Literary Twin Cities: so much to celebrate

Last night I had the honor of hosting “Literary Twin Cities,” an event marking the milestone anniversaries of three local non-profit presses (Milkweed Editions, Graywolf and Coffee House Press) as well as the Loft Literary Center.

It’s an occasion worth celebrating: those presses I mentioned make up three of the top five independent literary presses in the nation. Minneapolis and the Twin Cities as a whole have on multiple instances been cited as literary hubs in the country. Open Book, the home to both Milkweed and The Loft, was the first cultural institution to move into a previously downtrodden neighborhood, one that has since become a cultural corridor featuring the Guthrie Theater, MacPhail Center for Music and the Mill City Museum. As a center for the literary arts, it’s the first of its kind.

Milkweed, Graywolf, Coffee House and The Loft are all just a part of a multi-layered dynamic literary scene that includes (but is not limited to) several fiercely independent bookstores (Macawbers, Magers and Quinn, Birch Bark Books and Common Good Books), SASE, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, Rain Taxi Review and the Playwrights’ Center. Then there’s the number of writers and poets based here, as well as a strong network of public libraries.

Over the course of an hour we discussed not only what drew some publishers to move to the Twin Cities, but what it is about our local culture that has allowed the literary scene to thrive as well as it does. Is it the winters? The foundation support? Our level of education?

Coffee House Press founder Allan Kornblum said he was drawn to Minnesota by the “community spirit” (an early invitation to a Twin Cities book fair said “couches will be found for visiting publishers to sleep on” and proffered a celebratory dinner afterward).

Others agreed that community spirit, combined with strong education, philanthropic support and a cultural dedication to service all work together to create a dynamic literary scene.

But what about the future of publishing? All three literary presses are publishing e-books, which they say actually saves them money, and creates less “waste” (i.e. books that have no buyers). Their greatest concern is developping a generation of new young readers who enjoy not just pulp fiction, but literature.

Milkweed Editions is one of just two non-profit presses in the nation that publishes books for young readers, in part to provide an alternative to the mass-marketed fare that dominates bookstore shelves. CEO and Publisher Daniel Slager says that’s in part to help develop young readers appetites for good quality literature.

What drives these non-profit presses is a desire to bring more diverse literature to the fore. The larger for-profit presses are motivated by the bottom line, which means they publish only those authors who have mass appeal. Non-profit presses nurture new voices, and translate foreign works we might never otherwise get to read.

Graywolf’s Fiona McCrae said she’s excited by some of the changes on the horizon of the publishing world. Already she’s experienced how technology can help level the playing field between large and small presses. McCrae sees a new generation of young publishers getting in the business, and that’s inspiring her to stay on top of her game.

Jocelyn Hale sees The Loft Literary Center as a bridge between the community and its non-profit presses. She said the mission of The Loft is to to support the development of writers, to foster a writing community, and to build an audience for literature. All of that in turn creates both a pool of potential authors for these presses, as well as informed and appreciative readership.

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