University Presses Are Keeping American Literature Alive

From a New York Times guest essay by Margaret Renkl headlined “University Presses Are Keeping American Literature Alive”:

Last fall, I went around the house pulling out beloved books published by university presses because I was planning to write an essay about University Press Week, which falls during November every year. My stack of books grew high and calved into two stacks, and then again into three, all heaped in front of the bookcase next to my worktable. I had to nudge them aside every time I reached for another book. It got to where I hardly noticed them, even though they were in plain view all day long.

The books are still piled there, and I no longer remember why I never wrote that essay.

You could argue that those teetering stacks are an emblem. University presses are a crucial community within the larger ecosystem of American publishing, but they remain largely invisible, even to many passionate readers. They’re easy to overlook even as they go about their quiet work of keeping American literature alive.

Many important manuscripts would not see the light of day if they were measured against expectations for nationwide sales. University presses take up titles that the Big Five, as the publishing conglomerates are called collectively, often won’t touch — not just works of scholarship but also small-market books for general readers: poetry, short stories and essays; memoirs and biographies; field guides and natural history; art and photography; local and regional history, among many others.

“The People’s Plaza: Sixty-Two Days of Nonviolent Resistance,” by Justin Jones, for example, is a firsthand account of a nonviolent protest against police brutality that took place in Nashville during the summer of 2020. Mr. Jones and his colleagues set up camp at Legislative Plaza — which they renamed for Ida B. Wells, a pioneering Black journalist who had been born into slavery in Mississippi — shortly after the murder of George Floyd.

Mr. Jones is now a representative-elect to the Tennessee General Assembly, but that summer he and others were arrested more than a dozen times. The peaceful occupation of the plaza continued until the General Assembly responded by passing a law which made such overnight encampments a felony. (You read that right — it’s a felony to sleep on public property in Tennessee.) Mr. Jones’s book, which was published by Vanderbilt University Press, tells a story with national significance about a local event — so local it happened in the publisher’s own back yard.

Or consider the multigenerational trilogy of novels written and illustrated by the Kentucky author and playwright Robert Gipe. Published by Ohio University Press, “Trampoline,” “Weedeater” and “Pop” collectively address with wit and complexity the trials of white working-class life in Appalachia: the struggles with addiction, but also the corporate exploitation of the region and its inhabitants; the violence but also the beauty.

In his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance used his own troubled kin as illustrations of a self-serving point and became a best-selling author — and the Trump-endorsed senator-elect from Ohio — in the process. Robert Gipe is writing for a much smaller audience, to be sure, but that reality only makes his voice — and others, like those in West Virginia University Press’s rebuttal to Vance, “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy’” — all the more vital.

University Press Week 2022, which begins on Monday, arrives at a particularly fraught time for publishing. According to Gallup, even avid readers report reading fewer books than at any other time in the past, supply-chain issues still dog the industry, and publishers continue to consolidate as big companies swallow up smaller ones: Last year Hachette Book Group bought Workman, one of the largest independent publishers in the country at the time, and HarperCollins bought the trade publishing division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The consolidation is a response to the challenges posed by Amazon’s tyranny, but that hasn’t stopped the Justice Department from scrutinizing mergers for possible antitrust violations. This month, a federal judge blocked Penguin Random House’s planned acquisition of Simon & Schuster after the Justice Department sued to stop it, arguing that the merger would impede competition between publishers for “anticipated top-selling books” — the books, in other words, that keep American publishing solvent.

But consolidation is bad for more than just the most popular authors. “What I worry about are the writers and books that will not get published or could be otherwise marginalized because of this even greater concentration of power,” wrote Richard Howorth, the co-founder of Square Books, the legendary bookshop in Oxford, Miss., in a guest essay for The Times last summer. “The number of midlist titles (books with modest print runs and sales expectations) is being greatly diminished, which means that fewer books of quality — or indeed, fewer potential best sellers — will have the chance to be published and read.”

This is exactly what makes university presses so essential. Subsidized by the universities they’re a part of, they can afford to take a chance on the kinds of books that commercial publishers increasingly ignore.

“University presses are especially important now for filling in the gaps left by consolidation at the big trade houses,” Jason Bennett, the publicity and social media manager at the University of Georgia Press, told me when I requested a review copy of “American Chestnut: An Environmental History,” by Donald Edward Davis, a book that tells the tragic story of a keystone species that once filled the Eastern forests.

Books like “American Chestnut,” he said, would once have been “solid lead or midlist titles at the bigger houses, but now they don’t have the bandwidth to support books and authors like these because they’re so focused on megastars. I know a lot of university presses are known for their regional trade titles, but I’d argue that these books are solid national trade titles that deserve an audience beyond Georgia and the Southeast, and we are all too happy to publish them if the big houses won’t.”

University presses, nonprofits and independent publishers, even combined, won’t solve American literature’s woes. Something absolutely must be done to counter Amazon, which ruthlessly uses its incredible economy of scale to dominate the industry. And publishers need best-selling authors to be fairly compensated, too, for their work is the water that lifts all boats.

But allowing the Big Five to set the terms for publishing’s survival is worse than potentially monopolistic. As Dennis Johnson, the co-founder and publisher of the independent publisher Melville House, wrote in The Atlantic, publishing is different from other industries: “Talking about books isn’t talking about just a retail marketplace, but also the marketplace of ideas — of art, free speech, and, yes, damn it, democracy itself.”

University presses, like other nonprofits and independents, aren’t aiming to produce national best sellers, although sometimes they do just that — Andrew Maraniss’s debut book, “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South,” was a New York Times best seller, the first in its history for Vanderbilt University Press — but they frequently win national prizes. “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” Deesha Philyaw’s debut story collection for West Virginia University Press, for example, won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Story Prize, and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize; it was also a National Book Award finalist.

Perhaps the awards keep coming because university presses understand something that ought to be obvious in a country as sprawling and pluralistic as ours: The same book doesn’t have to matter to everybody, but everybody ought to have access to books that matter.

Margaret Renkl, a Times contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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