Monday, April 8, 2019

Publishers Weekly 4-26-1999

“Sun and Moon Celebrates 20th”

John High


SUNNY STAFF (counterclockwise from upper left):
Guy Bennett, Diana Daves, Thérèse Bachand, and founder Douglas Messerli

Having emerged as one of the finest small literary presses of its generation, Sun & Moon Press celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and finds itself one of Los Angeles’s largest publishers. Founded by Douglas Messerli and Howard Fox as a literary journal in Washington, D.C., the press now publishes 25-30 titles a year and has nearly 400 titles in print.

Cross-cultural and expansive in his literary tastes, editor Messerli’s backlist ranges from The Sun & Moon Guide to Eating Through Literature and Art to the avant-garde poetics of writers such as Lyn Hejinian and Fanny Howe. The press publishes poetry, innovative fiction, plays and criticism. Nearly half of its publications are translations.

Working on an annual budget of only $500,000, the nonprofit press has long relied on external funding. An advancement grant from the NEA brought the partners to a pivotal decision in 1982. Messerli took a semester off from his tenured teaching position at Temple University to locate matching funds for the grant, then he decided to resign altogether in order to fully commit to the press.

“I was then, and I still am, disturbed by how few of my colleagues actually teach contemporary writers,” Messerli told PW. “At Sun & Moon we believe in complex ideas and complex writings in today’s literature.” In 1985, the company moved to Los Angeles when Fox accepted a curator position at the L.A. County Museum of Art. In 1991, Consortium took over Sun & Moon’s distribution. The following year, the press received funding from the Mellon Foundation, which came at a critical time of cutbacks in the arts. With the eventual departure of Fox, Sun & Moon currently has a staff of four.

Messerli told PW he sees “a bleak future for serious literary publishing.” Classroom purchases are down, libraries are working with reduced budgets, corporate funding has dried up and so has public funding. “And there has been a radical change in reviewing practices,” he added. “Serious literature is looked down on.”

The press has put a freeze on manuscripts and presently is preparing a new three-year plan. It will have to curtail its extensive publications of poetry in the future and cut back in all of the genres. But Messerli is not giving up.

“Sun & Moon is about a literature that can make things complex again,” he said. “We’re an inheritor and guardian of the explorative writing of the 20th century. We believe in writing that can transform your life.”

Los Angeles Times 12-27-1998

“The Publishing Life”

by Thomas Curwen
Deputy Editor of Book Review
Illustration by Nancy Ohanian


Celebrating 20 Years of Sun & Moon Press

One of the best-kept secrets of Los Angeles is Sun & Moon Press, a near institution as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, whose accomplishments happily prove that literary ambitions are not inimical to success. Today, with more than 350 titles in print, Sun & Moon is the largest publisher in Los Angeles—one of nearly 70 independent houses, none of which maintains as diverse and eclectic a list—and it is one of the few literary presses in America exercising the same fealty and daring commitment to poetry and fiction that characterized its debut. Messerli’s backlist is a rich chorus of classics and the avant-garde, including Aeschylus, Thomas Hardy, Knut Hamsun, Marinetti, Celine and Djuna Barnes, as well as local L.A. writers such as Martha Ronk, John Steppling and Fanny Howe.

Step into its offices on Wilshire Boulevard not far from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and you’ll encounter a vitality that is increasingly hard to find in mainstream trade book publishing, an industry numbed by mergers and consolidations that seem far removed from the more bookish passions once at the center of the trade. The vitality at Sun & Moon is generated almost single-handedly by Douglas Messerli, its smiling, bearded and bespectacled owner. Guiding you down the hallway to his office, past rooms filled with neat stacks of manuscripts and shelves of the hundreds of books he has published and kept in print for two decades, he speaks with the zeal of a man on a mission.
                            
“I want people to grapple with different minds and different ideas and, most important, with the language itself. Language is the way we all have meaning. If our culture can’t keep language alive, the culture will become empty. We won’t think of new ideas, and the less adept we’ll be at dealing with the world and all its complications. Every book is transformative. They’re like human beings. Literature takes you into someone’s mind. When you enter their language, you rethink your values and ideas. Our relationship with them should be complex and difficult; they won’t always fit your notion of what life should be.”

Messerli’s enthusiasm and moral conviction have charged his work since 1978 when he was in his 20s, teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia and publishing a literary magazine in Washington, D.C. He and Howard Fox had started Sun & Moon as a literary journal. Eventually they began to print books as well—at first, mimeographed and side-stapled, then printed and perfect bound. Before long, they found themselves full-fledged publishers. Their first published book, Smoke by Djuna Barnes, was a compilation of stories Messerli found in various books and magazines housed in the Library of Congress. Barnes’ book is among the best-selling in the Sun & Moon catalogue.

