It was a crisp, sunny spring afternoon in New York — worrisome weather for anyone hoping to gather a crowd in a dark and dingy bar basement. But as it turned out, a blue sky was no deterrent for the several dozen who collected on bar stools and ottomans in the candle-lit bowels of the Lower East Side dive Cake Shop last Saturday. They had come for the March installment of the Enclave Reading Series, guest-curated by Dale Peck and Joshua Furst, cofounders of the nascent indie publishing collective Mischief + Mayhem, a de facto imprint of the fastidiously curated print-on-demand/e-book publisher OR Books.
On tap were Lisa Dierbeck and DW Gibson — who, along with with The Awl’s Choire Sicha, round out Mischief + Mayhem’s founders’ circle — as well as Bingham Bryant, a former intern for the group.
“Mischief + Mayhem is starting a publishing revolution in New York right now,” said Enclave organizer Jason Napoli Brooks, bathing in the glow of white Christmas lights that dangled from the ceiling above the stage. “And from what we hear, it’s going well.”
Well enough, at least, to have successfully rolled out one title since its founding last September — Dierbeck’s The Autobiography of Jenny X, a novel about a suburban housewife whose privileged picket-fence existence begins to unravel when a “radical peace activist” she once knew is released from prison. In a minute deviation from the spirit of OR and Mischief + Mayhem’s unofficial motto, “No book printed until it’s sold,” there were three copies — $9 each; marked down $7 from the online price — available for purchase in the back of the room.
“Sales have been good, though of course we’d like to sell more,” Peck told Bookish this week. (He declined to specify how many copies of M+M’s inaugural title they’ve moved.) “We’re kind of ecstatic with the results so far. We’ve been getting a great response from just about everyone. People in the industry seem hungry — or maybe just desperate — for something new.” Which isn’t to say Mischief + Mayhem has HarperCollins on its knees just yet. Other than Peck’s own The Garden of Lost and Found, forthcoming this summer, there aren’t any more titles currently in the pipeline at the moment. “At this point we’re just doing books one at a time as learn the ins and outs of our publishing model,” Peck said. “Turns out running a publishing company is harder than we thought.”
Even if “revolution” is a tad strong, OR and Mischief+Mayhem — separate companies who collaborate on a book-to-book basis — are intent on taking mainstream publishing to task for its technical inefficiency and obsession with market demand over literature supply. Cutting out overhead expenditures will, in theory, afford writers generous royalties, as well as the possibility of maybe, just maybe, earning a decent wage off their writing, the founders hope.
Business model aside, M+M is also pushing an aesthetic agenda. “We recognize that there are readers who want to be challenged instead of placated,” the manifesto on the collective’s Web site reads. Its affinity is for work — fiction, for the time-being, but Peck says nonfiction isn’t off the table altogether —that’s “formally inventive, socially irresponsible, and sometimes just plain reckless.”
It’s an art-driven doctrine not at all unlike that of the gritty downtown DIY lit reading scene, which still flourishes in spite of the state of commercial fiction, fed by New York’s ubiquitous MFA programs and naturally regenerative stream of ambitious young writers.
The five-year-old Enclave, one of many regular series that overtake the city’s bars and clubs on off-hours, has garnered a reputation for pairing under-the-radar voices with established but off-the-beaten-path names. Helmed by Brooks, Jim Freed, and Scott Geiger, all New School MFA alums (disclosure: I am one as well, and I took a class there with Peck), it relocated to the Cake Shop basement in 2009 from Bleeker Street mainstay Kenny’s Castaways, where, according to Freed, the occasional drunk passersby wandered in off the street and heckled the readers.
Saturday’s crowd was nothing if not polite. Nor did anyone there seem to mind the conspicuous lack of Vitamin D. “I’m always happiest on a sunny day being in a dark cave like this,” a black-clad Dierbeck quipped as she took the stage. “I’m happy to see there are other people who are weird like me.” She proceeded to share a rather dark passage from Jenny X in which a teenage girl helps lures a pair of cops into sex play. “Nothing functioned there in that factory on the Gowanus Canal quite as it was supposed to,” she read. “Cops took prank phone calls from strangers and delivered themselves to the door like pizza boys, like call girls.”
Bryant, in a red plaid button-down, had kicked off the reading with his cryptic short story, “A Visitor,” which centers around its male protagonist’s suddenly incessant face twitch, “a slight quivering on the end of my chin that periodically turns into a throb.” Gibson, who directs the Ledig House writer’s colony in Hudson, New York, and a writers’ residency program in India, went second. He read the first chapter of his yet-to-be-published novel, An All-American Field Guide to the Outside World, affecting a Southern drawl to animate the story’s college-aged narrator, an aspiring “Christian metal god, and if that falls through, a preacher.” The assembled listeners chuckled throughout.
As the reading concluded, Freed brandished a black plastic bag. “The Enclave believes in trying to pay our writers, so if you have a dollar or two—or five—to spare, we’d love it if you could put it in this shady black bodega bag,” he proclaimed, fishing in his own pocket before passing it to an audience member.