Rescuing Lethem’s Legends

Jonathan Vatner

In February novelist Jonathan Lethem joined Bill Henderson, founder of the Pushcart Press, to launch a series of reissues of Lethem’s favorite forgotten books, starting with Bad Guy, a 1982 absurdist psychodrama by Rosalyn Drexler. W. W. Norton, Pushcart’s distributor, has signed on to distribute the new series under the imprimatur Lethem’s Legends.

Henderson and Lethem came up with the idea for Lethem’s Legends on the front porch of Henderson’s nine-by-twelve-foot bookstore in Sedgwick, Maine. Lethem, who summers in nearby Blue Hill, met Henderson at the local farmers market about fifteen years ago and occasionally visits what Henderson calls “the smallest bookstore in the world.” After hearing Lethem talk about his passion for rediscovering forgotten writers and books, Henderson proposed publishing a series of the author’s favorites. “It’s been my hope over many years to rescue books and rescue authors. That’s what we’ve done at Pushcart for almost fifty years,” Henderson says, referring to the annual Pushcart Prize anthology, which showcases the best writing published by small presses and journals during the previous year. Pushcart Press also occasionally publishes books that in-house editors loved but were rejected by their houses.

Lethem has long been a champion of titles that have fallen out of print. He points out that books by many of his favorite authors, from Philip K. Dick and Paula Fox to Melville, were at one time out of print. He adores the New York Review Books Classics series, which has republished hundreds of long-ignored gems and demonstrated that these books can still awaken the public imagination—and turn a profit. Lethem even coedited a title in the series, a 2012 book of selected stories by science fiction master Robert Sheckley. Still, the novelist sees plenty of room in the reprint market for “scruffy books that are even more lopsided and wonky or peculiar.”

Rosalyn Drexler’s Bad Guy fits that bill. The book revolves around a psychoanalyst who tries unconventional methods of curing her patient, a teenage rapist and murderer whose sociopathy has been fueled by television violence. Drexler boldly experiments with narrative and depicts sex and violence without apology or pussyfooting. “It’s emotionally sophisticated and savvy and street-smart,” Lethem says, “and in another way, it’s raw, antic, off-kilter, and unrefined.” 

Drexler, who is ninety-two and lives in New York City, is best known as an early contributor to the pop art movement. She has won Obies for her playwriting and an Emmy for cowriting Lily, a 1973 Lily Tomlin TV special. She once toured the United States as a professional wrestler named “Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire,” and wrote about the adventure in her 1972 novel, To Smithereens. Bad Guy is the seventh of her nine novels. 

Alhough Lethem’s wish list of potential reissues could easily fill Henderson’s tiny bookstore, the two are proceeding cautiously. If Bad Guy sells, readers can expect to see one or two of Lethem’s Legends released per year, beginning in 2020. “It’s going to be tough to bring back books in this current age when even new titles are getting obliterated by the cacophony,” Henderson says. “I call it the censorship of clutter. It’s hard for the average reader to find things that are truly valuable. That’s what we’re trying to do with Lethem’s Legends: bring back a few titles that deserve a second chance.”    


Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Yonkers, New York. His novel, Carnegie Hill, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books in August.

Pushcart Prize Turns Forty


Tara Jayakar


It could be said that any artistic endeavor is an act of faith, and publishing is certainly no exception. Literary magazines open and shutter each year, independent and university presses shift their focus or shut down entirely for a myriad of reasons: not enough funding, not enough staff, not enough book-buying readers. But the Pushcart Prize, the nonprofit award series and press that releases its fortieth-anniversary prize anthology this month, is still going strong. Weighing in at an impressive 654 pages, Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses features sixty-nine poems, stories, and essays published during the previous year by small presses and journals, and nominated by an army of editors that span the globe.

