his loving re-creations of old and damaged books, to design the first cover for Foxing and were delighted when he volunteered to be the art director. Rugg designed every page of the first issue to capture different elements of print culture, from coffee-stained paperbacks to address books to classified ads. The result is an eye-catching design that sculpts every piece of text into a work of art.
Foxing Quarterly has a conservative print-only policy that may seem at odds with its flashy aesthetic: None of its content will be made available online. But the editors' nostalgia for print may have turned out to be a savvy business decision, as print fetishists and comic book fans already seem to view the limited-run issue as a collector's item. "You have to see it in person to really see how great it looks," Mejia says, and with orders pouring in from Seattle, North Carolina, Hawaii, and even Paris ("We don't do international orders, but he worked out a special deal with us"), it looks like his audience agrees.
Mejia loves the attention the design elements are getting and hopes to parlay the first issue's visibility into a higher volume of submissions, including pieces from more established authors. While he and Mize stand behind the content of the slim first issue, they are eager to publish longer stories, poetry from higher-profile practitioners, and even one-act plays in the next issue, which is scheduled to come out in February. "We just want to better ourselves every time." He pauses, seemingly daunted for a moment. "And maybe make it longer?"
Length is a liability for spoken-word poet Derrick Brown, who recently relocated Write Bloody Publishing (www.writebloody.com) from Los Angeles to Austin. "Poetry, when you do it live, is like a bullet. A short story is like a strangle – it takes longer. And I think as society gets faster and faster, people want more bullets."
If these metaphors sound, well, bloodier than those of his literary peers, it's tempting to blame Brown's military training in the 82nd Airborne. After all, he first wrote poetry "in the foxholes," he says. "I would take my little flashlight and I would read psalms and proverbs. Then I'd write my own short stuff in my journal." When Brown read his journals at an open mic in 1993, he got a good response. "I was like, 'Oh, wow, I'm going to write other stuff.'" He smiles. "It was really bad. Very self-pitying, angst-ridden, shitty sorrow."
But it didn't stay that way for long. Brown's self-deprecating, soft-spoken manner in person bears little resemblance to his riveting stage persona, which secured him second place at his first national poetry slam in 1998 and has since made him one of the most successful touring spoken-word poets in the nation. Brown's poems alternate moments of tense lyrical density with bursts of pure narrative, and his delivery combines elements of the rock song, the stand-up comedy set, and the sermon.
Brown's spoken-word roots are critical to his business model, which has met with a success rarely seen in the world of small literary presses. Write Bloody was established on a record model, with authors touring to promote their work – 20 tour dates the first year, and about half that for the next few years. It's a grueling model for authors who are used to relying on a publisher to promote them (often fitfully), but it works. If the authors give good readings, Brown says, the books sell. After nine successful years, Write Bloody is now located in a newly opened storefront at 2306 E. Cesar Chavez, where Brown also stocks writing supplies and titles from his own catalog.
Like Brown, Kevin Burke of Timber Mouse Publishing (www.timbermouse.com) also came to the scene via spoken-word poetry, which he discovered about a decade after Brown did. If anything, Burke is even more dedicated to documenting the high-octane, live-performance poetry that he says "changed my life completely." Unlike Write Bloody, Timber Mouse is dedicated solely to spoken-word poets like Lacey Roop, whose debut book And Then Came the Flood was Timber Mouse's first release.
When asked if there's a contradiction inherent in publishing poetry that's meant to be read aloud, Burke vehemently disagrees: "They print Shakespeare, they print plays, they print things that are supposed to be heard."
Besides, he explains, touring spoken-word poets rely on selling copies of their work at readings. "A lot of books they're touring with don't look that great. They made it at Kinko's or at home. So we say, 'Hey, we'll help you make an awesome book and sell it and get distribution out of it.'" Burke describes an evolution of the spoken-word and slam scene toward poems that lend themselves to being read as well as being heard performed. "The writing has found its own way to be dense, and still be spoken and understood," he says, and his own funny, explosive performances bear this out. "What makes, in my opinion, awesome spoken-word stuff is that it works just as well on the page as it does onstage."
After years of publishing poetry, Derrick Brown has the numbers to prove that printing poetry pays. When Write Bloody puts out electronic versions of its books, they don't sell nearly as well. "There's an intimacy with poetry that does not exist with a business book or a book on great cycling trips or something. There's something about a glass of wine, a fire, a coffee shop, a nightstand by a bed – that's the romance of poetry."
When we spoke to him, Burke had come directly from a meeting with Brown, who was sharing tips on the practical aspects of publishing with the younger poet. This sort of collegiality, all the interviewees agreed, is a unique and striking feature of the Austin literary scene. With two high-profile start-up literary journals (and another, SYNONYM, on the way), three small literary publishing houses, and a supposedly ever-shrinking market for print literature, going into print right now is definitely a risky move. Yet all the editors we spoke to praised Austin's warm, supportive, collaboration-friendly environment, name-checking one another with admiration and respect.
As the digital revolution presses on, this solidarity may form the best defense against the difficulties of starting a print venture. While the five journals and presses featured above won't stem the digital tide, with any luck, they will assure that beautiful books and print journals will always have a place in Austin.