ARTICOLO n. 52 / 2022

A CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL Z. WISE

What does it mean to be a publisher?

When thinking about international publishing, there are many questions we should ask ourselves: how is cultural work changing in the world? Will the publishing world be able to respond to the multiplicity of stimuli from which it is overwhelmed every day? What will the role of the publisher be in the future? These, and many other questions, open up a series of conversations with the protagonists of today’s publishing industry. Michael Z. Wise is co-founder of New Vessel Press. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in Vienna, Prague, and London, reporting for Reuters and The Washington Post.

Andrea Gentile: What does it mean to be a publisher? Giangiacomo Feltrinelli used to say that a publisher is like a wheelbarrow, a mean of transportation, thanks to which books pass from an author’s hands to a reader’s. The late Roberto Calasso, on the other hand, thought of a publisher as an artist, who thinks about the construction of a catalogue as a writer thinks about his novel, with a creative, artistical mindset. Which of these two positions you feel closer to?

Michael Z. Wise: The wheelbarrow approach sounds like one is simply shovelling books out into the public square, whereas at New Vessel Press we are highly selective about what to publish. Our catalogue may not be entirely comparable to a novel, but we carefully choose the books we translate – a half dozen titles each year that are aimed at bringing high quality writing from other languages into English. I like another maxim by Calasso that the publisher’s task is to faire plaisir to what he called a scattered tribe of people in search of something «that is gold and not tin».

A.G. Before being publishers, first of all we are readers, though readers who read books in a way no one else does, sometimes dissecting a text like a surgeon would. My question then would be about the books that influenced you the most in your work as publisher, the ones you keep returning to in your daily job. What are the most vital pages that give shape to your publishing strategies?

M.W. We are immensely proud to publish the Russian author Sergei Lebedev and have brought out three of his novels so far and have a fourth book forthcoming in Antonina W. Bouis’s superb translation. Lebedev’s writing, particularly his novel Oblivion, is among the first twentieth-century Russian books to probe the legacy of the Soviet prison camp system, and his rich and weighty writing has great power to evoke past terror and its ongoing reverberations today. Translating Lebedev, one of Russia’s finest, is an exciting challenge, and editing his work has been exceedingly rewarding. 

A.G. Of course, today books are only one part of a delicate, sometimes elegant, often surprising equation of content. From movies and TV shows available for streaming at a click of our devices, to podcasts, mobile Apps and games, stories, words, ideas are all around us, a cloud of content that we breathe, constantly, as we do our morning routines, go to work, talk with a colleague, have a romantic dinner in a restaurant. It’s inescapable and can be suffocating, this cloud, but also exhilarating. What other “cultural objects” beside books are currently influencing your publishing strategies? Are you pursuing any type of cooperation between books and other media that might turn out to be mutually beneficial?  

M.W. We have recently sublicensed the rights to use our translations by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee of stories by Anna Maria Ortese from her anthology Il mare non bagna Napoli/Neapolitan Chronicles in stage productions at Columbia University in New York City. Many of our books are also concerned with the visual arts old and new, including The Eye by Philippe Costamagna about connoisseurship and the sheer delight of looking at Old Master paintings, and A Few Collectors by Pierre Le-Tan about the eccentricities of those driven to acquire artworks of all sorts. These titles are naturally targeted toward art-minded readers and promoted by gallery and museum bookshops. In addition, we have published a print work that arose entirely from new media, namely tweets and their accompanying photographs. This is The Madeleine Project by Clara Beaudoux, an innovative work of non-fiction about a young woman who moves into a Paris apartment and documents the belongings and life story of the previous tenant on her Twitter feed. 

A.G. But let’s go back to books. Books are strange objects, and I often wonder what their role in our contemporary society is – especially given the proliferation of media we were talking about. What do you think the common perception of books is? Are they thought of as merely entertaining devices? Do they still represent a different kind of emotional experience, or a different way to interrogate our reality? Franz Kafka used to say that we need books that break the icy sea inside ourselves. Do books still manage to do this? 

M.W. Although in dark moments, there’s a tendency to despair about the diminished role of books in contemporary society amid the din of so many other distractions, I believe that books continue to exert an essential, age-old impact on thinking and perception.

