OMNIDAWN LAUNCHES PARASPHERES
I first heard of Omnidawn and its founders, Ken Keegan and Rusty Morrison, through the editors of Rain Taxi. Ann and I then met them at the Associated Writers' Program conference in Vancouver earlier this year. Omnidawn publishes poetry books, but had decided to branch out into fiction--specifically, a fiction anthology of "New Wave Fabulist" short stories called ParaSpheres. Although I have issues with the term "New Wave Fabulist" (but, then, most readers will know I have issues with Slipstream, New Weird, and Interstitial, too, so maybe I'm just pathologically opposed to movements in general), I found both Ken and Rusty to be passionate about both the project and non-realist fiction in general. I also knew, from their track record in poetry, that they knew what they were doing as publishers. (And, on a personal note, Ann and I found them to be delightful company.)
Given their ties to the literary mainstream, I find their project particularly interesting. We have cross-genre anthologies and magazines like Polyphony, Leviathan, and The Third Alternative (not to mention the one-off Trampoline), but except for the Conjunctions New Wave Fabulists' volume, no other high-profile cross-genre "entity" has come at this from the mainstream literary side into genre. (I'm not going to count the rather random Chabon-edited anthologies because their purported purpose is to inject pulp-genre into the literary mainstream.)
Ken and Rusty will be at the World Fantasy Convention this year, promoting their anthology. The anthology itself will be published in February 2006, with work from myself, Jeffrey Ford, Rikki Ducornet (including an introduction), Angela Carter, Leena Krohn, Alasdair Gray, Laird Hunt, Brad Morrow, Brian Evenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K. LeGuin, L. Timmel Duchamp, and many others (the final table of contents has not yet been finalized). The anthology is a mix of reprints and original material. The debut volume is intended to be just the first in a series.
The following interview with the editors was conducted via email in August.
Why did you decide to embark on this project?
Since his college days Ken had been fascinated with the power of non-realistic fiction to clarify obscure issues with the use of metaphor and allegory. One of his favorites, Orwell’s Animal Farm, epitomized the way governments lie to us as in “everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.” Long before we began Omnidawn as a poetry press, Ken considered starting a press that would focus on his favorite kind of literature, something that might be called Magic Non-Realism. (This was well before we decided to also try and include serious forms of science fiction, fantasy and horror into the mix.) Magic Realism, especially its Latin American version, had gained acceptance as serious literature. But in the United States more non-realistic forms of serious literature often went unpublished unless they could be squeezed into various genre classifications. Transforming such fiction into something that would be acceptable to genre publishers often diluted their original meanings, and once they were classified as genre fiction, they had difficulty gaining acceptance by critics or the public as serious literature.
Ken believed that Magic Non-Realism in the U.S. was being lost in this system and he wanted to create a press that could be a home to such fiction. Meanwhile we were both aware that significant works of poetry were also under published, because poetry books rarely break even, and publishers are reluctant to publish books that they know will lose money.
We had the idea that we might be able to create a situation where the Magic Non-Realist fiction could support the poetry books, and create a home for both, thus expanding the readership of both forms. We started publishing poetry first because we knew we would lose money on our first books, and poetry books are smaller and printed in smaller runs, so that our initial losses would be much less. Also, Rusty knows a number of excellent poets, and we realized that we could ask them for manuscripts, something we could not do in the field of fiction. Once we had made something of a name for ourselves in poetry publication, we felt we could begin to make contacts in the area of fiction.
At the end of 2002, after we had been publishing poetry for about two years, the literary journal Conjunctions from Bard College edited by Brad Morrow came out with an issue guest edited by Peter Straub devoted to what they described as “New Wave Fabulist” writers. (The term Fabulist is very similar to the term Magic Realism, with approximately the same level of acceptance as serious literature, except that Magic Realism is often restricted to Latin American forms, whereas Fabulist generally means Magic Realism without respect to geographical boundaries.) Conjunctions defined the “New Wave Fabulist” fiction by stating that “For two decades, a small group of innovative writers rooted in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been simultaneously exploring and erasing the boundaries of those genres by creating fiction of remarkable depth and power.”, thus extending the definition of “Fabulist,” which generally does not include fantasy, science fiction or horror.
