Tuesday, September 06, 2011


Arch of the Penguins

Well, it's not really an arch; it's a pillar, two pillars in fact, two collapsed pillars if you want to be pedantic; but 'Two Collapsed Pillars of the Penguins' has no pun value...

I have sometimes been criticised for not reading contemporary writers. Although this accusation is technically false (some of my favourite writers are still alive: Moorcock, Aldiss, Vance, Barth, Pynchon) it is true in essence. What my critics mean is that I don't read contemporary small press writers. And I don't, much. That's because they tend not to be very good. There's no malignity in that statement. It's just a fact. Back in the 1990s it was fashionable in certain circles to claim that the brightest and finest new writing could be found in the small press, that small press writing was a powerful antidote to the blandness of mainstream (i.e. published by proper publishing houses) fiction. But the simple truth is that every small press writer I ever met back then was itching to get out of the small press and into the big world of the proper publishing houses.

In my lifetime, only a very few made it. A handful. That's because the small press was not a ladder leading up to better things. There were no rungs upwards at all from that starting point. The handful who successfully progressed did so by jumping. Three who landed safely on much higher ledges thanks to the immense power of their leaps were Neal Asher, Tim Lebbon and Jeff VanderMeer.

The scene has changed since then. Electronic publishing, market forces, the currents of history... Whatever factors have come into play, the dividing line between the small press and the big boys, once an almost impassable border, has cracked and/or blurred in places; in some senses it can be said there is no longer a small press and a big press, there is only a medium press. The process hasn't reached that stage yet, but it does seem to be headed that way. And yet one fact hasn't altered at all: 99% of new writers aren't especially good. And that's why I don't read them. I don't have the time or energy. Maybe I am being overcautious sticking to established names (even though some of those 'names' seem to be obscure to British readers) but I'm essentially a lazy man.

It may now be pointed out to me that I began in the small press too, that my books are published by small press publishers and that it is somewhat hypocritical of me to disparage the small press in this manner. That's true. Mea culpa! But I speak now as a reader, not as a writer... And I am aware that many great writers have come out of the small press; Ronald Firbank paid for the publication of most of his wondrous novels, for instance, and Ray Bradbury's earliest work appeared in small press publications. But the key words here are "come out of". Both authors may have started in the small press but they didn't remain there forever... And how many small press publishers really want to remain small? Surely they hope to grow, to become bigger players in the game?

It is not so much the small press itself (as a springboard, real or illusory, for aspiring writers) that I am attacking, but the credo that the best writers can be found there, that it's the home of the finest cutting-edge writing. This credo reached its zenith in the editorial line of such 1990s magazines as The Third Alternative, edited by Andy Cox, in which there was an attempt to redefine the small press as a worthwhile destination in itself, indeed as the ultimate destination, rather than as a way station on a road to somewhere better (even if that road turned out to be blocked by a landslide further along). There was too much insistence that small press writers were the best any reader could ever hope to encounter and it was a view I just couldn't share in good faith. Even while writing for the small press, I only read writers published by the major houses.

But even this isn't quite accurate: I have read small press writers and some of them (D.F. Lewis, for instance) are good and deserve to be better known. Yet as a rule of thumb, the best writers who have ever lived are published by the majors... Penguin has been my favourite publishing company ever since I began reading books seriously. When I was a teenager I collected Penguin Classics by the dozen and arranged them in chronological order on my shelves. But I only managed to read a few of them. Since then I have carted them around with me, persuaded friends to look after them on my behalf for years, retrieved them, lost them, found them again.

I still have about half of what I originally owned and this photo shows half of those. But the point is that I've started reading them properly at long last! And they are brilliant. And in fact I am led by them to conclude, paradoxically, that most of the finest cutting-edge writing was done long long ago. And I urge any fledgling writer out there to read such classics rather than small press contemporaries. You really will learn much more.

Very interesting article, Rhys. Thanks. Thought-provoking, and my thoughts are still being provoked! I currently disagree to the etxtent that I feel, generally, success in the Small Press is an end in itself. And, as I hope I've shown from three years of real-time reviewing, there is much *unique* literature within its 'small' halls - and perhaps a combination of luck, talent and public taste is more to do with transferring from the Small Press to Penguin Classics, rather than anything else.
There are many many many great writers working in the small press that I haven't mentioned here -- and many many many fine publishers (such as Tartarus, Ex Occidente, Chomu, Gray Friar, etc) producing wonderful books -- and I ought to blog about them sometime soon... I can't deny that.

I do highly rate some contempoary small press writers. A brief list can be found here:
Brief List ...and even though you aren't included in this list, Des, that's because the list is incomplete, no other reason. Other names belong on that list too.

I estimate that there are about 2450 excellent writers working in the small press... However, this still means that 99% of small press writers aren't very good. In fact that's a conservative estimate, as there are surely more than 245,000 small press writers worldwide!
Fair enough .. If a contemporary wrote this


he would classified in the most cutting of the cutting edge.
I love Denis Diderot's 'Le Neveu de Rameau'
BTW, aptly, I had to cut the edges of the pages of that French book when I read it in 1967!
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