The following is an edited version of the introduction to our new anthology, Crying Just Like Anybody, which is due out in the next few days.
How personal is publishing?
It’s a question that hangs in the background of almost everything I do at The Fiction Desk, from the editorial policy to the cover design.
It’s fashionable these days to think of publishing as a technical, financial process in which manuscripts are selected using a spreadsheet and then processed into books with a minimum of human intervention. While we may identify certain imprints with a specific genre or style of writing, it’s easy to forget that — large or small — a publisher’s list usually represents the individual tastes of an editor, or a small group of editors. And the tastes of those editors in what they choose to publish can be as unique and personal as the books they choose to put on their shelves at home.
Publishers usually foster a semi-anonymous image for themselves: even the terms ‘editor’ and ‘publisher’ are confused and vague, especially in smaller publishing operations. The different roles, and who performs them, are rarely defined for the public, and I doubt most readers could name the editors behind even their favourite books. In Italy, the publisher is the editore and the editor the curatore, which in some ways makes more sense than our own terminology: I’m not talking here about the technical work on the text, which is necessarily invisible and anonymous because the text must always belong to the author, but about the curatorial editing.
In the early days of publishing, the publisher’s name usually was the publisher’s name: John Murray, Chapman & Hall, Martin Secker, and so on. When Herbert Jonathan Cape left (Gerald) Duckworth to found his own company in 1919, he may have called it Page & Co at first, but it wasn’t long before he rechristened it after himself. These days, new fiction publishers are almost always named for objects, mythological figures, or abstract ideas: Telegram, Hesperus, Peirene, Salt, The Fiction Desk. There are very few recent publishers that use the founder’s name for the imprint; offhand, the only one I can think of is Charles Boyle’s CB Editions.
There are probably a few reasons for this change in convention, from the phenomenal success of Allen Lane’s Penguin brand in the 1930s to the number of imprints now launched by large publishing houses rather than by individuals, and it’s by no means a change unique to publishing. Still, I wonder how it has affected readers’ perception of publishers, and even publishers’ and editors’ perception of their own roles.
I have no intention of changing the name of The Fiction Desk, or of introducing a red man as a new logo, but something that’s surprised me over the last couple of years has been just how personal my relationship to these books actually is. The stories presented here are very much my own selection; another editor would have chosen different stories from the same set of submissions. (As is normal for a publisher, we often publish stories rejected by other journals, and I’ve rejected several stories that I’ve subsequently seen published elsewhere.)
This is carried through to the design of the books: for example, they’re printed in Goudy Old Style because that typeface reflects my own belief in the values of traditional storytelling forms over more experimental techniques.
The introductions to individual stories are also a challenge: how personal should they be? Should they be in my own voice, or in a disembodied generic editorial voice? The former is a more honest and accurate reflection of the curatorial process; the latter perhaps quieter and less distracting from the stories. Should I start popping up from behind the furniture at the start of each story, like Rod Serling at the start of Twilight Zone episodes?
No. No, I probably shouldn’t. But I’ll continue to think about the editor’s role, the voice of that role, and where and how that voice should feature in these volumes, aiming to find a balance that renders the curatorial process transparent without detracting from the integrity of the individual stories.