Pub crawl: Editors and publishers discuss the fate of literary novels

Smaller presses, with an eye toward excellence and craft, may hold the key to publication. But you’ll need patience and persistence to unlock the doors, say these successful editors and publishers.

Literary Novels

If you’ve written a literary novel and have been unsuccessful in placing it with a commercial press, consider the path of independent literary publishing. Often when we think of literary fiction, we think of works heavy on theme and idea, multi-layered in meaning, with complex characters, innovative structure and unique style. In addition, some novels present elements of ambiguity, making readers struggle at interpretation, sometimes at the sentence level, sometimes with the work as a whole. Yet not everyone defines “literary” the same way, and certainly not every literary publisher looks for or emphasizes the same approach.

Indeed, the editors of several independent literary presses had various ways of explaining what they look for in acquisitions. Their insights follow.

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What is a “literary” novel?

Joey McGarvey, editor at Milkweed Editions, insists on “freshness and innovation.” For her, there are no “musts” beyond these two. What’s fresh, what’s innovative can come in many forms, says McGarvey, “taking me to a place I’ve never been, or introducing me to a mold-breaking character, or using language in a particularly rich or dynamic way – or doing something really exciting, formally or structurally.” Bottom-line: The work must surprise.

As an example, take a look at the following passage from Ordinary Wolves, Seth Kantner’s novel that takes place in the Alaskan plains.

In the bad mouse year – two years after magazines claimed a white man hoofed on the moon – Enuk Wolfglove materialized one day in front of our house in the blowing snow and twilight of no-sun winter. His dog team vanished and reappeared in the storm. Abe stood suddenly at the window like a bear catching a scent. “Travelers!” He squeezed out his half-smoked cigarette, flicked it to the workbench, wiped ashy fingers on his sealskin overpants. We kids eyed the cigarette’s arc – we could smoke it later, behind the drifts, pretend we were artists like him. 

“Poke up the fire?” Abe grinned like an older brother, our best friend, no dad at all. “And hide the vanilla.” His head and broad shoulders disappeared as he squirmed into his shedding caribou-calfskin parka. He banged the door to break the caribou-skin stripping loose and jumped into the storm. 

The writing is fresh, real. The language is both “rich” and “dynamic.” Enuk Wolfglove immediately looms large, the way he suddenly “materialized” in a snowstorm. Abe’s reaction to him is equally compelling. Note the concrete simile: “like a bear catching a scent.” The way Abe pulls on his parka, the way he “jumped into the storm” creates an element of surprise in one short, packed scene.  

For Chris Fischbach, editor at Coffee House Press, the literary novel calls for several distinctive features. “We want our books to be bold. To take risks. The writing itself should dazzle us, and we love when writers experiment with form and genre boundaries.” While this means “formal and syntactical experimentation,” Fischbach does insist that novel submissions demonstrate a grasp of two fundamental fictional elements: character and story. “Strong characters first, and a good story second,” says Fischbach. As a sample of Coffee House’s high standards, consider this excerpt from Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth.

I’m the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I’m a discreet sort of man. My name is Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, though people call me Highway, I believe with affection. I can imitate Janis Joplin after two rums. I can interpret Chinese fortune cookies. I can stand an egg upright on a table, the way Christopher Columbus did in the famous anecdote. I know how to count to eight in Japanese: ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi. I can float on my back.

Notice the energetic language and syntax – clipped sentences mixed with longer, more detailed ones – as Sánchez boldly enumerates his eclectic abilities. Strong characterization pulls the reader in. What’s next?

Coffeetown Press – don’t confuse it with Coffee House – also expects writers to handle basic fictional craft well. Catherine Treadgold, publisher, says, “What we look for in literary fiction is in many ways the same as what we look for in genre fiction: a coherent narrative arc, characters with enough depth to pull readers in and an appealing setting.” But as a literary press, Coffeetown also demands a unique narrative voice. “Not only distinctive, but also poetic,” says Treadgold. Watch for voice in this excerpt from Dennis Must’s Hush Now, Don’t Explain.

A half mile beyond the roundhouse, two bungalows where black gandy dancers lived went up in flames. One of the white neighbor men on the road told Billy it was all his mother’s blame.

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“Her and her roomer’s doin’s,” he spat. “Miss Alsada’s piano man.”

For a time Alsada stopped going to work.

The three of us were prisoners too. Locked in the rooming house … waiting for our front porch or perhaps the chicken house to ignite.

Seemed men only torched at night. They understood that fires in the daylight are terrible, but after dark they’re evil.

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The appeal to which Treadgold refers is gripping rather than literal. The setting is charged with racial hatred, yet the language itself becomes poetic with Must’s adept use of dialect and striking imagery. The narrator’s voice grabs the reader with a forceful portrayal of an ugly reality.

