Introduction: Editing Fellow Travelers

Matthew Stadler


Some years ago I got into an online argument about the work of the editor. How does an editor find, support, and publish great writing? A kind critic, who then became an angry critic, wanted to attribute the success of a series of books that I edited to the strength of my "personal taste." But my experience was the opposite. I'd discovered that, to the degree that I could silence—or even work directly against—my personal taste, I came under the spell of great writing. When a piece of writing bothered me, seemed persistently "wrong," and made me unquiet with its existence, I knew I should pay closer attention. I tried to love it, and then I published it. On the other hand, when writing delighted or pleased me I would become suspicious. Granted, the compass here remained personal, but it's significant that it was useful only in this inverted way. A skilled editor should not publish what simply delights her. Great writing is something else, something to which our tastes or pleasure can blind us. Great writing is indefensible, while taste points us toward that which we're ready to defend or have cultivated reasons for. Great writing needs no reasons nor defenses—it simply demands to be loved.

A good editor is someone who loves what she reads. There's no question of taste, no expert intervention, and no technique for making the writer's work "better," per se. Editing is reading with love, kind of the opposite of taste-making, with all of its measured discernment. Editing involves reading every day, paying attention, and devotion—as with raising children. Don't listen to the experts. Editing has more in common with farming or the family doctor than it has with, say, agribusiness or Big Pharma. While these latter technologies pursue improvements in food and human health through expert interventions, the former pair lives with and loves food and people on a daily basis. Editors live with and love writing. Our interventions are contextual and various. We improve writing by paying attention to it every day and speaking back to it with respect. Love is not a highlight reel, nor some ascending sequence of pleasures and rewards, as it is sometimes depicted. Love is quarrelsome, tedious, often irksome, and full of surprises. I'll go further and say that love is a quality of regard different from affection or admiration; I mean love in the sense that Hannah Arendt attributed to St. Augustine: "I want you to be." In practice, it is the commitment to engage one's subjectivity with the words the writer chooses as completely as possible. To hold and not withhold. Reading should be steady, searching ("the long, sullen hours," as Patrick O'Brian said), and indifferent to pleasure. Again, think of children. They're often beastly. We observe the Hippocratic oath, "first do no harm." The work delights us because we are delighted by it.

It's that simple, like growing flowers. Who would ever think a cracked dry seed could bloom into a glorious flower? Not the impatient consumer of beauty, the ones dazzled by color and skeptical of small, dry things. But, if planted in the right soil and given love (and water) over sufficient time, the unpromising seed rewards us by emerging into the world as a beautiful bloom. The same is true of writing. The writer will give countless seeds to the editor and together they read and work and love and wait. Their love, like water, produces this transformation into beauty. Or maybe the seed is barren and it's thrown away, mulch for the ground that will feed other seeds.

Every writer is capable of producing both greatness and trash. An editor helps them by reading and loving whatever they write, and—through contextual and various interventions over time—helping the work to become great. Some work is improved by throwing it away. But most writing will become great if enough time and love are given, first by an attentive editor, and then by the readers whose task it is to make great writing great. Proprietary myths of authorship (the same ones that justify paying some writers and not paying others) may lead us to think that great writing is made by great writers while poor writing comes from the lousy ones, but this is not true. Every writer produces both. Making writing "great" is the work of loving readers, beginning with the editor. Just as beauty blooms in the eye of the beholder, writing read by loving eyes becomes great. If our time seems afflicted by an absence of great writing, the fault is with readers (editors first of all) unwilling or unable to give time and love. For great writing to thrive readers must be capable of love (in many ways the opposite of having good taste, or any taste at all).


The Fellow Travelers series

I founded the Fellow Travelers series with Patricia No and Antonia Pinter in 2012. They ran the Publication Studio in Portland, Oregon, which I had founded with Patricia three years earlier. For most of its short history, the Fellow Travelers imprint was run solely by Patricia and Antonia, and the impressive list of titles as well as any future we might hope to build on it are evidence of their intelligence and hard work. PS Portland was the first studio in what is now a group of eleven on four continents, a horizontally networked "global" publisher comprising this set of hyper-local, cottage artisans. Each studio makes sturdy, perfect-bound books by hand and sells them to interested readers, one-at-a-time. In this way 90% of their investment is labor, and most of the rest is cheap machinery and supplies. There are no "print runs," no warehousing, and minimal upfront costs. Poor people can do this. So far, the studios have published over three hundred original titles by writers and artists they admire. These include novels (by Luisa Valenzuela, Joon Oluchi Lee, Kevin Killian, Shelley Marlow, Siegfried Kracauer, Douglas Milliken, etc.), nonfiction (by Dodie Bellamy, Walter Benjamin, Claire L. Evans, Arthur Jafa, Travis Jeppesen, Ryann Bosetti, and others), poetry (by Dolores Dorantes, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Christine Shan Shan Hou, Sam Lohmann, Jessica Higgins, and others), and artist's books (by Dan Graham, Nancy Shaver, Ari Marcopoulus, Shawn Records, Victoria Haven, B. Wurtz, Chto Delat, David Horvitz, and many others), in several languages.

