Arts & Literature

The Pleasures of Strangeness

Easthampton's Small Beer Press keeps getting a bigger reputation.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011
Berry Photo by Jennifer Levesque, Link Photo Courtesy Kelly Link
Small Beer Press editor Jedediah Berry and founder Kelly Link, plus a number of the press' publications

When it comes to small presses, I keep coming back to the same one over and over. That the press is local makes it all the more tasty. Easthampton's Small Beer Press has a stranglehold on my reading habits for a simple reason: the titles the press delivers nearly all dwell in a literary zone all their own.

The press first got ink in the Advocate in 2005, in a cover story called "The Book People." In it, Daniel Oppenheimer tagged Small Beer's niche as "slipstream fiction." He offered some of science fiction writer Bruce Sterling's prose in which he coined the term: "[Slipstream fiction] is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a 'sense of wonder' or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction. Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange, the way that living in the late 20th century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility."

It's a good starting point, but a look at the many titles Small Beer has offered in the years since reveals an expanded definition of what the press does, and "slipstream" is but a part of the mix. The press' aesthetic may be hard to define, but it's precisely that difficulty that makes it worthwhile. The novels and story collections in the lineup are not always similar—mysteries bump up against unusual sort-of science fiction, and works of highflown language-play nestle next to plainspoken prose full of mind-bending ideas—but they possess a similarity in spirit. It's a spirit of playfulness, of invention and adventure. Small Beer does not seem to dawdle for long in the world of so-called "mimetic fiction," probably the least offensive of the monikers used to refer to the literature of the everyday world.

Their writers tend toward sophisticated prose, but not inaccessible prose. At one extreme, you'll find writers like Greer Gilman, whose Cloud and Ashes (2009) is more akin to a beguiling fever dream than a standard-issue novel, an edifice of startling word and world invention. At another, you'll find works like Geoff Ryman's The King's Last Song, a luminous tale of ancient and modern Cambodia rendered in more straightforward, if still compelling, prose. It's an elusive quality that unites the extremes of the Small Beer Press catalogue, but quality of a particular kind is the key: the works all spring from careful attention to that which surprises and delights in literature. That surprise and delight are often the stuff of invention—of language, of world, of imaginative territory.

Since 2005, founders Gavin Grant and Kelly Link and editor Jedediah Berry have been up to good things, bolstering the already well-shined image of Small Beer (more recently through winning a World Fantasy Award), and, in the cases of Link and Berry, producing fiction that's won them a boatload of well-deserved praise. The press now calls a former mill building in Easthampton home.

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The early days of Small Beer got a boost from Link's writing. In an unusual move, Link and Grant (himself an accomplished writer, editor and reviewer of science fiction) ended up publishing Link's short story collection Stranger Things Happen. "We started Small Beer in 2000, 2001," says Link, "We'd been putting out a zine before that, and two chapbooks. I had enough stories for a short story collection, and I had a contract with a small publishing house.

"When I finished the last handful, [the editor] wrote me and said, 'I love you a lot and I like your work, but I don't like these last few.' He said he'd like to stay friends but cancel the contract. Then a couple of editors in New York read them and asked if I had a novel.

"Gavin and I started thinking about it, and we decided that we would begin with my short story collection. When we did well with those, we started picking up other projects as well."

Link's short stories have brought her extremely high praise, from publications including the New York Times Book Review and writers like China Mieville and Peter Straub (who called her "the most impressive writer of her generation"). Likewise, Berry's first novel, a beautifully written romp of noirish tendencies called The Manual of Detection (Penguin Press, 2009; see the Advocate story "The Debut of a Cycling Umbrellist," March 5, 2009), landed with an impressive splash and put Small Beer Press yet more clearly on the map.

About the success of Small Beer as a vehicle for work by its staff, Link said in an interview, "I think it's made it more visible in ways. One of my regrets, one of the things I don't like about publishing my own work, is that it interferes with the kind of attention we can get for other books. It's an unusual story and therefore it takes up a lot of space. I would love to get the kind of attention for our other works that we've gotten for my book because it's an unusual story. There have been books we've ended up [publishing] because somebody read my book and did a little research."

Link's work is particularly difficult for lovers of category to place, full as it is of unusual premises (like, for instance, a village in a handbag) and elements of genre that nonetheless never allow her stories to comfortably reside in any particular genre neighborhood. It's a helpful reference for understanding Small Beer's aesthetic.

What sorts of books do they like to publish?

Link says, "Books that we loved so much that we wanted to invest the time in putting them out. We have pretty eclectic taste—we have our feet firmly planted in SF and fantasy. We [Link and Grant] both love good writing in general. A lot of the books we were able to pick up were books that didn't quite fit into a category and were harder to market, or the approach was quirky enough that their earlier books hadn't done well."

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For his part, Jed Berry has seen The Manual of Detection find its own territory, loved by many a reader of genre fiction, but hardly limited to that readership. It's an intriguing echo of Small Beer Press.

"Part of what's been interesting about it is to see how the book's been received by different readerships," he says. "There's so much that goes on with people trying to classify things in terms of what genre something is, which, to some extent, I don't find to be a terribly interesting question.

"I like work which perhaps borrows from the traditions of genre but which moves beyond those boundaries a little bit, and that's what I tried to do in this book. So it was funny seeing it reviewed as a mystery or reviewed as a fantasy novel, and sometimes simply reviewed as fiction. It seemed to fall between the gaps a little bit at first, but then by the time the paperback came out, it was clearly finding its readership, and people were noticing it and talking about it. It was pretty thrilling to see some of the reviews."

Working as the editor of a press has brought new demands on his time, "in ways that I'm very excited about," he says. It's also brought him a different kind of satisfaction, one furthered in some ways by his own success.

"Now that I'm actually an editor, I've started acquiring fiction and one of the coolest things for me, actually, is being able to use whatever small amount of recognition I've gained to bring some attention to some new writers," he says.

Last summer, Berry's Small Beer acquisition Meeks, by Julia Holmes, made it to bookstore shelves, and it staked out, with a new flavor, the kind of ground the press inhabits. Berry calls it "an extraordinary book," and it is indeed that, a sort of claustrophobic dystopia in which men must marry by a certain age or face becoming civil servants in a rigorously strange bureaucracy.

In a roundtable discussion, Holmes talked about her book's making of the publishing house rounds, where it repeatedly prompted rejections in part because of its "problem of strangeness." What those editors saw as problematic made it, happily, a beautiful fit for Small Beer.

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When Daniel Oppenheimer wrote about Small Beer in that 2005 Advocate story, he covered a press in search of bigger things, working steadily toward producing more books and toward producing enough revenue to make the venture worthwhile. Small Beer then did business from a house in Northampton, where Grant and Link had moved from Brooklyn.

It's an oft-heard story in the Valley: an idea that coalesces from the background noise of urban hipster climes comes to rest here. Such moves are often generated by practical concerns like lower rent and quality of life, but the accretion of cultural capital like that of Small Beer or a hundred more arts-driven enterprises has made the Valley a place like few others.

Our cultural capital tends toward the small in scale, but it's often the result of a particular kind of self-selection. It's here you find exceptionally fine artistry delivered by artists who've eagerly traded urban rigors for the gentler pace and homier setting of old mill towns and time-gnarled mountains. Small Beer Press is among the finest examples of that trend.

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