“A publisher of literature moves samizdat out in the open”: An “Interview” with Josh Rothes — Tobias Ryan

At a recent event to launch [title] by [name of author], Josh Rothes, writer, artist and publisher of Sublunary Editions, stated that when asked what the books he has published have in common, his usual answer is that he considers them each to be, to some degree, generative texts.

In that spirit, rather than organise a formal interview, I sent Josh a list of quotes asking only that he respond to them in any way he pleased. The quotes were taken from a variety of sources, including acknowledged influences, others which seemed apropos, some from Sublunary Editions’ backlist and a few Josh suggested himself. Once I had received Josh’s reply, where necessary, I followed up by email.

“… In the realm of the imagination there is no value without polyvalence. The ideal image must seduce us through all our senses and draw us beyond the sense which is most certainly committed. Such is the secret of correspondences which invite us to the multiple life, to the metaphorical life.”

Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (tr. Colette Gaudin)

I am of the school of writers (which is not so much a coherent school as an attitude) who believe staunchly that the duty of the writer is to awaken the senses, to give novel phrasing to the old problems without providing solutions, to destroy cliché with sharper idioms, more devastating metaphors, to represent, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, possible states of affairs, or, as the Spanish writer Benjamín Jarnés put in, “The novel is the expression of a life which cannot be completely lived.” Forgive me, in advance, for answering so many quotes with quotes.


Dear Alan,

             Thanks for your two letters, second today. I hasten to reply. First your specific points:

1.     Spool instead of reel if you wish.

2.     Post Mortems by all means.

3.     Instead of weir suggest sluice or lock.

4.     Should prefer you to keep stem.

5.     If dell is clearer than dingle by all means. Same thing.

Now the rest.”

— Samuel Beckett, Letter to Alan Schneider

My first thought is that this seems like an ideal conversation with an editor: low key, give-take, not too precious. 

I don’t consider myself an interventionist editor, that is, an editor who believes their job is to mould and shape the work into a viable product (a job that tends to leave aesthetic fingerprints). I’m happy to be as much of a collaborative partner as a given text or author requires. And likewise, I’m happy to be a peripheral, wraithlike presence whose main occupation is adding commas, thats, and the like, increasingly out of favour since the Carver administration, back to texts.

“What I look for in objects and people is their very own sound. I am interested in what they have which is irreducible. The irreducible! It is my only way of sensing eternity.”

— Mihail Sebastian, Fragments from a Found Notebook (tr. Christina Tudor-Sideri)

This is beautifully put by Sebastian. We are unavoidably shaped by external forces; we are the sum total of our history of sensory input, but we cannot be so neatly distilled into the atoms our experience. 

Tobias, my off-screen interlocutor[1], would like me to consider, at this point, whether or not I have an eye to posterity when selecting manuscripts for publication, and I don’t think that I do. I have never been a mission-oriented publisher; I work on what interests me, and I work with writers I admire. I work on books that I think should exist, and should exist for as long as I’m able to keep them in print. Beyond that … I might liken it to a beach ball thrown into the crowd at a concert; I’ll keep it in the air as long as I can, but it’ll eventually fall to someone else.

“Even if it demands that the reader enter a zone in which he has no air and the ground is hidden from him, even if, beyond these stormy approaches, reading seems to be a kind of participation in the open violence that is the work, in itself reading is a tranquil and silent presence, the pacified centre of excess, the silent Yes that lies at the heart of every storm.”

— Maurice Blanchot, ‘Reading’ – The Gaze of Orpheus & Other Literary Essays (tr. Lydia Davis)

I enjoy Blanchot, as a general rule, but I grow tired when I read this. Tired, already, I think of a general strain of thinking that equates the act of writing with an act of violence, against either the writer or the reader, which is, to quote Emanuel Carnevali excoriating Ezra Pound, “…all the pathetic attitudes of self-glorification and self-abnegation with which incomplete artists daily pester the world”. These days, this attitude seems to be common among writers of sourly ironic pastiches of Central European fiction. Blanchot, to his credit, tends not to treat it as a mantra.

Whatever I make of contemporary literature is beside the point, of course. Literature has as many definitions as people who write and read it.

“Five hundred years after its beginnings, the task of publishing has not yet managed to achieve a solid reputation. Part merchant, part circus impresario, the publisher has always been considered with a certain mistrust, like a clever huckster.”

