Four decades ago, Bill Henderson was working in trade publishing in New York City. Never much for the three-martini lunch but devoted to the cause of finding and publishing new, worthy authors, he left the majors and founded the Pushcart Press, which made its name by publishing an annual anthology of award-winning fiction, poetry and essays on which he and a small army of associate editors bestowed the Pushcart Prize. That honor and its associated anthology have just turned 35, with the 2011 edition due Nov. 15. We called Henderson at his Long Island home to ask about the state of publishing and literature.
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In the introduction to Pushcart XXXV, you seem uncharacteristically downbeat in your assessment of the publishing scene. Given that you’ve often remarked on the strange ways of the big trade houses, does the situation truly seem more dire, or was that just written in a dark moment?
I’m definitely not downbeat about the small-press publishing scene, where people don’t issue books to make money. From the very first Pushcart Prize I have indicated that the true hope of literature in this country is in the smaller presses that don’t try to rake in the bucks on the backs of books. What is truly dire today is the fact that commercial publishers are in trouble precisely because money, in the form of new gimmickry and gadgets, is trying to replace the printed and bound book. The e-book to me is totally unnecessary; it does nothing that the book hasn’t done for centuries. Of course, there are those who point out you can carry around 20 books in your e-reader—but who carries around 20 books?
If the publishing world is indeed in crisis, is it a death-spiral one? And if it’s dying, who pulled the trigger or the plug?
My friends in commercial publishing tell me that indeed times are terrifying. Nobody knows where the commercial world is headed as it tries to make a profit. The villains are those who attempt to corner the e-book market and announce that they have hundreds of thousands of titles available instantly—or, as the ad for Amazon’s Kindle trumpets, “You can have a book in the time it takes you to read the New York Times bestseller list.” Why is this speed of any interest to anybody? Serious readers take their time in savoring a book. But suddenly we’ve all turned into speed freaks. Those who will suffer most from this, interestingly, are the big-box superstores that can only stock a mere 100,000 titles in their walls. I would think that the mortar at Barnes & Noble and Borders has developed deep cracks. The independent bookstores may, on the other hand, do very well because they can treat customers as human beings.
How are small presses situated in the current state of publishing? Do you see a healthy future? A grim one? Something in between? A future at all?
Every year the Pushcart Prize receives nominations from over 600 small literary presses. What drives these presses is the desire to produce fine work. As long as that desire continues, I see a very healthy future.
What are some of the happier success stories you’ve seen in the small-press world over the last 35 years?
The happiest stories concern individual authors who were discovered by small presses and recognized by the Pushcart Prize. The list is too long to mention here. Almost 2,000 writers have been featured. Among the discoveries are Ray Carver, Russell Banks, Rick Bass, Charles Baxter, Linda Bierds, Frederick Busch, Dan Chaon, Billy Collins, Robert Creeley, Lydia Davis, Mark Doty, Rita Dove, Andre Dubus, Tess Gallagher, Louise Gluck, Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Lynda Hull, Jane Kenyon, Maxine Kumin, Wally Lamb, Rick Moody…and that’s only halfway through the index.
Answering this question will probably get you in trouble, but we’ll give it a shot anyway. In the last 35 years, what piece of writing that you’ve anthologized ranks as your favorite?
That’s impossible to answer, but my heart belongs to a story by Ray Carver, “A Small Good Thing,” a beautiful story by an unknown writer featured in an early edition. Since then, I have always thought of the Pushcart Prize as a small good thing.
And as long as we’re getting you in trouble…How do the young writers on the scene today compare to the ones you first started publishing with Pushcart I?
They are terrific. The current 35th edition is filled with writers that are new to me. They have come out of nowhere, and they are wonderful. This has happened year after year. Young writers constantly renew literature in the small presses. Not all of them are geniuses or even close to it, but that is where our literature is born.
Are you looking forward to another 35 years of anthologizing?
Since I will be 105 at the end of that period, I doubt that I will be looking forward to much more than a bingo card at the old folks’ home. However, for now, this project continues to give me great joy. Every year it renews my hope for the future. I think literature is unkillable—we will always have stories, poems and essays. What we need is publishers that care, and that’s what small presses are about.
The Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses (2011 Edition)
Edited by Bill Henderson
Pushcart Press / Nov. 15, 2010 / 9781888889598; 9781888889604 / $35.00; $18.95 paperback