November 4, 2014

Farewell, Glas, come back soon


Natasha Perova, with some of the Glas list. From Grigory Ryzhakov's website.

Natasha Perova, with some of the Glas list. From Grigory Ryzhakov’s website.

“I thought the world will gasp with admiration.” This is how publisher Natasha Perova described what she thought would be the reaction to the first books by Glas, the Russian publishing house which just announced that it is closing up shop after twenty-three years.

Glas, which Perova founded in 1991, publishes 20th-century Russian literature in English and counts among its authors Victor Pelevin, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Vladimir Sorokin, Andrei Platonov, and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.

Perova started the press in the first flush of perestroika, when all kinds of books were being unearthed and published in Russia–books long banned, books by new authors. Plus, with the end of the Soviet Union came the end of American houses publishing Russian writers as a specific political act; it meant the end, for instance, of the Writers from the Other Europe series edited by Philip Roth and published by Penguin. So for Russian literature to make it to the West, it had to have an advocate. Luckily, Perova seems to have been born to do just that (see “gasp with admiration,” above). She eventually published 75 titles, among them many anthologies, and introduced a number of writers to the West—both the big names above, and other younger talents like Olga Slavnikova and Arkady Babchenko.

But it was always a shoestring operation. In an interview for The New Inquiry in 2011, Perova described the relay-race nature of the funding:

We sold as many copies as we could sell and saved all the money to produce the next book. We were joking that sometimes the writers would hate one another, but they would have to support one another, because with the sales from a previous book a new one was published. Even though the writers may not have been on speaking terms, they had to support one another in this way.

But in recent years, whether or not the writers were best buds ceased to matter: sales dropped, costs rose, and Glas’s model (a publisher in Russia, distributing in the US and UK) made it ineligible for translation subsidies that usually help support these types of enterprises. She also, perplexingly, blames some of the problems on émigré Russian writers who “paint a more digestible picture of Russia” in “smooth-moving, light fiction.” Is this Gary Shteyngart? Lara Vapnyar? I think Shteyngart would appreciate being called “smooth-moving,” though perhaps not in the way Perova means.

But you can’t keep a good publisher—however indigestible and non-smooth-moving—down. According to an article in Russia Beyond the Headlines, she says she’ll continue to promote “new and overlooked authors,” and I hope the indomitable faith she showed in all the books she published at Glas finds a new home soon.

You can hear Perova speaking about Glas on the radio program “Russian Bookshelf.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.