Indie Spotlight: Pressgang

pressgangBegun in 2012 by fiction writer Bryan Furuness, Pressgang is based at Butler University and is affiliated with Butler’s MFA program and the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writer Series. Pressgang’s initial publications have come from its Pressgang Prize, which awards $1,500 and publication to a book-length fiction or memoir manuscript. Its initial two titles show a determination to publish wonderful range of styles, from the quirky and poignant collection of stories by Jacob Appel, Einstein’s Beach House, to Teresa Milbrodt’s delightful collection of vignettes Larissa Takes Flight.

Pressgang’s current Editor-in-Chief is writer Robert Stapleton, and he is the force behind Pressgang’s newest and most ambitious title, just published this month. Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose is a fantastic collection of stories both written and illustrated. Editors Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson recruited several trios of writers and cartoonists to “respond to one another’s work with original pieces of flash fiction,” producing a rich collection of collaborative riffs from an amazing range of writers and artists. Lynda Barry, Aimee Bender, Junot Díaz, Steve Almond, Sherrie Flick, and so many more not only created the stories and comics in the collection, they also discussed the collective creative venture they took part in.

For Ploughshares, Robert Stapleton discusses Pressgang’s latest publication and current status, and shares what the press has in store in the future.

KF: Your submission guidelines request work that blurs boundaries: “Think Lorrie Moore, think Laurie Anderson, think Lemony Snickett,” and your initial publications exhibit that refreshing eclectic flavor. How will Pressgang’s editorial choices evolve now that the press is under your leadership?

RS: Bryan and I have had neighboring offices at Butler since 2010. We share many similar aesthetic and publishing interests, and Booth and Pressgang have naturally risen from our daily conversations. Since Pressgang’s inception, I have been intimately involved with its editorial board and the decisions of what to publish, just like Bryan has always been, and still is, integral to Booth’s editorial curation. The primary distinction is that I tend to champion graphic design whenever possible.

KF: You’re also editor of the online and print journal Booth. Do you see a collaborative future between the journal and press? How do you manage both enterprises?Continue Reading

Is International Fiction Relatable?


Not too long ago, as a writer who was based in India, once a colony of the British, and who had once been a “citizen of the world” living in the United States, I wondered, with apprehension, whether my stories would resonate with American and global readers and editors. As a struggling writer, I presumed that great stories surmount barriers of geography and culture by bringing out universal themes. (Theme transcends plot and setting. Theme is a comment on the human condition. Cinderella is not just the story of a poor maid who overcomes the cruelty of her family and lives happily ever after with Prince Charming. The theme of the story reveals that people who are kind and patient are often rewarded for their good deeds.)

Then, fairly recently, I came across the word “relatable.” I did not have a language as convenient as that until then to ponder how my readers might relate to my stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. “Relatable” did not exist in the vocabulary of literary criticism until the mid-twentieth century, according to an article in Slate. In fact, the word has gained currency only over the past decade, writer Rebecca Mead says in her essay on the topic in The New Yorker. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the first and the oldest definition of relatable as “able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating.” The second meaning is more recent: “Able to be brought into relation with something.”

The third and final meaning, and the most recent, is “that which can be related to; with which one can identify or empathize.” According to the OED, the first use of this sense of the adjective dates back to 1965. The term became the buzz of the literary world, including The New Yorker magazine, when Ira Glass, host of a popular public radio program, said, after a performance of King Lear, that Shakespeare is not “relatable” and that he is “unemotional.”

Shakespeare was British and Western, and here a popular literary commentator based in the Western world was calling the Bard “not relatable.” Wasn’t Shakespeare “relatable” universally? Didn’t his plays have universal themes? Aren’t universal themes not “relatable” globally?

The word relatable, as used by Glass and others since, has brought both discomfiture and relief to me as a writer who often writes of cultures and settings different from Western. If Shakespeare is not “relatable,” how could I hope to be relatable? Continue Reading

What’s Self-Love Got to Do with It?


Two years ago a generous woman handed me a spare key to the private office where she conducts her psychotherapy practice. I’ve since spent most weekends and some Jewish holy days, hours both glorious and mundane, in this Greenwich Village brownstone where I read and write and fret and nap on a red couch. I don’t receive therapy from Dr. X, but her gift of a creative private space—an ongoing residency of sorts—is its own therapy, free of charge.

