categories: Cocktail Hour
Things are getting kind of exciting down here in sleepy old Wilmington. Lookout Books, sister press of Ecotone and the brainchild of my colleagues Emily Smith and Ben George, just released its very first book, Binocular Vision, a short story collection by Edith Pearlman. That would be exciting enough but the reception of the book has been kind of, well, crazy. If you don’t believe me consider yesterday, when the book got a rave on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and in the L.A. Times. (Not to mention this great piece in Publishers Weekly.) In one week the entire first printing has been distributed to bookstores, and today Lookout will go back for a second printing. To say that anyone down here expected this kind of response would be a big, fat lie. We weren’t quite ready for Edith Pearlmania.
One thing that seems to have caught everyone’s imagination, along with Edith’s stories, is Edith’s story. Both the L.A. and N.Y. Times reviews start with the same question: Why haven’t we heard of her? And as Roxana Robinson answers in the NYTBR: “Maybe from now on everyone will know of Edith Pearlman.”
Let’s hope so. If they do, they will have Ben George and Emily Smith to thank. Ben and Emily, my colleagues here at UNCW, have worked tirelessly on Binocular Vision. Basically, while teaching classes and running the Publishing Lab (Emily) and teaching and editing the journal Ecotone (Ben) they have also somehow, with the help of the grad students in the pub lab, found time to do all of the work that a big press does–editing, proofing, designing, marketing, selling, promoting–and have beautifully launched Binocular Vision into the world.
The storyline– a (slightly) older, formerly little known writer being discovered–may sound corny, but it’s also true. I was fortunate enough to be present when Ben and Emily read the Times review to Edith, via speaker phone, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Edith was so grateful and graceful, heaping praise on the two, and you could feel her great relief and pride at finally being recognized for her work. She called Ben “her knight” and for good reason. Though she had always been known as a writer’s writer, he had re-discovered her and published her in Ecotone and then worked to edit, arrange, and help polish her already polished work. What a pleasure to witness a writing story with a happy ending…..
Emily adds: “”I don’t think either Ben or I slept for a solid month while making phone calls, sending out gratis copies with personalized letters, answering e-mails. But it’s heartening to me that a book published by a small press, with zero advertising budget, can reach its readers. We distributed advance copies in the fall, and then, with tremendous support from our colleagues in the department, Ben and I got on the phone and wrote to hundreds of reviewers and booksellers, urging them to read and ‘discover’ Edith Pearlman. The campaign’s early success proves that the community of passionate readers, sales reps and booksellers is alive and well.”
* * *
As for the book itself, I will defer to my colleague, the fiction writer Robert Siegel, who is now teaching Binocular Vision:
In the spirit of Edith Pearlman’s wonderful, preconception-busting fiction, I want to wander into my point from a place a little off to the side.
There is a whole class of short stories that I think of as teaching stories, by which I mean stories that work well in the classroom because they exemplify some aspect of good craft—exemplify it in a way that is readily explained and quickly grasped. I think of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” for its dialogue and Cheever’s “Reunion” for its beautifully focused first sentence, which begins “The last time I saw my father…”
But you know, when I consider these stories as a group, despite their diversity, what I see is the prevailing aesthetic in short fiction right now: highly formal stories that use the first line like a springboard, reach full speed almost instantly, and then snap shut like a mouse trap. The emphasis is on the “turn,” a clear shift in perception or understanding, or in the fate of a single character.
That’s a wonderful template for short fiction, of course. How can you go wrong with Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs,” or anything at all from Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son?” Both of those writers take the template and turn it into something magical and transcendent, something that can’t be reduced to simple technical mastery. So do Cheever and Updike and Junot Diaz and ZZ Packer and lots of other great writers.
Nevertheless, the dominant model doesn’t describe absolutely all of the great fiction being written at this moment, and I sometimes worry that important stories are being missed because they fall outside of its parameters.
Which brings me to Edith Pearlman.
The stories in Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision live and breathe outside of the current fashion. They tend to put less weight on the opening line, not infrequently shy away from the neat turn, often seem to be trying not to resolve—at least not in the simple sense of that word. Instead of shooting ahead, they unfurl, and they do so at unusual length and with a more measured pace. They feel novelistic, not just because they’re baggier but because their basic concerns are closer to the novelist’s. Character and situation, pattern and texture, the emotional flavor of experience, these seem to be Pearlman’s driving interests. David Uhlin, writing in the LA Times the other day, was right to connect her with Deborah Eisenberg: both writers seem to want to trace the complex connections between things, even if it means pushing the story farther than we expect it to go.
Binocular Vision is so good that I’m going to teach it this semester, just to remind myself (and my students, of course,) that there are other ways to make stories—that a brave and determined writer can stake out her own path and still get where she needs to go.
* * *
Finally here’s Emily again on Lookout’s mission:
Lookout’s mission, to seek out emerging and historically underrepresented voices, as well as works by established writers overlooked by commercial houses, is in itself unique. In a publishing landscape increasingly indifferent to literary innovation, we envision Lookout as a haven for books that matter. Also, we solicit manuscripts from the pool of writers published in Ecotone. We believe in developing lasting relationships and partnering with authors, setting a standard for editorial excellence, and publishing well-made and attractive original trade paperbacks. As you’ll notice when you pick up Binocular Vision, our books are printed on FSC-certified paper and feature sturdy notch bindings and handsome French flaps. Books are vital to our culture, and we want to sustain them by rethinking traditional publishing models. To that end, Lookout offers authors 50-50 profit sharing, rather than the usual royalty structure, and reinvests profits in future titles.