Kevin Sampsell’s New Kind of Author Appreciation

sampsell.jpgKevin Sampsell’s commitment to indie literature runs deep. Not only does he run the small press section at Powell’s, he’s the founder and publisher of Future Tense Books. And, as you’ll learn in this essay he wrote for Beatrice, he’s willing to give out props to his heroes when he’s given the opportunity.

You know how you see kids with their backpacks or jackets all cluttered with buttons? They’re usually for their favorite bands or for some personal affirmation or political statement. Anything under the sun really—Johnny Depp, Bettie Page, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, SpongeBob SquarePants, Jesus. So why not our favorite authors? A writer’s mug pinned to a denim jacket can be just as much a signifier of a wearer’s personality as an anarchy pin. If I saw someone with a David Sedaris pin I could guess that person had a good sense of humor, or if I saw Annie Lamott’s face on someone’s lapel I could probably guess that person is thoughtful and maybe a little spiritual.

Matthew Simmons and Shya Scanlon, editors at MonkeyBicycle, a very entertaining web site and literary journal, decided it was about time to usher in this new era of pinnable fashion. Matthew sent me an email to see if I’d like to act as the first curator. Since he knows that—like him—I work at a bookstore and read constantly, he figured I’d have a few authors to champion. He told me I could pick three authors and write short essays about each one. They would be printed as bookmarks, with a short excerpt of the author’s writing on one side. Artist Ellen Forney (author of I Was Seven in ’75) was lined up to draw portraits of the chosen authors. The buttons would be the style, the bookmarks the substance: a complete package!

Here’s a list of people I could have picked for my trio: Harry Crews, A.M. Homes, Ben Marcus, Larry Brown, Michelle Tea, Dave Eggers, Mark Leyner, and Terry Southern. They’ve all affected me a great deal, perhaps twisting and shaping me into the type of writer I’ve become. But the three that stood out for me, the three that captured some elusive greatness, some pinnacle of individual style that should become a benchmark for generations to come are Gary Lutz, Sam Lipsyte, and Diane Williams.

All three writers do something that I always admire: They present themselves and/or their characters doing or thinking things that make most people uncomfortable. Lutz’s characters awkwardly approach people in public restrooms. Lipsyte’s most recent protagonist masturbates while thinking of ex-classmates wearing leg warmers, and Williams’ party-hosting ladies are always talking shit about their guests and fantasizing about taken men. There are other similarities about the three: They each write with a magnifying glass on their wildly original sentences—thus being tagged as writer’s writers—and they all remain fairly obscure.

SamLipsyte.jpgOkay, okay. I realize Lipsyte did get lots of much-deserved attention for Home Land this year. Some people have recognized that he may be the best younger writer out there and one jaded lit snob that I work with even admitted to me that Home Land is amazing. “Every sentence is like a sentence you can’t imagine anyone else writing,” he told me.

GaryLutz.jpgBut let’s consider Lutz and Williams, both of whom started prestigiously with Knopf in the ’90s and are now clawing for readers in various small press ghettos. Stories in the Worst Way was Lutz’s debut—a book that I almost didn’t want to tell anyone about. I wanted it to be just mine to read over and over and get ideas from. For a while it was easy to do; the hardcover was hardly anywhere, as if 200 copies sold and the rest were incinerated. But when the paperback came out (five years later!), I couldn’t keep quiet. It was probably my most recommended book to those customers I felt would appreciate it. I even went public and wrote a review of it for the web site where I work. I guess I wasn’t alone after all. Several writers I talked to in the subsequent year expressed the same kind of love for “The Lutz.”

DianeWilliams.jpgDiane Williams has been more prolific than Lutz and Lipsyte. Her work though is often the opposite of L&L. It’s the kind of minimalism that jars readers with what is implied just as much as what is tangible and seething on its surface, as opposed to L&L’s colorful, compressed and acrobatic sentences. Her writing has spurred me to write as much as anything else in this world. Every time I read her work it makes me remember odd details from my own experiences, even if I’m not always sure what she’s trying to convey. I tell aspiring writers that her books are great prompts even if you don’t quite understand it. On top of her own work, she also edits and publishes what is one of the best journals going today, Noon.

Hopefully, more buttons and bookmarks are coming from the MonkeyBicycle folks. “We’d like to do another set,” Simmons told me through email recently. “We’re still trying to decide who to approach. I think authors will be easy enough to find. It’s the illustrators I’m less sure about. I don’t know many of them.”

2 November 2005 | guest authors |