Even if the shelf above her desk didn’t hold the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud bound in blue cloth (along with every secondary source on the man you can imagine), the paraphernalia honoring the father of psychosis scattered around the room clears up any doubt to the school of thought Dr. X follows: a plastic Freud action figure with hinged arms and the infamous cigar cinched between two tiny fingers; a Freudian Sips mug; a paper doll Freud with a hand cupped invitingly behind his ear; a framed poster of The New Yorker cover of Siggie driving a yellow cab while advising a patient reclined in the backseat; and a notepad of Freudian Slips.

When restless I read magazines in the waiting room or study the contents of the mini refrigerator in the adjacent kitchenette. I long ago developed the interloper’s eye, the art of looking and moving in places that don’t belong to me. I remember the objects I inspected in my early days of roaming when my mother took me with her on housekeeping jobs, objects I could not resist: a trophy with a small bronze eagle at its base, an old china doll with sharply-drawn eyebrows, a blue-flowered Japanese urn that lurched from my small hands, its extravagance deducted from my mother’s paycheck the following week.

I often imagine the people who come here during office hours, the stories they might tell Dr. X, all their vulnerabilities, traumas and despair, hubris, epiphanies, self-criticism or forgiveness. So many things released and reached within these walls. Hard questions that gnaw at their guts, questions realized and lived through again and again in the process of therapy. In form and in content, for me, it is the very stuff of art: the complexities and contradictions of human nature, a repeated return to obsessions, methods and processes of making the internal external, the need to locate and tell something that feels absolutely necessary—or even to invent that something—and have it be received.

And so, in this very specific space where people strive to understand themselves, I read and write. These days in the office I’m contemplating love—I wonder, do you have to love yourself to make art? Is art making, like choosing therapy, an act of self-preservation? At the very least, isn’t the desire to create something a gesture of self-affirmation, even if it leads to self-destruction?Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Small Beer Press

small beer press

Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, a writing and editing superduo based in western Massachusetts, began Small Beer Press in 2000, and immediately built a list of titles that garnered a number of awards for science fiction, fantasy, and horror and also landed on a variety of “best of” lists from publications as varied as Time, Salon, Booklist, and The Village Voice. Small Beer books defy genre while also celebrating it; their titles are wondrous and fantastical, blurring the line between the speculative and the concrete in ways that are sometimes dark, sometimes delightful, and altogether original.

Small Beer and its imprint Big Mouth (which publishes fiction for readers 10 and up) have quite the stable of authors, not least of which is Kelly Link herself. Joan Aiken, Holly Black, Peter Dickinson, Lydia Millet, Ursula K. Le Guin, Delia Sherman, and Howard Waldrop are just a few of their notable names.

New discoveries, like Ayize Jama-Everett, author of a trio of Small Beer novels featuring Chabi, a half-Mongolian, half-black female martial arts expert, and flash and short story writer Mary Rickert, whose collection You Have Never Been Here was published by Small Beer this fall, are just beginning to rack up the awards and notoriety to continue Small Beer’s quickly established legacy. Rickert’s book in particular is an excellent embodiment of the dance with genre that exemplifies a Small Beer book. You Have Never Been Here is full of fairy tales and ghost stories, otherworldly and gothic, but Rickert’s stories are also as frighteningly familiar as the nightly news headlines or the small town “strange but true” tales that get passed around at the beauty shop or the bar.

What might be most remarkable is that Small Beer Press still accepts unsolicited submissions the old-fashioned way; they ask writers to submit the first 10-20 pages via snail mail with a forever-stamped SASE to their PO Box in Easthampton, Massachusetts.

For Ploughshares, Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link and share what goes on behind the curtain at Small Beer, what prospective authors need to know, and what surprises they have in store for readers in the new year.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Rounding Up the Submission Fee Debate


In recent years, most literary journals have begun to accept online submissions through popular managers like Submittable–many, too, have begun to only accept submissions in this way, eschewing the old-guard snail-mail submission method entirely. This new approach certainly has its upsides–in many cases the switch has resulted in faster response times, often more organized editorial deliberation practices, and ease of tracking submissions on part of the submitter. Online submission seems like an obvious solution to the problems of inconvenient post office trips and purchasing stamps. But this online submission process has garnered criticism for what many perceive to be an unfair tax on the submitter: nominal ~$2 to $5 submission fees.