Almost half of Sun & Moon’s titles are translations. Los Angeles, Messerli will tell you, is a city rich with excellent translators; his books reflect their extraordinary range. They also reflect his extraordinary mission: to explore possibilities of meaning and the concomitant eros of thought. “For good writing and publishing to occur,” Messerli said, “the doors must be open and the full context of human experience embraced. Only then can the miracle happen, can the poet and reader get carried away.” Generating this miracle is not easy, but Messerli’s ambition—in his own work as a poet (Dinner on the Lawn), novelist (The Structure of Destruction) and playwright (Past Present and Future) and as publisher at Sun & Moon—is to create a place where language leaps from the page, tackles the reader in a fit of anger or love and then departs, leaving the room forever changed.

Messerli plunged wholeheartedly into publishing and gave up teaching when he realized that his colleagues in the university had stopped reading contemporary writers and that, somewhere along the way, publishers had stopped accepting their work. For Messerli, such a state of affairs was tantamount to the loss of an entire generation of writers. “Publishers have abandoned all experimental American fiction writers,” he declared. “But, for me, that's where exciting writing comes from. There are hundreds of writers in this country who write to be published by Alfred A. Knopf. It’s a certain kind of fiction. But publishers have abandoned the environment that produced James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. The houses that published Faulkner would be scandalized by publishing them today.”

He’s not entirely wrong. A cursory glance at some of the writers Messerli has published over the years shows the drift. There’s Clark Coolidge, originally published by Harper & Row. There’s Fanny Howe, once at Houghton Mifflin. There’s Harry Matthews, one-time Random House writer. (To be fair, there has been movement in the other direction: Russell Banks and Paul Auster began with Sun & Moon and are now with Harper- Collins and Henry Holt respectively.) Messerli’s point is clear: As commercial imperatives gain sway over the marketplace, mainstream publishers take fewer chances on the unknown, preferring to build up existing authors with brand-name recognition.

Messerli is also concerned about the future of literary presses in the age of conglomeration when distribution—the key to any publisher's livelihood—has become increasingly centralized. To be sure, publishing has become democratized by advances in technology. The Internet may level the playing field; Sun & Moon sells increasing numbers of its books through its Web site. Such innovation and adaptability have always driven the field. Small presses, working first with mimeograph machines and, later, with computers, proliferated during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, and many of them have found it possible, despite the obstacles, to compete successfully with the larger publishers by keeping their overheads low and making savvy publishing choices. For Sun & Moon, for instance, the success of Djuna Barnes’ Smoke permitted Messerli to find a distributor and funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines.

In 1982, he applied for an NEA advancement grant and became a nonprofit company. Three years later, Howard Fox, his partner, who had been with the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., was offered a position as curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the two of them moved to Los Angeles. “One of the interesting things in moving to Los Angeles was facing the myths of L.A.,” said Messerli. “In Washington, arts and culture are tangential to real life; here, they are one and the same. I was treated seriously here. It gave me a sense of liberation.”

Sun & Moon quickly established a presence in the city, taking on requests from writers and other presses to assist with the distribution of their books. It was a fast and relentless pace, as Messerli not only edited and published his own writers but also took on the tasks of book design and publicity, a practice he continues today, with the assistance of Diana Daves and Guy Bennett. Together, in 1995, the three of them worked at a furious pace, presiding over the production and publication of 79 titles; in a typical year they publish about 25 books.

In 1992, Sun & Moon and eight other independent presses received a major boost from the Mellon Foundation. The grant arrived at a time when Messerli had been increasingly frustrated by the state of arts funding in the country. Two years earlier, Sun & Moon protested the NEA’s anti-obscenity restrictions by deciding not to apply for a grant from the agency. As Messerli wrote to John E. Frohnmayer, its director, “If the NEA can support only ’safe’ art, then we can no longer support the NEA, for it then stands as an institution at direct odds to serious exploratory artmaking in this country.” It was a difficult decision: The NEA accounted for a major portion of the press’s budget. Nevertheless, Sun & Moon has continued to publish successfully, somehow straddling the divide between breaking even and moving ahead. Among his most successful titles: Six Early Stories by Thomas Mann, Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler and various collections by Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes.

The enterprise may seem at times quixotic and perhaps even hard to believe, especially if you think Southern California is the domain of outdoor diversions, but in truth, it is heartening to find a local publisher whose devotion to the business is commensurate with the real demographics of the region as the largest book market in the country. Drop in on Sun & Moon on a Sunday afternoon when Messerli is holding one of his salons. Pick up his anthologies, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 or From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995. Or read his new journal of international poetry, Mr. Knife, Miss Fork, and you will realize that under the Sun & Moon imprint, the ground where literature and life meet is broader and certainly more complicated than you might have imagined.

