Saturday 1 January 2011

Patron saint of small presses

Here is a roadside shrine in W12 to St Nicholas Lezard, patron saint of small presses.

The ‘Nicholas Lezard’s Choice’ column in today’s Guardian praises Jack Robinson’s Days and Nights in W12: ‘This isn't just about W12 – it's about every urban space, including the one in your head’ (full review here; the online version attributes the book to myself, which is accurate if confusing, as it’s Jack’s name on the cover). This is the fourth CBe title to be featured in Lezard’s column in the past three-and-a-bit years. For the record, they are: Jennie Walker, 24 for 3 (now published by Bloomsbury); Gert Hofmann, Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl; Gabriel Josipovici, Only Joking; and now Days and Nights. This has made a difference. For a press too small to get a handle on Amazon and Waterstone’s, too small to have a voice that can be heard above the general marketplace hubbub, it has made a BIG difference.

Lezard’s column is not a small-press ghetto, but in the past year alone, in addition to books from Penguin, Bloomsbury, OUP, etc, it has featured books published by: Dalkey Archive (‘one of the best little publishers in the world’: 4 December), Pushkin Press, Melville House, Peirene Press, Book Works, Serpent’s Tail, Short Books, Hesperus Press, Verso, Oneworld Classics, CB editions.

Why so many small publishers? Well, if you give an intelligent, open-minded (Lezard’s choices range across fiction, science, history, poetry . . .) critic a regular space to write about books they like enough to want to recommend to others; and put them under no pressure to review books because of the author’s fame or the publisher’s hype; and they have no special agenda (other than favouring good writing) and guard their independence (‘I demurred,’ Lezard wrote last June in the New Statesman about a certain temptation put his way, ‘not least on the grounds that accepting gifts – however unusual – and even getting to know authors before the review is published, is a big no-no as far as I am concerned’) – then this is what you get. No need for any ‘small is good’ special pleading. Because, as we know (but most lit eds seem not to), the number of good books coming from small, sometimes tiny, publishers is out of all proportion to their place in the established hierarchy.

Why aren’t there more spaces like this? It’s not a complicated recipe, and it works. For years before I started CBe I was buying books on Lezard’s say-so – many of them books I wouldn’t have known about otherwise – and I’ve never been disappointed.

I’m not at all sure that canonisation is something Lezard would welcome. But libations, yes. Maybe a goat. Vestal virgins have been ordered from Amazon but there are none in stock.


JRSM said...

Lezard is great--it was his review of '24 for 3' that first turned me on to CBe, and I've discovered many other great books thanks to his reviews. If only he'd get around to finishing his long-promised book on the history of fun!

Anonymous said...

I, too, am a devotee of Nicholas Lezard, and bought Only Joking on his recommendation. In fact, I have a great many books I've bought because of his reviews. Didn't know about his book on the history of fun, but it sounds, well, fun (he's a damn good writer himself, apart from anything else. My favourite NL line is from his review of Making Time by Steve Taylor: "Taylor is a keen meditator, and encourages us to be the same; I find that I can achieve Zen-like calm with a couple of pints of decent beer.") I hereby raise a metaphorical glass to The Great Lezard.

Ross Bradshaw said...

Yup. Agree with all of that. He's just reviewed our (Five Leaves) 1948 and the orders are coming in fast. Doesn't happen so much with other reviews so he clearly has a following - not least in Selkirk, where the tiny local bookshop finds that his recommendations really do sell books, and that's where and how I bought the Finnish Grammar book.