This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

August 4, 2002 — The first time I ever walked into a publishing house — the old Little, Brown headquarters in Boston — it felt exactly right: a stately old brownstone with lots of dark wood trim and marble floors and leather furniture and walls covered with row after row of colorful spine–out books aligned neatly on beautiful oak shelves.

Flash forward through a couple of decades, and the not–so–gradual transition of publishing companies into mega–corporations (Little, Brown was taken over by Time–Life, which was taken over by Time–Warner, and is now somewhere in the maw of Time Warner AOL) has rendered publishing houses — the actual houses — into be–cubicled spaces like every other place in business America, and I haven't felt that special je ne sais quoi since.

Until I had progressed about three feet into the international corporate headquarters of Context Books, the independent publisher located just below the Asian bustle of Canal Street in lower Manhattan.

Not that Context's headquarters bear that strong a resemblance to the Little, Brown offices. But as I stood there in that single, square, high–ceilinged chamber, surrounded by author photos and book covers and posters tacked haphazardly on the cinderblock walls, with promotional material and pizza boxes strewn over cluttered office furniture that looked like it had been rejected from the liquidation warehouse, and piles of books and galleys teetering everywhere between erector–set book shelves jammed to capacity . . . I had that feeling again that I was in a place where literature was being made.

The proprietor — founder, publisher, and editor–in–chief Beau Friedlander — only compounded the feeling. He's got enough odd elements in his background — youthful moments as a blues guitarist, and a dance impresario — to joke that, "Getting into publishing was a natural progression of a person who was otherwise very unemployable."

But he's also got some impressive poetry publications to his credit (Seamus Heaney once selected his work for an anthology of poets to watch), as well as two graduate degrees in literature (one from Oxford, one from Columbia), and an impressive ability to drop quotes from obscure books. Dark and unshaven just one day too long to qualify as roguish, and in a slick polyester shirt that would look more fashionable if it weren't quite that rumpled (and how do you rumple polyester?), the 33–year–old also manages to look both world–weary and energized at the same time. He gives the impression that he's been fighting very hard, very long for something that still gets him excited.

It's an attitude I've come to know through his voice, over the phone — I've never had a publisher call me so regularly to champion his books. He tells me each one is important, spins off into anecdotes about the author, slips away into a consideration of related schools of writing, makes an intensive inquiry into what I'm reading, throws in a dirty joke and comes back to remind me that really, this particular book he called about is different, it will in fact make a difference, and what are you going to do about it? He's actually said this to me: "You've got to tell people about this book. You've got to."

He starts in again in his office, making a horrified beeline through the clutter to a stack of Derrick Jensen's "A Language Older Than Words" when I admit I haven't read it.

It is, as I'll subsequently learn, typical of Context's fare — which is to say, it's not all that typical at all. Not quite memoir, not quite philosophy, not quite political theory, it's an absorbing speculative mix, a book that is fat in more ways than one (it's 400 pages long) and not quite like anything I've ever read before.

The only thing it reminds me of, in fact, is other Context books, with which it has nothing in common except that the contents are hard to categorize. For example, last year's "Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks" by Greg Bottoms was a closely–observed and extremely witty collection of stories and essays, fiction and nonfiction and some stuff that seems as if it could have been either. Similarly, a collection of stories by Russian émigré Zinovy Zinik, "Mind the Doors: Long Short Stories," was wild in content and anarchic in form.

The Jensen book, in any event, was one of Friedlander's first books, and got off to a slow start — "We sold, like, 70 copies," he says — but then it caught on by word of mouth and has become, eighteen months later, the company's biggest seller at some 30,000 copies.

But that's not why Friedlander is also publishing Jensen's newest book, the 700–page "The Culture of Make Believe."

"I love my authors," he says. "I want to publish everything they write."

In fact, respect for authors is one thing that inspired Friedlander to quit he first job in publishing — he was an editorial assistant at Random House's Knopf and Pantheon imprints, but he only lasted six months.

"I hated big publishing's complete and utter disregard for authors," he says now.

But after three years working as a book packager — a kind of book industry networker who links authors and publishers on particular projects — when Friedlander had finally raised sufficient capital to start Context, he was nearly ruined by the man who was supposed to be his first author: Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber.

The book, in which Kaczynski explained his side of the story, "was on the press," recalls Friedlander, "we had a 25,000 copy lay–down and the cover of Time magazine," when Kaczynski balked about some changes Friedlander had made.

"It was entirely a copyright issue," Friedlander explains now. Kaczynski had quoted letters to which he did not own the copyright, and he refused to paraphrase them, so Friedlander had done it for him. Kaczynski, with whom Friedlander had been dealing with personally ("a very exact person, surprisingly affable . . . to a point"), wouldn't go along with it.

"People were lined up to sue us for publishing it anyway," says Friedlander. "I was interested in the book as a historical artifact, and by the time we got to that point, with all the paraphrasing, the book no longer was the artifact it was meant to be. So that was that."

Context's second book, a backgrounder about the Unabomber case meant to piggy–back on the Kaczynski book, thus met little interest.

"So we started out in a deep, deep hole," says Friedlander.

It wasn't until the story collection "Assorted Fire Events" by David Means, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, that Friedlander found himself emerging from a dark woods. Since then, his books continue to gain more and more attention, and regularly find themselves on the Booksense 76 list of recommended books by independent booksellers. And it is the never–stand–still, iconoclastic quality of Context's books that seem to impress critics.

"I'm just not that interested in publishing the newest cookie–cutter novel," Friedlander says. "That's not precisely what the planet needs right now. A Context book is going to have that 'I'm–mad–as–hell–and–I'm–not–gonna–take–it–anymore' attitude . . . "

The savvy publisher with experience at the big houses suddenly cuts in on the fire–breathing independent: "Not that I'm not publishing, you know, um, lighter books," he says, citing the forthcoming "Speedology: Speed on New York on Speed," by Speed Levitch, a humorous travelogue by the local writer who can best be described as — well, iconoclastic. "No, 'lighter' isn't the right word . . . " Friedlander says.

What it may come down to, ultimately, is that even though unlike the books of most small independents Friedlander's books have that big publishing look (beautifully teetering on the edge of over–design), they are profoundly different inside because they reflect the passions of one person.

"Look, it's easy to publish John Updike or Joan Didion," says Friedlander with a shrug. "Those are the no–brainers of the cultural elite."

"I want to publish the revolution," he says.

To some extent, he already has.

Last Week’s Column: THE TALK OF THE REST OF THE TOWN It's been going on for a while, and people have begun to talk: why are there so few women in the pages of The New Yorker?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.