Sarcasm (wink, wink), or, Maybe Small Presses are Doomed too.

categories: Cocktail Hour


Over the last few years I have reviewed a couple of nature books for the New York Times Book Review, including one called Wild and Crazy Guy, happily uniting my love of Henry David Thoreau and (the early) Steve Martin.  However, in my continuing effort to destroy (help?) my own career, I bit the hand and wrote the letter below in January.  I am not un-combative, and certainly expected some spirited disagreement when I wrote my letter.  But what I didn’t expect was the angle of attack in the e-mail exchange below.  (I hope it is not a comment on the future of small presses.)

Here is the letter itself, followed by the e-mail exchange with the man who didn’t like my letter.  (Names and a couple of details have been changed to protect the hopelessly innocent.)

January 2010    The New York Times Book Review

LETTERS; Making A List

To the Editor:

What a fascinating coincidence that once again almost all (52 of 55) of the nonfiction books of 2009 that your editors deemed notable (Dec. 6) were published by large New York presses. At a time when many are seeking small-press alternatives because they believe that conventional publishing is dying, in large part because it has turned timid, increasingly unvaried and run by its bean-counters, it is heartening to see that the big guys still have a champion.

Wilmington, N.C.
The writer is an associate professor in the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

And here’s the e-mail exchange that followed:

Sent: January 07, 2010 8:11 AM
To: Gessner, David
Subject: your letter to Times Book Review

Dear Dave – Happy New Year.  I read your note to the New York Times Book Review about championing big presses, and while I know no one likes to receive a negative note, I feel I must take exception.  As the founder of Obscuro Books, an independent press, I know of what I speak.  The NYTBR is very elitist.  Of course they only had big presses listed – 52 of 55 books – the reason being they generally refuse to review independent books.  The only books that make their end of the year list are those they’ve reviewed during the year, and as they rarely review independent press books, it goes without saying what will make their list.  As a scientist, you should know if I present you with but one form of data and ask you to draw conclusions that it is more than probable the assumptions you draw will be wrong.  For every big press book the NYTRB reviews, there are twice as many good independent books they ignore.   We at Obscuro have sent them all our books as they come out.  Our books have won national awards, are highly praised literary fiction, and yet the Times wont lower itself to review indie presses.  In fact, they just refused to review our two most recent books, both of which have received starred notice elsewhere.  Again, I dont mean to argue but your claim was so wrong I just saw red.  Thanks for listening.  All best – Ed

Ed Wilson

Obscuro Books

—–Original Message—–
From: Gessner, David
Sent: Thu, Jan 7, 2010 10:48 am
Subject: RE: your letter to Times Book Review


I don’t want to be rude, but I think you may have missed the point of my letter.   I am in total agreement with you.

The last line was meant, and was taken based on the letters I’ve gotten, sarcastically.

So, I’m in your camp!      DG

Sent: January 07, 2010 10:54 AM
To: Gessner, David
Subject: Re: your letter to Times Book Review

You know I was hoping that was the case, but to be candid – not to be rude myself – but the satire was so poorly constructed it was hard to tell.  I thought at first you couldnt be serious but then you denigrated small presses and the move toward indie presses  so that your intent came off totally unclear.  I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt but it just didnt seem that you had made your point.

From: Gessner, David
Sent: Thu, Jan 7, 2010 10:56 am
Subject: RE: your letter to Times Book Review

Well, that is insulting.

Sent: January 07, 2010 10:59 AM
To: Gessner, David
Subject: Re: your letter to Times Book Review

sorry man,.  its just a very very very sore spot with me.  the uphill fight is absurd,  the big presses make a mockery for the most part of what publishing is all about.  they have ruined themselves and the industry and still places like the NYTRB cover their backs.  they will get whats coming to them in time, as they have a bit of late.  all will be gone soon.  they are greedy and myopic!  sorry if I attacked a comrade.  appreciate we are in the end on the same side.

  1. Alexis writes:

    That is hilarious!

  2. Bill Roorbach writes:

    Who Needs New York?
    (A Cocktail Hour Sonnet, More Sanguine than Most)

    David, there’s always a reason to be optimistic
    Sure, okay, big publishing and medium publishing
    and small publishing are doomed–
    but what about very small publishing?
    I visited the Museum of Miniatures in Prague
    last spring, a tiny storefront in a former abbey,
    wherein an even more former micro-surgeon displays painstaking
    works of art made using microscopic instruments.
    Like, all of Dickens in gold on an eyelash, and portraits
    of famous people on the heads of pins. So I’m thinking,
    heck, let’s just print that book on the wing of a dragonfly
    and send it fluttering and darting out into the waiting world!
    Gripers and Naysayers are just deluded.
    Life writ small! (Electron microscope not included.)

