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Friday, May 14, 2010

Save our National Literary Life: Tracy Daugherty rails against imminent closure of SMU Press

Dear Sam [Tanenhaus, of the NYTimes]:

I enjoyed meeting you last February when you and I had a conversation about my Donald Barthelme biography, HIDING MAN, for the Book Review podcast, and I enjoyed your book on the death of conservatism.

I'm writing to make you aware, if you aren't already, that SMU Press, one of the best small publishers of literary fiction in the country, is threatened with immediate closure by Paul W. Ludden, the provost of Southern Methodist University. He cites budgetary challenges as his rationale, but in fact SMU is weathering the recession quite well, with one of the largest university endowments in the country. Quite simply, this is a deliberate change in the university's educational/intellectual values, and I'm writing you because I believe this change would send ripples far beyond SMU, and set a precedent with disastrous ramifications for our national literary life. I'm hoping that you can help make readers of the Book Review aware of what a serious loss to literary culture this would be, and what doors it might open for further negative pressures on literary publishers nationwide.

I am an SMU author, and my new book of short stories would be one of fifteen titles stranded by the press's immediate closure, but my concern transcends my personal situation (I figure that, for better or worse, my career is what it is, and that won't change). Truly, SMU is, as author Janet Peery says, "the best university press in the country . . . and every writer in the country knows it." 37 per cent of the press's books have been reviewed in your paper, so I know you're aware of the high quality of the work the press produces, especially in the areas of literary fiction and medical humanities.

Since word of the impending closure has spread, Kathryn Lang, the press's valiant editor, has received hundreds of letters of support from writers, publishers, and editors from all across the country, including Ann Beattie ("one of the most distinguished, reliable, essential presses in the country"), Richard Russo ("with commercial presses currently under siege, university presses are even more important than they were fifty years ago . . . SMU [is a] venerable press"), and Michael Pietsch, Executive Vice President and Publisher at Little, Brown ("SMU Press is more important in the ecosystem of the arts than ever before. This is a house where unfamiliar ideas [are] given a legitimate airing. The Press's commitment to publishing serious writers well matters to . . . readers who are hungry for serious thought rendered through accomplished prose.")

Other testimonies about the press's essential presence in the national literary scene have come from Edward Hirsch, President of the Guggenheim Foundation, Madison Smartt Bell, Alan Cheuse, Jill McCorkle, Leslie Epstein, Abraham Verghese, Ed Falco, Kathleen Keane, President of the American Association of University Presses board, and many, many others.

Literary blogsites have been exploding with the story--a cascade of sadness and outrage that such a successful, professional, and essential literary publisher could be phased out in a sweeping political decision about cultural and literary values in this country. It is a true David and Goliath story, with, as I say, serious ramifications for American literature.

I hope you'll take the time to browse some of the blogsites and the internet talk about the value of SMU Press and the disastrous nature of this decision, and I hope you'll feel this is an important story to share with readers of the Book Review. Even if continuing to get the word out comes too late to save the press (though I'm hoping, of course, that it won't) this is an urgent story about the state of publishing in our time.

What emerges clearly from the letters of support the press has received is that the death of small presses, serious books, and literary work is not inevitable, as some would like us to believe: these are choices we make (Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown says that "contrary to popular perception, [New york publishers have] become bigger and healthier"--they are CHOOSING to publish and support certain kinds of books over others). We can decide to make better choices, and better decisions than the one the SMU provost has made.

I'm happy to talk to you further about all this, if you agree, as I hope you will, that this is an important story for your readers, and I'm sure Kathryn Lang would be happy to provide you with information:

In the meantime, be well. And thank you again for your time and generosity last February when I visited your offices.

All best,

Tracy Daugherty