Here, I’ve tried to round up some of the major press on submission fees and offer some insight into these fees and their ostensible necessity.

Earlier this year at The Atlantic, Joy Lazendorfer weighed in with the article “Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?” Lazendorfer indicts the fee as an obstacle to those not easily able to afford it, writing, “If this [fee] seems like a reasonable practice, it’s worth noting that this model is nonexistent in the rest of publishing, where it’s always been free for writers to send their work to editors.”

In January 2015, the Writer’s Relief staff published an article at The Huffington Post with a view that opposes Lazendorfer’s: “Simply put: It costs money for journals to maintain websites, create issues, and use an online submission manager. Many literary magazines are non-profit and are run by volunteers. Those that are run by colleges or universities are dealing with ever-shrinking budgets. Do you subscribe or donate money to every magazine you submit work to? Maybe yes, but maybe no. By charging an administrative fee, struggling literary journals can continue to publish.”Continue Reading

Round-Down: New Lamb Novel to Launch Exclusively on App


There is no question that e-books have seen a surge of popularity in recent years, and that many titles have taken advantage of this form to reach more, and new, readers. The launch of a new app, Metabook, might represent the next step in the rise of digital bookselling. Metabook, which launched on March 18, is, according to its website, the new “digital reading experience for the 21st Century.” In a somewhat surprising announcement, New York Times bestselling author Wally Lamb will be releasing his latest novel, I’ll Take You There, exclusively on the app, exclusively on Apple devices. This means that to read the novel by this prolific writer, you’ll need an Apple device on which to download it.

Lamb’s title is not the first to be launched on the app. Acclaimed author John Berendt re-published his nonfiction book Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil on Metabook. The highly successful work spent an incredible 216 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold “approximately 2,700,000 hard cover” copies, according to Berendt himself.

Berendt’s Metabook release is not a fair comparison to Lamb’s: it had already been published, had already been considered widely successful, and is a work of nonfiction. A video on the Metabook website shows the multimedia engagement the app provides Midnight: an “audio drama” of the book featuring Laverne Cox, crime scene photos with author commentary, audio of interviews, a special timeline of the trials cited in the book, book-themed music, a 360-degree panorama, and “many other features.”Continue Reading

Round-Down: One Grand Bookstore Curates Celebrated Minds’ Favorite Titles


One Grand Books, founded by Out magazine editor-in-chief Aaron Hicklin, was built upon one simple, brilliant premise–the project asks celebrities, writers, and artists that age-old question: If you were stranded on a desert island, which ten books would you bring with you to read and reread? The bookstore, located in Narrowsburg, New York, is curates the books that matter most to some of the people who matter most to us.

Hicklin told The New York Times about the project’s mission: “’I approach people who, I think, practice their craft really well,’ Hicklin said. ‘They’re not celebrities so much as celebrated individuals who do what they do excellently. The books are a reflection of their development and their evolution. But they’re also just great recommendations.’”

The One Grand operation has plans to grow, too–offering a podcast and salons at which these curators will be able to read aloud from their selections.

Available this week are Neil Patrick Harris’s ten favorite titles–the approach with One Grand Books is a highly individualized one. The store’s website explains that curated lists from celebrities provide “the audience a window into the minds of some of the world’s most engaging people.”

This venture stands in contrast to other recent efforts, perhaps most notably the opening of Amazon’s Amazon Books in Seattle. At Amazon Books, the race to a book’s lowest price finally reaches the brick-and-mortar bookstore. The offerings are vast and the approach is fresh but almost in opposition to the strategy at One Grand Books: at Amazon, the collective wins out via starred rating averages, while One Grand relies on the individual as a tastemaker.

For more on One Grand Books, or to peruse and purchase star-curated titles, click here.

