Thursday, December 22, 2011

Publisher of the Year: Graywolf Press

Here's the order in which average, everyday people (i.e., those who aren't heavy readers, obsessive-compulsive authors, or publishing industry insiders) think about books--when they think about books at all, which is not as often as HRs, OCAs or PIIs like to believe:

Genre ("I like mysteries, my Dad digs spy thrillers")
Plot ("I hear it has robots and Charlotte Bronte")
Title ("I think it's called Radon Weekend or Fallout Fling--something like that")
Author ("It's by that guy who wrote that other one about zombie accountants--I can't remember his name off the top of my head")
Format ("I don't do Kindle.  It's the Death Knell of books!")

Industry insiders will be disheartened to see one element which I left off the list, the one thing they probably think belongs at the top: the Publisher.  But let's face the facts: you'll never be standing in the line down at the DMV and catch someone saying, "Did you hear about that new book coming out from Knopf?"  And yet, that book you're holding right now would never have gotten into your hands if it weren't for the lowly, forgotten publisher.  Okay, maybe it would have if it was self-published by the next hot Young Adult writer who hustled to sell a gazillion copies of his zombie-accountant paranormal romance; but, for now at least, the publisher is a crucial link in the chain which delivers words from the author's head to our hands.

As a book reviewer and blogger, I probably pay more attention to publishing houses than do most readers outside the Inner Circle of Manhattan.  I receive catalogs on a quarterly basis, books on a weekly basis and emails from publicists on a daily basis.  I've come to the point where I can judge the quality of writing inside the padded Tyvek envelope just by looking at the publisher's logo on the mailing label.  There are few envelopes which get me more excited than the ones which arrive bearing that trio of wolves on the outside, and for that I'm awarding the first annual Quivering Pen Publisher of the Year Award to

Sure I'm just a small-potatoes blogger and it's a dubious honor without compensation, trophy or paper certificate, but it's a good excuse for me to highlight the most overlooked player in the book's lifecycle.  As an aside, let me just say as someone who's been blessed to have my work accepted for publication and who's managed to get an inside look at the editorial process this year, I can attest to the fact that a lot of care and compassion plays out behind the scenes at publishing houses--the kind of labor which will never been seen or acknowledged by readers.  Editors, associate publishers, publicists, art departments, sales managers, and interns rarely get thanked for their hard, invisible work which begins months or even years before the book arrives on the shelves of bookstores.  So, this is just one small appreciation for those vital champions of the written language.

This has been a remarkable year for Graywolf.  Not only did it turn out consistently-good new titles, the small Minnesota-based publisher got a huge boost when one of its poets, Tomas Tranströmer, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October.  Then, about a week later, another Graywolf title--The Convert by Deborah Baker--was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award.  Other 2011 honors to Graywolf authors included poets Tom Sleigh and Matthea Harvey who received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ander Monson whose Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir was named a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and The House of Widows author Askold Melnyczuk who was this year’s recipient of the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP).  I'm not entirely certain, but I suspect there were a lot of cake-and-champagne afternoons in the Graywolf offices this year.

But, really, every release of a Graywolf book is a celebration in and of itself.  In addition to the three excellent short-story collections I included in my Best Books of 2011 list (Volt by Alan Heathcock, American Masculine by Shann Ray, and In This Light by Melanie Rae Thon), other stand-out titles included The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen, Assumption by Percival Everett, In Caddis Wood by Mary Francois Rockcastle, The Other Walk: Essays by Sven Birkerts, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer, and Beautiful Unbroken by Mary Jane Nealon (which, after hearing off-the-cuff reviews from readers of this memoir about a nurse caring for her dying brother, tops my list of must-reads in 2012; people who talked to me about Beautiful Unbroken had a hard time finishing their sentences because they'd get so choked up with emotion--that's how good it is, they claim).  Top poetry collections from Graywolf included The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands by Nick Flynn, Army Cats by the aforementioned Tom Sleigh, and Midnight Lantern by Tess Gallagher.

Leafing through the Spring 2012 catalogue, several titles have my radar on full alert: Boleto by Alyson Hagy, City of Bohane by Kevin Barry, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka, No Animals We Could Name: Stories by Ted Sanders, and a vibrant new translation of Dante Alighieri's Inferno by Mary Jo Bang.

In the front of its catalog, the publishers describe themselves as "dedicated to the creation and promotion of thoughtful and imaginative contemporary literature essential to a vital and diverse culture."  That's true, but what they forgot to mention was how their books fill readers with light--the kind of glow that can only come from experiencing the excellence of language, the kind of radiance that makes you want to sing aloud.  So, join me as we lift our voices in a howling chorus of praise for Graywolf!


  1. Thanks for this - I love Graywolf too (been on a Benjamin Percy kick lately), and am glad to see them having such a banner year. Hope they're relishing their heyday (speaking of which: Heyday Books is another superb nonprofit press that often gets overlooked outside of California). And thanks, too, for pointing out the overlooked little imprint on the spines of our books: the mark of the publisher. Though there ARE some (usually small) presses that DO have stronger name recognition than any one of their titles (McSweeney's comes to mind)...but yes, most general readers would never know from that.

  2. Agreed. An amazing year for an amazing press. So many good publishers putting out some significant work, and it's nice to turn our attention toward the motors that drive this industry for once. Thanks for this!