Q & A with Edwin Frank, Editorial Director at NYRB
The Eds at Shiny are all great fans of NYRB books. Can you tell us a little about the genesis of NYRB?
NYRB grew out of an earlier project called The Reader’s Catalog. The Reader’s Catalog was a bookstore in book form, meant to give people access to ‘the 40,000 best books in print’ that the editor Jason Epstein (one of the founders of the New York Review of Books) started in the late 80s, when independent bookstores were closing their doors and the superstore era hadn’t yet begun. There were lots of place in the US where the supply of books had been reduced to a tsunami of bestsellers, and the idea of the Reader’s Catalog was meant to make a much wider range of books widely available by mail order. I got involved as a freelancer on the second edition of the Catalog, and my job was to read through the sections to eliminate books that weren’t worth including or add titles that had been wrongly omitted. It turned out that a lot of good books that had been omitted were simply out of print, and out of that came a proposal to put the back in print which led, a few years later, to the Classics series.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
I get in around mid-day and like everybody answer email for way too long. Copy has to be written, manuscripts at various stations of the cross from submission through line and copy editing and proofing to packing up and off to the printer considered, reviewed, ok’d, corrected, cover art has to be found, agents and foreign publishers met, and so on. I go home in the evening and read. I wake up in the morning and read.
What do you think are the defining characteristics of an NYRB book?
I like to think they are good books that will make readers think again about what a good book can be.
How do you track down the books that will become NYRB classics?
All sorts of ways. Readers make suggestions, as do translators, writers, agents and academics (though the last surprisingly rarely). Reference books and books of criticism are also suggestive, and one can always prowl the libraries and used bookstores.
What do you think makes a really good introduction to a classic reprint? What do you think readers need to know to enhance their enjoyment of such books?
Readers may need some background, historical or biographical. Books come out of specific times and places, and it never hurts to know something about them. What they don’t need is the kind of ‘reading’ that is characteristic of academic papers. Readers need someone to point out the striking and unusual features of a book, be it a character or a predicament or a specific way with words. Look at that. Think about that. And of course a book’s flaws can also be among the things that make it worthy of attention. Very much so.
We are all big supporters of translated books, here at Shiny. What would you say to encourage people to read beyond their cultural comfort zone?
Well, it’s often the view of the world outside that makes everything familiar and inside look curious and new.
We also love the cover art at NYRB. What is your process for designing the covers and finding the appropriate art work?
My colleague Sara Kramer–without whom nothing of what I have described here would get done–and I sit down sometime after I’ve drawn up the list for the season to come and we trade ideas about what might be suitable image for this or that title, and hunt around on the internet or our substantial libary of artbooks, till we find something that fits–and fits in with the pretty procrustean cover format we work with.
What lies ahead for NYRB?
More happy surprises I can only hope.
Do you have any particular favourites among your forthcoming titles?
The publication of a complete translation of Uwe Johnson’s great novel Anniversaries and of Vladimir Shalamov’s complete Kolyma Tales will at last make two of the twentieth-century’s most amazing and imposing literary achievements available to readers of English.
And finally, what are you currently reading? What books are on your night stand right now?
Well, I’m teaching a class right now about the novel in the twentieth century, and that requires a lot of rereading. We just read The Island of Doctor Moreau and this week we’ll be doing Death in Venice. At the moment I’m also making my way through Conrad’s Victory–Conrad is one of my favorite writers– and Ted Hughes’s Selected Poems.