The 10 Best Contemporary Writers Published by Small Presses

sunny reading © Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr
sunny reading © Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr
Photo of JW McCormack
29 December 2017

Small presses are essential to publishing, carrying authors in translation, poets, and other writers too radical — or too good — for the limits of mainstream publishing. That said, small presses increasingly are a big part of the publishing mainstream, having launched huge crazes (Europa Editions’ Elena Ferrante), important debut authors (Coffee House Press’ Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner) and finalists for the National Book Award (Graywolf Press’ Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado). Independent publishing, by and large, is contemporary publishing, the lifeblood of the reading world, and the place to find writers who respond directly to their environment and era. Below, 10 of the best contemporary writers published by small presses.

Andrew Durbin (Nightboat)

Andrew Durbin is the author of the widely-taught poetry collection Mature Themes and the debut novel MacArthur Park, both published by Nightboat Books. Beginning during Hurricane Sandy, the novel follows a writer’s musings during his travels in upstate New York, L.A., and London. It comes to a series of extraordinary conclusions regarding sex, art, and the role of outsiders in shaping the communities around them.

Courtesy Nightboat

Paula Bomer (Soho Press)

Paula Bomer is the uncompromising author of the novel Nine Months. It follows a pregnant Brooklyn mother on her pot-smoking, sexually adventurous journey across America, and the short story collection Inside Madeleine, both from Soho Press. Her stories explore the complex relationships between women and their bodies, following the childhoods of kinky adults, boarding school students, and the denizens of halfway houses, all with a weird warmth and intimate strangeness.

Courtesy Soho Press

Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press)

Critics have run out of commendations for Carmen Maria Machado, whose debut collection from Graywolf, Her Body and Other Parties, has struck a nerve with its stories of women in and out of reality. A finalist for the National Book Award, these pieces feature deadly plagues and mysterious strangers. It reimagines Law & Order as a supernatural odyssey, and renders a variation on the classic spooky story of the girl with the green ribbon around her neck, but is always concerned with sexual politics and compromise.

Courtesy Graywolf press

Ross Simonini (Melville House)

An editor for lit mag The Believer, Ross Simonini’s The Book of Formation, from Melville House, is written as a series of interviews that trace the rise of a cult-like self-help craze called “the personality movement.” We are introduced to celebrity member Mayah and the unruly child Masha Isle, whom she adopts and subjects to the movement’s transformative (and highly suspect) potential.

Courtesy Melville House

Renee Gladman (dorothy, a publishing project)

The flagship author of small press publisher dorothy, Gladman is most recognized for her Ravicka series. In these four books she explores the fictional and mysterious city of Ravicka, its foundational literature, odd customs, and shifting architecture. Houses of Ravicka, the most recent entry, follows Ravicka’s comptroller as he tries to account for a vanished house, and ends with the narrative of a homeowner whose experiences have a surprising relevance to the contemporary world of 2017.

Courtesy dorothy, a publishing project

Kata Zambreno (Semiotext(e))

The virtuosic Kate Zambreno is equally at home in fiction (Green Girl, O Fallen Angel) and nonfiction. She has authored the excellent Heroines, which explores the women left out of the literary canon, and the recent Book of Mutter, from Semiotext(e). The latter is equal parts memoir of Zambreno’s childhood and record of artists, like Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois, who explore the status of outsiders and whose work constructs small reservoirs against loneliness.

Courtesy Semiotext(e)

Cesar Aira (New Directions)

The astonishingly prolific Argentine author Cesar Aira publishes at a rate of two-to-four books a year, each one a wonder of dreamlike, passionate storytelling. There’s the gaucho westerns like The Hare, bizarre coming-of-age stories like How I Became a Nun, and novels set in Aira’s hometown of Coronel Pringles, like The Seamstress and the Wind. Anything can happen in books like Dinner, where a bachelor’s private thoughts are interrupted by a zombie uprising, making Aira one of the most exciting authors working today.

Courtesy New Directions

Joanna Ruocco (Astrophil Press)

There is no limit to Joanna Ruocco’s vocabulary, as she has demonstrated the ability to make words do almost anything on the page. The Whitmire Case, just one of several books she released in 2017, is the story of a detective hired by a sheep farmer to find a missing girl — even though the girl is in plain sight. Whether telling the story of a male-dominated hamlet (Dan) or a house full of witches (The Mothering Coven), Joanna Ruocco is a scream.

Courtesy Astrophil Press

Patty Yumi Cottrell (McSweeney’s)

McSweeney’s has always been a champion of weird and impossible-to-categorize writing, and Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, is no exception. The bleak, comic narrative of 32 year-old Helen Moran’s investigation into her brother’s suicide in her hometown of Milwaukee, it brings pathos and heart to the (sort of) detective novel, establishing Cottrell’s talent with each new layer that Moran unearths.

Courtesy McSweeney’s

Bennett Sims (Two Dollar Radio)

Bennett Sims first became a cult favorite with his philosophical zombie novel, A Questionable Shape. In 2017 he published White Dialogues, a collection of eleven excellent stories with titles like “Two Guys Watching Cujo on Mute” and “Destroy All Monsters.” Filled with haunted cabins, mad Hitchcock scholars, and psychological thrills, it is Sims at his unpredictable best.

Courtesy Two Dollar Radio

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