The independent publisher Melville House was founded in 2001, in Hoboken, New Jersey, by Dennis Loy Johnson, a fiction writer and journalist, and his partner Valerie Merians, a sculptor and photographer. Their first two books were an anthology, Poetry After 9/11, and a work of criticism, B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto, neither of which were expected to sell well. Shortly before these volumes hit the shelves, The New York Times called the couple’s endeavor “a disaster in the making.”
Fast forward 13 years, and Melville House (now based in Brooklyn) is one of the most celebrated indie publishers in the country, with a catalog encompassing iconoclastic new authors like Tao Lin and Lars Iyer, Nobel-Prize winners like Imre Kertesz and Heinrich Boll, political journalism exposing the Bush administration’s crimes and hypocrisy, novellas by countless canonical writers including Joyce, Kleist, and George Eliot, and underappreciated masterpieces by Mary MacLane, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Jean Cocteau.
This unlikely transformation can be attributed, in part, to the editors’ good taste, their savviness in fashioning a distinct personal brand, and their ability to stay abreast of changes in the market (they’ve recently begun accompanying certain print books with e-book supplements). At the Melville House AWP booth last Friday I sat down with Mr. Johnson to talk about the importance of literature in the information age, the damage Amazon.com is doing to publishing, and the ways blogging, literature, and journalism inform one another.
Before founding your publishing house you ran a blog called MobyLives; now you’ve adopted the name Melville House. What about Melville do you view as essential to your mission?
The blog actually came out of a newspaper column called MobyLives. I started that in the mid-90s, when it seemed like publishing and books were under fire, and my point was that the whale in Moby-Dick is out there. When the great jazz saxophone player Charlie Parker died in the 50s—his nickname was Bird—people used to go around New York and just scrawl on the walls “Bird lives”: that kind of sentiment, you know. Literature lives; rock on; stick with it.
In an interview with The Rumpus you talked about how after 9/11 everyone suddenly began reading and writing poetry. Do you think literature still has the potential to unify the culture without some major disaster acting as an impetus, or is society too fragmented?
I think what that disaster showed us was that people still have a certain reverence for literature. It was very interesting to me that everybody was reading poetry. They didn’t know what to do with their emotions and their ideas about that event and so they went to poetry. I lived in Hoboken at the time, and we had this little neighborhood newspaper, and all of sudden I noticed that all this poetry was being written by the old-timers. It was all terrible stuff, but I was fascinated that they thought that’s how you respond. And that to me is the remnant of something—a certain strength of not just the printed word, but the literary word. I’m also encouraged by the fact that just about everyone I meet pitches me a book. That gets kind of annoying, but at the same time it means everybody wants to write a book. I think that’s really an ultimate accomplishment in a person’s life, to have your name on the front of a book. So I think we have to take heart from that, and think about what that means, and respect that, and protect that, which is what we’re trying to do.
In addition to literature you also publish liberal political journalism. In that same interview with The Rumpus you spoke about how poems used to be printed alongside news stories: there would be a news article and then there would be a poem about the same story. Obviously there isn’t the same close correspondence between the journalism and literature you publish, but do you view journalism and literature as kindred activities, or two sides of the same coin?
Absolutely. Gossip is news. Gossiping is basically what a novelist is doing. They may be using made-up people—probably they’re very thinly veiled real people—and [the novelist is] kind of gossiping about them. So yeah, absolutely they’re related; they’re not two sides of the same coin, but there’s some similar impulse that certain people have to analyze the events of the day in a certain way on paper. So then other elements come in: you have to make it entertaining, you have to make it something that keeps people reading…That’s where the art comes in, that’s where the craft comes in, but I think it is the same. I know a lot of journalists who want to be novelists; I know a lot of novelists who want to be journalists.
At the AWP Melville House reading you talked about how, unlike major publishers who are increasingly about the bottom line, you get to publish fiction you’re really passionate about, and this is a rare thing now. Why do you think it’s such a rare thing, and do you think there’s a chance that this model will become more in favor?
Well there’s not a lot of money in it. Publishing has always been a business that wasn’t about money; it’s always been a very low-margin business. How many people are there in the U.S. that will read an avant-garde novel? A thousand? Maybe? Probably not. And so as this country has become a country about the bottom line, as this industry has been dominated by companies like Amazon—which is just pure capitalism, with no concern for what the item is—there has become less and less space, less and less support in the marketplace for things that are about more than money. And this is true of all the art forms: movies, music…and yet, yet, and yet, all these impulses that we’ve been talking about speak to the fact that there’s a lot of people out there who still want books. The marketplace today is not about them, it is not about what people want: it’s about what these big conglomerates want you to buy. They want you to buy things that they make more money off of than books: they want you to buy an e-book because they make more money off an e-book than they will off a print book. Then they’re going to want you to buy something else because they make more money off that than they do off an e-book. When they make it that meaningless, the content goes to hell. So you see Amazon go from print books to digital books to totally other products; they don’t give a damn about books anymore, and they’re trying other things. So our job, as publishers, is to figure out how, in that marketplace, do we get the word to you? You like our books; how do I let you know about them? There’s a lot of shit between you and me.
In addition to having an active blog on your website you also publish writers that are also known as bloggers, like Tao Lin and Lars Iyer. Do you view blogging as this era’s version of writers writing essays in major publications?
Well yes and no. I think it’s different; I think we have a different mindset today than we had in the days of the great essayists. It’s more daily. Our lives are much faster. Journalism—in the sense of keeping a journal, and making commentary—is a much faster thing. We process the information coming into our lives much more quickly. At the same time, when I started as a blogger I was writing for a newspaper, so I would take columns I’d written for print and put them on my blog. The blog had daily postings—10, 12 little posts synopsizing book news stories, with maybe a little twist of commentary, but not a lot. When I blog now it takes me forever. I’ll be up all night, and maybe I’ll take several days, writing a statement, whether about the newest Amazon atrocity, the death of the Nook, or whatever the issue is we’re talking about. And it is kind of an essay for me—somewhere between an essay and reportage. I spend a lot more time crafting it. I think the focal point of [blogs] is much less client-focused than the classic great essayists. Which may be a form that’s dying; I don’t know. It’s been very hard for us to sell that form from other writers. It’s a slower prose, a more poetic prose, a tougher sell in the modern age.
Andy Tybout is an aspiring fiction writer. Before attending the University of Chicago he studied English at the University of Pittsburgh, served as an intern at the Pittsburgh City Paper, and worked for a year as an AmeriCorps literacy tutor. This is his first time blogging for MAPH and describing himself in the third person.