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You are the end-user, you are the decision-maker. You are the customer who, it is said, is always right. You always have a choice.

But do you?

You probably like the movies that you like because they remind you of other movies that you like; your taste has been shaped by your experience and by pressures exerted by friends and family. Big-budget American movies tend to follow certain conventions, they are grand and overt and we understand how they work even if they bear no relation to how things happen in real life. We have been trained to accept the dubious physics of rom-coms and high-speed chases of products that are designed to play across the world, as generic examples of human experience in which we might all vicariously participate.

Anyone who doesn't get with the program is in danger of being labeled "pretentious" (an all-purpose term of obliteration to be applied to anyone or anything we don't like) or a snob.

The war on quality extends beyond film and popular entertainment. More than a couple of times in the past year has this column had to bite its figurative tongue when it found itself in the vicinity of someone lavishly praising the latest prestige read. There have been more than a few books released lately that, despite their pedestrian execution, were extraordinarily well-reviewed as well as best-selling. I've read a couple of these and while I can understand some people might like them — there's no accounting for taste, but taste accounts for everything that is weird and misbegotten — they were by no means well-written, thoughtful, deeply interesting books.

It has always been this way; the New York Times Bestseller list has, at least since the 1980s, been a reliable indicator of mediocre, middlebrow taste. But it used to be that some (not all) major publishing houses upheld certain standards, particularly when it came to their fiction lists. Now it feels like the bigger the publicity budget, the dumber the novel.

Which is good for smaller presses and self-published authors. I almost feel like there's a stigma attached to being published by a major New York house now. While that's not entirely fair — I'm very much looking forward to reading Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel (Knopf, $26.95), which my wife, Karen, devoured in a couple of days and prominently placed on my nightstand — I find that most of the fiction I enjoy these days comes from smaller presses.

Recent evidence of this is Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night (Southeast Missouri State University, $18) by Jeffrey Condran, an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, whose novel, Prague Summer (Counterpoint), made a bit of a splash a few years back. (Condran is one of the co-founders of the independent literary press Braddock Avenue Books.)

These stories are marvelous, full of significant details set in finely tooled sentences, with characters that feel sketched from experience. The book's first story, "In Costume," is typical of the way Condran is able to smuggle something poignant into what initially appears to be a rather light tale of a Regency re-enactor (which is a cottage industry in the U.K.) having a close encounter with a Hollywood celebrity. As Ava, dressed as one of Jane Austen's Bennet sisters, flirts with aging leading man Edward Emmanuel, the story slides gracefully from comedy to tragedy without hitting the usual notes of misogyny and pathos.

Condran is a writer with a jeweler's patience and an uncommon gift for rhythm; his sentences have something of Fitzgeraldian timbre to them. These stories only feel slight; beneath their sparkling waters lie depth charges.

Exhibit No. 2, a slim novel by French naval architect Martin Dumont called Schrodinger's Dog (translated from the French by John Cullen, $14.99) comes from an outfit called Other Press ( that's got some sort of relationship with Penguin/Random House. It's about widowed French cab driver Yanis and his college student son Pierre, an aspiring novelist, with whom he shares a love of deep-sea diving.

Yanis, haunted by the death of his wife, Lucille, is devastated when he learns Pierre is suffering from pancreatic cancer. As Pierre begins to succumb, Yanis is torn between constructing a fantasy life to comfort him in his final days and digging into the truth about their family history.

While there's a brusque quality to the brief book that occasionally jars, even through the filter of the translator (who obviously deserves some share of the credit here), what emerges is an indelible portrait of a father-son relationship that raises poignant questions about what we owe to each other.


Style on 04/05/2020

Print Headline: Small press publishing good books


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