Thursday, February 18, 2010

Small Press, Big Vision

Talking with Phil Brady about Etruscan Press was a special treat for me, because long, long ago, when I was still an undergraduate, I did some work with small presses.  Our conversation reminded me of the incredibly hopeful, committed vision that inspires this kind of work.

Small presses like Etruscan make new writing available without regard to sales and markets.  In that sense, they provide the practical side of art for its own sake.  As Brady says in our interview, because their support comes from donors and institutions, not sales, they can choose books based on artistic value, not their potential popularity.  With small press books, writers create, editors and publishers provide space for, and readers pay attention to fresh voices and perspectives.  The work itself, not the size of the audience, is what matters most.

While big press books that sell millions of copies may have more immediate, obvious influence, small presses matter for different reasons.  They make it possible for artists to do their work without having to fit their vision into the often narrow confines of existing models.  Put simply, they make true creativity possible.  They protect us -- not just writers but also readers -- from sliding into cultural conformity.

Happily, such work is sometimes rewarded.  Several Etruscan books have been nominated for major awards, and the press's book of writers' responses to 9/11 drew considerable attention. As Brady suggests, that kind of recognition validates the work of the press.  But that's not why he does this work.  It's all about the writing itself, about supporting writers and providing readers with the best quality books.

Doing this can be joyful work.  You can hear that in the way Brady talks about Etruscan.  It's also stubbornly optimistic work.  Small press publishers and authors know that their work will reach small audiences, but they persist, because they believe that what matters is not the size of the audience but the audacity of the creative vision.  

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