Celebrating twenty years of alternative canon-building by New York Review Books

This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of America’s most interesting and consistently impressive publishing imprints.

Though New York Review Books is technically an American publisher – the proof is right there in their name – they must be considered one of the most cosmopolitan outfits going, bringing back into print lost classics and under-regarded works from around the globe. This year, they reissued Vasily Grossman’s gargantuan Second World War epic Stalingrad, in a translation by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler; Grossman’s novel has been called War and Peace for the 20th century. Last year, they published a new edition of Alfred Döblin’s modernist classic of Weimar Germany, Berlin Alexanderplatz. They have also been responsible for keeping in print works by such revered international writers as Stefan Zweig, Eileen Chang, Honoré de Balzac, Silvina Ocampo, Luigi Pirandello, and Tove Jansson, to name but a few.

Writing in Publishers Weekly, series editor Edwin Frank discusses the origins of NYRB, which arose out of a desire to create a kind of alternative canon of books that represented great work from the U.S. and abroad, but that had been forgotten through neglect, lack of support, or, more often, because the books do not fit into a mass consumer mentality that currently drives the sale and marketing of blockbuster titles.

“The best books in the sense of canonical books remain, for the most part, readily available,” Frank writes. “What tend not to be available are those books that don’t fit into a given history of literature or thought or feeling – the books that introduce us to things other than what we know best, that put the question of what a good book is in play or that raise the different but related question of what makes a book timely, however old it may be.”

While this may make the entire endeavour sound academic and stuffy, the output of NYRB has proved to be anything but. Their books range across styles and genres and aren’t afraid to traffic in what might be considered lowbrow forms of writing by some self-appointed guardians of literary culture.

They have published an exciting and diverse range of noir and mystery writers, for example, including books by the great mid-century American Dorothy B. Hughes, Kenneth Fearing’s genre classic The Big Clock, and a number of titles by the crackerjack French noir writer Jean-Patrick Manchette.

Science fiction and horror are also genres NYRB has focused on. Stephen King provided the introduction to a volume of cosmic horror by William Sloane called The Rim of Morning; Edward Gorey edited a collection of ghost stories for the press; and SF authors such as David R. Bunch, John Wyndham, and D.G. Compton have appeared under the imprint.

Significant works of non-fiction have been kept in print as a result of the NYRB’s efforts. Polish poet Miron Bialoszewski’s devastating Second World War chronicle A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising came out in 2014 and one of the imprint’s first books was Robert Burton’s magisterial 17th century examination of depression and mental illness, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

On a lighter note, the press has also been instrumental in the revival of interest in Eve Babitz’s gossipy, incisive non-fiction autobiographies and other essays and pieces about Los Angeles, art, music, and fashion.

As a kind of literary counterpart to the Criterion Collection of classic and underappreciated cinema, it is appropriate that NYRB also has a collection of work focused on literature, film, art, music, and dance. Lillian Ross’s classic Picture, often considered one of the best books ever written about the craft and practice of movie making, was brought back into print this year to sit alongside filmmaker Robert Bresson’s musings about movies and creativity, Notes on the Cinematograph. Choreographer Agnes de Mille and jazz great Mezz Mezzrow also have titles back in print thanks to NYRB.

The process of creating an alternative canon cannot be easy, especially in these days when the very concept of canon-building is viewed with suspicion by a large portion of the reading public. But NYRB is to be commended for taking chances and never pandering to mass taste, instead slowly accruing a reputation on the basis of publishing strong work that prioritizes literary excellence over fads or trends.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the series boasts an iconic look, which has remained intact since the first books appeared two decades ago. The cover designs are standard enough to be instantly recognizable, while also providing a flexibility that allows for surprise and play in the individual titles’ visual presentation.

It’s hard to think of another publisher over the past two decades that has had such a consistent track record. In part, that can be attributed to the fact that they publish reprints – that is, books that have already been tested in the court of public opinion. But the very fact that so many of these have been allowed to go out of print is itself a damning critique of a reading public more interested in the latest buzzworthy book or author than in work of lasting importance or enduring quality.

Though it is clear that with such a broad range of books and subjects – Frank says the line boasts more than 500 titles at present – not every book in the NYRB library will appeal to every reader, it is equally clear that each book has something of value. Over the past two decades, NYRB has solidified a reputation for publishing quality work in handsome editions. Here’s hoping the next twenty years are as strong.

Celebrating twenty years of alternative canon-building by New York Review Books