— Roberto Calasso, The Art of the Publisher (tr. Richard Dixon)

I think of my role almost like that of a rare book dealer; there is always the task of garnering broad appeal wherever possible, but the game is not in building a catalogue of works that can sell to anyone, anywhere, but works for which I can be a uniquely effective middle-man, connecting the works with the more narrow audience for whom it will prove irresistible. It’s hard not to make it sound like an illicit trade, of sorts. A publisher of literature moves samizdat out in the open.

“I had decided to forgo the rest: our epoch is on longer that of heavy trade where the bulk of one’s time consists in shifting long-sealed parcels, quarters of beef, kilometres of fabric or sticky casks of wine, poisonous too, the wine infusing the wood and the wood the wine, and the drunkard sating himself on these foul compounds – no, the stationary shop, my stationary shop, was to become the avant-garde of commerce, by being lighter and more diaphanous, by applying to the mercantile domain the lessons of abstraction learned from mathematicians – why not from poets? they too in their way achieve certain transparencies.”

— Pierre Senges, Studies of Silhouettes (tr. Jacob Siefring)

I have to take issue with Pierre here. As someone who regularly deals with international shipping and an increasingly opaque VAT system, the epoch of spending the bulk of one’s time shifting long-sealed parcels is, most decidedly, still upon us.

A book is a commodity, a physical object with a wrapper, contents, weight, tax rates, some diminishing return value. It can be damaged in shipping. It requires, for some arcane reasons decided, I assume, at the Second Council of Nicaea, a number called an ISBN, which must be purchased at great expense from a company with the overhead of a lemonade stand. 

The book is a commodity. The page, however, remains sacrosanct.

“When they have discovered truth in nature they fling it into a book, where it is in even worse hands.”

Lichtenberg, The Waste Books – Notebook E (tr. R.J. Hollingdale)


“I saw that fragmentary, paratactic writing did not just reveal existing associations between seemingly disparate things; it also, by explicitly linking and illuminating different areas of my mental geography, created new associations.”

S. D. Chrostowska, Matches: A Light Book

It’s perhaps trite to reduce writing to its presentation on the page, but the real oomph of a work, to me, occurs in the synapses. Our minds bridge gaps naturally, and allowing them to do so, rather than packing the text too full of connecting clauses, exposition, and other bits of filamental artifice, is what enmeshes the work in us, rather than having it glide along the surface.

“I like literature with a certain schizophrenic perspective, once again the unfamiliar perspective, that possibility of seeing the world with an estranged gaze, because what we have made of the world isn’t natural.”

— João Gilberto Noll, Interview with (and translated by) David Treece

Writers who seek to reproduce rather than interrogate the world–to see it as a monstrous-but-contingent creation of our collective wills–remind me of those fluff pieces in local newspapers–the one that uncritically covers the new smoothie shop in town that promises a boost of three IQ points or interviews a practitioner of cranio-sacral therapy–under the masthead touting the dogged pursuit of truth: harmless, on a good day, but ultimately undermining the whole enterprise.

“Let me tell you, if I were to wait around all day for a golden light to appear in the distance, or an irrepressible joy to ripple through my being, or my feet to experience the sensation of ice skates attached to an angel, I would be warming my seat at a civil service job, or vending falafel and mahshi on the street to teenage punks. These ideas of inspiration are pretty phrases concocted by people who don’t actually work, and whose artistry stops there.”

— Jessica Sequeira, A Luminous History of the Palm

It reminds me of a much richer version of the old Henry Miller line, “When you can’t create you can work.” And by work, I mean, of course, play. Writing is not as serious as work, wherein we subject ourselves to arbitrary toil in able to live, it is as serious as play, in which we earnestly pursue the shaping of our realities. Watch a child at “work”; block in hand, a slight squat in the stance, gently biting their tongue, which is peeking out of the corner of their mouths, symbolic of the need to stifle speech. Jarnés, again, that “It will be necessary for us to fall in love with the world again, merrily, like children. We should be intimate with it. Be disrespectful. Pull its mane as we would a tame lion’s.” Winnicott was onto something.

“I was really happy because my writing was spouting, almost without any resistance, and from my memory previously unknown images appeared, and they begot others, and all in all my view is freer, yes, freer, and it had already settled down within me although I had only written a little of what I had in mind (at the end of the pulses and parks, etc.), ach, words in their speed, I mean, I had an idea of the whole without knowing exactly where it would lead, in other words, I did not know what exactly I wanted to write BUT JUST TO WRITE!, isn’t that so, that was the main thing.”

