People whose lives are tied up with books, as writers, critics, booksellers or readers, are always -- always -- looking for something new. But in the last few years, they've been turning to something old.
The publishers specializing in reprints have become increasingly important to the people who haunt bookstores searching for the next great read. For some, these reintroduced books are as eagerly awaited as any mainstream house's seasonal list.
New York Review Books. Its immediately recognizable design -- each volume's title presented in a callout block against an eye-catching jacket illustration, colorful spines with titles and authors in uniform type -- has given the series the kind of uniform look that the old Modern Library or Signet Classics had.
That strategy, a look as the imprimatur of distinction, has been adopted by other reprint brands, such as Europa Editions, with its amalgam of new titles, older titles and European fiction not otherwise available in English; Hard Case Crime, a lovingly chosen collection of hard-boiled paperback fiction and new additions to the genre; and the exceptionally handsome Persephone Books, an English publisher focusing on novels by English women written between the wars.
The founders of these lines are quick to point out that, in the overall scheme of the publishing business, their imprints are small ventures. But that smallness seems to be a benefit, not just by allowing each a freedom in what they choose to publish, but in enabling them to distinguish themselves in a publishing industry that is just as blockbuster-driven as the movie and music industries.
'Part of this little club'
Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, believes that the reading public "feels stuff not worthy of them is being shoved down their throats." The difficult part, she says, is that the audience for "serious books . . . really doesn't want to be marketed to. But if you don't market to them, they don't know what to read."
Peter Miller, associate director of publicity at Bloomsbury publishers and the proprietor of Freebird Books in Brooklyn, deals mostly in used books at his store. He says he displays the NYRB series near his register because "you feel as if you're part of this little club that NYRB has curated for you."
Miller notes that the curatorial aspect of smaller, neighborhood bookstores dovetails with the choices reprint editors are making and that, as big-box retailers face diminishing business because of soaring gas prices, this might help the smaller stores do better.
Talk to people who publish reprints and what comes across is a sense that we are in an age that is, to some extent, anti-canonical. Edwin Frank (to Frank and his NYRB cohorts, readers owe the rediscovery of delights like John Williams' "Stoner" and Patrick Hamilton's "Slaves of Solitude") says that the impulse behind the selection of the NYRB books was both to see what is missed in the accepted literary canon and to remedy a state of things in which writers such as J.R. Ackerley or Alberto Moravia or novels like Richard Hughes' "A High Wind in Jamaica" have been largely out of print.
Charles Ardai, at Hard Case Crime, which has reprinted forgotten novels by Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis and Donald E. Westlake (as well as the final novel by Mickey Spillane), echoes this sense of transcending the canon. Citing the finite number of works by the acknowledged masters of hard-boiled writing -- Hammett, Chandler, and Cain -- Ardai talks about the desire to see what else existed, what books, turned out for fast profit to fill paperback racks, might still prove diverting or even something more. And Ardai suggests that the storytelling economy of these overlooked books isn't found in current genre fiction. There are, he says, contemporary genre writers who have told him they wished they could write with the concision of one of the Hard Case titles, but their publishers impose a length so books can be sold at a certain price.
Faulting modern fiction
The toughest statement about what role reprints are filling comes from Persephone's Nicola Beauman, who doesn't hesitate to say that modern fiction has lost the art of storytelling, an attribute she distinguishes from plot.
"You get to the end of Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections' and you haven't been changed in any way," she explains. "You think, 'So what?' "
Beauman, whose "A Very Great Profession" chronicles the British "women's novel" from 1914 to 1939, argues that the writers and novelists she is publishing, Dorothy Whipple and Marghanita Laski among them, are exemplars of that lost art of storytelling. She refers, not disdainfully, to her company's books as middlebrow novels; Persephone's biggest recent success, Winifred Wilson's "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" (the basis for the recent film), might qualify. But it's tough to think of a contemporary match for its singular sophistication and generosity.
Threat to establishment
Whether the increasing number of reprints is because of reader dissatisfaction with contemporary literature or the flowering of an archivist, curatorial instinct, they are certainly part of the decentralization of literary culture. Miller says that, with space shrinking for print reviews and the Web as an overwhelming presence, people are trusting their instincts to figure out what to read. The threat this poses to the literary establishment is that whenever one of these new-old titles connects with a reader, whenever a reader wonders how Rose Macaulay's "The Towers of Trebizond" or Hamilton's "Hangover Square" could ever have been forgotten, it raises distrust in the establishment that proclaims certain books important. Especially if the reader has slogged through the pages of some highly praised snoozer.
Reprints may be how new novels that surely deserve larger audiences -- Kate Jennings' "Moral Hazard," for instance -- may finally find the readership they should have had the first time around. The reprint houses are not going to put the big houses out of business. But it could be that the bigger publishing houses are on their way to losing something more valuable than readers' money. Their trust.