Writing at NY Magazine’s Vulture, Boris Kachka, whose book Hothouseon Farrar, Straus & Giroux was published in paperback last year, profiles nonprofit literary publisher Graywolf Press:
Publishing just over 30 books a year, Graywolf has had authors win four NBCC awards, a National Book Award, two Pulitzers, and a Nobel Prize — all in the last six years. This year, it will exceed $2 million in sales for the first time. No other independent press, never mind a 41-year-old nonprofit, has come so far so fast. It didn’t happen by accident.
“I think of success as being able to say yes to something that doesn’t necessarily look like a commercial winner,” says Fiona McCrae, Graywolf’s publisher since 1994, over yogurt and decaf on one of her monthly visits to New York. “Knowing something is good and having to say no, that seems to me the bigger failure.” An affably owlish Brit, McCrae started out in London’s legendary literary Faber & Faber before transferring to its small American spinoff in Boston. Three years later, she heard that Graywolf’s founder was resigning.
Scott Walker began hand-sewing poetry chapbooks in Port Townsend, Washington, in 1974. While picking up poets like Tess Gallagher and Jane Kenyon, Walker turned Graywolf Press into a nonprofit and relocated to the Twin Cities, home to a thriving philanthropic base (which also supports nonprofit presses Milkweed and Coffee House). But in the ’90s, a publishing slump hit Graywolf particularly hard; Walker resigned and his board eventually hired McCrae. At the time, she had zero experience in nonprofits — possibly to Graywolf’s benefit, because she chafed at the complacency to which nonprofits are prone. “There’s got to be a way in which you absolutely value Graywolf,” she says, “but like, come on, everybody! Other small presses are not the measure. Do you say, ‘For our size, we get more attention, so that’s it,’ or do you say, ‘Where can we go?’
And speaking of Graywolf, I am looking forward to picking up a copy The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, which they are publishing in North America this month (can anyone tell me who designed the cover?)
Adobe’s Inspire magazine has a remarkably forthright post by designer Kelli Anderson on ‘advice culture’:
Will the creative community ever get its fill of advice?…
…Since advice is a nurturing impulse (a way to pass wisdom on to the future…or just next year’s graduating class), is there really any harm in this oversaturation? Does the monotone nature of our conversation on success, work, and failure actually hurt us?
I would argue yes—there is a dark side to the peppy culture of pretty advice. While other shades of goodwill, such as compassion, generosity, and friendship, only improve with quantity, advice has a cumulative effect—pooling emphasis and importance around the notion of individual initiative. More than slogans, working hard, being nice, and doing what you love have gradually become canonized as the actual reasons that success or failure occurs. When the logic of advice is allowed to co-opt reality, we begin to believe that individual initiative is why things happen.
The result may feel good and empowering, but it also creates the distorted impression that an individual’s good work, alone, will translate to a proportional reward. Conversely, failures stemming from other factors—like ingrained structural prejudice or simply bad timing—may too easily be misattributed to an individual’s lack of commitment, failure to work hard enough, or insufficient love-doing. A culture of self-help advice fosters a belief that we exist in a pure meritocracy, where everything is fair, and that our shared work of shaping an equitable community is done.
The inspiration comes from a place of personal experience that I wanted to document. It’s a life lesson that I found hard to learn; one of love, loss and the ability to adapt to the constant changes that are a part of life. On a visual level my inspiration came from my design heroes, William Blake and William Morris. My love of pattern and book design is evident in the illustrations.
Award-winning Australian designer and art directer W. H. Chong interviews David Pearson — who is giving a series of talks on book design in Australia this week — for his column Culture Mulcher:
I love the Gandhi quote, ‘There is more to life than increasing its speed’ (particularly reassuring words for a slow-working technophobe).
I do worry that many technological advancements are enabling us to achieve not very much, but at a much faster rate. For example, I cannot understand the very modern desire to produce work using a series of time-saving shortcuts when it is the duration of the working process itself that allows us to question, edit and fine-tune our output. To speed up or bypass this process is to give up on so much and risks the work lacking any discernible ‘human’ quality.
That said, I do work very slowly and sometimes think that a warm and welcoming hobbyist’s industry, like publishing, is the only place that would have me.
David is delivering a lecture, We Are What We Read, at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney tomorrow (Tuesday, August 25) at 6.30pm, and will be discussing contemporary book design at the Melbourne Writers Festival on August 29 and August 30, although I believe the second event is sold out.
Even if you haven’t heard of Europa Editions, you’ve probably heard of some of its hits. There’s Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” (more than a million copies sold); Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth” (now in its 20th printing); and Alexander Maksik’s “You Deserve Nothing” (so far, the biggest title by an American). Like any good branded product, the books have an instantly recognizable visual stamp: stiff paper covers edged with white borders that frame color-drenched matte backgrounds. According to Europa’s Australian-born editor in chief, Michael Reynolds, “When you see them all together, they draw you in like a bowl of candy.”
That effect is completely deliberate. Europa books are the invention of the Italian husband-and-wife publishing team Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, founders of the independent Roman house Edizioni E/O, who have been bringing the likes of Christa Wolf and Ryszard Kapuscinski to Italian readers since 1979. Because their countrymen are notoriously unenthusiastic book readers, the Ferris designed alluring covers to tempt reluctant Italian eyes.
