At the Wordstock Book Festival in Portland a couple weeks ago, I was manning the table for my press, Propeller Books, when a man paused to study the covers of the books there. I began the press in 2010 as an extension of the web magazine Propeller, and Propeller Books has released one title each fall. It was just three titles that were arranged in carefully-cascading stacks on the table in front of me, then: Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women, a short story collection by Mary Rechner; A Simple Machine, Like the Lever, a novel by Evan P. Schneider; and Disorder, my own story collection. The man picked up a copy of Schneider’s novel to look at it more closely, and then gestured toward the table. “These look European,” he said.
He seemed to intend it as a compliment, so I responded by saying that we tried to make books whose physical qualities reflected the care that had gone into the writing. He nodded, handed me some cash for a copy of the novel, and walked away with it. I felt pleased to have sold a book, and looked at the items the man had gestured toward. Rechner’s book was the result of her years of commitment to the form of the short story. Schneider’s book was the summation of a decade he had spent as an urban bike rider, writing about being an urban bike rider, and editing a journal (Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac) in which others wrote about urban bike riding. And Disorder is the product of a decade of my own work writing and publishing short stories when not working on a novel. Rechner grew up on Long Island, and Schneider grew up, as I did, in Colorado. All three of us currently live in Portland. But a book fair attendee had felt the fruits of our combined labor looked European.
It was only after he was gone that I wondered what, exactly, he’d meant. (When he’d actually been standing there, I’d been focused primarily on how I might sell him a book.) There are a couple likely answers. Propeller Books have French folds and deckled page edges, which probably strike many readers as throwback features. French folds cost a bit more than a straight-cut cover, and in this era of seemingly-perpetual recession, a trade paperback’s production cost is something most publishers keep as low as possible. Deckled edges are, in a way, a “retro” detail, in that they appear similar to a book whose pages were opened with a book knife as a reader moved through. It has of course been many decades since any readers needed to have a book knife handy, and contemporary books with deckled edges come off the press that way—no knives necessary. Maybe these details made the books appear non-standard, though, and “European” was the man’s way of referencing that.
Propeller books are far from the only ones with flaps and fancy edges, though, and I doubt that’s what first attracted the man’s interest—it was probably the covers that struck him. Artist Matt Hall drew Simplicity sewing pattern-inspired women (with a hint of menace) for Rechner’s cover, and Lizzie Swift created the bicycle, books, and spot of color that grace Schneider’s cover. And as a writer, not working with another publisher meant I had no rules when it came to my own cover, so I decided to indulge the oppositional aspects of my personality and violate all best practices: I didn’t bother any writer friends for blurbs, reduced the inside flap copy to a single sentence (“These stories are about men, women, buildings, and words.”), and put on the back cover just the story titles, the name of the press and the UPC. (If the UPC weren’t required, I would have cut that, too.) So maybe it’s the covers’ lack of contemporary big American publishing house design moves—stock photography, a dozen blurbs, and multi-layered, Photoshopped imagery—that led the man to label the books European.
Creating European books—literally or metaphorically—is not my goal. I own a Toyota, watch the NFL, and recently made my kids watch rented DVD’s of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” That’s American, isn’t it? Kind of? Propeller books are not, to my knowledge, available in bookstores along the Seine or in the boutiques of Milan. (There are boutiques in Milan, right? I’m kind of bluffing on that one—I haven’t been to Milan.) The books are sold in bookstores in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, California, Colorado, and New York, so the books, too, are American.
But maybe the books look quiet. Maybe even from a distance—it’s the titles, perhaps, or the simple images—one can sense that the projects were personal. And maybe it’s the smaller numbers. The Propeller Books table featured just three titles. The writers, designers, and the publisher have jobs and personal lives, and what Propeller Books has time to do—to do well, at least—may look rather modest compared to others.
I’m going to claim that these qualities—quiet attention to the personal, an attempt to do a small thing well—are as American as any. They are, after all, qualities we enjoy in the books published by many other small presses—small American presses—just as they’re found among all sorts of American writers, cover designers, booksellers and readers. I’m sure many Europeans possess these qualities, too, but that doesn’t mean having them implies any degree of un-Americanness. In fact, writing as well as you can, crafting a book that looks and feels right, and sharing the result with thoughtful readers isn’t behavior specific to any particular time or country, is it?
Dan DeWeese’s novel You Don’t Love This Man was nominated for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and was a winner of Late Night Library’s “Debut-litzer” Prize. Disorder, a collection of his stories, came out in early October. DeWeese’s fiction has appeared in publications including Tin House, Portland Noir, New England Review, and Washington Square, and he is Editor-in-Chief of Propeller, a literature, art, and culture magazine on the web at www.propellermag.com.
DeWeese will read in Portland with Evan Schneider and Mary Rechner at Boora Architects at 7pm November 1. Boora is 720 SW Washington St #800.