In 2012, after it became clear that the model of one-at-a-time production could work and support a variety of small, idiosyncratic studios, Patricia, Antonia, and I chose to create a dedicated imprint publishing great literature in a modest, generic format that could become recognizable in the myriad, motley places where Publication Studio did business. This is the Fellow Travelers series. 

Our goal was to finesse the market into projecting non-popular books into the popular imagination, so we looked to Maurice Girodias's brilliant Traveller's Companion books of the 1950s and '60s. Under the broader umbrella of his already-established Olympia Press, Girodias used the Traveller's Companion imprint as a way to publish work forbidden by censors in Anglophone countries. By printing in Paris, they could circulate the censored work to English-speaking travelers who would take the books back home with them. Plenty did. Great new work, including Lolita, The Naked Lunch, and Jean Genet's A Thief's Journal, swept out of France and deep into the reading publics of the UK, America, and elsewhere. In the same way, we hope that the books we publish—which fail to clear the profit-making metrics of conventional print-run publishers—will ultimately find their ways deep into the very markets that excluded them. By printing and selling one book at a time, we're able to publish any title that has at least one reader, and then grow its public from there.

While "Fellow Travelers" sounds a playful echo to the Traveller's Companion, its actual roots are more personal. In the U.S. in the 1950s a witch-hunt against suspected Communists, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, extended its terror immeasurably into the American left by attacking a new category of suspicion for those who—like my parents—pursued anti-war and civil rights activism (without necessarily any connection to the Communist Party or Marxist ideologies). Their activism made them "Fellow Travelers," we were told, and as guilty as the Communists. My parents' best instincts and principles, the things they did that mattered most in the world, made them Fellow Travelers. And so, I have always worn that badge proudly.

The Traveller's Companion series cover design (which is shared by the Fellow Travelers series) was itself an homage to the deeper history of pornographic publishing. Since at least the 19th century, purveyors of erotic literature have used the plain wrappers of "scientific research" to finesse their erotic contents past the eyes of censors. "The Journal of Orgies and Deviance," "The Adult: The Journal of Sex," and "The Atlantic Library series" all moved briskly across jurisdictional borders bearing only words on their covers, usually just the title and the author names (if the authors had names). The Traveller's Companion cover is an almost exact replica of the Atlantic Library series covers. In turn, and in homage, the Fellow Travelers series deploys this same traditional design.

The Traveller's Companion series, with its distinctive green covers, announced that state-based censorship could not stem the vitality of literature. The Fellow Travelers series, with its distinctively red covers, announces that even that most punishing force of our time— the so-called "free market"—cannot squelch the range and power of the literary imagination. Because we sell our books to one reader at a time, our economy, based on reading (not shopping, per se), can succeed so long as there's one reader who wants to read (with love, we hope).

In 2016 Patricia and Antonia closed the Portland studio and handed the management of the Fellow Travelers series over to the network of studios, and in 2018 the studios handed it back to me. There are seven titles in the Fellow Travelers series so far: Golden Brothers by STS; Spreadeagle by Kevin Killian; Prick Queasy by Ronald Palmer; The Wolves by Jason R Jimenez; All Fall by Travis Jeppesen; Two Augusts In a Row In a Row by Shelley Marlow; and From Sleepwalking to Sleepwalking by Bertie Marshall. Forthcoming titles include new books by Rebecca Brown, Roberto Tejada, Breka Blakeslee, and Bruno George. The work we're presenting in this issue of KGB Bar Lit includes the four future Fellow Travelers, and new writing from five prior Fellow Travelers authors (Kevin Killian, Jason R Jimenez, Ron Palmer, Shelley Marlow, and Bertie Marshall). 

The glib answer to "what do the Fellow Travelers books all have in common?" would be "they're all great writing." Which is true, in part. We have no seasons, no inventory to juggle, and no other time pressures. The books can develop in an editorial process like the one above, and be published when they're great. The only force moving them out into the world is the force of our work together. As for other commonalities, the Fellow Travelers seem to be in love, queer, fond of others, and bookish. Their stories transpire mostly in the 21st century, but not exclusively. The future concerns them, and it looks compelling strange, if too-heavily policed. Gender is fluid, cats abound, and there's magic (also food, pop music, children, and the ruins of the 20th century). Genre and form are as fluid as gender. I'll stop summarizing and leave it at that. You can read, and I hope love, this great writing yourself.


Matthew Stadler

Matthew Stadler is a novelist and editor. He previously edited the books section of Seattle's weekly newspaper, The Stranger, the Clear Cut Press series of books, Nest: A Magazine of Interiors, and several anthologies of new writing.

Matthew's Articles at KGB LitMag