Over the last few years, I’ve spent more time than I might like to admit trolling the obscure backwaters of the e-universe to see what kinds of new literary fiction might be out there. To simplify this journey, I steered away from the vast shoals of genre fiction, though no doubt it harbors some fine work. I wanted to know if there is compelling, imaginative fiction that is unknown to major reviewers and beyond the current academic canons.
Slowly it dawned on me that there is a world of literary micropresses and skilled writers that actually constitute a new avant-garde. These writers and publishers do not share a common subject matter, but they do share a commitment to the extravagant exploration of language and structure. Some are oriented toward the subtly horrific and others the mythic, while still others enter into examinations of the relatively ordinary. These writers luxuriate in adventurous prose, recondite topics, and complex formal structures. They make up a vigorous new underground.
Commitment to this overall sensibility is shared by many who are involved in writing and publishing these books, even if their work appeals only to small readerships. In the past, such literature relied on patrons. Now, however, publishers can use new technologies to discover and develop communities of shared interest, even without kindly benefactors.
Amazon is obviously the foremost company to make book production technologies and marketing tools widely available. It allows individuals and very small businesses to publish e-books and print-on-demand titles at minimal cost and sell them worldwide at low prices. Even those who do not use Amazon’s formatting services can distribute their books everywhere far more profitably than was previously possible. Further, e-books and POD titles can remain “in print” forever and build an audience long after their release.
Right now, all small presses and micropresses use social media to forge more communal relationships with their colleagues and their readerships. Traditional small presses such as Archipelago Books, Daedalus Books, and Wakefield Press have long enriched the literary canon with translations and English-language originals in beautifully designed paper or hardcover editions with e-book access. And Portland, Maine–based Publerati, for instance, has gone further, fostering its commitment to American fiction by developing a mixed agency/e-publishing model, linked into the espresso POD network and integrated with worldwide literacy education.
In the U.K., Quentin Crisp’s Chômu Press, David Rix’s Eibonvale Press, and R.B. Russel and Rosalie Parker’s Tartarus Press each began by exploring the literature of strangeness and dread, but each now publishes beautifully written, adventurous, and provocative fiction. These publishers have all released beautiful hardcover special editions and reasonably priced e-books. With a similar dedication, Adam Carrière’s Hammer and Anvil Books presents LGBTQ titles and sports mysteries—all marked by a fastidious elegance of style—in e-book editions.
Publication Studio of Portland, Ore., has taken a completely local approach. It produces POD books that do not appear on Amazon. These are mostly by regional authors, but Publication Studio also has some wonderful Walter Benjamin translations. Its intent is to give the company a neighborhood presence analogous to that of a local bakery.
This new avant-garde seems to embody a sensibility emerging worldwide—one that is enthusiastic and amicable. Its members—from Australia, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Pakistan, Slovenia, Thailand, the U.K., and elsewhere—use the full range of social media to collaborate. People used to go to Paris, London, New York, or Shanghai to connect with new waves in the arts; now, effortlessly, you can find them on the Internet.
Douglas Penick lives in Boulder, Colo., and writes novels, short stories, lyrics, and plays.