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A Pittsburgh literary festival debuts

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It's tougher to write a book than to read one. But even if, as Lee Gutkind says, "Everyone knows that writing is the hardest profession in the world," the writer, teacher and literary entrepreneur quips that "publishing might be a little harder."

 

 

The trials of the independent publisher constitute a theme of 412: The First Annual Pittsburgh Creative Nonfiction Literary Festival, which hits stride Nov. 12-14 with a series of panel discussions, readings and talks and, appropriately, a local book-release party.

 

Most of the advice will be aimed at helping writers craft and sell their work, from turning one's writing into feature films and documentaries to a program with area songwriters. But because a key question for writers isn't whether they'll keep writing but whether anyone will ever read them, the festival also examines the other end of the pipeline: How do successful indie ventures, such as Gutkind's journal Creative Nonfiction, do it? How do small publishers like guest presenter Richard Nash's Soft Skull Press thrive with titles tending toward radical politics and alternative culture? And how does a newer enterprise such as Pittsburgh's The New Yinzer get where it wants to go?

 

The 412 festival is the brainchild of Gutkind, who wants to unify Pittsburgh's populous but fragmented community of writers. "Creative nonfiction" is the catchall term for writing about matters of fact incorporating techniques traditionally associated with fiction: narrative, for instance, and subjective point of view.

 

Critics have disputed whether creative nonfiction (a.k.a. "literary nonfiction") -- encompassing, as it does, works of history, memoir and journalism -- is really a "genre." But Gutkind is its most vocal proponent. Aside from producing his own nonfiction works, Gutkind founded at the University of Pittsburgh the first master's program in creative nonfiction, and was among the first to teach creative nonfiction on a college campus. Along the way he's taken criticism for his partisanship, including a 1997 Vanity Fair knife-toss by James Wolcott, who mocked the genre's confessional pretensions, and whose taunting sobriquet "the godfather of creative nonfiction" Gutkind has assumed as a mantle.

 

But nonfiction works thrive on the sales lists, and one measure of esteem might be the names associated with 412, with which Gutkind hopes to stake Pittsburgh's claim as the genre's home turf. The festival's keynote speaker is John Edgar Wideman, a Pittsburgh native and author of lauded works including My Brother's Keeper, who'll also participate in a Nov. 13 panel discussion with his son, the writer Daniel Wideman, and his cousin Albert French, the Pittsburgh-based novelist and memoirist. Other 412 presenters include Carnegie Mellon professor Hilary Masters and columnist and TV/film writer Dennis Palumbo.

 

Still, Gutkind's most concrete achievement might be Creative Nonfiction, the journal whose 10th anniversary he's marking with a "greatest hits" volume (in bookstores now) titled In Fact and featuring essays by 25 luminaries including Diane Ackerman, John McPhee, Richard Rodriguez and Wideman.

 

Ironically, partly because of the opportunity for wider distribution, In Fact is being published by WW Norton. But Creative Nonfiction's own success is notable: Funded primarily by grants, based in Shadyside, the thrice-yearly journal has grown to a circulation of more than 4,000.

 

Gutkind credits that achievement largely to his decision to craft an identity through specialization. "We were able to concentrate on one set of writers, and one genre, and build," he says.

 

Other local literary entrepreneurs, he hopes, will follow suit. "I think this is the perfect time for independent publishers to begin surfacing, especially in Pittsburgh," he says.

 

As a model for indie success, Gutkind cites Richard Nash of Brooklyn-based Soft Skull Press, who'll join him for a Nov. 14 panel called "Independent Publishers Who Won't Die." In 2001, Nash -- an experimental-theater director whose publishing experience was "a little, completely by accident" -- took over the debt-laden Soft Skull and in a few years turned it into a thriving enterprise that by this year had quadrupled its new titles, to 50.

 

Soft Skull was already distributing through Publishers Group West, the nation's largest distributor of indie book publishers; one-third of its sales are through Borders and Barnes & Noble. But Nash upped its fiction content, and got lucky once or twice, as in February, with a Today Show selection of Matthew Sharpe's Soft Skull novel The Sleeping Father, boosting sales from a likely couple thousand to more than 20,000 to date.

 

More important, Nash says, was cultivating a voice with which to address its targeted audience. "We publish for younger alternative people," he says. Titles such as a collection of Douglas Rees' acid-tipped "Get Your War On" comics, J.H. Hatfield's controversial George W. Bush bio Fortunate Son, and the writings of William Upski Wimsatt (author of Bomb of the Suburbs, co-editor of How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office) mix politics and culture from a personal perspective. "People who buy the books are people who don't care about the genre so much as about the way [the author] relates their experience of the world," says Nash.

 

Still seeking its market, meanwhile, is The New Yinzer, a 3-year-old Pittsburgh literary group that's co-sponsoring the 412 fest. Sales of TNY's first collection of nonfiction, Pittsburgh Love Stories, published in February, proved "a little disappointing," says Jennifer Meccariello, TNY director.

 

One problem is that retailers such as Barnes & Noble, where TNY has applied for shelf space, don't know how to categorize something that mixes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. But the 412 kick-off party is also a book-release bash for the group's newest effort, Dirt, a fiction/nonfiction/poetry anthology featuring local writers. And in January TNY -- which began life as an online-only venture -- will resume a Web presence, publishing one new story a week at www.newyinzer.com.

 

Perhaps other fledgling enterprises can draw inspiration from Nash. The native of Ireland is a frequent Pittsburgh visitor -- his mother is from here originally, and he's "a huge Steelers fan" -- who once spoke with Gutkind about how to build a literary community. "I said, 'You need institutions to anchor people working in an art,'" says Nash. "It's having literary journals, publishers."

 

Nash's 412 workshop will be equal parts inspirational talk and pragmatic seminar. "You gotta do it," he says he'll tell aspiring publishers, "and here's how you do it."

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