I received an advance copy of Jade Sharma’s Problems, due out from Emily Books, one of the first titles released since their recent partnership with Coffee House Press. I finished Problems on the train, the book’s popping prose totally in line with the how it feels to be underground in New York City – a rush of light before darkness, a blur of movement. Unsettling, aware, self-conscious, vivid, honest, gorgeous – Problems does it all, all while eschewing traditional expectations of story, plot, and character. I reached out to Ruth Curry of Emily Books to speak about Problems, the mission of her and Emily Gould’s publishing enterprise, and the state of literature and publishing.
So I just finished Jade Sharma’s Problems and fell in love. It’s jarring and raw and exceedingly honest about the ever-evolving ways in which we relate to one another. Or the never-evolving. What drew you to that book?
The same things you mentioned, really – the honesty, the rawness. I liked that it shows an evolution without necessarily a progression, or at least a ‘progression’ in the traditional sense. No one is fixed or redeemed at the end, but things are different. Also it’s really fucking funny!!
In a broader sense, what do you feel is the aesthetic of Emily Books? I know that’s an unfair question – to pin down something that isn’t necessarily pin-down-able, but how do you feel yourselves evolving, especially now that you have a partnership with Coffee House?
This is a great question. Emily and I sat down a while back and made a sort of tag cloud of the qualities we kept encountering in the books we picked – it included things like “not giving a fuck about femininity”; “sex, described non-erotically”, “addiction,” “non traditional structure”.
While of course we’re looking to grow and evolve, and we’re always going to be committed to getting new voices out there, I don’t see our aesthetic changing that much in the future –we’re really into it!
I took a look at the tag cloud and loved it. Especially “passes Bechdel test with flying colors” and “giving a fuck exactly 50% of the time.” The attributes listed are not only important, but are also relevant and challenging. They’re generous, too, in their love of literature. They’re not the kind of attributes I’d imagine are on the desks of most major publishing houses. My question in relation to this is: how much fun do you have seeking out work that falls under these attributes, and in cheering on those who are writing bolder, and more inventive prose? And how important is generosity in such an endeavor?
Well it must be fun because we certainly aren’t doing it for fame and fortune, heh!
In earnest, though, it’s fun for us – it doesn’t feel like a chore. Which is not to say it isn’t hard work.
I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘generosity.’ I know I just said we aren’t doing this for fame and fortune, but it is important to us that our writers are paid (promptly!) for their work. Is that ‘generous’? From the other side of the desk (I write as well) it feels out of the ordinary.
I’d say it’s super generous. On another note, you’ve brought many books written by women writers back into the fold through Emily Books. You’ve celebrated many important authors – Eileen Myles and Samantha Irby come to mind – and you’ve taken works like Heather Lewis’s Notice out of the dungeon of out-of-print titles. What was that process like? And how does it make you feel about the state of literature? I think often of Noy Holland, a favorite author of mine, and how her first work, The Spectacle of the Body, was published by FSG and never made it to paperback, despite its stunning lyricism and straight-up-ruthless-gorgeousness. She went on to found her own press, I think, to combat that sort of fate. Was that your intent with Emily Books?
Bringing Notice back into “print” is something I’m really proud of, but I have to confess it made me feel pretty dire about the state of literature. Without strong advocates, so much falls through the cracks, so much is erased. Unfortunately most women don’t have the same support structures that men do (wives, estate planners, etc.) to protect their work. Part of our mission is definitely to create that sort of support for writers that may have been forgotten or ignored earlier, but we can’t do it alone.
How do you go about creating that sort of support? And what kind of structures do you think need to be put in place in the literary world in order to help protect the work of women writers and underrepresented writers? In other words, how can the rest of the literary world take up the mantle?
Look outside the networks you’re accustomed to and commit to building new ones. Be willing to be uncomfortable and to work harder. Make the sacrifices and concessions for “difficult’ writers that are made automatically for the usual suspects. Stop automatically assuming there’s no ‘market’ for something or that you can’t ‘position’ it. Hire more non white people. Pay people more, so jobs and promotions don’t go by default to people with economic privilege. Mainstream publishing is still in many ways run like the vanity project of rich people it was set up to be, and at the top level it’s still overwhelmingly run by white men.
Back to Jade Sharma’s Problems. I missed a few stops on the subway because I was so engrossed with it. It inverts a lot of stereotypes in that it just remains, I think, true to itself and the characters it develops. There’s been a lot of good recent discussion about pandering in women’s fiction, and the negative effects that come with white men making decisions. There’s no pandering in Problems. It’s its own vision and story. How do you promote the singular voice of each of your authors at Emily Books? How do you celebrate it, let it be its own thing, rather than molding it to the vision or demands of others?
I don’t really know how to answer this except to say that we’re not accountable to anyone but ourselves and our authors. We don’t pander because we don’t have to. Coffee House gives us complete editorial freedom and we want to make good on that trust.
Aside from some of the more well-known indie publishers – Graywolf, Coffee House, Sarabande, Two Dollar, etc – there are also a lot of smaller publishers and journals pushing for more diverse and inclusive publishing by women, writers of color, queer writers, and transgender writers. Dorothy comes to mind. And journals such as Nat Brut and Tammy and Apogee and the Offing. Do you feel part of a growing community of inclusivity at Emily Books? And do you feel other publishers making changes toward a better publishing equality?
I do feel like EB is part of an exciting publishing community that is making inclusivity a priority– we’ve done a lot of work with Dorothy, for example, but major publishers have a long ways to go.
Do you ever see major publishers getting to that place? Do you think they’re paying attention to what’s happening in the world of smaller presses?
Well, I just heard that PRH is planning to attend AWP next year, so there goes the neighborhood. . . .
How has the partnership with Coffee House opened up your vision for Emily Books? Are there any new books on the horizon? Are there any new directions you’re planning on shaping and following?
More books are definitely on the horizon! Our third EB/CP title will come out in May 2017, one year from now. I’m not sure I’d characterize this as ‘new direction’, but we are actively trying to (continue to) acquire books by women of color and queer women. I think the partnership with Coffee House has allowed us to plan long-term in a way we couldn’t really before. It’s good to feel that stability and know our vision for the future is fully supported.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence (Anchor & Plume) and the forthcoming collection, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (ELJ Publications). He has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes. He works as a college advisor in Queens, teaches poetry at Bronx Community College, and lives in Harlem.