“We want our books to be bold. To take risks. The writing itself should dazzle us, and we love when writers experiment with form and genre boundaries.” –Chris Fischbach, Coffee House Press

Steve Gillis, publisher and co-founder at Dzanc Books, also emphasizes voice. “We are looking for a strong, singular voice with something to say, a command of language and a clear vision.” Voice and vision are closely connected: “The writing has to be unique, the author has to have control of his or her narrative, and has to have something to say and knows how to deliver the goods,” he says. Notice the control of the voice in the complex vision of character in Carmiel Banasky’s The Suicide of Claire Bishop.

All thoughts are potential clues. Pebbles dropped along a path of pebbles leading back to my true self fixed high above me. I must document these clues or they will be lost, forgotten, unwritten from time. My love will never have existed. 

In this particular subway car, two clues shine out: 1) the woman’s map of a face and 2) the graffiti. Riding the 1 train feels like stepping into a child’s drawing: the windows are covered in scratch graffiti and the floors in loopy black, and every advertisement has at least one moustache penned across a model’s lip. And, like a child’s drawing, the train doesn’t quite make sense: who’s that guy in the seat across from me with the top hat, and why does he have no shoes? I wish I were a graffiti artist, here but not here, shouting out my unknowability. I am unlocatable! Just try to find me. 

Not unlike Nicolette, who so easily slips away.

 

Absorbed with her own thoughts, the character struggles with her “unlocatable” existence. Through adroit metaphor and analogy, the author achieves a fine poetic quality, providing a forceful kinetic flourish: “who so easily slips away.”

For Rhonda Hughes, publisher at Hawthorne Books, particular literary fictional techniques aren’t as important as solid writing on edgy subjects. “We like those subject matters that are not your usual dinner topics such as sexuality, racism, death, and addiction, in addition to satire and historical fiction,” she says. “By publishing such topics, we can promote transition and foster human connection.” Hughes’ editorial preference is clear in this excerpt from Call Me Home, Megan Kruse’s novel.

Amy
Women’s Shelter, Alamogordo,
New Mexico, 2010    

The New Mexico sun was a flat disk, the clouds
high above in the hard blue sky. The house was the same as all of
the others in town – a brown stucco box, bleached to a bone color
in places. Inside was a long hallway with six doors and part of a
family behind each one. The mailbox was always empty, and it
bothered her the way the mail car drove right by. Wasn’t it a giveaway?
It seemed like an obvious thing to overlook when you were
trying to make a building look like a home, like a place that held
any whole family instead of six or seven approximations: what
was left of families, after. The backyard was a scrabble of dirt and
rock, where Lydia sat with a little boy against the tall wooden fence
while Amy was inside talking to the caseworker.

The nuanced treatment of this setting and the “six or seven approximations” of families that inhabit it set up the reader for a deep family drama. The language is visual: “The New Mexico sun was a flat disk, the clouds high above in the hard blue sky”; “a brown stucco box, bleached to a bone color”; “The backyard was a scrabble of dirt and rock.” Novels submitted to Hawthorne Books need not meet an editor’s preference for a specific literary technique or trait, but the writer’s craft itself must be pitch-perfect. “Superb” is the word used on the website for Hawthorne Books.

Practical advice

As with any novel, success begins with writing a powerhouse book, and that takes an effective process. “Write,” says Gillis. “And read. Read and write daily and listen to your gut. Trust yourself and take yourself seriously. Close out distractions. Choose your own influences.”

Treadgold says to do what you can to find a novel topic with a distinctive subtext and a strong personal engagement. That gives you an edge when it comes to the writing and, if published, marketing and promotion. “One of our authors, Claire Gebben, wrote an historical novel based on the life of her great-grandfather called The Last of the Blacksmiths,” says Treadgold. “The story was set in Cleveland, and she ended up doing events in both Seattle and Cleveland, convincing carriage museums to carry the book, doing some amateur blacksmithing herself and writing about it, giving talks about how to do genealogical research. It’s amazing how many angles she found, and it really worked for the book.”

Once you’ve written the novel, McGarvey advises: “Be patient. Be persistent. And on a very practical note, be thoughtful with your comp titles. A good one, to an author I like, will be make me perk up. A bad one – say, to any dead author – can do harm.”

With independent literary publishers, you won’t need an agent, so the heavy lifting involved in submitting work will fall entirely on you. Regardless of genre, writers should acquaint themselves with marketing blurbs as well as publishers’ websites to gain a targeted sense of what publishers want and publish. But you should do much more than this, says Fischbach. You should carefully read a sampling of novels the press has published. This will give you a concrete idea of the focus of the press. Then, says Fischbach, ask yourself: Is this press the right fit?

One practical concern regarding the submission process is that perennial question of having a platform and social media presence. Must you? Will acceptance depend on this? It depends.

