If your local bookstore does not stock Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, Guilty by Georges Bataille, Altazor by Vincente Huidobro, Compact by Maurice Roche, Space in Motion by Juan Goytisolo, I-57 by Paul Metcalf, Concierto Barroco by Alejo Carpentier, or Cold Tales by Virgilio Pinera, you’re living in a culturally deprived area.

All these books were published during the last year by small literary presses. In France bookstores are seen as cultural resources, but here in the States we make do with B. Dalton’s. Unfortunately, the best way to determine if a bookstore is a literary bookstore is by counting the number of books they carry from the small literary presses. The above list would be a rough measure. If I said there were 20 bookstores in the whole country that had these books in their normal stock, I might be exaggerating.

If your local bookshop has even the slightest literary pretensions, it will make an effort to stock the Black Sparrow Press editions of Wyndham Lewis, Jack Spicer, and Charles Bukowski. If not, maybe we should remember that both Hemingway and Joyce were introduced to the world via the small press. I won’t retell the whole history of the small literary presses, but I think it can be taken as a given that the small press is the home for whatever literary culture we have. (There is, of course, another whole world out there filled with books like How to Wash Your Face See Jesus And Live Forever . . . sending many a clever entrepreneur whistling to the bank.) But let’s go back to the basics. All publishing shares certain mechanical details: you have a manuscript, you get the manuscript printed, you try to sell the book. Money is the determining factor all along the way, but it becomes dominant at the distribution end. The big guys have a very expensive system in place: a network of salesmen who cover limited territories, representing, if it is a really large publisher, only it.

The books are presented to the various wholesalers, jobbers, and retail establishments under the iron law of Time Is Money. The more tides, the less time for each tide.

The small presses generally don’t have this going for them. Some of the larger small guys have banded together, and they do have sales reps who pound the pavement. However, they have to make their living by offering, along with literary tides, books on how to get those mushrooms growing. (Mushrooms will outsell a “good” novel anytime). If this all sounds like business—the selling and promoting of soap powder—you’re getting close. Publishing is a business. We are talking about shelf space, line feet, ad budgets, you wash my hand, I’ll wash yours . . . we are talking product. So where does the thin volume of poetry end up, that prose work difficult to define? You can guess that one next time you go into Waldenbooks.

The Dial, which had a circulation of only 300, published Thoreau and Emerson. But we know from reading Albert Jay Nock that this was all back when people still read and were not just processing books.

Closer to our time, Gilbert Sorrentino was the editor and founder of Neon, one of the key little magazines of the postwar period. The first issue (in 1956) was done in 250 copies and placed in three bookshops in New York and one in San Francisco. No wider distribution was necessary. He did five issues of the magazine and by the end his circulation was 300. The magazine folded in 1960 and Sorrentino went on to Kulchur, of which he later wrote:

Kulchur was a remarkable publication because its strength came from the fact that its editorial position was rooted in a true artistic community, and that community was rooted in a great city. It was alive because it grew out of a specific modern movement and because it was necessary to that movement’s cohesion. [William Carlos] Williams told me, just before Neon began, that a little magazine’s only rationale is its editor’s belief that the writers he prints must be presented as a group. Anything else is just a collation of pages.

Writing in 1978, Sorrentino made a suggestion which is pertinent and still mostly unfulfilled:

I suspect that a new magazine—perhaps even one of “criticism and comment,” like Kulchur—will soon be necessary. The generation that had just begun to write and publish in the mid-sixties has been around for more than a decade. Although the writers of this generation have published in many magazines (published many books as well) and founded many others, they have been curiously and inexplicably uncritical of each other and of everybody else; and everyone seems to like everyone else’s work. The situation is oddly passive, and many of the magazines in which these writers appear read like the later issues of The Floating Bear—all charm, gossip, and news notes. These younger writers have never established a critical position for themselves; it seems to be beneath them. Perhaps it is. Maybe they are too close to my generation to assault it—certainly they were born, as it were, into an era that was kind to them.

Today there are a great many more magazines and much more activity, but there is no way of telling what will live on into memory. Sticking my neck out, I would say that the most important small presses today are Black Sparrow Press, Dalkey Archive Press, Station Hill, McPherson & Co., Coffee House Press, Amok Press, Jargon Press, Eridanos, Graywolf, and Lapis Press, though I am sure I have missed some. (You can write to Small Press Distributions, 1814 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA 94702 and ask for their complete catalogue. They represent more than 300 small presses.)

The small press world is mostly a mirror of the world of big-time publishing, though they’ll never admit it. There is the same venality, stupidity, rotten taste, bad ideas, faddishness—all laid on top of even greater incompetence than is displayed by the big guys in probably the worst-run business in America. When culture gets mixed up with money, the world of the small press really gets the bends, because there is so much less money, and the psychological cut and thrust is that much fiercer.

But to answer Sorrentino’s question as to why there is no criticism within the small press: you never know whom you’ll need when to get a job, or a grant. Also, no one knows who’s any good. So how can anyone say anything about anyone?

I know a writer in New Orleans who has a shelf eight feet long on which he has arranged some of the hundreds of magazines in which he has published fiction, poetry, and essays. He has not published a book. No one really knows who he is. Mostly no one reads these magazines. He is a good writer, if you will take my word for it. There are hundreds of writers out there like him with their piles of magazines. I know a poet here in New York who has published the same poem in over 25 different magazines. There has been no overlap in audience and no complaints or comment.