The idea for the Pushcart Prize anthology was first conceived in the early 1970s by founding editor Bill Henderson, who at the time was a senior editor at Doubleday. “I was tired of the publishing industry turning writers into dollar signs,” Henderson says, citing the tendency for big houses to favor marketability over substance. After leaving Doubleday, he self-published The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook: Literary Tradition and How-To, a guide that advised writers on how to start their own presses, free themselves from the constraints of commercial publishing, and express their own truths—a rally cry to rebuild the literary industry on the foundations of community and care rather than capitalism. (The handbook is now in its fourth edition, and has sold over seventy thousand copies.) To further champion the work of small presses and literary journals, Henderson began to conceive of a “Best of the Small Presses” prize and collected anthology—something that would highlight the poetry and prose being put out by indie publishers each year. He enlisted everyone in the literary scene that he could think of to help—Joyce Carol Oates, Ralph Ellison, H. L. Van Brunt, and Anaïs Nin, to name a few. They all got on board, and are listed as founding editors in this year’s anthology. Henderson used money from his book sales to get the anthology off the ground, and in 1976, from a shack in his back yard, he self-published the first annual Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses.

“It really caught fire,” Henderson says. “People were as fed up as I was with money in publishing.” Henderson credits the publications and presses that showed support for the project early on. The New York Times Book Review, for instance, published reviews and excerpts of the anthology, while the Village Voice, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus helped spread the word. W. W. Norton joined on as a partner in 1982, and has been distributing the anthology ever since. Perhaps ironically, Henderson says, “It was the establishment that came, trumpets blaring, to our help.”  

Even with the initial support, however, there were doubts about the prize’s future. “Many did not expect it would last more than a year, maybe two,” Henderson writes in the introduction to this year’s anthology. “After all, Pushcart had no grant funding, no institutional cash, no federal support or family fortune. But the prize refused to die, and I know the reason, hidden from the conglomerates. There is a heart, mind, soul, and defiance out there in Small Press Land that refuses to let commerce kill the spirit of our writers, editors, and readers.”

“The Pushcart is one of the last bastions of non-corporate writing,” says writer and filmmaker Laleh Khadivi, whose winning story, “Wanderlust,” is featured in Pushcart Prize XL. Khadivi’s piece originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Sun. “The journals are small, the selection process is free from big publishing houses, and the work of the staff is consistent and done with a love for the form.”       

When Henderson talks about the Pushcart, a word he uses frequently is romantic. “Not to be romantic, but…” is how a number of his sentences begin. For the many authors and editors across the country who help keep the Pushcart running—all on a volunteer basis—the very idea of the prize, and its ability to stay afloat in an ever-shifting literary sea, is a romantic one indeed. Among them is poet and former Pushcart Prize poetry editor Jane Hirshfield, who speaks of the prize as if it were a small miracle. “I’ve been sending in Pushcart nominations every year since 1989, when I first became eligible to do so. It’s a unique opportunity to try to bring a widened audience to a few poems I find dazzling, pulse-changing, transformative,” Hirshfield says. “This year I found Margaret Gibson’s profound and gorgeous ‘Broken Cup.’”

Gibson, whose poem was originally published in her collection Broken Cup (LSU Press, 2014), is the author of eleven books of poetry and a memoir. She was a finalist for the 1993 National Book Award for poetry, and has won two Pushcart Prizes. Her poem appears in this year’s Pushcart anthology alongside another particularly compelling story by Tiffany Briere, a writer who holds an MFA in fiction from Bennington College and a PhD in genetics from Yale.

“I found Tiffany Briere’s ‘Vision’ in Tin House and I thought it was brilliant,” says Jaquira Díaz, a former Pushcart Prize winner and current contributing editor. “When it was time for nominations, Tiffany’s piece came to mind right away. It had been months, but I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it. It is haunting and heartbreaking and beautiful. When I came across the line, ‘God is taking my mother in pieces,’ I knew it would stay with me forever. I wasn’t surprised that it won. The stories and essays in the Pushcart Prize anthology usually have that quality—they stay with you.”

It’s that staying power, that lasting love, that seems to have kept the prize going all these years. “Whether as nominator or as ultimate judge, the invitation here is rigorous and clear: to love most what you happen to love most, and to name that in public,” says Hirshfield. “The Pushcart is, entirely and uniquely, a book made by the entire community of writers, for the entire community of writers.”

The guest prose editors this year were Emma Duffy-Comparone, Michael Kardos, Lincoln Michel, and Daniel Tovrov. Kim Addonizio and David Bottoms served as guest poetry editors. Together, they chose from over eight thousand nominations.

