The Publishing Life

Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of Book Review

One of the best-kept secrets of Los Angeles is Sun & Moon Press, a near institution as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, whose accomplishments happily prove that literary ambitions are not inimical to success. Today, with more than 350 titles in print, Sun & Moon is the largest publisher in Los Angeles--one of nearly 70 independent houses, none of which maintains as diverse and eclectic a list--and it is one of the few literary presses in America exercising the same fealty and daring commitment to poetry and fiction that characterized its debut. Messerli's backlist is a rich chorus of classics and the avant-garde, including Aeschylus, Thomas Hardy, Knut Hamsun, Marinetti, Celine and Djuna Barnes, as well as local L.A. writers such as Martha Ronk, John Steppling and Fanny Howe.

Step into its offices on Wilshire Boulevard not far from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and you'll encounter a vitality that is increasingly hard to find in mainstream trade book publishing, an industry numbed by mergers and consolidations that seem far removed from the more bookish passions once at the center of the trade. The vitality at Sun & Moon is generated almost single-handedly by Douglas Messerli, its smiling, bearded and bespectacled owner. Guiding you down the hallway to his office, past rooms filled with neat stacks of manuscripts and shelves of the hundreds of books he has published and kept in print for two decades, he speaks with the zeal of543236097man on a mission.

"I want people to grapple with different minds and different ideas and, most important, with the language itself. Language is the way we all have meaning. If our culture can't keep language alive, the culture will become empty. We won't think of new ideas, and the less adept we'll be at dealing with the world and all its complications. Every book is transformative. They're like human beings. Literature takes you into someone's mind. When you enter their language, you rethink your values and ideas. Our relationship with them should be complex and difficult; they won't always fit your notion of what life should be."

Messerli's enthusiasm and moral conviction have charged his work since 1978 when he was in his 20s, teaching at Temple University in Philiadelphia and publishing a literary magazine in Washington, D.C. He and Howard Fox had started Sun & Moon as a literary journal. Eventually they began to print books as well--at first, mimeographed and side-stapled, then printed and perfect bound. Before long, they found themselves full-fledged publishers. Their first published book, "Smoke" by Djuna Barnes, was a compilation of stories Messerli found in various books and magazines housed in the Library of Congress. Barnes' book is among the best-selling in the Sun & Moon catalogue.

Almost half of Sun & Moon's titles are translations. Los Angeles, Messerli will tell you, is a city rich with excellent translators; his books reflect their extraordinary range. They also reflect his extraordinary mission: to explore possibilities of meaning and the concomitant eros of thought. "For good writing and publishing to occur," Messerli said, "the doors must be open and the full context of human experience embraced. Only then can the miracle happen, can the poet and reader get carried away." Generating this miracle is not easy, but Messerli's ambition--in his own work as a poet ("Dinner on the Lawn"), novelist ("The Structure of Destructions") and playwright ("Past Present and Future") and as publisher at Sun & Moon--is to create a place where language leaps from the page, tackles the reader in a fit of anger or love and then departs, leaving the room forever changed.

Messerli plunged wholeheartedly into publishing and gave up teaching when he realized that his colleagues in the university had stopped reading contemporary writers and that, somewhere along the way, publishers had stopped accepting their work. For Messerli, such a state of affairs was tantamount to the loss of an entire generation of writers. "Publishers have abandoned all experimental American fiction writers," he declared. "But, for me, that's where exciting writing comes from. There are hundreds of writers in this country who write to be published by Alfred A. Knopf. It's a certain kind of fiction. But publishers have abandoned the environment that produced James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. The houses that published Faulkner would be scandalized by publishing them today."

He's not entirely wrong. A cursory glance at some of the writers Messerli has published over the years shows the drift. There's Clark Coolidge, originally published by Harper & Row. There's Fanny Howe, once at Houghton Mifflin. There's Harry Matthews, one-time Random House writer. (To be fair, there has been movement in the other direction: Russell Banks and Paul Auster began with Sun & Moon and are now with HarperCollins and Henry Holt respectively.) Messerli's point is clear: As commercial imperatives gain sway over the marketplace, mainstream publishers take fewer chances on the unknown, preferring to build up existing authors with brand-name recognition.

Messerli is also concerned about the future of literary presses in the age of conglomeration when distribution--the key to any publisher's livelihood--has become increasingly centralized. To be sure, publishing has become democratized by advances in technology. The Internet may level the playing field; Sun & Moon sells increasing numbers of its books through its Web site. Such innovation and adaptability have always driven the field. Small presses, working first with mimeograph machines and, later, with computers, proliferated during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, and many of them have found it possible, despite the obstacles, to compete successfully with the larger publishers by keeping their overheads low and making savvy publishing choices. For Sun & Moon, for instance, the success of Djuna Barnes' "Smoke" permitted Messerli to find a distributor and funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines.

In 1982, he applied for an NEA advancement grant and became a nonprofit company. Three years later, Howard Fox, his partner, who had been with the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., was offered a position as curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the two of them moved to Los Angeles. "One of the interesting things in moving to Los Angeles was facing the myths of L.A.," said Messerli. "In Washington, arts and culture are tangential to real life; here, they are one and the same. I was treated seriously here. It gave me a sense of liberation."

Sun & Moon quickly established a presence in the city, taking on requests from writers and other presses to assist with the distribution of their books. It was a fast and relentless pace, as Messerli not only edited and published his own writers but also took on the tasks of book design and publicity, a practice he continues today, with the assistance of Diana Daves and Guy Bennett. Together, in 1995, the three of them worked at a furious pace, presiding over the production and publication of 79 titles; in a typical year they publish about 25 books.

In 1992, Sun & Moon and eight other independent presses received a major boost from the Mellon Foundation. The grant arrived at a time when Messerli had been increasingly frustrated by the state of arts funding in the country. Two years earlier, Sun & Moon protested the NEA's anti-obscenity restrictions by deciding not to apply for a grant from the agency. As Messerli wrote to John E. Frohnmayer, its director, "If the NEA can support only 'safe' art, then we can no longer support the NEA, for it then stands as an institution at direct odds to serious exploratory artmaking in this country." It was a difficult decision: The NEA accounted for a major portion of the press's budget. Nevertheless, Sun & Moon has continued to publish successfully, somehow straddling the divide between breaking even and moving ahead. Among his most successful titles: "Six Early Stories" by Thomas Mann, "Dream Story" by Arthur Schnitzler and various collections by Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes.

The enterprise may seem at times quixotic and perhaps even hard to believe, especially if you think Southern California is the domain of outdoor diversions, but in truth, it is heartening to find a local publisher whose devotion to the business is commensurate with the real demographics of the region as the largest book market in the country. Drop in on Sun & Moon on a Sunday afternoon when Messerli is holding one of his salons. Pick up his anthologies, "From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990" or "From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995." Or read his new journal of international poetry, Mr. Knife, Miss Fork, and you will realize that under the Sun & Moon imprint, the ground where literature and life meet is broader and certainly more complicated than you might have imagined.

"I love anything that is literary," said Messerli, "writers who challenge us with form and language and subject and themes, writers who make us question and rethink our preconceptions of the world. Literature isn't just a received notion of what literature is but an original vision."

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