Richard Nash is one of the smartest people in publishing. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it's not; he's a skilled editor, a brave publisher, and a tireless promoter of quality literature. Just about anyone who's been in the book business long enough has a Nash story. Much of the time, the story has to do with Nash buttonholing them at a conference to recommend a book (often the recommendation in question isn't even one of Nash's own titles; he's an inveterate reader and a lover of good books, no matter who does the publishing). He's a strong personality in a timid field.
So in publishing's darkest days—known to the outside world as 2009—when Nash left his longtime home at beloved indie publisher Soft Skull Press with very little explanation, everyone got a little more worried. He believed publishing was in the middle of a sea change, and he said he was developing an idea to bring literature into the future. Then, aside from a few public-speaking engagements and enigmatic interviews, he basically maintained radio silence for a couple of years. Soft Skull collapsed without his leadership; Counterpoint absorbed the press and is now using it as a boutique label.
This month, Nash is returning to the consciousness of the publishing industry with his new start-up imprint, Red Lemonade. He hasn't reinvented the idea of what a book is—the first two titles, Portland author Vanessa Veselka's debut novel, Zazen, and Lynne Tillman's new short-story collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, are both available in bookstores in print form, looking like any other books—but he is reconsidering the way communities interact with literature and writing.
Over the phone, the Brooklyn-based Nash struggles a bit when I ask him to give me the Red Lemonade elevator pitch. He does just fine when he explains the types of books he wants to publish: "weird, idiosyncratic, not quite label-able, socially conscious but not didactic, experimental-but-not-really-experimental, indie fucking lit."
But when he gets into the internet side of Red Lemonade, his big ideas get in the way of his speech. "It's such a fucking lonely process, publishing," he says, adding that with his site he's "trying to integrate the whole process of acquisitions and editorial feedback of marketing and publicity and just put it all into one community." He finds it easier to explain the site using Clay Shirky's words: "Most publishers, perhaps all publishers, acquire a book and then acquire an audience. We're interested in acquiring an audience and having them pick the books they want to read."
Here's what it boils down to for readers: All the books on Red Lemonade's website, www.redlemona.de, are free to read on the site. Readers can leave comments in the books and write to each other and the author, creating a conversation inside the text. (Matthew Stadler's Publication Studio in Portland is taking a similar approach with its Reading Commons, and there's surely something to this idea; some readers would probably love to spend their entire lives inside one paragraph of Moby-Dick.) But Nash intelligently realizes that many readers also want to be writers, and so his site incorporates aspects of self-publishing, too. In theory, any author can publish his or her book on Red Lemonade's site in this fashion, with readers gathering together to offer their comments, criticisms, and encouragements in the ever-changing texts. The authors retain all the rights to their work; Nash says that if he likes a book, he'll contact the writer and offer to publish it. They're free to take it elsewhere, too.
"The publishing business got so lost inside the industrial revolution of this highly specialized set of silos" of writer and reader, Nash says, which "was designed to... get the most number of readers to read the smallest number of writers. That's an industrial model." Things are different now. Red Lemonade is giving authors "something that is more than rejection but less than 2,500 copies of a trade paperback in warehouses on the way to Elliott Bay [Book Company] and Barnes & Noble. I want to be able to create a system that allows good work to be highlighted in additional ways. Work does not belong in a single continuum."
These days, literally anyone can publish an e-book, and the simplicity of modern-day self-publishing has made the curatorial process of traditional publishing look old-fashioned. But Red Lemonade reincorporates the curatorial process in new and different ways, by building a place where the lines between editor and reader are blurred. Nash's career makes a great case for the importance of the curatorial process; he's leading by example. The first two books from Red Lemonade are quality works of literature.
Lynne Tillman's Someday This Will Be Funny is a collection that plucks at the edges of the short-story format. On some occasions, like Lydia Davis, Tillman pares away all the centuries of additions and ornamentation that writers have added to short fiction, leaving something that is barely a story as we understand it. Sometimes they end with an anticlimax, or they end with nothing at all. Other times, as with "Lunacies," they're just a collection of facts about the moon with the barest suggestion of a narrative strung through the paragraphs. One story is narrated by Clarence Thomas, and it's perhaps the best, most haunting political fiction since David Foster Wallace's short story about Lyndon Johnson. Another is a letter from Tillman to someone named Ollie that begins, "It's been a long time. I think of you sometimes, and I know you think of me." The letter spans just shy of three pages, and it is not kind.
Vanessa Veselka's Zazen is something solidly recognizable as a novel. You get drawn into the story in the usual way, gathering your footing as you discover the rules. The setting is a hopeless alternate America, where terrorist bombings happen every day and Americans are fleeing the country for South America in droves, and it's easy to think you've read something like this before. But the subversion comes in the narrator of the book, a young woman named Della who works as an unhappy waitress in a (mostly) vegan restaurant.
Della's internal life is as dark and lost as the world around her—or is it the other way around?—and she speaks with a canny, cynical voice that discovers poetry in even the darkest places. She refers to the world as a "sparkling horror show," and she calls in a bomb threat to "the human resources department of a popular Vietnamese restaurant chain, demanding an end to bubble tea as the hyper modern equivalent to absinthe and a barrier to real revolution because the equation Bubble Tea = Something to Look Forward To depressurizes the misery of capitalism and is a Hello Kitty band-aid on the festering wound of Neo-liberalism."
Della is the depressing, hilarious end result of decades of gentrified urban youth culture, sullenly attending orgies where monogamous couples are required to practice safe sex with each other so no one feels left out, and holding burials for poisoned rats in the restaurant's backyard. To employ a cheap reviewer's trick: Zazen reads like what would happen if Michelle Tea lived inside a Cormac McCarthy novel, but it's more than that. As Della crawls through the wreckage of decades of literary refuse, she somehow finds her way back out again into fresh air. Veselka uncovers something unironic and refreshingly free from cynicism. Simply: something new.
The question is whether Nash has discovered something new with Red Lemonade. The website has a decidedly clunky interface. For someone who has spent the last two years pulling literature apart to see how it can finally become internet-compatible (with the innovative and reckless air of Steve Jobs, if Jobs actually gave a shit about books), Nash's site could use a heavy dose of Apple-like simplicity and ease of use. And as dozens of Friendster clones can attest, talking about building a community and building a community are two very different things. But when you hear Nash praise internet tags as one of the most important discoveries of the last decade vis-à-vis literature ("Multiple valencies are really important when you're looking at cultural artifacts of 75,000 words"), you can't help but root for him. It's a natural human instinct to want to be on the side of the smartest guy in the room.