The Ocean Between Us: Melville House

Melville House's Art of the Novella series

Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): Robert Burdock

I’m honored to be writing this, my first column for a magazine that has been great to me over the past year or so. I’ve had the pleasure of writing a couple of reviews for the website, and I’m excited to be a part of Structo as it continues to grow. When I was first asked to work on a regular column, I began thinking about what I, as an American writer, would have to say to the audience of a British magazine. Our two literary worlds have much in common, but the interest lies in the subtle differences.

So many great presses, writers, and magazines come out in the US every year, yet even the greatest of them have virtually no audience, especially abroad. My goal is to introduce Structo’s readers to some of these unknowns. Melville House is an independent publisher based in Brooklyn. It was formed in 2001 by writer Dennis Johnson and sculptor Valerie Merians after Johnson’s popular and vociferous publishing blog, MobyLives, grew in popularity. The press’s first release was Poetry After 9/11, a collection of some of the most popular posts on MobyLives.

After seeing their books gain steady popularity in the UK (and publishing several titles by British authors), Melville House publishers Johnson and Merians have recently opened a British version of the press. In the press release, Johnson said “It’s not a branch, nor an office. It’s a distinct, British company.” Melville House hopes to not just sell their existing books, but to publish new titles that help give this new company its own voice and appeal.

How-to-Sharpen-Pencils-235x246Small presses have always been a haven for lesser-known writers, especially those who would have a hard time finding themselves noticed by the major publishers. Melville House is no exception, having released one of the funniest, weirdest titles I’ve read in years: How To Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees. A cartoonist who failed to make a larger impact with his art, Rees started his own “artisanal pencil sharpening business”. The book was marketed brilliantly, with Rees appeared in an earnest and very funny late-night infomercial advertising his business. He also hosted an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on the popular social bookmarking site reddit. In this interview-of-sorts Rees responded to the claims that the project was a joke: “The whole thing was kind of a challenge to myself: Take something you enjoy doing and convince people they should pay you to do it.”

There’s always something fascinating and magnetic about coming-of-age stories, it’s why we keep coming back to them—and inventing our own. Kids all over the US read books like The Outsiders and The Catcher in the Rye. The latest in the coming-of-age canon is Leigh Stein’s début novel, The Fallback Plan. Using very honest, relevant prose, Stein weaves the perfect postgraduate millennial novel. The protagonist finds herself stuck in a lethargic state, moving back in with her parents after graduating from college. She has no job and no plan. At a time when media outlets like TIME are criticizing millennials (not just those in the US, but all over the world), The Fallback Plan gives a refreshing and sympathetic view of my generation. The author perfectly captures the generation as a whole, from the moral ambiguities of relationships to job hunting and living off our parents. Books like this one are important for a thriving, international literary culture, because they have the power to change young people and encourage reading. The cliché that nobody reads any more is wildly untrue—but it is unfortunately true that the majority of young readers aren’t reading books like The Fallback Plan, which could actually make a difference in their lives. I struggle to find ways in which books like Twilight encourage self-reflection and the living of an examined life.

Publishers will do almost anything to wedge their books onto bestseller lists, and it takes a lot to stand out in such a saturated, yet extremely fickle market. With the Art of the Novella series, Melville House has managed to find an innovative way to sell books that have mostly been in the public domain for decades. This is a set of short works by famous authors of the past, from the more well-known, such as Bartleby, The Scrivener by Herman Melville, to works like the The Alienist by Machada de Assis. This collection has received all kinds of praise for its minimalist design and recognition of brilliant, often forgotten works. It takes a lot to break into a single country’s literary market, especially if your books are experimental, foreign, or just a little different from everything else. Melville House has worked hard to become one of the most popular small presses in the US, and now it’s taken the next step of moving into brand new literary territory.

The books I read tend to come from big publishers with huge marketing budgets, but sometimes I come across great little books from small presses such as Melville House. It feels different when you’ve bought and enjoyed something from them, like you’re doing more than just buying a book and fuelling the publishing machine. It feels like a pledge to promote a future for grass-roots literature.

— Spenser Davis (twitter.com/spenserdavis)

Spenser is a freelance writer from Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from Texas Christian University, and his work has appeared in The Rumpus and TCU’s student literary journal, 1147.

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