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Small Press Spotlight

Introduction to Graywolf
Selected Publications
Links

Graywolf Press

If you find a Graywolf Press book at your bookstore (and this becomes more and more likely), look at it carefully. The cover is unusually handsome, the typography and layout are fresh and attractive, and the paper sends a paper-freak like me into a fit of ecstasy. Moreover, you can buy it and be certain that you have bought a book that is not only worth reading, but one that is worth owning.
Scott Walker founded Graywolf Press at Townsend, Washington, in 1974. His literary discrimination – continued brilliantly by his successor, Fiona McCrae – established the defining characteristic of Graywolf, many of whose early books were set and sewn by hand. Walker moved Graywolf to Minnesota in the mid 1980s. At this time Walker achieved a non-profit status for Graywolf, but he did not fully exploit the resources available, and published more titles than the capacity of the company could handle. When Walker resigned in 1994, despite its critical success, Graywolf was operating at a deficit in excess of $200,000. About six months later Fiona McCrae replaced Walker.
Fiona McCrae was born in Kenya – as she says, “descended from a long line of continent-hoppers” – and went “fairly directly” from Bristol University to Faber and Faber. After eight years, she became senior editor and took up a position at the publisher’s Boston office in 1991. After three years she was ready to take up interests that were more satisfying, and the failing Graywolf seemed made to order.
McCrae restored the health of the firm by reduction of the number of annually published titles and by securing a few helpful grants. Today, half of Graywolf’s $1 million operating budget comes from book sales. The other half comes from local institutions. After bringing Graywolf’s relationship with a local distribution agent to an amicable end, she turned to Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. This alliance between the most prestigious of small and large publishers seems especially appropriate.
Skill at fund-raising and developing relationships with well-chosen authors does not exhaust McCrae’s innovative abilities. Important to Graywolf is the reciprocal – and very likely unique – relationship it has formed with St. Benedict’s College of St. Joseph, Minnesota. Not only are readings from Graywolf authors quite frequent on campus, but each year the college awards the Sister Mariella Gable Prize to the best Graywolf novel of the year. The possibility of winning this prize is a strong inducement to authors to give Graywolf their consideration.
Success is more than solvency, however necessary that surely is. Recognition from knowledgeable members of the book world has been plentiful. Michael Powell, owner of the parent location of Powell’s Books since 1971, observed that Graywolf was especially noted for “adventurous, challenging, yet accessible literature.” The membership manager of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, Robert N. Casper, was equally enthusiastic although more succinct. “Graywolf,” he said, “is as good as it gets.”
Naturally Graywolf authors have played a share in the success of their publisher and have received recognitions of importance. There have been four Minnesota Book Awards, and Graywolf writers have been represented seven times among finalists for such prestigious awards as the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Prize for First Fiction. Such representation is phenomenal for a publisher that issues no more than fourteen titles annually. On the international scene, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer was considered for the Nobel Prize. Graywolf published the only volume of his poetry in the United States.
Mainstream publishers like Picador, W.W. Norton, and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux have absorbed some Graywolf authors, but McCrae’s continuing effort rests on her excitement over “discovering the writers that the big names have overlooked.” Her success at this and other aspects of management have been exceptional, and have insured the persistence, health and remarkable interest that surrounds this extraordinary venture.

Selected Publications

Burning Down the House

By Charles Baxter

Graywolf Press, 1997, ISBN 1-55597-270-5; Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

This is a collection of nine essays on fiction and style. Baxter seeks out speculations that are ignored in most inquiries, and he asks of them Why? and of feasible alternatives, Why not? He finds in Donald Barthelme the writer that best expresses his aims. Written in non-academic English with no attempt to conceal meaning or to hide its absence, Baxter’s book is a pleasurable read, and serves as a handbook of good sense and sound taste in fiction.

