Everyone sure seems to have a lot of opinions about Gaspereau Press these days, for deciding to hand-print a thousand copies a week of Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel, The Sentimentalists, winner of this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. Daily I’ve seen newspaper reports and opinions about Gaspereau’s decision to say no to certain outside offers to quick-print, and the oft-repeated number of “75,000” when referring to sales of previous winner’s titles. How could they pass up commerce for beauty? What about the opportunities for their author? How could they not understand? Don’t fool yourself: this is not about whether or not her work is getting out there.
Perhaps we need to change the way we think about books, and about how books are sold. Somehow, booksellers, readers and everyone else related to the literary book industry seem to have been self-programmed to expect that books are forgettable, and therefore, have only a shelf-life of six months. Books are aimed now for the quick, the immediate push and then nothing else; like butterflies, a quick season before absolute, utter death. Apparently copies of the book are available still on the Chapters site (Amazon’s unavailability is oft-quoted, but Chapters availability is ignored), and even selling plenty of copies as ebooks for those who want it quickly and can’t wait.
Exactly what is the concern here? Gaspereau won’t play along; I’m sure they, among many other small publishers over the past half-decade or more, have suffered greatly with the big chains over-demanding, over-ordering and thusly over-returning. Imagine a big-box chain bookstore demand to produce two, three or five times more than you would have otherwise, and then returning almost every one six months later, meaning a dead, unsellable stock that you still haven’t paid the printing for, let alone the years ahead of warehousing fees. It’s death to small press, pure and simple. So Gaspereau doesn’t play that way? Good for them. Will it hurt the immediate sales of Skibsrud’s novel? In the short term, sure, but so what? Awards and lists should be the opening for conversation and debate, and not a series of annual absolutes.
Awards make readers lazy, unadventurous and possibly stupid; instead of allowing to celebrate the accomplishment of a jury-decided award, it’s made an entire segment of the population and media focus on only the winning author and winning title, and ignoring most else of what gets written and published. A jury shouldn’t tell you what to read; if books are part of an actual culture, juries should tell you what else to read.
For god’s sake, write down the name of her novel on your calendar, and wait. Better that Gaspereau hold to their guns, despite the snide remarks that media has thrown, from the Globe and Mail to the Ottawa Citizen. Apparently they originally produced only eight hundred copies in their little shop, and ran through their initial run almost immediately. The best part? For some reason, they mailed me two copies of the first run (I immediately gave my extra away to Michael Blouin, who has been boasting on facebook about such). The entire point of their operation is hand-made books, so suck it up, gentle reader. Hold, for the obvious beauty. Savour in small, slow bites.
Wolfville, Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press, which came initially out of the poetry and fiction journal, The Gaspereau Review, has quite an extensive backlist, and I’m sure any of their other authors would very much appreciate the attention. If you are to like what Skibsrud has accomplished, and already it’s shown that many have, why not take a chance on another of the many books of poetry, fiction or non-fiction that the press has produced over the last decade? Why not pick up either of her other books, possibly? Her first poetry collection, Late Night with Wild Cowboys (Gaspereau, 2008) was lovely, although her second, I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being (Gaspereau, 2010), didn’t really do it for me. Why not explore the short-list while waiting? Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting (Biblioasis) is one I would very much like to get my hands on, after a sharp, stellar reading at this past writers festival in Ottawa.
When we were in our later teens, my not-yet-ex-wife introduced me to the idea of walking into a video store and renting flicks neither of us had ever heard of, and what magnificent discoveries we made along the way. The disappointments were surprisingly few.
Reading should be something considered, thoughtful and long, and not caught up the immediate nonsense of instant gratification. As for myself? A copy of the novel has been sitting on my shelf for months, unopened. I’ll get to it when I get to it. I have no problem with any of that at all.
Suburban Dream No. 2
You will be counted on in heaven to bring,
to each and every book-club meeting,two or three pearlsin order to illuminate the text for us so that it becomes
clear in those few moments, to
all of us, sitting upright in our dragged-in chairs,
how everything has to do with everything,and our lives go down, and down.
Afterwards, someone will make a little joke,or else a child will comebarrelling in from a driveway game,and we will close our booksand laugh on our way to the door,our voices trailing off into a sigh,but not because we are eitherdiscontented, or sad. (Late Night with Wild Cowboys)