Here in January, a month of predictions, at least one piece of prognostication about the upcoming year in national letters seems a pretty safe bet: In 2014, as in other years, some of the best literary work will come from the nation’s small presses.
Look no further than last year for evidence of the success that small presses had in attracting top talent.
Consider, for starters, Verlyn Klinkenborg, who concluded a 16-year run last month as a member of the New York Times editorial board. Klinkenborg, perhaps best known for his popular “The Rural Life” columns about country life, published his first collection of essays, also called “The Rural Life,” with Little, Brown in 2002.
But last year, when Klinkenborg brought out a follow-up, “More Scenes from the Rural Life,” he used a small publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, a 30-year-old firm that specializes in titles about architecture and design.
That seemed an odd fit for Klinkenborg’s essays, which stress musings on horses and chickens and trees rather than design issues, but Princeton’s production values proved a big plus for the book, with elegant line drawings by Nigel Peake that offered a perfect complement to Klinkenborg’s exquisite prose.
Klinkenborg explained the odd-couple pairing of author and publisher by noting that Kevin and Jennifer Lippert, top executives at Princeton, are also his friends and neighbors.
Phyllis Theroux is another writer previously connected with major publishers who opted for the small press route in 2013. Theroux is best known for an acclaimed memoir, “California and Other States of Grace,” published by William Morrow, as well as the more recent “The Journal Keeper,”’ released in 2010 by Atlantic Monthly Press. But “The Good Bishop,” Theroux’s 2013 biography of the socially liberal Catholic leader Walter F. Sullivan, was published by Orbis Books, a small religious press operated by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.
The subject matter of “The Good Bishop,” although of obvious interest to Catholics, should also resonate with a secular audience, too, since the book is, at base, a fascinating account of a shrewd political genius. And here, as in her other books, Theroux’s gift for the lapidary sentence remains vivid. Listen to how she describes Sullivan’s funeral: “For several long minutes, while the congregation waited in silence for the funeral party to return, there was nothing to contemplate but the marble altar at whose base the bishop’s coffin had lain. Morning sun clothed the bare altar with radiance. The bright emptiness emphasized what was no longer there.”
Brian Doyle’s resume also includes collaborations with both large commercial publishers and small presses. A celebrated essayist whose work recently appeared in Houghton Mifflin’s “The Best American Essays 2013,” Doyle has a regular Friday column in the online edition of The American Scholar. In April, Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, will publish “The Plover,” Doyle’s lyrical new novel about a mystical ship in the Northwest and its haunted Captain Declan.
But last year, in advance of the Doyle’s publishing venture with big-league publisher St. Martin’s, he released “The Thorny Grace of It,” his latest collection of essays, through the much smaller Loyola Press.
“Thorny Grace” contains Doyle’s signature reflections on faith, fatherhood and family, delivered in a tone that alternates between puckish humor and open-hearted emotion.
The latest books from Klinkenborg, Theroux and Doyle are just a few of the quality titles that small presses continue to generate. All of which means that in 2014, readers who want good work might do well to think small.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”