“It will definitely help,” Fischbach says, “but an author without a platform wouldn’t be penalized in our consideration process. That said, you should try to have multiple platforms.” Treadgold adds, “The literary novels that have performed best for us were written by authors who have some means of selling themselves as well as their novels.” Successful authors, she says, generally do readings or talks at libraries and bookstores, and they draw a crowd “for reasons other than buying their novels.” But she points out, “We have published some books just because the author’s voice was so strong and we loved the story.” With such novels, she is willing to wait. “Sometimes it takes a while,” says Treadgold, “but if we believe in the story and the writing, we trust that the book will eventually find its audience. And no matter what happens, we are proud to be its publisher. We are always looking for new ways to help our authors raise their profiles.”

 “I’m thrilled if an author has connections that will help us sell his or her book – other writers who might blurb, potential opportunities for readings and other promotions – but beyond that, I am not looking for platform when acquiring fiction,” says McGarvey. What she is looking for is “the merit of the work” as well as the book’s marketability. “Platform,” she notes, “is more important in nonfiction, where it can indicate the size of an audience for a subject and the author’s ability to find said audience.”

“We are looking for a strong, singular voice with something to say, a command of language and a clear vision.” –Steve Gillis, Dzanc Books

For Gillis, it doesn’t matter if the writer has a platform. “Of course once we accept a manuscript, we encourage our authors to become involved with social media, and we ourselves are very active on social media, but in reading a submission, we are not influenced at all. All that matters is the writing,” he says. A strong publication record doesn’t affect Dzanc’s judgment either. “We have rejected many, many ‘name’ authors and friends as well when their writing doesn’t meet what we’re looking for.” “Marketability doesn’t matter,” adds Gillis. “All that matters is that the writing is worthy and deserves to be published.”

A debut novelist seeking publication may have established a broad social media presence but, of course, have little or no author’s platform. “It certainly helps,” says Hughes, “but we’re committed to championing debut writers, and that is where we’ve seen some successes.” Case in point: The National Book Foundation added Kruse’s Call Me Home to its 5 Under 35 Writers program.

Success stories

While novelists tend to view commercial publication as a sign of success, one shouldn’t discount small, independent publishers as somehow second string. While commercial publishers have literary imprints and publish literary fiction, including many literary heavyweights, clearly independent literary publishers do much to keep good literary fiction alive, the kind of literary fiction that, for one reason or another, commercial publishers don’t see as marketable.

For Coffee House, says Fischbach, a notable success was Sam Savage’s first novel, Firmin, when the author was 65. The story features a rat who learns to read by eating a copy of Finnegans Wake in a used bookstore in Boston in the 1960s. Booksellers went for it, says Fischbach, and eventually the book sold over a half million copies worldwide. This novel and others such as Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita and Donald Duk by Frank Chin have brought national attention to Coffee House.

Coffeetown Press attests to a number of publishing successes as well. Several novels have been reviewed positively by Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and several have won awards, including Dennis Must’s Hush Now, Don’t Explain (the Dactyl Foundation Award), Michael Landweber’s We (the bronze medal in the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards), and Scott Driscoll’s Better You Go Home (the ForeWord First Award). “You never know when the right work of quality fiction will come along at the right time and capture the imagination of a wider public,” says Treadgold.

Dzanc Books has in its quiver of success stories Jac Memc’s My Only Wife, a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction, Carmeil Banaksy’s Suicide of Claire Bishop, which received a starred review by Publishers Weekly, and Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, which won the IPPY Gold. “These novels all have strong wonderfully formed characters and stories,” says Gillis, “while the authors have great command of the language and present their ideas in remarkable ways. It is this combination of ideally forged sentences and creative heart that Dzanc finds itself attracted to when reading manuscripts.”

“If we believe in the story and the writing, we trust that the book will eventually find its audience. And no matter what happens, we are proud to be its publisher.” –Catherine Treadgold, Coffeetown Press

Successful literary novels such as Monica Drake’s Clown Girl, Lidia Yuknavitch’s Dora: A Headcase and Kruse’s Call Me Home have done much to bring recognition to Hawthorne Books.

“We don’t look only for exquisitely accomplished manuscripts, but also, more often than most independent literary presses, for promise,” says Slager of Milkweed. “In fact, some of the novels that have sold the most copies in the end were acquired based on their potential and then developed over years.” Slager cites Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves and David Rhodes’ Driftless. “Both novels surely had great promise on submission,” says Slager, “but their ultimate greatness resulted in part from editorial collaboration that went on for years. At Milkweed, there truly is a partnership between editor and author.”

These are tough presses with high standards. Key to finding success with them and others is to know what they want in technique, trait or emphasis. Familiarize yourself with marketing blurbs, check out publishers’ websites and read a sampling. Then be patient and persistent with the process. If you land a novel at a literary press, marketability can certainly play a part, but you can be sure your work is respected largely for its contribution to good literature.

 

Jack Smith is author of three novels and a book on writing titled Write and Revise for Publication.