“I love anything that is literary,” said Messerli, “writers who challenge us with form and language and subject and themes, writers who make us question and rethink our preconceptions of the world. Literature isn’t just a received notion of what literature is but an original vision.”

The Pantagraph 8-29-1999

"Small Publishers Give Old Books New Life"

by J. Peder Zane
Scripps Howard News Service

“It’s amazing,” the publisher Douglas Messerli exclaimed, in a voice filled with passionate intensity and conviction, “that some of the best work by exceedingly important writers, like Raymond Federman, Jose Donoso, Arno Schmidt, J. K. Huysmans and Herve Guibert, have long been unavailable in America.”

Less amazing, perhaps, was the fact that I had no idea who he was talking about.

Messerli, who runs the Sun & Moon and Green Integer presses in Los Angeles (www.sunmoon.com), is in the vanguard of the effort to revive neglected masters and their obscure masterpieces.

Call it resurrection literature. In a reverse treasure hunt, small presses are scouring backlists and bookstore shelves to find what’s not there, and then restoring lost and almost forgotten works to print.

The New York Review of Books (www.nybooks.com), for example, will launch its Classics Series this September, reviving a dozen once-celebrated titles in handsome paperback editions—including Richard Hughes’ nihilistic pirate tale, A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s story of an aging spinster’s struggle to break away from her controlling family, Lolly Willowes (1926).

Each month thereafter—I hope until our hereafter—the Review will publish three to four new/old titles.

“There’s lots and lots of wonderful fiction and nonfiction out there that has fallen through the cracks,” Edwin Frank, the series’ editor, told me. “These works still speak to us, if we’ll let them.”

Big imprints, such as Vintage, Grove, Penguin, Oxford and The Modern Library, have long kept Faulkner, Twain, Eliot, Austen and other brand-name heavyweights in print. But publishing is a finite business: Even the biggest houses can print, warehouse and market only so many books.

Thankfully, the store of great literature seems infinite. Small presses happy to sell 500 to 2,000 copies of a title each year have found innumerable literary gems waiting to be mined. These offerings are scooped up by a small but committed army of booklovers who scour Web sites and tiny literary journals to track down titles that don’t always make it onto bookstore shelves. (Newspaper book reviews, like life, are for the living, a necessary commitment to the here and now, which affords little space to the then and now again.)

Publishers seeding their offerings of new books with out-of-print classics include:

—Steerforth Press of South Royalton, Vt. (www.steerforth.com), which has recently returned 14 works by the novelist Dawn Powell (1896-1965) to print, is introducing a new series devoted to 20th-century Italian literature. Its first three books— The Women of Rome (1949) by Alberto Moravia, The Watch (1951) by Carlo Levi and Open City: Seven Writers in Postwar Rome, a terrific anthology including writings by Ignazio Silone, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante and Giorgio Bassani — are now available.

—Dalkey Archive of Normal, (www.dalkeyarchive.com), a reprint house specializing in avant-garde and experimental works, is bringing out three works by Ishmael Reed: The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), The Terrible Twos (1982) and The Terrible Threes (1989); the sixth novel by one of America’s most gifted comic writers, Harry Mathews: The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975); and William Eastlake’s Castle Keep (1965).

—Moyer Bell of Wakefield, R.I. (www.moyerbell.com), will continue three of its English novel reissue series this September with Miss Mapp (1922) by E. F. Benson, Jane and Prudence (1953) by Barbara Pym and What Did It Mean? (1954) by Angela Thirkell.

We could go on and on, but can’t. However, New Directions (www.nd- publishing.com), Academy Chicago Publishers (www.academychicago.com), City Lights Books (www.citylights.com) and The University of Nebraska Press—which offers wonderful works in translation (and whose full catalog, along with those of dozens of other academic publishers, can be searched at www.aaup.uchicago.edu)—deserve special mention.

I’d like to say that these efforts signify a mighty new trend, an emerging hunger among readers for great books that allow them to understand and enjoy the present by reconnecting with the past. But Sun & Moon’s Messerli popped that balloon. “We’ve been at it for 20 years and hopefully we’ll keep at it for another 20,” he said.

Los Angeles Times 12-24-1995

“Dreamer of Books”

by Allan M. Jalon
Photo by Mary Swift


“A book,” Franz Kafka wrote, “must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” In these terms, Douglas Messerli, owner-operator of Sun & Moon Press, runs the sharpest grindstone around. From his compact office on Wilshire Boulevard, he publishes a startling 50 volumes a year of cutting-edge poetry, prose and drama, an eclectic flow that ranges from translations to new American writing to reissues of avant-garde classics that push openings in one’s awareness of the 20th century.

