Dispatch from the Edge of Literary Culture

By posted at 6:00 am on November 28, 2012 11

In Vanity Fair’s July 2012 article “Lone Star Bohemia,” about the appeal of rural Marfa, Texas, for the creatively inclined, artist Robert Irwin tells authors Daphne Beal and Sean Wilsey, “That’s where all the stuff is going on. The edge.” In a refreshingly sober and simplistic manner, Irwin relates his voyage from Los Angeles south to San Diego, before following the Rio Grande east to Marfa, where he happens upon the sculptor and Marfa-patriarch, Donald Judd, literally sitting upon a street corner. Rudolph Wurlitzer, a writer that I’ve published at Two Dollar Radio and member of Irwin’s generation, tells stories in the same mode, where it’s impossible to tune out because the next sentence might include Robert Frank, or Sam Peckinpah, or Philip Glass. Maybe that’s how things were then: you could just stumble into Donald Judd on a streetcorner in a tiny Texan border-town, or Sam Peckinpah on the road from Albuquerque to Santa Fe; the American cultural landscape in retrospect sounds so permeable and unsettled.

Wurlitzer spends many summers writing, or at least thinking about writing, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, because he loves how “off the grid” the place is. Wurlitzer first discovered Cape Breton with Philip Glass when the two were much younger. Glass was a cab-driver in New York City, and Wurlitzer had just found some modest success with the film Two-Lane Blacktop. The pair drove north imagining they might find an inexpensive cabin in the backwoods of Maine, but when real estate wound up being more costly than they had anticipated, they kept pushing further north before eventually landing in Cape Breton. He gets excited when he talks about the local eccentrics, how Cape Breton is decidedly not New York or L.A., and how isolated and liberating life is for him and his creative mind at the edge of the land. The Vanity Fair article pins the sentiment down further, citing the “fierce, near irrational desire to get outside the mainstream.”

I was still living in Brooklyn in 2006 with my wife and five-month old daughter when we attended the inaugural Brooklyn Book Festival. At the time, we had only published three books at Two Dollar Radio. I believe they are good reads, but the first was noir, the second a literary sports novel, and the third a memoir, so it was difficult for any potential readers to get a handle on what our press was about. It was frustrating to feel that urgent pang to create but not having the tangible example for what you stand for yet. I always wished we could be at that mile marker in the distance already.  While I stared out over the acres of independent presses all housed in Brooklyn, there was, too, the humbling knowledge that the last thing the world needs is yet another Brooklyn press.

We moved to Ohio shortly thereafter for family support in raising our daughter. Before we settled in Columbus we lived in a very small town called Granville, which is also my hometown. Our property butted up against a horse farm and we built a pergola and fenced in the yard: that’s what you do when you have land; you build a fence around it. Our daughter was nine months old and we had tattoos on our wrists of our company logo and a press with a funky name that everyone thought had something to do with music; our neighbors were deputy sheriffs and retirees and horse-trainers. There were positive aspects to being socially isolated: we were able to focus on crafting Two Dollar Radio into the publishing house we always hoped it might one day become. For a while I managed a Lebanese restaurant chain, and then I managed a frozen custard shop. I would rise early to work on Two Dollar Radio, before putting in hours scooping hummus or custard, and then come home and work more on Two Dollar Radio. To unwind after the kids were in bed, my wife Eliza and I would sit on our front porch and drink and talk about the books and the company. We no longer felt like just another Brooklyn press. I’ve thought this before; I’ve written this before: in the process of becoming what you want to be, you realize who you are. We had to move to Columbus, Ohio, in order to discover our identity as a press.

It’s natural that with New York/Brooklyn being such a fantastic hub for literature throughout the years – writers either having dwelled or been published there – that it would appear to outsiders like another variety of high school. Graham Greene said in a 1953 interview with The Paris Review, that “for a writer to spend much of his time in the company of authors is, you know, a form of masturbation.” There is very much a blue-collar sensibility in Columbus, which I adore. My friend opened a Mediterranean/Mexican-hybrid restaurant; another friend founded a progressive urban church; a third friend started a company that teaches skateboarding to children. None of them care about Lena Dunham or that she scored a $3.5 million advance. It’s easier to launch a boutique small business in Columbus, where real estate and other overhead costs are less expensive, so many folks appear to be doing it now.

Our city’s major daily newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch, ran a story on us, which was a nice opportunity to lower the drawbridge and allow our neighbors to see what we were up to. Once the story came out, we heard from countless people in Columbus who told us they were happy that we were here and wanted to know where they could buy copies of our books. There’s one confusing, maze-like independent bookshop south of downtown, and  a slew of Barnes & Nobles, all of which might carry one or two of our titles at any given time, so I loaded my car with books and sold them to readers out of the backseat. It was an affirming action. We’d meet in coffee shops or bicycle stores. My two-year-old son would be awake or asleep on my shoulder. The sum of these interactions was the belief, for me, that we are all in this together, constructing some grungy new landscape, distinctive and in sharp contrast to the strip malls housing their box stores, one which we’re proud to be a part of.