Characters on the Loose

By Janet Kauffman

Graywolf Press, 1997, ISBN 1-55597-252-7; Paperback $12.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Kauffman’s Characters on the Loose is a smoldering collection of stories with little reserve about sexual activity, and a refreshing absence of the labored or self-conscious style such stories customarily entail. The stories are mostly very short, although Kauffman pursues her fancies without restraint. She describes bereaved widows and the unexpected avenues that sorrow sometimes takes. There are mothers – some of them are kindly, some of them are monsters. Many stories contain a suggestion of the aleatory, as if she set characters in motion to encounter, as if by accident, other characters or situations that will happen to elicit finalities. This is a subtle book for sophisticated readers.

Glyph

By Percival Everett

Graywolf Press, 1999, ISBN 1-55597-296-9; Hardcover $22.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Ralph is a baby who has the consciousness of a an adult but he does not speak. He can read and prefers serious books. Troubled by his precocity, his parents seek professional help. Unfortunately the professional help is demented. She, her rivals, and a crazed colonel set out to capture Ralph to use him for their individual purposes. The Keystone Kops extravaganza that closes the book is a fitting finale to a satire on society and learning. Everett brings to his task a fertile imagination, a take-no-prisoners sense of humor, and a relish for the absurd that set this book in a class by itself.

Can Poetry Matter?

By Dana Gioia

Graywolf Press, 2002, ISBN 1-55597-370-1; Paperback $16.00. [Browse/Purchase]

A reissue of an original work from 1992, this new edition contains an Afterword intended to bring it up to date. The widespread neglect of poetry has many causes; but Gioia finds the academic absorption of the poetic activity to be the most harmful. Although this idea appears susceptible to alternative interpretations, it is a damning fact that only poets read poets, responding with reviews that are enthusiastic, kind, and often untrue. Gioia also asks for the revival of older genres, and decries what passes for “education” in the art of poetry. In his own assessment of poetry, he observes his own rule, offering praise for some and censure for others. Although occasionally he wanders into dim areas, Gioia is always interesting and often very witty. This is an essential book by a practising poet who knows and loves his subject.

Kissing You

By Daniel Hayes

Graywolf Press, 2003, ISBN 1-55597-379-5; Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Although the performances are uneven, Hayes is an author of great promise, and there are many solid achievements in this collection of short stories. Hayes concentrates on sexual behavior, and in at least two of the stories, this concentration is greater than the characters can support while still sustaining the interest of the reader. But at his best – and his best is considerable – Hayes brings into focus insights that are memorable and moving. Neither an easy book nor one for every reader, it is within its limitations a fresh and original work.

Pieces of Payne

By Albert Goldbarth

Graywolf Press, 2003, ISBN 1-55597-378-7; Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Goldbarth, a poet and essayist of great originality, has here written a very curious book, a novel shorter than the fifty endnotes that supplement it. Goldbarth claims that these notes may be read with the novel, after the novel, or simply ignored. The range of material in these notes comprehends considerations of Herman Melville and George Eliot to comic books and supermarket tabloids, and suggests a resemblance to Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The novel itself is a very human consideration of illness, death, honesty and reconciliation. Pieces of Payne challenges the reader but provides rewards and will repay repeated rereadings.

A Song of Love and Death

By Peter Conrad

Graywolf Press, 1996, ISBN 1-55597-241-1; Paperback $16.00. [Browse/Purchase]

This book is from Graywolf’s valuable “Rediscovery” series. Originally published in 1987, this edition has an Afterword that brings the book up to date. Conrad has brought very considerable skills and knowledge to the subject of opera and has arranged it expertly. He explains the appeal of opera as an art form that involves humanity at its extremes, men and women whose libidos run wild without the constraints of the inner censor. The history of opera, considered first as a succession of types and then as creations by individual composers, is a valuable study. But his consideration of performances embraces strong likes and dislikes. It allows him to use satire and ridicule to puncture the foolish and the pretentious. This is a book as valuable for its wit as for its knowledge and clarity.

Links

Graywolf Press Homepage – The official homepage of Graywolf Press, where you may explore current publications and read about what’s planned for the future.

Sister Mariella Gable Prize – Awarded each year by the Literary Arts Institute of the College of Saint Benedict to a Graywolf publication.

The House on Eccles Road – Bob Williams and Suzanne Nixon review Judith Kitchen’s re-imagining of Ulysses, winner of the 2002 Sister Mariella Gable Prize.

Bob Williams
9 March 2004