Interestingly, Motoko Rich already profiled Europa Edition in the Times in 2009, so I guess they must be doing something right…
“I don’t know what people talk about when they talk about a golden age because of a million designers in 1950 or 1960 or 1970, 13 did anything that was worth ten cents. They can call that a golden age but the gold has been tarnished I think.”
What has changed of course is technology and the way it’s altered the design process…. In fact now that the craft side of design has become demystified and democratised, he thinks designers should be able to come into their own.
“Now for a designer to make a living, they have to do more than just know how to set some type because the client can do that. So what’s left? Well the most wonderful part is left, which is to discover how you say new things. I often talk about design as idea; I am not interested in design as layout – obviously I have to lay things out in order for them to be read – but it’s very low down on my priorities. I spend the majority of my time having an opinion and trying to invent an image that says that opinion like nobody’s ever said it before. That’s the fun of it.”
Next month sees the publication ofUndermajordomo Minor, the new novel by award-winning Canadian author Patrick deWitt.
An “ink-black comedy of manners”, itapparently involves an Alpine castle, a mysterious Baron Von Aux, and a lot of bad behaviour — including, if the Quill and Quire‘s Steven W. Beattie is to be believed, “an extravagant act of Hieronymus Bosch-like grotesqueness… perpetrated upon a large rat.”
It sounds a little like a horror movie directed by Wes Anderson. Or Terence Fisher doing something nasty to Gilbert and Sullivan.
Although Stiles has created different designs for Granta, and House of Anansi, the UK and Canadian covers (both featuring that unfortunate rat) have strong echoes of those previous books. According to the Canadian art director Alysia Shewchuk, this was a deliberate decision. “Dan Stiles created a very a distinctive look for The Sisters Brothers — highly stylized, dark yet playful — and we wanted to pick up these threads in our cover for Undermajordomo Minor.”
This is most apparent in the Anansi cover. Its bold geometric design is similar to Stiles’s theatrical cover for Granta, but its colour palette and texture bring it back to the The Sisters Brothers.
Interestingly, the focus of the Canadian cover is different too. “We’d seen early versions of the covers for both the US and the UK editions, and while we liked the different directions they’d each gone in, for our edition we thought it was important to feature the main character (Lucy Minor) and the castle where he lives and works,” says Shewchuk. “Dan understood exactly what we were looking for and he nailed it on the first go-around.”
Undermajordomo Minor will be published on September 3rd in the UK, September 5th in Canada, and September 15th in the US.
In the meantime, watch the slightly Monty Python-esque trailer made by artist Joanna Neborsky, with music by deWitt’s brother Nick deWitt, released today:
Correction: When first posted, I stated incorrectly that the US cover was also designed by Dan Stiles. The final design and illustration for the Ecco edition of Undermajordomo Minor is by Sara Wood. The post has been amended and updated to credit Sara for her work.
Much of Monument Valley operates in the impossible space drawn by M. C. Escher, whose 1960 drawing ‘Ascending and Descending’ Monument Valley lead designer Ken Wong has acknowledged as an inspiration. The Escher drawing even features a couple of figures scratching their heads about how to get around. The connection between Escher’s drawing and Wong’s original Monument Valley concept sketch is clear; Wong’s is also strikingly similar to the finished product. The whole structure floats in space in a way that suggests infinity, and it features the same isometric perspective, same gelato colors, and a similar sequence of steps and ladders and domes to give it a touch of character. In Monument Valley, sometimes you seem to be floating on water and sometimes in space; sometimes positive and negative are reversed, and you may be underground in paths and tunnels carved from rock. “We were all so taken with [Escher’s] image,” says [Neil] McFarland, that the designers said, “We don’t know what this game is, but if we can make that into a game we will be really happy.”
For the design buff, the game seems rife with visual cues, allusions to the built world, and academic references. Even if Monument Valley’s designers aren’t familiar with deconstructivism, 1970s architecture may have infiltrated its digital world sideways, as architecture-school graduates turn into programmers and once rarefied ideas turn into placeless pins. Monument Valley’s chapters have to cover a lot of territory, in scale and geography.
Sometimes Ida seems very small, like an earlier puzzle-solving heroine in a gridded Wonderland, wending your way through a music box. Sometimes she appears to be climbing a pixel version of Philip Johnson’s concrete-block Monument to Lincoln Kirstein (1985), “a staircase to nowhere.” Sometimes she finds herself holding a red flower, laying it on a rectangular sarcophagus in a sea of sarcophagi that strongly resemble Eisenman’s Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2004). Sometimes you find yourself tripping along a wall that resembles Bofill’s La Muralla Roja housing project (1968), “characterized by a series of interlocking stairs, platforms, and bridges.” Elsewhere the game recalls Tarsem Singh’s cult movie The Fall, filmed at the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur (a real-life white, floating world) and the Chand Baori stepwell, a Qbert landscape made exclusively of blocks. Some scenes are more perplexing, and require your seven-year-old to show you which button to push or which screw rotates the cube so that what was once an unbridged gap closes, in digital space, and allows you to cross.
I really don’t play a lot video games, but I do love Monument Valley.