In January this year we took note of the establishment of the Mainstay Press, a high-powered and intellectually motivated publishing company. Well, now things are moving.
Visit the Mainstay web site and you will find details of the company's first five books, with one a month to come well into 2007.
Two of the books listed are by Tony Christini, these being the first two volumes in his Homefront trilogy of novels. The two novels are overtly political works of fiction, exploring the 'private and public ramifications of militant U.S. policy.'
Directly relevant to all this is a short essay that Tony Christini has published online, entitled The University Press and Original Fiction. In this essay, he argues that university presses have a duty -- I don't think that's too strong a word -- to publish works of fiction which are notably uncommercial, because of their serious nature and purpose, and which also, ideally, constitute a cultural critique.
'Doesn't it appear to anyone (Tony asks) to be the slightest bit irresponsible for all the university presses combined, several years now into the Iraq War, let alone the prolonged build-up, to not have published even a single (as far as I'm aware) culturally critical novel about the Iraq War?'
Well, ahem, actually, Tony, no. It doesn't seem at all irresponsible to me. Rather the reverse.
As it happens, I ran a university press for a number of years. I can't say that I ever sat down and wrote out, or even thought out, a mission statement for that press (and perhaps that was irresponsible); but if I had, I doubt whether it would have included a duty to publish fiction, of any kind. Furthermore, if I had come to the conclusion that the publication schedule should include fiction, whether serious, culturally critical, or any other kind, I doubt that I could have carried the university decision-making bodies along with me.
The precise aims of any given university press will be determined by the university of which it is a part. But they will normally include, and concentrate upon, the dissemination of research. In the past, such presses might reasonably have been expected to expend more than they brought in, and this would have been regarded as a legitimate call on the university purse. But not, I suspect any more. Certainly not in the UK. Today any press will be expected, I think, to wipe its own nose, if not come up with a handsome contribution to the university's coffers.
And besides. What's all this about 'serious fiction'? All fiction, I would submit, is serious. The people who write it take it seriously -- if they expect it to be any good, and to see the light of day -- even if they are writing what Tony Christini refers to as 'fluff or worse'. And where, I enquire politely, are the intellectual arguments which demonstrate that 'serious fiction', as commonly defined, makes a more valuable contribution to society than 'fluff or worse'? I know of none. Assertions, yes. But proof, no.
No. I dare say that there are some university presses which already publish fiction (Oxford, I believe, is one). But personally I think that this argument for university presses to get into the fiction business on any scale is a non-starter. And while it might have been arguable thirty or forty years ago, times have surely changed. Today, even the most 'serious' stuff -- of minority interest -- can be put before the public at minimum cost. By the author himself if necessary. And, as someone who has seen the sales figures for both a good many university press books and some self-published ones, I can tell you that a self-published book stands just as much chance in the marketplace as one from a university press -- despite the inherent 'prestige' of the latter. This is, admittedly a pretty slim chance; but it's no less promising.
Anyway, you'll just have to read Tony Christini's article yourself and see what you think. But if you're the author of a piece of 'serious' fiction, I wouldn't hold your breath in the hope that university presses are shortly going to offer you a contract..