When and how did Omnidawn get started?
At least ten years before we began Omnidawn Publishing, we I had begun to explored the possibility of starting a press that would focus on serious non-realist literature. As fiction becomes more non-realistic it tends to lose acceptance as serious fiction by the literary critics. They have tended to equate non-realism with escapism and in most instances categorically disregard it.
We suspected serious non-realistic fiction in the U.S. was being discouraged in this system and we wanted to create a press that would help encourage such fiction. Meanwhile Rusty and I were both aware that significant works of poetry were also under published, because poetry books rarely break even, and publishers are reluctant to publish books that they know will lose money.
We thought we might be able to establish a press where the non-realist fiction could support the poetry books, and create a home for both. We started publishing poetry first, in 2001 to be exact, because we knew we would lose money on our first books, and poetry books are smaller and printed in smaller runs, so that our initial losses would be much less. Also, Rusty knows a number of excellent poets, and we realized that we could ask them for manuscripts, something we could not do in the field of fiction. Once we had made something of a name for ourselves in poetry publication, we felt we could begin to make contacts in the area of fiction.
The situation with regard to the acceptance of non-realistic fiction is thankfully changing, and critics are beginning to recognize authors who focus on non-realistic themes. We think we may have started publishing at just the right moment, or least we hope so.
I understand your press specializes in new wave fabulist fiction? Who invented this term? What differentiates it from regular science fiction, fantasy and/or horror?
The term new wave fabulist was coined for the Fall 2002 issue of Conjunctions, the literary journal from Bard College, by Brad Morrow, editor of Conjunctions, and Peter Straub, who guest edited that issue. As Brad and Peter described it to us, they considered a number of terms before settling on new wave fabulist. Conjunctions defined the term by stating that “For two decades, a small group of innovative writers rooted in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been simultaneously exploring and erasing the boundaries of those genres by creating fiction of remarkable depth and power”, thus extending the definition of “Fabulist,” which generally does not include fantasy, science fiction or horror. Fabulist, is generally taken to mean magic realism without geographical boundaries, in other words, not necessarily Latin American. New wave fabulist simply stretches that definition to include other more non-realistic forms. We decided to publish fabulist and new wave fabulist fiction because it is difficult to say where one begins and the other leaves off.
Would you consider the new wave fabulist writers elitist?
Actually the intention in using this term is break down elitist barriers, so I would say that it is the exact opposite of elitist. In the past, genre writers have been consigned to what has been described as the “genre ghetto.” Once they are defined as genre writers it has been difficult to gain acceptance as authors of serious fiction. Literary critics have in the past rejected much that is not narrative realism because they consider non-realist literature to be primarily escapist genre fiction. They have also tended to reject the authors who write it, so this has reinforced the feeling of a “genre ghetto.” This is beginning to change, but there are still barriers that we believe should fall. Many writers whose work may be called genre fiction are writing serious fiction, some of which may move beyond the expected parameters of the genre, just as many actors who star in high profile genre films also star in art films or off-Broadway plays. The difference is that while successful actors who do genre films have little difficulty finding serious films or stage roles because they will draw an audience, successful genre writers who want to write outside of those parameters may well have difficulty getting that work published, partly because publishers expect to lose money on any book that doesn’t fit an established market, especially if it might be considered “serious literature.” One thing that we are trying to achieve is greater mobility for genre writers.
I want to emphasize that each of these categories has a very important place in literature. Many readers, especially young readers, become interested in highly entertaining genre fiction before they read serious literature, so this is a doorway. And it has obvious values for the writer as well. Because high-volume genre fiction can be more lucrative, it can be a means of earning a living for a writer, while that writer continues to work on other, less easily marketed projects. And, of course, it isn’t only young readers who will turn to such books. Most people like to be entertained with escapist adventures at least some of the time, and so we might read a popular genre novel or watch a genre movie. But we all know, only too well, that life is not just about entertainment, and that we also need to take some issues seriously, or we will not survive, either as individuals or as the human race. Of course, serious literature has to be entertaining, engaging, as well, or no one will read it, but it is not intended to be purely entertaining. Serious literature opens our eyes to new perspectives, new possibilities, new realities, or non-realities that stretch our perceptions. All of them, genre fiction, narrative realist fiction, and serious non-realistic fiction are important parts of our culture, and each should be encouraged.
Are books in this genre placed in a different section in bookstores?
A large reason the “genre ghetto” exists is because bookstores file all books by a particular author in the same section. It makes things a lot simpler for bookstore staff when they are asked where to look for a particular author’s books. Because its subtitle says “Fabulist” first, we expect that bookstores will shelve the anthology with general fiction, and we are hoping that many literary critics will do so as well. Novels by a single author that we call Fabulist/New Wave Fabulist will probably get consigned to general fiction as well if the author is new, but an established author will probably still be filed in the same section where the rest of their books can be found. The good news is that the other aspects of book publicity, particularly reviewers and the Internet, are breaking away from this classification system.
