by Ellie Haberl
“I was teaching creative nonfiction but struggling to find the kind of work I wanted to teach. I’d wanted to teach more innovative pieces, pieces that challenged students in terms of form or politics or were just a bit less mainstream than the essays that tend to get featured in anthologies. And realizing they were in literary journals, some already defunct, and that there really wasn’t a place in the publishing world where my students and I could access this work. I thought, Well, I could start a press that gave essayists and creative nonfiction writers a home in the way poets had.”
~Excerpt from Andy Fitch’s Interview with Catherine Taylor, Founder of Essay Press
The Expansive Home: Paradoxes at the Heart of Essay Press
That Catherine Taylor’s description of the nascent origins of Essay Press draws on the metaphor of home, evoking a sense of rootedness, grounding, and even consistency may seem surprising for those familiar with the current output of the press. Recent publications seek to challenge the traditional norms of the essay genre, allowing for reinvention and disruption. Taylor refers to this as an “opening up” of the genre and admits to the Press’s devotion to publishing essays with a sense of intertextuality, even a “fragmentary nature.” This paradox seems to live inside the very heart of Essay Press, a persistent oscillation between pushing the boundaries of creative non-fiction, while also seeking to attend to the traditional ethical dimensions of more journalistic non-fiction writing, the exploration of political themes. Taylor often draws on metaphors that evoke wide-open space when she discusses the works the press seeks to publish – this “opening up” and a desire for pieces that reflect “most expansive notion of the essay.” This results in movement away from traditional lyric memoir. Yet, the paradox emerges even within this articulated vision of the expansive essay, as the Press publishes primarily shorter works, works that “emphasize a circling around a question that had temporal closure to it as well.”
While the Press seeks a shorter form to publish works that “can be read in one sitting,” she also speaks to a fondness for ethnographic research and works that require lengthy investigative research. Here, Taylor speaks of another paradox inherent the goals of the Press – that there is the attention to political histories and histories of nations in conflict alongside the shorter form privileged by the press. Perhaps it is not surprising that the press aims to include these types of investigative writing pieces. Taylor, herself, has published her own ethnographic research called Giving Birth: A Journey Into the World of Mothers and Midwives. Taylor’s desire for experimental nonfiction for her own courses may have motivated the founding of the press, and her own ethnographic research may inform the work the press seeks to publish in the future. However, Taylor argues that the role of the other members of the editorial team is central, and she cites Eula and Stephen as equally involved in the selection process. Although their process for choosing and editing submissions has evolved since the early years of the press, Taylor explains that the element of collaboration and consensus has remained, such that the notion of “your book” or “my book” is still an artificial distinction.
Another paradox at the heart of Essay Press is the contrast between the desire to reinvent the essay genre and also to continue to pursue traditional, journalistic investigative writing. Taylor speaks about this paradox when she explains, “Where we verge closest to journalism; we struggle with that. Once we’ve put ourselves out there as a place for innovation, we run up against the question of: Well, if you’re challenging notions of positivism or objectivity, how do you respond to moments of cultural or political representation where trying to get close to fact or truth becomes really significant?” In addition to recognizing the contrast here between a push back against positivism and a desire to provide ethnographic, accurate political stories, Taylor also recognizes the contrastive nature of her desire to push the boundaries in terms of the modes of representation and the journal’s commitment to remain in print. Taylor calls for reinvention, even considering the potential for hypertextuality. In fact, Taylor explains that she wrote her PhD dissertation on hypertextuality focusing primarily on “electronic authorship, exploring changing cultural understandings of the author, especially as the author encountered different publication technologies.”
Although Taylor’s need for inventive non-fiction for her courses was central in the origin of Essay Press, the Press itself was actually founded by Catherine and two colleagues – Eula and Stephen, and it is the community approach to editorship that continues to pervade the press. When Catherine is asked to speak about the process, to explain whether some works are identified with one editor over another, she explains that this process has shifted somewhat over the years that the process is quite collaborative now. “For the first few texts we made all decisions jointly. Then we’d hash out editing the manuscripts jointly, and it was very time consuming. Later we moved to taking turns each year, each editor having a book of his or her own. But we all had to sign off on it. We had to form some kind of consensus, but then one person took the lead. In part that was due to living in different places. When we started the Press, we’d all lived in Iowa. Within a year or two, Stephen was in Iowa while I was in Ohio and Eula was in Chicago, and communications became more difficult. But the truth is that even though we’ve been saying This is my book or This is your book, we still do collaborate a lot.” As the press moves forward, a recent merger between Essay Press and The Conversant has resulted in shifts in the process of publication as well as the content with greater inclusion of other genre as well as non-fiction essay.