Jack Saunders of Delray Beach, Florida has written 40 books. Two have been printed in hardcover, some of the others in paper. The books are a record of his life and his obsessive interest in why the New York publishers won’t publish any of his books about his obsession to be published by a New York publisher.

I know a former editor of the Brooklyn Review, a literary magazine connected to the English Department of Brooklyn College. Really, he was telling me, you only have to print up maybe a hundred copies of the magazine, enough to give to the contributors and close friends. No one else is really interested. There have been complaints at the Gotham Book Mart that more people copy addresses of poetry magazines in their stock than either read or buy them. There are more people writing poetry than reading it.

My own experience is a good case history. I was a member of The Irish American Cultural Project in New York, and over the years we talked about having a magazine to complement the musical part of the project. We believed there were many Irish Americans who had something to say. Since I had some experience with publishing my own poetry and prose in small magazines, I was elected.

One thing I was sure of: little magazines do not survive if they are run by a committee. I was to be publisher, editor, and printer’s devil. I settled on the name. Adrift, because that seemed to reflect the mood of the Irish American community through which I moved. I knew a number of writers both in Ireland and in the US, and most of the first issue was solicited from them and from the writers who came to our music events.

Over the years Adrift was listed in the various guides to the small press world. Then the avalanche began—hundreds and then thousands of submissions. I can count on my fingers the would-be contributors who had actually read the magazine. To make everything dicier, not many more had read, say, the three writers whom I hold to be the most important in modern Irish literature: Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, and Francis Stuart. This hunger for publication, which as a writer I so well understand, is something to behold. I was not prepared for the deluge, and the situation quickly became desperate: 99 percent of the stuff I received was just that—stuff. When it was not a step-by-step imitation of whoever was the latest in fashion, it was written as if nothing had been written during the last hundred years.

Anyway, I print up a thousand copies of the magazine and get rid of nearly 900. There are 150 subscriptions.

I did three issues of Adrift before I asked myself why. I wasn’t running The New Yorker, which has to come out every week because so much money is at stake. The manuscripts coming in gave me no reason to keep on. You have to understand that an editor of such a magazine will probably read the story or poem more times than the person who wrote it. The poem is read when it comes in, and, if liked, is read again and again. If accepted it is read again to see where it will be placed in the magazine. After it is typeset and proofread, the manuscript is read for corrections, and then a final time, before the paste-up goes off to the printer. When they come back the poem is read again. So an honest, hapless editor is saying to himself upon first seeing a submission: do I want to read this X number of times, again? I can still live, fairly well, with the three issues I have done so far.

My first goal in selecting material for Adrift was to establish my view of what was going on in both Irish and Irish American writing. I wanted to publish writing I had not read before, and to pay homage to the writers I had encountered in my years of living in Ireland. I was both honored and pleased to publish Francis Stuart, whose Blacklist Section H is one within the small group of absolutely essential books for anyone who wants to know anything about modern Irish writing. James Liddy, Thomas McCarthy, Richard Riordain, and Eamonn Wall are the poets who come first to mind, but to single them out is to slight others who are no less good.

I am still collecting material for the next issue. The money is in the bank. I have poems by John Montague and Thomas Kinsella, among others. I have a story by John Jordan, but he just died. I am still waiting. Sometimes 36 pages can be awfully difficult to fill.

In a recent Publishers Weekly, Emiie Capouya, a publishing veteran, announced that he planned to set up a new house and do 15 books a year of literary fiction and serious nonfiction. He was quite pessimistic about the future. “Conglomerate publishers are changing the reading tastes of the country,” he said.

My novel, The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov, was published in March 1987 by Dalkey Archive Press. This treatment of the death of an anticommunist Bulgarian statesman was reviewed in The New York Times in May. The number of copies sold is a secret, since it is my book and well, you know, there are the tax people, and my own frail ego. It received nine more favorable reviews and was the subject of two broadcasts on the Bulgarian Service of Radio Free Europe. It received one unfavorable review in a Bulgarian emigre magazine.

A year and a half after publication I am still happy with the book and the publisher did all he could. It is still available directly from the publisher and can be found in four bookshops in New York City and, I think, two in Wisconsin. I have been congratulated by a number of editors from big New York houses and they are all happy to see N. Petkov in print, as long as they didn’t have to do it. No one was going to eat lunch at Lutece off the sales of my book.

Of course, others better known than I have had the same problems. The best book published by a small press in recent years is, to my view, Poison Pen by George Garrett. Still available from Stuart Wright Publishers, it is a genuine work of satire. But only a small press could afford to do it: in Stuart Wright’s case there’s little money to lose and no lawyers to worry about Garrett’s to-the-point characterizations.

Today, as I was finishing this piece, I took a break and was walking along Second Avenue, when I ran into one of the publishers of Amok Press. He was dashing home with a new book about William Burroughs, in which Burroughs was quoted as saying that a book Amok is bringing out in two months, You Can’t Win by Jack Black, was the most important book in Burroughs’ life. The publisher tingled with excitement. He was dashing back to rewrite Black’s jacket copy. Excitement: you can’t knock it, really. (Yes, Amok Press did the collected writings of Charlie Manson. They are interested in the truly marginal—though, after all, Manson stalks American history the same way the killer Moosbrugger stalks the pages of Robert Musil’s great novel, The Man Without Qualities.) But, I must repeat, the Amok guy was excited about the book. Uptown, they are always excited about a book—for a week or so, and then it is time for the next one. In the land of the small press it is a little different: the excitement is in the book, the belief is in the book. It is a feeling of possession, of risk.