It should be noted that much of what Conjunctions was referring to as “New Wave Fabulist” has previously been classified as Speculative Fiction, a term originally coined by Robert A. Heinlein in 1947 as character based science fiction, and later defined by others as a literary form of science fiction (and often other genres). However, Orson Scott Card, in his 1990 book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, effectively defined Speculative Fiction as including all forms of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as most Horror, when he stated “Speculative fiction includes all stories that take place in a setting contrary to known reality.” Card’s definition now seems to be the predominant one, and the term has lost much of its original emphasis on literary quality.
After Conjunctions published their “New Wave Fabulist” writers, we decided that the term had the advantage of including non-magical forms of non-realistic fiction. It also is an extension of the term “Fabulist,” which has significant acceptance as a literary form of fiction. Since it can be difficult to draw the line between these two forms we decided that we would publish both “Fabulist and New Fabulist Fiction.” We felt that the best way to enter into publishing this kind of fiction would be to begin with an anthology (ParaSpheres) that would offer the reader a wide selection that would fill out this definition, and to follow that with the publication of full-length novels, two of which have scheduled publication dates shortly after the anthology.
What do you hope to accomplish?
Ideally, we would like to put the question behind us of whether non-realistic fiction can be classified as serious literature. We believe that whatever someone prefers to call it, Speculative Fiction, Trans-Realism, Magic Non-Realism, Fabulist, New Wave Fabulist, that non-realistic literature has serious value. Works by Orwell, Huxley, Kafka and numerous others prove this. We mention these three writers, in particular, because all the literary critics agree that their works are serious literature. And much new non-realistic fiction has received significant critical attention in recent years. But we are still fighting this battle with many critics in the U.S., fighting to gain acceptance for each novel on a case by case basis, because the literary critics have a very narrow definition that says Literary Fiction needs to be Narrative Realism, with maybe a little Magic Realism allowed in as a token.
We have begun to suspect that it may be time to leave this argument behind. Maybe, we should let the critics have their definition of Literary Fiction, and come up with a totally separate category that is seen as equally valuable as serious literature without claiming to be this sacrosanct Narrative Realist definition of Literary Fiction. (The title of our anthology, ParaSpheres, refers to spheres of literatures that are parallel to, rather than part of, literary fiction.) So it would be helpful to have a name for this new classification. As previously mentioned, the term Speculative Fiction has lost much of its original meaning, and is probably no longer suitable. So maybe we could use a new name. For now our press is using the terms “Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist” for this classification. We personally would prefer that we could have a much simpler term, perhaps simply “Fabulist.” That might happen, because the dictionaries of literary terms don’t yet list a definition of “Fabulist,” and even the standard dictionaries simply define it as a teller of tales, sometimes a teller of tall or fanciful tales. The definers of terms have not yet set it in type, so to a degree it is still malleable. But ultimately we will support whatever term most writers (and hopefully critics) can agree means serious non-realist literature.
What’s been the most fulfilling part of working on the anthology?
For the anthology, we solicited stories from authors whom we esteem, and we placed open calls for work in many periodicals, including, Poets & Writers Writers Chronicle, and The Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. We have been deluged by thousands of submissions, and we have found it a very slow process to deal with all of the incoming material. (We’ve replaced most of our living room furniture with file cabinets.) There are only two of us, and we both have day jobs that support our publishing “habit,” and we still have to deal with all the other business of the press, not to mention life, which seems to intrude on things. But we will ultimately answer all mail and respond to everyone.
But this is also one of the most exciting parts of the process. We have found many writers some who have been well published and others not, who have sent us amazing work. In many cases, writers have said they did not know of any publication to which they could send these stories until we put out our advertisements. It has been a great thrill to find many new voices to publish. This thrill makes it possible to face the stacks of incoming work with renewed vigor.