What has been the reviewers’ response to this new type of fiction? Do you think important review publications like Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal are more open to review this type of fiction from small presses as opposed to regular “commercial” SF. Fantasy, and horror?
Since our first new wave fabulist title, the anthology ParaSpheres, is just about to come out, we still don’t know the answer to this question. Of course, we do have contact with some reviewers, and their response has been very encouraging. They love the fact that we are coming out with an anthology with a very broad acceptance of any serious non-realistic fiction. And we certainly hope that the big pre-publication reviewers you mention will take notice. In January of this year we sent out hundreds of press kits to reviewers for these publication, as well as other mainstream review media to start the publicity rolling early, and we are continuing to follow up on that publicity. So we are making sure they know who we are and what we are trying to do.
What titles or authors do you consider perfect examples of this genre?
Our earliest literature did not concern itself with narrative realism, and so works like The Bible, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Dante’s Divine Comedy would also qualify, as well as the grand master of the English language, Shakespeare. Hamlet is, after all, a ghost story. So there is a much longer tradition of serious non-realistic literature than there is of narrative realism. The emphasis on realistic literature is much more recent, with a major emphasis starting in the nineteenth century.
Among twentieth century writers, I often mention Kafka, Huxley, and Orwell because these are writers whose work is recognized by virtually all critics as serious literature, even though it does not meet the narrative realist criteria of literary fiction. This is probably obvious to most readers, but I think it proves the point to all the literary community that non-realistic literature can be serious. Also specific novels from writers who primarily write literary fiction also qualify. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are examples that are well known to the general literary community. I tend to get myself into trouble when I start to mention writers from the genres, because I cannot list them all, so I am going to admit in advance that I am being very prejudiced when I only mention the long recognized masters of this form that we have included in ParaSpheres, including Alasdair Gray, Ursula LeGuinn, Michael Moorcock, and Rikki Ducornet. I won’t begin to mention the more recent authors in this arena, because I simply can’t name them all.
What do you NOT like to see in a manuscript? Do you often receive regular SF, fantasy, and/or horror simply because the author thinks it is new wave fabulist when in fact it isn’t?
We get a wide range of submissions, ranging from excellent narrative realism to more standard SF, fantasy, and horror. We are interested in work that takes an innovative approach to the traditions of storytelling, and we enjoy character based narrative realism, but for us to take such a story it has to have non-realistic elements. These non-realistic elements do not have to dominate the story, especially if the rest of the story is good. On the other hand, stories that have very significant amounts of non-realistic or highly improbably events need to have some way of creating relevance to the readers’ lives and to our world. For example, we would generally not be interested in stories of alien conquests of the Earth, a common SF theme, because it does not seem to have happened in the known history of our planet and therefore seems extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, if such a story had deeper meanings, for instance if it showed American readers what it feels like to be conquered and occupied by a superior force so that we might better understand what we do in the countries we try to conquer, than we could be very interested in that story. The more layers of meaning we find in a story, the more we are likely to want it.
Conversely, we do not like action for action’s sake, or gratuitous sex or violence, or formulas. We like to be surprised.
Do you accept unsolicited submissions? How may writers interested in submitting to Omnidawn contact you?
We absolutely do accept unsolicited submissions. About forty percent of the stories in ParaSpheres came in from writers we did not know as a result of ads we placed in various writers magazines, and we intend to keep that ratio. Several of these writers had relatively minimal publishing experience before we accepted them. The two novels we will publish next year also came in from writers whom we did not know, and one of those novelists has only had a few short stories previously published. We are very much excited by new talent. We strongly suggest you check our web site, www.omnidawn.com for submission guidelines. I should also point out that we are currently swamped with submissions, and are very much behind in our reading. We don’t expect to even be opening new submissions until after ParaSpheres comes out at the end of this year, and then we have a large backlog to get through.
What advice would you give to aspiring, new wave fabulist writers?
The term ParaSpheres means “beyond the spheres” of literary or genre fiction, and that is part of the subtitle. But fabulist and new wave fabulist fiction is also a hybrid of the two. Therefore my first suggestion would be to study the masters in both genre fiction and literary fiction and learn from both worlds. And I would offer a word of warning. Serious literature generally does not sell as well as genre fiction, and I personally don’t expect that fabulist and new wave fabulist fiction will sell as well as genre fiction. You may want to do most of your work in the genres. I think the barriers are finally falling, and it will be much easier to break out of the “genre ghetto” in the future.
Interview by Mayra Calvani, aka The Dark Phantom