By Amanda DeMarco
PRAGUE: In an April 15th New York Times Op-Ed piece, Olga Tokarczuk ruminated on Polish public response to the recent plane crash that had killed the Polish president and 95 other people: “…sometimes I fear that the people of my country can unite only beside victims’ bodies, over coffins and in cemeteries…I dream of Poland becoming a modern society that is defined not by the crippling nature of history, but by our individual achievements, a sense of our own self-worth and ideas for the future.”
Tokarczuk, whose novel Primeval and Other Times was published in April by Twisted Spoon Press, senses a gap between a backward-looking cultural orientation and its potential. It’s not surprising then that Twisted Spoon publishes books that seem to span that gap, synthesizing a certain dark European sensibility with a lively ingenuity, combining historical consciousness with timeliness.
Founded in 1992 by Howard Sidenberg, Kevin Blahut, and Lukas Tomin, Twisted Spoon is a Prague-based English-language press that publishes translations of Central and Eastern European writers, particularly the avant garde of the inter-war period, contemporary writers with a surreal flavor, as well as Europe-based writers working in English.
One mark of success that Sidenberg noted is when a larger house picks up a Twisted Spoon author. He calls it “the trickle-up theory,” since “we know the trickle-down theory is hooey.”
He explains: “If we can generate interest for an author whom we think is worth reading, then it’s a good day’s work, time for a beer, and if another house publishes this author’s other books, good for them…I know, the received publishing wisdom is that you publish authors not books. Great, go for it. Have fun.”
Recounting the press’s modest beginnings, Sidenberg said, “We didn’t even have a computer when we began. Someone donated an electric typewriter with a bit of memory. We had to borrow computer time at one of the underground journals [Vokno] and then at Prognosis [the first Prague English-language newspaper] to get the first books done…When the first books came…Kevin said something to the effect: ‘How are we going to sell them?’ And I said: ‘I don’t know.’ So we compiled a list of bookstores in Prague that had English-language books and divvied it up between the two of us and started making the rounds.”
Evidently it worked — walk into any English-language bookstore in Prague and Twisted Spoon’s titles will be a staple of the Eastern European literature section, and, of course, their titles have long been available abroad.
Twisted Spoon makes available many Czech authors whose works were lost or suppressed under communist rule, from better-known writers like Bohumil Hrabal to Paul Leppin whose decadent, macabre Prague novels provide a mythology consummate to the city’s stature. These older titles shed light on their newer work, revealing a continuity of influence otherwise obscure to the English reader.
Works by Anglophone expatriates provide another lens on the culture, though Sidenberg noted that titles originally written in English make up “a small part of what we want to publish since we are up to our eyeballs in translation…The work from ‘expats’ that we have published to date is writing we liked, and it’s a way to contribute to the community.”
In the Internet age, being based in Prague makes less of a difference in Twisted Spoon’s operations than it once might have. However, they continue to be vulnerable to the vicissitudes of currency exchange rates, Sidenberg explained, citing the impact of “the overall global economic downturn and, before that, the dollar’s steady decline.” “after all, we’re an exporter to the US,” he said. In terms of their home audience — in the 90s Prague was the “it” city for American expats — the decrease in English-speaking expats has been balanced by an increase in study abroad programs.
Chad Post, director of Open Letter Books, once remarked on the Three Percent blog that “…Twisted Spoon Press is one of the most under-appreciated small publishers.” It’s a problem faced by many small publishers. Twisted Spoon’s list is cohesive but interesting. Its books are smart and engaging, and as objects, they’re beautifully made. But no one wants to be under-appreciated. For Sidenberg, the only option is to bear down and keep doing great books: “When it comes down to it, most people are afraid of their own shadow. Either we bring in enough money to keep going or we don’t and we do something else.”
DISCUSS: How much do big publishers benefit from small press risk taking?
VISIT: The Web site for Twisted Spoon Press