“Hey! This Is Cool!” (Or: How Books Happen)

I don’t talk about it much, but I’m the acquisitions editor for a very small press called PS Books. It’s the books division of a journal called Philadelphia Stories, which publishes, as you might guess, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction by writers with at least a loose connection to the City of Brotherly Love and its outlying communities. We publish three or four books a year, and I usually take care of book design in addition to seeking out titles for publication. Tomorrow, we officially launch our first title for 2012, a collection of flash fiction titled Stripped.

To give you a sense of what the book is all about, here’s the copy I wrote for the back cover:

Stripped is a collection with a twist. Yes, the fiction contained herein includes works from some of the best-known names in flash fiction as well as the work of emerging writers, but the bylines have been removed so you can’t tell who wrote what. What’s more, the stories hinge largely on gender roles — but with the authors’ identities stripped from their stories, editor Nicole Monaghan has created a bit of a guessing game. Did a woman, for example, write that piece about ambivalence toward motherhood? Or was it a man? More to the point, does it really matter? Or is there something bigger going on when men and women stretch their minds and imagine what it might be like to be the other? Authors include Meg Tuite, Michelle Reale, Myfanwy Collins, Tara L. Masih, Michael Martone, Nathan Alling Long, Curtis Smith, and Randal Brown.

As interesting as the collection itself may seem, the story of how it came to be might also be worth considering.

About a year ago, I read a blog post about depictions of gender roles in flash fiction. In the post, blogger Nicole Monaghan marveled at how well some of her favorite authors could write from the perspective of the opposite sex. Eventually, Nicole wondered aloud about whether she’d be able to identify the gender of an author if the story were stripped of its byline:

But wouldn’t it be a curious and wondrous thing if for some allotted time period–I don’t know, we’ll say a year–flash writers had to remain anonymous and we all had to read them wondering, is this written by a man or woman?

As soon as I read this, I thought it would be a great idea for a book, so I emailed Nicole and told her so. She wrote up a proposal and sent it to a couple of publishers who specialize in flash fiction. Though they liked the idea, the publishers turned her down, mainly for financial reasons; the kinds of publishers who work with projects like this one are also the kinds of publishers that are perpetually strapped for cash.

Given the circumstances, I couldn’t help volunteering to publish the book as a PS Books title. I mean, I thought it was a really neat idea. I’d also gone to grad school with Nicole, so I knew she could complete the project in a timely and professional manner. And if she could convince some of her favorite flash fiction authors to contribute works to the collection without having their names attached to said works, then who was I to stand in the way of this book’s publication?

Granted, we published the book on an extremely tight budget. As PS Books has been doing for the past year or so, we used a print on demand service rather than going the traditional route of printing a large number of books, and we were also fortunate enough to get permission to use a painting by one of my favorite artists, Anne Buckwalter, for the cover.

It also helps that I’m working within the framework of a larger organization. I’m okay with the technical aspects of this job – e.g., finding titles, putting the books together, making them available to the public – but I’m glad that there’s a team at Philadelphia Stories who was willing to put together a launch party and help to promote the book.

My point in all of this is to say that books can come into existence in the least expected ways—and that publication, though a reasonable goal for many writers, doesn’t really validate a piece of writing. Rather, publication only means that one person (or committee or corporation) decided to put some resources behind a project. In some cases, the calculations behind the decision to publish are purely commercial and a bit like betting on a horse. In other cases, the motives may be artistic, philanthropic, or philosophical. Chances are, all of these issues come into play in one way or another, but in no instance does publication confer some kind of objective “goodness” upon the written word.

It just means that somebody somewhere said, “Hey! This is cool!”

Review: The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door

A shark attack, a starlet in hiding, a mysterious black box. The opening pages of Stephen Stark’s The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door have all the makings of a Hollywood page turner, but the novel’s style places the author in a far more literary league.

The novel is a hefty one in terms of content as well as form. Weighing in at well over 600 pages (in 12 pt. Garamond, no less!), The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door touches on a wide range of topics — show business, fame, predestination, love, reality, lucid dreaming, and standup comedy, to name just a few. To tackle these subjects, Stark offers the reader Ellen Gregory, a thirty-something standup comic turned TV superstar whose recent run-in with a murderous stalker leaves her questioning everything about the world she’s grown used to. That her world consists largely of hype and rumors only complicates matters for the increasingly cagey celebrity.

Ellen’s Hollywood narrative alone would certainly provide enough material for a provocative examination of fame and its trappings, but Stark sweetens the deal by adding virtual reality to the mix. Shortly after escaping from the confines of her successful sitcom, Ellen falls for a computer programmer whose experiments have opened a doorway into a mysterious dimension that isn’t quite real but is, in some ways, more real than real. When Michael falls prey to a vicious attack, Ellen’s world turns upside down, and her entire world — not to mention her sense of self — goes up for grabs.

Stylistically, Stark’s writing evokes a diverse range of contemporary authors. From the more “literary” camp, there’s Jennifer Egan and Don DeLillo, while the elements of science-fiction present in the novel call to mind William Gibson’s interest in virtual reality and Jamil Nasir’s examination of lucid dreaming in The Houses of Time. Complex, ambitious, and genre-bending, The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door is a philosophical page turner that strives to get at the meaning of life — or at least a reasonable facsimile of it.