The Writers’ Studio, in partnership with the Strand Bookstore, will be celebrating the release of Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses on Friday, November 13, in New York City, with featured readings by Jonathan Galassi, Mary Karr, Ben Marcus, Colum McCann, Sharon Olds, Philip Schultz and Zadie Smith, and an introduction by Henderson. For more information about the event, visit To learn more about the Pushcart Prize, visit

Tara Jayakar is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.

Recovering the Classics


Jonathan Vatner


The early editions of Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror novel, Dracula, feature covers that might seem, at least to modern eyes, a little understated given the macabre machinations of its vampire protagonist. One shows a plain red title on a muted yellow background. Another depicts a small garland of roses on an otherwise-empty beige background. And while we’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover, sometimes it can be hard not to, especially with books that were published more than a century ago. Enter Recovering the Classics, a project launched in 2013 to crowdsource new cover designs for classic works of literature in the public domain, with the goal of reviving the canon for a new generation of readers.

Launched by two San Francisco–based companies, Recovering the Classics was born out of financial constraint. To entice people to sign up for DailyLit, a service that sends e-books to subscribers in daily installments, Jennifer 8. Lee—cofounder of DailyLit’s parent company, Plympton, a “literary studio that innovates in digital publishing” and is perhaps best known for helping launch the annual Twitter Fiction Festival—sought to add classic novels to its digital catalogue. But while many classics have entered the public domain, their cover art is still under copyright. “For three hundred covers, it was going to cost a hundred thousand dollars,” says Lee. “I thought, ‘Let’s make it into a movement.’”

So she reached out to the Creative Action Network (CAN), a consortium of graphic designers and artists that runs crowdsource campaigns to create art and design for social causes. CAN launched a campaign through which anyone can submit a newly designed cover for one of a hundred selected books—from Dante’s Inferno to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The titles are only a fraction of the nearly 2.5 million books and periodicals available for free through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), a Boston-based nonprofit that shares the digitized contents of libraries nationwide. (Almost all titles published before 1923 are in the public domain; most books published thereafter are still copyrighted.) Lee estimates that only about two hundred fifty to three hundred fifty of those public-domain books are classics with mass appeal, and those are the books on which the project is focused. So far, over three hundred designers have made more than seven hundred fifty new covers.

These new creations are making appearances in the physical world as well. Bookstores that can print on demand, such as the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, use them when printing hard copies. This Side of Paradise and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with updated covers, are stocked at stores of the popular eyewear designer Warby Parker throughout the country. And CAN sells products such as tote bags and T-shirts that use the cover art, with a portion of the proceeds going to the artists.

This year, Recovering the Classics has also teamed up with the White House initiative ConnectED, through which the government has pledged to provide $10 billion in digital-learning opportunities for American students. As part of the initiative, Recovering the Classics partnered with DPLA, the New York Public Library, the literacy nonprofit First Book, and book distributor Baker & Taylor to develop and populate an e-reading app, Open eBooks, that aims to provide free e-books to kids, particularly those from low-income areas. Released in February, the app features a selection of Recovering the Classics book covers that were voted on by the public, which the founders hope will draw young readers. “Kids at all income levels should have the same diversified access to books, because whim is the libido of reading,” says Dan Cohen, executive director of DPLA. “It’s wonderful to see a shelf and pick something off it, or to open a phone app and find something to read. That’s whim, and we should be able to do that in a fully digital environment.”

The Recovering the Classics organizers are looking to further expand the project’s reach with their new 50×50 campaign, which will present exhibitions of fifty cover posters in schools and libraries across the country by summer 2017. The team got the idea when they printed out a number of the book covers as posters for an exhibit at the American Library Association’s annual conference last June, and attendees kept asking if they could get copies of the posters to display in their libraries. “The answer was no,” Lee says, “but the question was so persistent I finally said, ‘Yes, you can do an exhibit! Not only that, we’re going to do it in all fifty states!’” Since many communities cannot afford large-format printing on this scale, Plympton and CAN launched a Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $12,000 in two months.

Each school and library can create an exhibit in a different way, but Jody Chapel’s project at East High School in Denver last fall has so far served as the gold standard. Chapel, a visual-art teacher who worked as a graphic designer for twenty years, organized a school-wide project through which three hundred students designed their own book covers. She assigned books at random and asked students to research their books, create mood boards, and come up with two possible cover designs—much as it’s done in the industry. The best student covers, along with the professional ones, were displayed in the school library for one of the best-attended art openings in the school’s history. Selections of student covers were also displayed at Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store and the Denver Public Library.