  3. Dan Dunnagan writes:

    I’m a little sympathetic to Wilson’s original response, because public discourse has become so outrageous that it’s difficult to distinguish deliberate absurdity. Every day I hear statements that stretch my understanding of what’s plausibly sincere. Of course, given a second chance, he should have acknowledged his obvious mistake.

    • Dave writes:

      I don’t know. I remain firm in my belief that the phrase “What a fascinating coincidence” is universally accepted code for “snarly sarcasm ahead.”

      • nina writes:

        That was actually me who wrote the above comment. I’m good at recognizing sarcasm, but not at remembering to log off David’s account before I comment.

    • Dave writes:


      I too have some sympathy with his original response. But then he gets defensive and starts flailing like some bad girlfriend/boyfriend from your 20s in a fight……it would have been best to simply not hit the “send” button. (Especially if he knew that he guy he was sending it to was in the process of becomign a blogger.)

      Best, Dave

  4. michele writes:

    I have that problem, but it’s when I read in french.

  5. T. writes:

    Poor man, what does he publish – pop up books?

    I agree with Patricia’s comment and believe that too many folks have trouble with the subtleties in writing, (and sometimes in speaking). This is indicative not only of poor reading skills but, I think moreso, poor thinking skills. Readers such as Angry Ed tend not to fully engage their brains when reading and therefore miss many of the nuances. Is this because mainstream print has been dumbed down to accomodate the old journalism adage of KISS (keep it simple, stupid), which goes along with the common wisdom that most readers have a reading/comprehension level of about the eighth grade? We are used to sound bites, side bars and flouncy articles about hula hooping our way to good health so any writing that kicks it up a level gets lost on the average reader.

    So really, poor Mr. Pop-Up publisher is just a victim of our media society and poor education system – more to be pitied than anything else……should I add an LOL here….you know, just for clarity?

  6. Patricia Moyer writes:

    sadly I think it is more of a comment on the state of humor (and possibly intelligence) in this country. Satire, sarcasm, irony seem to require footnotes these days. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of political correctness.

  7. Steven Stafford writes:

    LOL. Don’t listen to that guy. It was well-done.

    I can’t believe that guy selects who gets published and who doesn’t.

  8. Hope writes:

    LOL–but I’m laughing with you, not at you. Promise.

  9. John Jack writes:

    How tragically comical. An expert reader who has difficulty distilling irony from written word? I’m reminded of Mr. Ben Franklin’s ironic commentary to his daughter Sarah Bache suggesting the wild turkey would be a better national bird than the bald eagle. Oh Cincinnati!

    According to my sources, there’s about seventy-five thousand active publishers with up to ten active ISBN identifiers indexed in ISBN databases. Twelve thousand with eleven up to two hundred ISBNs. Two Thousand with two hundred or more ISBNs. Countless numbers of self-publisher ISBNs since CreateSpace and Lulu started offering their ISBN assignments to inividual self-publishers as a part of their services. Anyone can be a publisher now, of even one book printed one time, or ten times, fifty copies, whatever. Choice!

    Number of publishers in recent years;
    1947: 357
    1973: 3,000
    1980: 12,000
    1994: 52,847
    2003: 73,000
    2004: 85,000
    2010: 100,000 ??

    California currently has twice as many publishers as New York. As Babel’s ziggurat tower rises and narrows, the base broadens.

    The transnational publishing Big Six Sisters: Bertelsmann, CBS Corporation, Hachette, News Corporation, Pearson, and Verlagsgruppe.
    Six U.S. conglomerates: Random House, Inc., Penguin Putnam, Inc., HarperCollins, Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, Time Warner, Simon & Schuster, Inc. Randon House is a subsidiary of Bertelsmann. Penguin, Pearson. Harper, News Corp. Holtzbrinck Publishing a parent of Verlagsgruppe. Time Warner owns half of CBS Corp. Simon & Schuster, a subsidiary of CBS Corp.

    What a tangled World Wide Web we weave when first we practice to conceive.