So why is it that musicians or filmmakers who make and sell their own art are hailed as free-thinking independent geniuses, while writers who write and publish their own works are treated like misanthropic losers? Whether you like Ani DiFranco's music or not, you want to like her when you hear how she started out selling records from the trunk of her car, and how she still does everything on her own terms. But if you see a writer selling his or her own books out on the sidewalk, you cross the street, thinking "why can't you get a real publisher?" Of course, if you do find and read an occasional self-published or small press book, you might think it's pretty good even if it didn't come from Random House. But more likely (since there's no marketing force behind it) you never heard about the book in the first place.
New York novelist James Chapman is one of these uncompromising artists-a writer who self-publishes brilliant books in a hostile environment. He's been carrying this stigma proudly, yet quietly, for more than a decade now, long after he gave up trying to please or second-guess agents and publishers. Free from the mediating forces of the publishing industry, he was able to concentrate on writing, rather than on selling himself at literary cocktail parties, or trying to connect with the right people, or branding himself as a marketable trend. Isn't this what writers should be doing, after all-writing?
In 1993 he published Our Plague: A Film from New York, followed by The Walls Collide as You Expand, Dwarf Maple. He received some glowing reviews from reviewers he'd never schmoozed, and his press (which he calls "an orphanage for the unpublishable") gathered steam. He picked up other peculiar, visionary writers like Prakash Kona, Noah Cicero, W.B. Keckler, Tim Miller, Eckhard Gerdes, I Rivers, and Randie Lipkin (Chapman's wife). He even commissioned the first-ever translation of a bizarre and little-known surrealist novella by the French author André Malraux (The Kingdom of Farfelu).
Just to make matters more quixotic, Fugue State Press only publishes novels-a hard sell to a generation weaned on the instant gratification of tv. Fugue State's books, which Chapman calls "advanced fiction," are ambitious works that stay the course and challenge the reader. Expansive and exploratory, these novels are filled with deeply emotional, language-alert, cliché-free writing that you hope will go on forever. As Chapman put it, his ideal novel is a "vast impractical experiment where you to try to create a whole meaningful universe."
Another oddity of his press is his hands-off approach to editing. While the books are strikingly designed and professionally copyedited, he refuses to homogenize his authors' styles or demand the kind of changes that might make a book a more predictable read. Sure, with such ambitious novels, and with less-than-usual mediation in the editorial process, anomalies of style or tone may crop up, but it's precisely these incongruities that fascinate Chapman: These are "the sign that there's a human being at the wheel, and he's an original, and you're going to have a real experience while you read, rather than just being taken for a nice smooth ride."
Many of the books are blackly funny and, considering the "experimental" stigma, surprisingly easy to read, like Noah Cicero's The Human War, a fiendish story of a Youngstown kid trying to drink his way past the entire Iraq war. Others, like the newest one, Pearls of an Unstrung Necklace by Prakash Kona, are vastly more delicate, pure poetry in prose, aimed less at storytelling than invoking a state of being. In still other works, such as Chapman's own Daughter! I Forbid Your Recurring Dream! the language can be frenzied and exalted, no quarter given to any typical narrative strategy, as if he's decided to reinvent the whole process of storytelling.
Even the covers are anti-commercial: You won't find blurbs cluttering the back cover (and won't even necessarily find the title on the front). Is James Chapman worried that book jackets like these are death for point-of-purchase sales? Unlikely. Does James Chapman care that you don't have time to read entire weird novels? Doubtful. He'll just keep honestly doing what he does best. Meantime, he's making the long-delayed case for indie film and indie music to finally be joined by indie fiction.