Graywolf Press is lone wolf in book publishing

The publisher is a thousand miles from NYC but remains one of the best

"We're going to a screen culture so fast—video screens, movie screens, TV screens," he says. "The literary people are in a fight for their lives to keep the attention of readers. It's a very big deal to keep people reading. It's a huge deal."

In his mission to bring readable, quality nonfiction to the masses, Baxter teamed up with Graywolf in 1997 to publish a book of essays on writing fiction, Burning Down the House, which became one of the press's most popular titles. Though he initially considered offering it to the publisher of his fiction, W.W. Norton, the Minneapolis native ultimately decided to go with the much smaller Graywolf.

"I thought the book had a better chance of developing a longer shelf life if Graywolf did it," he says. "The trouble with larger publishers is that they generally want a return on investment faster than Graywolf. I think one of the great things about Graywolf is that they're patient, they'll wait for a book to do well."

Burning Down the House has indeed had a long shelf life, and Graywolf recently released it with two new essays and a new preface. Though it's regularly assigned in creative writing programs across the country, it's not a strictly "how-to" book. Baxter's essay "Dysfunctional Narratives: or, 'Mistakes Were Made,'" for example, concerns the inability of U.S. presidents to accept responsibility for their actions. (Of the arms-for-hostages deal, Baxter writes that Reagan "was not told; or he forgot; or he was out of the loop; or he didn't understand what was said to him.") He correlates this phenomenon with fiction writers' passing-of-the-buck when it comes to their characters' shortcomings.

How can the contemporary disavowal movement not affect those of us who tell stories? We begin to move away from fiction of protagonists and antagonists into another mode, another model. It is hard to describe this model but I think it might be called the fiction of finger-pointing, the fiction of the quest for blame. It often culminates with a scene in a court of law.

In such fiction, people and events are often accused of turning the protagonist into the kind of person the protagonist is, usually an unhappy person. That's the whole story. When blame has been assigned, the story is over.

City Pages called Burning Down the House "the most pleasurable and instructive book on the craft since John Gardner's The Art of Fiction." It wasn't for everyone, however. Baxter recalls a reader's peeved comments during a Washington, D.C., question-and-answer session. "I can tell you write your essays so people won't understand them," she insisted.

In an attempt to bring readers like her into the fold, Baxter is editing a series of books of criticism that don't read like...well, criticism. Called "The Art of..." series, Baxter authored the first, 2007's The Art of Subtext, and two per year are planned. "Something has happened to professional criticism, and I'm not the first person to say this. It became very theoretical and very specialized, and a lot of it became unreadable for most people. This is kind of an antidote for that."

He says his relationship with Graywolf has been extremely fulfilling. "Fiona has the best sense of almost any editor I've known, certainly in nonprofit publishing, about whether the breath of life flows through a text or not," he says, but adds that working with her hasn't always been easy. "We have had our disagreements on some things. The Art of Subtext, it's just this little book, but man, I worked and worked and worked on that book. She and [senior editor] Jeff Shotts, those people are sticklers for details."

His advice for young scribes? "If you're a writer and are in for the long haul, it's a big mistake to think you're going to cash in early, to think you're going to make a huge splash right away. Places like Graywolf are not in the business for a quick buck—they think of publishing books that have some staying power year after year after year. That's what young writers should be thinking about."

FOLLOWING THE DEATH of her son, Mary Jo Bang wrote poems, one after another. They were never meant for publication.

"I would find myself in a dark place, and I would sit down and try to talk to my son in the form of a poem," says the 62-year-old English professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "And the poem had to be fairly straightforward, because my son wasn't a poet. He loved and understood poetry, but if the poem was too adventurous he wasn't able to make sense of it. At the same time, I kept thinking that it had to be a poem, it can't just be a journal entry."

The process helped her quell her exquisite grief, if only for a few minutes. From "A Sonata for Four Hands":

Why are you not where you belong?

A black hat on a hook says nothing.

Ashes mirror ashes

In a mirroring window. And now how

Do we resolve this predicament?

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