— Friederike Mayröcker, And I Shook Myself a Beloved (tr. Alexander Booth)

Oddly, I have never really set out to write anything of length knowing how it would end or what would happen beyond the first few pages. I have, conversely, seldom begun without a title. No, now that I think of it, it isn’t odd at all.

Tobias has informed me that this a leading question (quotation?) about my own use of artificial intelligence in writing[3], notably the novel We Later Cities, which I wrote over five delirious days, being prodded along by a program I wrote to begin filling in my sentences with predictive text (from a model trained on folktales, mid-century architectural theory, and my own writing). But I must admit that I haven’t returned to the technology since I finished the book. I’m neither a techno-optimist or techno-pessimist. I am, as ever, a pragmatist, an inveterate bricoleur, and having found no personal use for generative text, recurrent neural networks, and the like, I’ve largely discarded them. But the possibilities are there; others are doing very interesting things, the best example in our canon being Douglas Luman’s Rationalism, which fed the author prompt words from a corpus of Italian architectural magazines with a fascist bent according to the golden ratio, which were passed through machine translation along the way. It’s a marvellous way of both highlighting underlying patterns in text and breaking us out of them.

“They sigh and reply the same as they always have: that only poetry will save the world, that amid all the confusion we must seek out true words, and hold on tightly to them. They say it without faith, routinely, but they are entirely right.”

— Alejandro Zambra, ‘Against Poets’ – Not to Read (tr. Megan McDowell)

They are entirely right, but they will never be able to predict in what way they are right, which makes it a variation of Gettier’s problem, the famous philosophical problem that resists easy summary, but ultimately asks, can we really be said to know something based on a faulty premise? The mechanism of poetry as an agent of change will remain mysterious. A million butterflies flapping their wings, etc.

“My rituals do not follow any certain patterns, nor are they the same each time I perform them; and perhaps if someone were to analyse them, they would not be rituals at all. I have always rejected all forms of repetition – for repetition means erasure.”

— Christina Tudor-Sideri, Under the Sign of the Labyrinth

To call back to Sebastian, earlier, that irreducible quality in a person might be thought of as the residue of ritual, the variance or delta of our habits.

“The birds made a home in the corpses in the trees, the field mice in the corpses in the bushes, the fish within the corpses in the lake and so on.”

— Vik Shirley, Corpses

Vik’s work plays with death in such a serenely reassuring way, and not just in a black-humor-can-be-therapeutic sort of way. We should play more with death, dress it up in funny clothes. Some species of octopus have learned to use coconut shells as moveable homes and/or camouflage. To think of my skull in the place of the coconut is unironically peaceful. The work continues.

We’ll publish a dozen books this year under the main Sublunary banner—in addition to already released titles by Julio Cortázar and Pierre Senges, we have books by Romanian avant-gardists Max Blecher and Ilarie Voronca, the final delirious tales of Horacio Quiroga, a thoroughly beguiling novella from Can Xue, a gritty tale by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Christina Tudor-Sideri’s first novel, A. V. Marraccini’s debut book, and the English-language debut of master French noirist Yves Ravey. In addition, we will produce another fifteen to twenty titles from our Empyrean Series imprint, which focuses on difficult-to-find and out-of-print texts. We’ll be a part of producing three Collected Works in 2022 alone, three thoroughly original voices in American literature in the twentieth century—two of which, Kathleen Tankersley Young and Emanuel Carnevali, we’ve announced, and a third that we’ll be making public shortly. All in all, we’ll cover a few hundred years of literary history and no small number of languages. This is what I mean when I call us publishers of “contemporaneous literature”.

 “Why has Reader always automatically assumed that the skull beside his desk is a man’s?”

— David Markson, Reader’s Block

Because the octopus has no skeleton, of course.

Josh Rothes is a writer, editor and graphic designer. He is the author of An Unspecific Dog, The Ethnographer, William Atlas, The Art of the Great Dictators and We Later Cities. He is the publisher of Sublunary Editions, as well as the quarterly magazine Firmament, edited by Jess Sequeira. Alongside Jacob Siefring, he is also responsible for the Empyrean Series, which reissues out of print and hard to find works from the annals of literary history. Twitter: @joshuarothes ; Sublunary Editions: @sublunaryeds ; Empyrean Series: @empyreanseries

[1] Outside of text, he is known to acquaintances and friends as “Toby”.

[2] Josh did not take this bait.

[3] “Toby” might, coyly, take issue with this.