It has also been very exciting to make contact with some of the fiction writers whom we hold in the highest esteem. It is stunning to be in contact with people whose fiction has been life changing for us, whose prose has opened our eyes and given us hope.
And it is both humbling and thrilling to know that we can help in some small way to further the work—to bring these writers material to more and more readers.
What excites you about fantastic literature?
The biggest problem we face as a human beings is how to survive our own self destructive tendencies. Most scientists are now giving the human race less than a fifty percent chance of surviving the next century. Our science and industry seems to be on an irrevocable course to destroy our environment. Global warming, pollution, and nuclear weapons are only part of the picture. Civilization has also reached a point where we need to pay very serious attention to the metaphysical, supernatural, mythological, and religious beliefs that influence our political realities, as well as future possibilities of the human race. Our civilization is largely dominated by a number of fundamentalist religions that each consider other religions and cultures to be essentially evil and worthy of total annihilation, and many of these groups have or are close to having nuclear weapons. And yet there is very little serious fiction about the real dangers that will confront us. The truth has become stranger than fiction, at least Narrative Realist fiction, and the only way fiction can portray the issues is to become even more strange and unreal, because our culture is becoming more unreal and this is the only way we can foresee these directions. In the past stories from writers like Kafka, Huxley, and Orwell have opened our eyes to the future by using non-realistic settings others could not imagine. We also need to look at our world from a less greedy, me-first, materialistic perspective. We need to view our world with an awe for all that we still do not understand, for all that seems magical, metaphysical, or paranormal. These are the things that can inspire us far more than our material wealth, which is often the most profound form of poverty. Today, more than ever before, we need an increase in this kind of literature. To a large degree the media, which is almost entirely owned and supported by corporations and corporate advertising, does not want to look at these issues because such information could get in the way of corporate goals involving sales, expansion, and production. If people thought about the issues, they might not buy SUVs, or allow drilling for oil in the Arctic, or tolerate the levels of pollution now permitted by our governments.
It is still possible to change our course, and this is the exciting part. To do so, we all must become more aware of the issues. Fiction, including serious fiction that examines our future, our science, and our mythological and metaphysical beliefs in what are generally considered non-realistic ways, is a significant part of this change in awareness. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in serious non-realistic literature. Writers are writing about these issues, and more of this is getting published and recognized. We expect this trend to continue. What is most exciting is to be part of this movement.
How different is this project from publishing books of poetry? In what ways?
As we mentioned before, publishing fiction is significantly more expensive than publishing poetry, generally at least five to ten times more expensive. Poetry almost always loses money, and as a result the vast majority of poetry presses only last a few years. Fiction can make money. It is difficult, but possible, but because of the cost it is also possible to lose a lot of money a lot faster. Ultimately we have to publish fiction and make at least a little money for the press to survive, so that is one of the reasons we are making this leap. We can go a few more years without making some money, but then that will be it, unless we turn the corner.
It is also a lot easier to get excellent poetry manuscripts to publish. There are simply a lot more poetry manuscripts out there because it is hard to get something published when it will likely lose money, even if you are a famous poet. Poets usually only make a living if they do something else, like teaching.
There are also a lot of excellent short stories out there because there are simply not a lot of publishing possibilities for short stories. Our anthology has benefited from this. There are many excellent stories that we have received that may fill some future volume, but simply won’t fit in this one. It is already close to six hundred pages.
With novels it is a very different situation. Writing a good novel is a lot harder than writing a short story, and there are fewer good novel manuscripts as a result and they are harder to find. The best novelists get large offers from the big corporate presses. So we have to look harder. But the big presses tend to look for the same type of work that has succeeded in the past. Something new and different, especially if it is non-realist, is often lost on them. That is where we can succeed in finding excellent work, and that seems to be what is happening. We have so far taken two novels, and we would like to publish more of the ones we have received, but we can only do a few books in any year, for time and financial reasons, and we have to pick and choose very carefully.