Editor’s Corner #12: Lisa Pearson for Siglio
In our 12th installment of Editor’s Corner — a VIDAWeb feature in which editors and publishers explore complex issues regarding sex, gender, race and sexuality as they relate to their projects — Lisa Pearson discusses interdisciplinary works, hybridity and marginalization by the mainstream. She points to the importance of criticism in audience building in the independent publishing landscape, and she considers the risk of losing a male readership with projects that actively seek diverse voices. To learn more about Lisa Pearson and Siglio Press, read an interview with her here. Also, check out David L. Ulin on Siglio Press in The Los Angeles Times.
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On her project, role and publishing philosophy:
Siglio is an independent press publishing uncommon books that live at the intersection of art and literature. In other words, I publish hybrid, interdisciplinary works that are expansive and uncontainable, authored by artists and writers who are beholden only to their own obsessions, imagination, and self-imposed rigor. Their works upset the categories by which books are sold and shelved, and they challenge readers to engage in diverse and sometimes unfamiliar modes of reading. My job as a publisher is to create a space for these works to be brought into the world without compromise and then cultivate audiences for them since the regular mechanics of marketing and commodification don’t easily apply.
The Siglio list is meant to be rigorously eclectic, to create unexpected connections, to embrace contradiction, heterodoxy, and ambiguity. But Siglio doesn’t stake out specific editorial territory with regards to subject matter, aesthetics, or identity—only the common denominator of literary-visual hybridity. But I do also ask: Is it inimitable? Is it visionary? Is it a book that a reader can and will want to return to again and again, yielding something new with each rereading? Would it confound corporate publishing? Is it a book for which its conceptual and physical shapes are inextricable? Is it a work that I will be proud of publishing twenty years later, risking that it might not be understood by many now? Given these predilections, it’s no surprise that the works Siglio publishes are authored by artists and writers who are ignored or marginalized by the mainstream or, if they’re more renowned, who seem unable to escape the categories to which they’ve been assigned. That includes a lot of women.There’s more on Siglio’s philosophy in the essay “On the Small & Contrary.”
On the current publishing climate:
The climate is strange, baffling, exciting: absurdities, frustrations, and triumphs abound. Given the number of presses and outlets for self-publishing, there are actually few limitations on anybody getting their work into print, online, or in a digital format (and that’s a different discussion altogether). Even if you take the vast self-publishing opportunities like CreateSpace and Lulu out of the equation, there is still an astonishing number of independent presses with an extraordinary variety of editorial viewpoints. The question is who’s paying attention? Who’s engaging with the book, talking about the book—and by implication perhaps buying the book too, and that’s what The Count is about—cultural stock. Siglio books depend heavily on reviews because there is virtually no advertising budget, nothing for author tours, for publicity stunts, book trailers, etc. But I find that just like the independent publishing landscape, there is a lot more diversity so far as reviews go—they might not have as much prestige, as much direct, quantifiable impact on book sales, but they might have a lot more to add to the substance of the conversation, to reaching the very specific audiences who will be most likely fervently enthusiastic for a particular book (that itself is out of the mainstream). I’m thinking of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, The Rumpus, The Believer, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, etc. Would I be surprised to find some gender disparity in one form or another there, too? Probably not, but I’d wager the numbers would look a lot better (just as with Tin House, one of the younger periodicals, on The Count).
As far as Siglio’s own responsibility to rectifying the underrepresentation of women goes (and I think at this point it goes without saying that this is a persistent issue), I take that very seriously. Half of the current Siglio titles are authored by women including It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists and Writers, which weighs in at almost 300 pages with twenty-six projects (by thirty-three women). There was a lot of internal debate (and with friends who argued with me to help me clarify my views) about whether this should be a book of work only by women and if “women” should be the organizing principle. Why not have almost all women and a token man or two? Why not include female fictional alter egos of male writers and artists—as if all the work is “by women”? Why not eschew a title that seemed to segregate women and just present it as de facto by women (like many books that do not have a declared male-centric position, but are nonetheless clearly biased)? These ideas really appealed to the contrarian in me, but ultimately, I felt that it was important to make a firm declaration (while risking the loss of a male readership) as well as real space for works by women. (There’s more about this in my afterword to It Is Almost That which delves into the editorial process.) On the other hand, while I could’ve included a lot more women, there was a primary emphasis on “space” so that these works would not be simply evidence or a sample of larger bodies of works; instead, I wanted to include works in their entirety or in substantial excerpts so that the reader could truly read them, so that there could be real and sustained engagement, so that the complexity of these works had room to breathe.
Finally, I think there’s a deeper and very complex cultural issue here with regards to underrepresentation: Why don’t men read books by women? If they did, then the disparity would disappear. Even within the very committed readership of people who buy their books directly from Siglio (readers who are excited to make leaps, to plunge into the unknown), there’s a shocking set of numbers. When I looked at the numbers of men and women who bought books directly from Siglio, it’s just about 50/50 for books authored by men, but for books authored by women, only 24-35% were sold to male readers (and I suspect some of those books were bought for women). How many men are reading VIDA’s reports and know about The Count? How many men are a part of conversation that we care about tremendously? This seems absolutely essential.
On VIDA’s Count:
In 2007, when Siglio was still more of an idea than a reality, I saw a presentation at the Feminaissance conference at the Museum for Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young gave a presentation that broke down the gender gap in literary awards and certain kinds of publications—a very similar enterprise to VIDA’s count. (I remember being particularly surprised by how women had won many more awards while a ridiculously high percentage of total award money was granted to men.) Of course, we (women writers and publishers) recognize the inequality from our own personal experiences and observations, but when it’s quantified, we have to ponder not only the reasons such inequality persists—willful ignorance? embedded or outright prejudices? laziness? good intentions without meaningful action? intractability of institutions? etc.)—but also what can be done about it. Until that moment I hadn’t really considered my very specific responsibility as a woman publisher to women artists and writers. I had assumed that the ways in which feminist thinking informed Siglio’s mission as a whole would be enough. It’s not—and The Count is a tonic to complacency, dispelling the notion that we will make progress without unambiguous action. It is a critical, multi-use tool: a disquisition with concrete impact. It’s about awareness and outrage, leverage and accountability, as well as about inspiration and activism.
On A+ Lit People:
I would define positive work in publishing as championing writers (and artists) whose work might otherwise not get the audience it deserves for whatever reason, the author’s gender not the least of them, and I am heartened by belonging to a community of extremely committed independent publishers. I have great admiration particularly for the people behind Futurepoem, Coach House, Fence, 1913, Ugly Duckling Presse, Litmus Press, and Burning Deck. And then there are those who are committed to focusing on only (or mostly) women authors whose work is innovative, challenging, exciting: Kelsey Street Press, Belladonna, and Dorothy, a publishing project, are at the very top of my list.
Lisa Pearson is the founder and publisher of Siglio, an independent publishing house in Los Angeles dedicated to producing uncommon books that live at the intersection of art and literature. The editorial vision for the press is unique in its emphasis on visionary, hybrid works that resist categorization and straddle the literary and visual arts. In just four short years, Siglio titles have garnered high praise from the New York Times, the London Review of Books, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, NPR, Bookforum, Publishers Weekly, The Believer, BOMB magazine, among dozens of other media.