What are some upcoming trends for the next year?
On the Graywolf list, contemporary America in all its complexities continues to be explored by our writers in every genre—nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. I see quite a strong international theme as well, with Norway, France, Liberia, Zimbabwe, India, and more all represented. Poetry continues to be a very dynamic and exciting genre right now across many publishers’ lists, with a host of really talented and diverse young writers coming onto the scene. Tracy K. Smith, the new poet laureate, leads off the Graywolf poetry list early next year with a stellar new collection, Wade in the Water, followed by a wonderful anthology, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (whose theme is self-explanatory) in the fall.
Essay collections, which used to be the poor relation of literary publishing—behind short stories, even—continue to surge, in part because of the success of some of our writers, including Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, and Claudia Rankine. We are seeing a lot of manuscripts that are clearly influenced by these writers, and they go for high sums (elsewhere!), but I expect the pendulum will swing back a bit to more realistic numbers before too long.
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
Like other editors at Graywolf, we are looking for literary writers who are highly creative and inventive in their approach but who nevertheless manage to engage with the conversations that we need to be having as a society. Citizen by Claudia Rankine did this for race and the enduring pain of micro-aggressions in our culture. I think in all kinds of ways we in America are having an important argument about power—who has it and why; who doesn’t have it and why—so I am always looking for an expansive novel that would take this on. Perhaps a novel that could expose once and for all the cruelty of a health care system in which people can go bankrupt through no fault of their own? A novel that could do for the debate around health care what Dickens did for poverty and the legal system in England? I live in hope.
What topic don’t you ever want to see again?
Next year, we have one fabulous “disaster-scenario” novel on the list, but I think as a rule it is getting harder to be truly original with apocalyptic fiction. We are seeing a lot on this theme in our submissions and are turning most of it down. I believe that history is important, but at Graywolf we are favoring work that deals with a more recent time period.
What do you want to change about publishing?
It’s a small bugbear, but I really dislike the practice of soliciting blurbs. I think it becomes a real burden for published writers, and it hurts writers who do not have a wide literary network, especially authors from abroad or those outside the MFA system. If I could, I would declare a moratorium on all blurbs, but now that we are all doing it, I recognize it’s impossible to stop.
On a more serious note, I think it is now widely agreed that publishing personnel throughout the industry need to be way more diverse than we are at present. At Graywolf, we are taking small steps to address this ongoing problem and were fortunate to find funding this year to inaugurate a 10-month paid fellowship to help overcome the barrier presented by unpaid internships (which we also offer).
What’s unique about your corner of the publishing industry?
As a nonprofit publisher, we are able to focus on a smallish list of exceptional risk-taking, literary work. That gives us enormous freedom to invest in the noncommercial areas, such as poetry, translation, hybrid work, literary essays, and short stories. The good news is that we have had a lot of success in these areas recently.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I think the internet and social media have allowed the smaller presses, like Graywolf, Coffee House, Tin House, etc., to get more attention for their books, and this has galvanized the whole field and has helped literary publishing attract a host of younger readers. In some ways, it is a very positive time for independent publishing, and this seems true around the world, not just in the States.
Fiona McCrae has been publisher of Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press since 1994, following 11 years with the British publishers Faber and Faber, of which the last three were spent in Faber’s office in Boston. Authors that Fiona has published at Graywolf include Elizabeth Alexander, Charles Baxter, Per Petterson, Salvatore Scibona, and Percival Everett. She currently serves on the boards of the National Book Foundation and the Anderson Center. Fiona received the Editor’s Award from Poets & Writers in 2017 and the Golden Colophon Award for leadership from the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses in 2014.