Never heard of Velimir Khlebnikov or Steve Katz? They’re in 50: A Celebration of Sun & Moon Classics, a recent anthology of 50 writers Messerli favors. Khlebnikov is a Russian poet who died in 1922 but whose revolutionary urge for social equality remains as palpable as a beating heart. Katz is an American novelist (Swanny's Ways is his latest) whose screwy humor and warm intelligence bear beleaguered witness to the ideals of the 1960s.

Sun & Moon is a nonprofit press that pays its writers little and rarely sells more than 3,000 copies. But success comes in various forms. The books are generally well-distributed, and some of the press’ authors, like Russell Banks and Paul Auster, move on to commercial fame. Others, like Fanny Howe, whose darkly lyrical novel, Saving History, imagines a trade in human body parts on the U.S.-Mexican border, find freedom away from mainstream pressures. Earthlight, a recent Sun & Moon book of Andre Breton’s poetry, won a translation award from the PEN Center in New York.

An Iowa-born former Temple University literature professor, Messerli abandoned academia to print his first volume—short stories by Djuna Barnes—in 1979. He now has three staffers to help him do everything from picking manuscripts to designing covers. With a neat, gold-streaked, whitish beard and soft pink cheeks, he dashes through book-lined hallways, very serious and very cheerful. “He’s Liberace!” chimes Howe, laughing. But the figure the 48-year-old publisher claims as his institutional muse is another gregarious, if more aristocratic, cultural stylist, Gertrude Stein: “Like her, I’m both a dreamer and a very hard worker. I have a sort of missionary fervor about keeping this going in times when commercial publishers are publishing fewer literary titles.”

With 300 titles to his credit, he prints more new ones a year than most independent presses to which he can be compared, like Black Sparrow Press (12 a year) or New Directions (30 a year). Sales combined with foundation grants and help from individuals and the National Endowment for the Arts provide capital to grow—which Messerli plans to do even as the NEA fades.

“The only thing that worries me as a writer,” Howe says, “is that he does so much himself. He does a book a week now. You feel like a child when her mother starts to have more children: You panic that you’re a forgotten child.”

“My relationship with [Messerli] is more that between writer and writer than between writer and publisher," says Charles Bernstein, a pioneer in the proudly abstract Language Poetry movement, noting that Messerli is a much-published writer of poetry, prose and drama.

“The reason I publish with him,” says Katz, “is that Doug keeps all the books in print and available. It just seems that, with commercial publishers, the book often goes straight from the printer to the shredder, with a short stop in between.”

Tim Davis, an editor at New Directions in New York, expounds on Messerli’s role in literature as if describing Charles Lindbergh’s gift to flight. “I’m a younger poet myself. I’m 25, and I can tell you that he publishes a good deal of the best experimental writing of our time. That’s where I’d hope to have my work published someday. I know he’s dyslexic, and that’s why the proofreading sometimes has problems. But he works with it."

When Davis, who has never met the happy monarch of Sun & Moon, is asked how he knows all this, he explains: “People know. Among those interested in the avant-garde, there’s a whole community that owes him a great deal.”

San Francisco Examiner 9-6-1990

“Sun and Moon to NEA: Give Us Space”

By Tom Dowling
Examiner Book Editor

Publisher rejects federal grants with obscenity clause

SUN and MOON PRESS, the Los Angeles-based literary publishing house famous for issuing Paul Auster's New York Trilogy among other distinguished properties, becomes the first West Coast publisher to put its mouth where its money (of the National Endowments of the Arts variety) used to be.

In a letter to NEA Director John E. Frohnmayer, Sun & Moon Press publisher Douglas Messerli said he would not apply for further NEA grants as long as the federal agency continued its anti-obscenity grant restrictions. Messerli said that Sun & Moon had been getting NEA money for the last 10 years and that the grants “have been a large portion of our budget."

In his letter to Frohnmayer, Messerli wrote, “We feel strongly that the current restrictions directly oppose freedom of speech through the refusal to fund certain organizations. If the NEA can support only “safe” art, then we can no longer support the NEA, for it then stands as an institution at direct odds to serious exploratory art-making in this country.”

Earlier this summer the University of Iowa Press became the first U.S. publisher to reject further grant infusions from the NEA as long as its controversial anti-obscenity proviso remained in force. On that occasion, Iowa Press declined to accept a $12,000 grant earlier awarded for its Iowa Short Fiction Award.

More recently, John Oakes—a member of the family that publishes the New York Times and formerly that publication’s op-ed page editor—announced that his Four Walls Eight Windows Press would not accept a $25,000 grant earlier awarded by the NEA.