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December 17, 2008

Thinking in circles, about big and small presses

As you might have been able to tell by my waffling tone, I was not altogether comfortable with my “Top Eleven Indie Picks of 2008”. Not with the books themselves, for the books are very good, but with the very fact that I made such a list at all. As though the books by independent publishers that I’d read this year were a sideshow, “a subspecies”, or do I even dare to say it, a ghetto? Because I don’t mean to imply any of these things. No, I don’t mean that at all.

The problem is this, I think. That my original Top Eleven Picks of 2008 was assembled in very vague terms. These were most certainly not “The Best Books of 2008”, but rather a list of the ones I liked best, and I am conscious enough know that what I like best and what is the best is not necessarily the very same thing. Particularly because I’m the sort to fall in love with a book because it contains a teapot, or references the postal system, and these are two of my favourite things.

I like fiction that innovates, I like books that challenge what I feel or believe, I admire a book that attacks me like a pipe to the head, but I’ve just got this thing about books I can curl up inside like a warm blanket. Or books that recreate the world and let me walk around easy in it, as opposed to one that makes a whole new world that I’ve got to think a lot to discover. Perhaps if I didn’t read corporate documents for eights hours every day, this would be different, but at the moment I like a book that grabs me and holds me, and even pushes me along. (If I only read books like this I would be in a coma, but I do require them on a regular basis.)

Which is to say that many (but certainly not all) of my Top Eleven books were old fashioned good reads, which is mostly what I talk about here at Pickle Me This. They may not have rewritten the book on how to write the book (though I’ll argue for a few) but I loved them true, and that was sort of my sole requirement.

But I did so enjoy my year of more intensive reading of independent publishers, and when I reflected that I’d missed them in my picks, I was more than a bit regretful. But I was hardly going to just slot them in between the lines, and hope that nobody noticed. I loved these books for different reasons than I loved the others, and it wasn’t so much that they couldn’t play with the big boys, but rather they were playing a whole other game. Which, of course, is as dubious a statement as any other– there is certainly nothing decidedly “Indie” to link each of these eleven books, but I couldn’t help but think of them differently. Why? I’m not sure.

But I am not sure I’m totally wrong about this– I’m still not comfortable, but I can’t help but acknowledge a difference between fiction from big publishers and small ones. Just like how, try as I might otherwise, I read a difference between fiction written by men and that by women (for example). Always, always, there will be exceptions (I’m waving at you, Ian McEwan!), but I am thinking in general terms. I am thinking of the Orange Prize, and how instead of a ghetto, I see it as a celebration of something uniquely itself. Similar with the small presses then, instead of just a sideshow, although to imply that small press books couldn’t make it on my main list is definitely offensive, and I see that now. Further, that these books were as good as they were but didn’t get on my list is making me reconsider how I evaluate what I read.

Anyway, I expect to make full sense of this around the same time I finally read Anna Karenina. So probably don’t hold your breath.

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