Indie Spotlight: Short Flight/Long Drive Books

short flight_long drive

Short Flight/Long Drive Books is an independent press that emerged from the online literary magazine Hobart, founded by writer Aaron Burch in 2001. Hobart, which currently posts a wide variety of new literary and contemporary culture content on a daily basis, launched Short Flight/Long Drive Books in 2006 with fiction writer Elizabeth Ellen at the helm.

Ellen has worn many hats at Hobart since 2002, serving by turns as Hobart’s co-editor, fiction editor, and poetry editor, and she has collected a number of distinguished and daring titles for SF/LD that are smart rather than merely clever, well-crafted without being overwrought.

SF/LD books range from the near-classic NowTrends by Karl Taro Greenfeld, stories mixing absurdity with the dark underbelly of international adventure, to Jess Stoner’s I Have Blinded Myself Writing This, an unsettling meditation on philosophy, memory and pain, to Selected Tweets by Tao Lin and Mira Gonzalez, whose Twitter conversation serves as an apt medium for disjointed narratives to form a story of personal connection in this fractured 21st century.

For Ploughshares, Elizabeth Ellen explains what makes Short Flight/Long Drive tick, as well as what’s on the travel itinerary in their near future.

Kate Flaherty: Like Short Flight/Long Drive, several new independent presses have evolved as an offshoot of a literary website. What motivated Hobart to expand to book publishing?

Elizabeth Ellen: Aaron and I had been working together to edit Hobart (both the print journal and the online journal) for about four years at that point, and while I enjoyed co-editing, it was clear that Hobart was Aaron’s baby, so to speak—that he had the last say-so when it came to anything Hobart-related—and I wanted my own baby to have say-so over. Books seemed a natural offshoot.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Barnes & Noble Looks Beyond Books to Survive


Barnes & Noble may soon be extending its reach. CEO Ron Biore recently told Alexandra Alter at the New York Times that the company is looking to offer more games, toys, and small gifts in the future, sparking concern that the retailer would slowly move away from its core offering: books.

There’s no doubt book retailers have suffered recent losses in the past two decades, and Barnes & Noble hasn’t been immune. In the past week alone, the company released lower-than-expected revenues. This is nothing new–in April 2014, Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote the incisive “What’s Barnes & Noble’s Survival Plan?” at the Wall Street Journal, where he said that “a shrinking market for print books, competition from Inc., and the costs of investing in its own e-reader and tablets had led to three straight years of losses.” The retailer’s financial problems are nothing particularly new, and the industry’s issues aren’t either. But Barnes & Noble is the last large bookseller in the nation, and this puts its success within the larger conversation of the necessity of brick-and-mortar bookstores in a digital age.

Looking to recoup its losses, the company has turned to selling toys and games. Alter writes that this category of sales, “a small but increasingly critical part of the business, provided a bright spot, growing nearly fifteen percent in the last quarter. In a conference call with investors, Mr. Boire underscored this point by singling out coloring books and strong sales of Adele’s new album 25 among the company’s recent successes.”Continue Reading


the-oxford-india-anthology-of-tamil-dalit-writing-original-imadzsghnvpzhxujThe Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing
Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan
Oxford University Press, 2012
480 pp, $39.95

Buy hardcover

Of the social, political, and economic issues facing India since independence in 1947, the situation of Dalits has been one of the most pressing. Dalits face discrimination and oppression in nearly every part of Indian society, and often are portrayed as a voiceless and victimized minority group. Although Dalits make up almost 16-17% of the population, widely available creative expressions from individuals identifying as members of this group are few and far between, especially outside of India. However, these creative expressions do exist: so far, it’s simply been a matter of availability and translation.

The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing, edited by Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan, is one of several volumes pushing for a reorientation of Dalit representation. By presenting more than one hundred years of work, ranging from poetry to speeches, novel excerpts to autobiography, the anthology underscores that the outpouring of work from Tamil Dalits has never been fixed to a single genre, mode, or emotional current. The editors further emphasize difference by focusing on the state of Tamil Nadu, one of the most populous areas in India, located on its southern tip. Therefore, the book doesn’t present an overwhelming and impossible attempt to represent all Dalit writing throughout the subcontinent; but, instead, the volume makes a worthwhile and focused gathering of work.

Continue Reading