Bruce McPherson and Allan Kornblum go way back. Both were early pioneers in the small press movement of the 1970s, McPherson coming of age in the heady literary scene surrounding Brown University and Kornblum taking the path of the artisan—studying with the letterpress legend Harry Duncan in Iowa City and beginning as more of a printer than a publisher. Both young men chose offbeat names for their early publishing operations—Treacle, in McPherson's case, Toothpaste Press in Kornblum's—names that reflected the fact that small press publishing at the time was, if not countercultural, at least irreverent. But the one thing that has identified small press publishing ever since—and increasingly in contrast to commercial publishing—is commitment to authors. Two weeks ago those commitments—McPherson's to the work of the first writer he ever published, Jaimy Gordon, and Kornblum's to the writer he discovered in the 1980s and has published ever since, Karen Tei Yamashita—were rewarded by nominations for both writers for the National Book Award in fiction.
Forty Years of Friendship
McPherson and Gordon met in a poetry class as undergrads at Brown in 1970. By the time McPherson graduated in 1973 and landed a job in Providence, he had been following Gordon's quest to find a publisher for the novel she had written. McPherson says, "It became clear to me that Jaimy'd never convince a commercial house to issue a wildly comic Menippean satire whose setting was a universe fleetingly tangential to our own," so he decided to publish Shamp of the City-Solo as, he says, "a one-off." But McPherson was interested, too, in "dazzling at least a small corner of the small press world," which at the time was awash in poetry chapbooks, mimeography, and hand-stitched microeditions. There were few, if any, small presses publishing full-length novels. And it did dazzle—a little—at the time. But while the likes of Len Fulton's Small Press Review took admiring notice, the story of Hughbury Shamp, a reluctant prepubescent who becomes a student of three "masters" at the West Poolesville Depot on the Sumpsky Prospect, across the River Sump from Big Yolk—the city-solo of the title—was "excoriated" elsewhere, McPherson says. And his (and Gordon's) hope that the "White Knight Publishing Corp." would come along and buy reprint rights never materialized. In the years since, Shamp's reputation has certainly grown—Allen Peacock in the Boston Globe called it "one of the most beautiful novels in the language," and Gordon's comic gifts and inventiveness have been compared to Flann O'Brien and Angela Carter. And thanks to the Shamp, not only was a writer launched but a publishing house as well.
McPherson continued to publish books—concentrating on fiction and art criticism. In the early 1980s, he consulted his own three "masters"—publishing scholar Leonard Shatzkin, New York Times Book Review editor Mitchel Levitas, and PW's editor-in-chief John Baker—and sought their advice on "enlarging my reception as a publisher." He found that he was taken seriously under the press's more grown-up name, McPherson & Co.
Gordon, meanwhile, embarked on a career of teaching and novel writing. Her second novel, She Drove Without Stopping, was published by Algonquin in 1990, but went out of print. McPherson came to the rescue and reprinted it in 1993. Her third novel, Bogeywoman, was published by Sun & Moon in 1999, to some acclaim, but was never reprinted.
"Sadly," says McPherson, who has remained a close friend of Gordon's for 40 years, "although Jaimy is one of the most gifted writers of her generation, there are rather lengthy hiatuses between her books." Indeed, The Lord of Misrule —a Runyonesque tale set at a West Virginia racetrack—was stalled for years, until this summer, when McPherson sent Gordon a sample galley from an unrevised draft and said he wanted to publish it in time for NBA consideration. "Bruce said he had a hunch it could be a contender," says Gordon by phone from Kalamazoo, where she is teaching at Western Michigan University. "He had only certainties. I had only uncertainties. But when I saw the galley, to my amazement, I really liked it."
The nomination upped McPherson's print run from 2,000 to 8,000 overnight. And Gordon found an agent in Bill Clegg. When asked by phone how long he has been Gordon's agent, Clegg deadpans: "Five minutes." But he's been a fan of her work for years, since reading Bogeywoman, "which I loved." Two of his other clients, Salvatore Scibona and Bonnie Jo Campbell, had already urged him to consider representing Gordon, so when she called the very day of the nomination, Clegg said yes.
"Right now," says Clegg, "my number one task is reading through some of Jaimy's new work and working on behalf of Bruce to sell reprint rights."