One evening this past summer, we were walking to my parents’ home. Rather than taking the city sidewalks, my wife and I took a shortcut through a heavily-wooded ravine, alongside a stream, and through a quaint park. We spotted a friend of ours, Ammanuel, walking with a group of people, carrying a cymbal. He told us that the sloppy herd of folks armed with instruments was doing musical performances. They made their way to a cement stoop attached to a private Christian school that overlooked the ravine, where a young woman played guitar and sang three songs. Our children made their way to the foot of the performer, where they were welcomed into the group and sat cross-legged and watched. After the woman’s performance, the group picked up their instruments and set out alongside the stream to a spot where the path widens beneath an overpass featuring the outlines of birds sketched by a local artist who had been hired by the community to paint the various species of fowl spotted in the ravine. A band of three young men quickly got their instruments and gear in order and performed a fantastic, rambunctious set.

There is something especially liberating about not being part of any already over-populated scene. I’d also argue that there is a stronger sense of art for art’s sake in a city like Columbus since the work is being created outside of the mainstream, where artists have no reason to worry that a record producer will amble into their set, or that an editor from a large publishing house is in attendance at their café reading.  It’s a necessary component of the process of attaining that distinctive spark in your work, to permit yourself the space and freedom to hone your own voice. Sure, you can grow as an artist in New York or Brooklyn or Los Angeles or San Francisco, but for me, this is where the excitement resides: well outside the mainstream, on the edge.

There does seem to be the murmurs of a cultural reckoning afoot. It can be seen in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and on a daily basis on the corner of our block, by the foot-traffic at our neighborhood grocery cooperative, or the convoy of food trucks along High Street serving everything from specialty pierogies to kimchi. The reckoning can be spied, too, in the success of small presses, in their authors’ receipt of the National Book Award, or the Pulitzer or Nobel Prizes. Operating as they do on the edge of literary culture, independent publishers are a much more nurturing environment for extraordinary voices.

There is a new crop of young writers, some of whom I have had the good fortune to publish, as well as others – such as Joshua Cohen, Matt Bell, Kate Zambreno, Roxane Gay, and Blake Butler – who appear beholden solely to themselves, who stand in contrast to our current lemonade-stand culture of literature. They have risen through the ranks of small presses, and have gained national – and in some cases, international – recognition. Unlike our modern pillars of American literature who seem content to pen canned stories of middlebrow strife (snatch their glasses!), wearing vests or not wearing vests, spouting their fountain lemonade, these youthful writers possess the nerve and imagination and singularity to attempt a work of immodest ambition, to “blaze paths into the unknown,” as Bolaño put it. In large part, I’d suggest this is because these young writers have never compromised their individuality in order to be published or to succeed. As the voices of this new generation swell, so too does the promise for what our literary culture might dare to become.

Image courtesy the author

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11 Responses to “Dispatch from the Edge of Literary Culture”

  1. Thom Jurek
    at 9:10 am on November 28, 2012

    Thank you Eric for articulating what must be felt in various places across this country. I would venture that Detroit, which has attracted lots of attention from artists–as well as insane media depictions–as a place that is indeed, off the “grid” as well. People here are left alone and don’t worry about NY, LA, SF, Chicago,m etc. They work in the city because it’s place where they can live and work relatively cheaply, where they can find community, and simply by example, affect positive change without hoopla. I’ve always admired and supported the work your press is doing since you published Rudy and I became aware of you. Keep up the great work. Thank you again, and thanks to the Millions for providing a venue for pieces like this to call home.

  2. Morning Bites: William Blake And The British Bulldog, Tao Lin In Bronxville, André Aciman’s Writing Routine, Liz & Dick Talk, And More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn
    at 9:12 am on November 28, 2012

    […] Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio writes at The Millions about living on “the Edge of Literary Culture.” […]

  3. Edward Champion
    at 9:38 am on November 28, 2012

    Eric’s sentiments are, of course, welcome, but I can’t help but remark on the irony of The Millions publishing this essay in a desperate effort to appear “hip and edgy.” This website has taken few (if any) chances towards publishing dangerous or provocative viewpoints and its largely unadventurous and risk-averse spirit continues to amuse. On the other hand, The Millions is nowhere nearly as bad as Slate.

  4. Anita Felicelli
    at 10:47 am on November 28, 2012

    Eric, thank you for this lovely essay and for your work at the edges- love the phrase “canned stories of middlebrow strife” in opposition to the strong, brave, original work that Roxane Gay, Kate Zambreno, Matt Bell and others are doing. I just read a Two Dollar Radio book last night (I’m Trying to Reach You) and after I read it, I thought to myself (again) that the most interesting and adventurous fiction in America is being published at small presses. I’ll be looking out for more Two Dollar Radio books in the future.

  5. Nick Moran
    at 11:23 am on November 28, 2012

    Great piece, Eric. As someone who grew up in the shadow of New York City, but then left for college, and then returned later to work in publishing, I often find myself wishing to reclaim that distance.

  6. Dylan Wisor
    at 11:35 am on November 28, 2012

    Davenport, Iowa. You heard it here first.

  7. Carl Howard
    at 3:36 pm on November 28, 2012

    Say, that’s MY Columbus… and I just hopped off the #8 bus through that gosh-darn same Short North!


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    […] “There does seem to be the murmurs of a cultural reckoning afoot. It can be seen in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and on a daily basis on the corner of our block, by the foot-traffic at our neighborhood grocery cooperative, or the convoy of food trucks along High Street serving everything from specialty pierogies to kimchi. The reckoning can be spied, too, in the success of small presses, in their authors’ receipt of the National Book Award, or the Pulitzer or Nobel Prizes. Operating as they do on the edge of literary culture, independent publishers are a much more nurturing environment for extraordinary voices.” – Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio at the Millions […]

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    […] really liked this essay on The Millions about finding your voice as an artist by leaving the big city. It’s timely for me […]

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