The Literature of the Russian Diaspora through the Eyes of a Publisher
An interview! Ilya Bernshteyn, publisher and editor-in-chief of Tiptop Street, answers the poet and literary critic Philip Nikolayev’s questions about publishing practice, the book market, the state of Russian émigré literature, bilingual publications, etc. Don’t forget to check out our books as well!
Philip Nikolayev: Ilya, even among the purely literary, noncommercial publishing houses, Tiptop Street has deliberately chosen a non-mainstream orientation. You publish, on the one hand, current, “fourth wave” Russian émigré literature (both prose and poetry), and on the other hand, highbrow bilingual texts, literary editions where the original is accompanied by a parallel English translation. These are two rather narrow book markets, two niches. What is the reason for the choice of these two, as marketers say, “segments,” and is it economically justified? To what extent is the choice driven by calculation, and to what extent by love?
Ilya Bernshteyn: In this context, the words “calculation” and “love” require some “personalizing” clarifications having to do with my life and circumstances. Any business entity bears an imprint of the personalities behind it, and the story of Tiptop Street is entirely autobiographical. I immigrated to the United States from Moscow at the age of fifty. As the saying goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This is due to one’s cognitive limitations and ingrained psychology.
Back in Russia, I was quite a successful publisher, that is to say, I lived off the sale of the books that I published, I did not particularly need grants, and I had a good reputation among colleagues and enjoyed the fairly high loyalty of a small “target audience.” (I specialized in publishing extensively annotated editions of Soviet children’s classics under the rubric of “everyday Soviet life as seen through the prism of literature for children and teenagers”).
My first task on relocating to the US was to network and make new friends, so as to overcome an immigrant’s solitude as well as for the sake of an income. Being a publisher may not be as good a starting position as a software developer or an assistant professor, but I had no such options. My working language is Russian, which has predetermined the direction of my searches: émigré writers and academic Slavists, those two “niches,” as you put it.
Is this choice economically justified? I don’t believe the type of publisher that I embody could subsist on sales of published books alone. But there are other ways to make money in our industry: publishing books to order, for example. And these may no longer be low-budget collections of poetry, but illustrated family histories, memoirs, etc. – a fairly widespread genre of émigré literature that also counts as being about “everyday Soviet life,” my main thematic interest, although perceived through a different prism. Therefore, publishing “highbrow bilingual books” becomes a good investment in business: it enhances one’s professional reputation, brings exposure, etc.
Moreover, a professional person of my age needs to be constantly working. One must stay in shape and exert oneself, which means setting challenging tasks, looking for new opportunities, and always learning. Books designed for the sophisticated reader and the discerning scrutinizer: nothing better has been invented for my purposes, even from such a utilitarian point of view. So much for the combination of “love” and “calculation.”
Philip Nikolayev: Whom do you call the “discerning scrutinizer”?
Ilya Bernshteyn: There are readers (by no means all, of naturally) who understand the book as more than the locus and manner of a text’s existence. For them, the book possesses an autonomous essence and value that are separate from the text. Such constituents of the book as its design, illustrations, the choice of paper, the soft or hard cover, and the scholarly apparatus (including prefaces, commentary, annotations, footnotes and endnotes), are self-contained. If we radicalize this idea a little, we must admit that it is possible to have a remarkable book with an insignificant text – and vice versa. I focus primarily on that type of reader, simply because I am that type of publisher: a versatile editor who does not divide editing among its literary, artistic, scholarly, and technical aspects. Such a combination of skills in one person is rare in our age of narrow specialization, but it is all the more interesting for that. Combining professions not only saves publishing resources, it above all imparts to the edition the additional quality of conceptual coherence, a unity of parts. In my opinion, this bonus is felt even by those readers who are not used to analyzing the book as an artefact.
Philip Nikolayev: Is there a high demand – in Russia and abroad – for the literature of the Russian diaspora? What is its status in the context of contemporary Russian literature, especially in comparison with the literature composed and published in Russia? Who are the main readers of Russian émigré literature? Is there a prejudice against émigré writing that prevents it from being appreciated? What, in your opinion, is the general state of Russian émigré literature today?