A.G. A follow-up question would have to do with readers. What’s the ideal reader you have in mind while you work? And how this ideal reader, if present at all, comes to you: do you search for her, trying then to find the best possible reading experience for her; or do you invent her, meaning that you move about the publishing world creating needs and spaces that weren’t there before?

M.W. We search less for the ideal reader than for ideal books that will appeal to inquiring minds. We look for works of both fiction and nonfiction in other languages that are extraordinary in terms of literary quality and offer new insights into life and society in other parts of the world.

A.G. However a publisher thinks about the readers the books she publishes are going to meet, books are often thought of as bridges, especially in times of great division. It’s a platitude, of course, but one that holds – like all platitudes do – a morsel of truth, though one that is constantly challenged by political, societal and linguistic barriers. Many have dreamt, over the decades, of a fully European publishing house, that can make a book available in multiple languages at the same time, for readers across the Continent. Utopia, or something that new technology and a renewed need for cooperation are making more and more possible? How would you feel about such a project?

M.W. The best books, especially those that arise from and reflect their particular linguistic and geographic origins, contain universal truths. There may not be one fully European publishing house, but I’m always thrilled to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair where Europe seems to me to be truly alive in a way one really doesn’t experience elsewhere. Yes, the spirit of European alliance has been significantly regenerated in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but a degree of literary utopia has already been in existence at Frankfurt, where you can regularly find Europeans speaking multiple languages and who have a genuine understanding of cultural developments in their neighboring countries as well as farther-flung parts of the continent.

A.G. Despite the need for cooperation we were talking about, we do have our differences, of course, and differences must be treasured even as we find new ways of working together, of being together, because it’s our differences that make us unique. Another platitude, perhaps, but one that is often exemplified in publishing by the contrast between British and American publishers, and European ones. Generally speaking, in fact, in the UK and the US every book is different and a publisher’s identity is less perceivable that the identity of the editor building a particular list, whereas in Europe a publisher’s identity tends to be immediately recognizable from the get-go – think of a Gallimard blanche, or Adelphi’s pastel colors on a bookshelf. What do you think are the respective merits of the two approaches? And which one do you feel closer to?

M.W. I certainly understand the desire to adopt a uniform cover scheme that is aesthetically coherent and distinctive. But this can end up being just somewhat blank and empty, missing out on the pleasures of the true art to creating a striking cover that reflects the individual book at hand. Rising to this challenge of commissioning a cover design that helps attract readers to not only buy but also read a particular work is part of what distinguishes publishing from mere printing.

A.G. Publishing, as our readers may have gleaned from this conversation, is sometimes a very idiosyncratic business. How do you imagine the future of our industry? Umberto Eco used to say that books are “eternal objects”; objects that, like a fork or a spoon, are so perfect from the moment of inception that they don’t need changes. Do you think this is true for books? Do you believe that books will stay the same – physically and spiritually – a through the next years? And if you think they will change, how will they do it?

M.W. At New Vessel Press, we’ve fully embraced the adaptation of our traditional print books into e-books and audiobooks. Other innovative formats could well arise in the near future, employing similarly new, currently unknown forms of technology. But the core experience of engaging with the written word remains the same as it was in Johannes Gutenberg’s time, even if we live in the age of Jeff Bezos.

A.G. As we wind down our conversation, perhaps it’s time to move into more playful territory. We talked about the future of publishing, so perhaps now it’s time to talk about the future of your publishing house. Give us a sneak peek into the next six months. What are you most excited about publishing?

M.W. A translation from the Italian by Ann Goldstein of our second book by Marina Jarre, Return to Latvia, building upon her celebrated autobiography Distant Fathers that we published in 2021, and a novel from Brazil set in the impoverished hinterlands about a hidden romance and the power of written language called The Words The Remain by Stênio Gardel, translated from the Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato. Also a translation from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen of a profound and hilarious Israeli novel about contemporary attitudes toward slavery and the legacy of colonialism. It’s called Professor Schiff’s Guilt by Agur Schiff.

A.G. Last question. If you were to choose a classical book from ages past that were to reach your desk today and that you wouldn’t be able to pass on, which book would that be?

M.W. Boswell’s London Journal, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. At heart, I’m definitely a nostalgic urbanite.

ARTICOLO n. 63 / 2022