As this was an art class, Chapel didn’t require that students read the books, but she hopes that the assignment will plant a seed. “We’re so into getting students engaged in reading, using graphic novels and stories that connect to their lives, that many of these classic titles aren’t being emphasized anymore,” she says. “This project helped create a heightened awareness that the classics are still out there, waiting to be read.”

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the staff writer for Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology.


Writers on Books That Left a Mark


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Stephen King’s The Body. Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. What do these books have in common? They’ve all inspired other writers to start writing, and are now part of Bookmarked, a new series of books about the works of literature that have left a lasting impression on the lives and work of contemporary writers.

The series, a project from Brooklyn, New York–based independent publisher Ig, is comprised of short personal books from a variety of writers, each exploring how a particular work of fiction helped shape his or her career. “It’s a simple idea,” says Kirby Gann, series editor and author of the first volume, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, which was published in March. “The series celebrates classic books on a personal, intimate level, as opposed to capital-C Criticism. So much book talk strains toward the scholar and grad student, approaching the subject from an objective, theoretical stance and seeking to apply certain critical standards or requisites. That method is important, of course, but it leaves plenty of room to address books on a more democratic, imaginative, and even intimate level, no matter their pub date.”

The second installment in the series, which also came out in March, was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five by author, columnist, and radio personality Curt Smith. While Smith’s response combines criticism and autobiography with a cultural and historical examination of the many themes of Vonnegut’s 1969 novel, Gann approaches A Separate Peace on a more personal level. “A Separate Peace was a book I loved as a teenager—essentially the novel that made me want to be a writer—and yet I had never returned to read it again, until now, some thirty years later,” Gann says. “It became apparent to me that if I were now reading the novel for the first time, it wouldn’t have affected me a great deal. So what interested me was rediscovering the boy who had found the novel so transformative and exploring why it affected him so deeply.”

This is one of the unique aspects of the series: Neither Gann nor his series coeditor, Ig editor in chief Robert Lasner, knows exactly what form each book in the series will take. And this, they say, is exactly the point—to enable writers to share their personal experience with a work of fiction in any form they want.

The idea for the project came about one afternoon when Gann and Lasner were discussing their love of 33⅓, a series of books about music, each volume of which explores a specific album. Launched in 2003 by Bloomsbury, the series now includes more than a hundred titles on records ranging from Blondie’s Parallel Lines to Koji Kondo’s music for Super Mario Bros. “You can find memoirs of how the music affected the author’s life,” says Gann, “or a deeper, rock-historian’s view of the album’s lasting value, an argument over where it should be situated in the pantheon of classics.”

“Kirby and I agreed it would be a fun idea to do something similar with classic novels,” says Lasner. “So I e-mailed him one day with the following question: ‘If you were to choose one novel that was fundamental to you as a writer, what would it be? Just tell me what pops into your head.’ Kirby wrote back, ‘A Separate Peace by John Knowles.’ ‘Perfect!’ I declared. ‘Give me thirty-five thousand words by…well, he didn’t meet the deadline, so let’s keep that to ourselves. That’s how Bookmarked got started.’” Like 33⅓, each installment of the Bookmarked series is short, under two hundred pages. Forthcoming volumes include Paula Bomer’s take on Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Aaron Burch on Stephen King’s The Body (the novella on which the movie Stand by Me is based), and Michael Seidlinger on Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The editors plan to publish at least four books in the series per year. Though most of the titles have so far been solicited, the series is open to queries from writers who have published at least one previous book.

“We’re attempting to broaden the conversation about loved books,” says Gann. “For an individual writer, the project might be seen as an opportunity to write in a way that’s unfamiliar and out of one’s comfort zone—the chance to try a different mode for a bit and share something you love.” As for readers, the editors hope that each title in the Bookmarked series will serve as a brief introduction or companion to an inspiring work of fiction—and at the same time offer a glimpse into the life and work of not just one but two writers. “Any project that celebrates great books, especially from an informed point of view of a fellow practitioner,” Gann says, “is of great importance.”

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. He is a senior editor at F(r)iction, founder and editor in chief of, and the founder of the Colorado Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of the poetry collection Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014). His website is


Jonathan Lethem (Credit: Amy Maloof)

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  • June 11, 2019