Ilya Bernshteyn: I think that such a division – into Russian literature of the metropolis and Russian literature of the diaspora – is not very relevant. Think of all those who left Russia decades ago but remain leading Russian poets and authors and participate actively in the Russian cultural process. Their works are routinely brought out by the best Russian publishing houses and appear in prominent journals. These writers’ names include Bakhyt Kenzheev, Alexey Tsvetkov, Vladimir Gandelsman, and Katya Kapovich, to name a few. We can also name some of those who have become Russian writers here in in the US and who are widely published and popular in Russia and have been honored with prestigious Russian prizes: Alexander Stessin (winner of the NOS-2019 Award), Tatyana Zamirovskaya, and Svetlana Sachkova , all three of them New Yorkers in their 40s or younger.
The main problem facing Russian writers in the US today is the nearly complete absence of a local audience. The Russian immigrants of the early 90s did not strive to teach their kids to read Russian literature in the original for their own pleasure, so the kids have never learned to. (I wonder if this is also the case in other diasporas. Do young Chinese read in Chinese and young Mexicans in Spanish?) Furthermore, a psychological mechanism that I do not fully understand seems to have been at work here: in spite of the Internet and other public information sources, the Russian émigré public of the “fourth wave” has preserved (or perhaps continuously created) in their minds a Russia of the early 90s. They do not know the present-day Russian mass media or the leading Russian literary critics even by their names, and they have no idea about the current Russian literary prizes. Not only do they not know these things, but they have no way of finding out about them. Literature (and other culture) as if froze in time the moment the emigration plane took off the runway at Sheremetyevo International Airport.
In the end, the presentation of the fruits of literary work, so necessary for most authors, takes place in the make-believe, mothball atmosphere of the hypothetical Balalayka Café (or at a meeting of the Blue Trolleybus Russian Culture Club, amounting roughly to the same thing).
Philip Nikolayev: Is there a high demand for bilingual books, especially for bilingual literary editions of the Russian original with an accompanying English translation or self-translation? Who reads them besides students and teachers of foreign languages and literatures?
Ilya Bernshteyn: Demand varies. It is often present in a latent state. Demand can sometimes emerge right before our eyes, following newly provided supply. This has repeatedly happened in my own practice. For example, who could possibly wish to read a commentary on [Viktor Dragunsky’s] The Adventures of Dennis that is so extensive as to equal in the commented work in length? A commentary composed by historians, cultural critics, social anthropologists – and by the 65-year-old Dennis – Dennis Viktorovich Dragunsky – [the author’s son and the book’s young hero] himself? Until we supplied this edition, no one felt the need for it, but when the book appeared, it was sold out, reviewed, and ordered by hundreds of libraries across Russia.
It seems to me that the low public interest in bilingual literary editions is associated with the paucity of true bilingualism and multilingualism, which combines the ability and the need to “consume” a sophisticated intellectual and cultural product in different languages, especially if it is poetry, which, let us face it, is hardly the most popular commodity. But poets do not stop composing, in spite of being aware of the diminutiveness of their audience and of the low correlation between successful versification and material wealth. And this element – of creativity and non-utilitarian choice – is thankfully present in any intellectual line of work, including publishing.
Philip Nikolayev: Which of the books that you have published are especially dear to you – and why?
Ilya Bernshteyn: Over a quarter of a century of work, I have delivered a little more than a hundred book titles that I have personally selected, edited, and published, ensuring their birth with my own labor, time, and money. And none among them are unloved, which, if you think about it, is true happiness. Among these books, there are only “seniors,” as it were, all grown up and living independently for a long time – and new, emergent books that still “need help” (in the shape of promotion). These latter include, for example, The Snow of Marienburg, a prose volume by the Californian Russian author Grigory Zlotin. In addition to the work itself being remarkable, all those involved in its production (including the editor and the artists – the illustrator and designer) went out of their way to do an outstanding job. The edition has proven to be a feast for the eyes; it would be great if more people bought it now.
I should also mention my annotated editions: the aforementioned Adventures of Dennis, as well as [Yury Koval’s] Underdog, [Andrei Nekrasov’s] The Adventures of Captain Wrungel, and [Alexandra Brushtein’s] The Road Recedes into the Distance. I perceive these publications as monuments to myself, as remedies against forthcoming nonexistence and oblivion.