Publishing at Berkeley: Thomas Farber and El León Arts

Since 1995, Thomas Farber has been a Senior Lecturer in Berkeley’s English Department.  He teaches creative writing and, with his clean-shaven head, in contrast to a bushy mustache, Farber stands out in the corridors of Wheeler Hall.  On top of his teaching duties and his own award-winning writing, Farber also runs a non-profit publishing house, El León Literary Arts, that promotes works of fiction, poetry, drama, and graphics unlikely to be published in the commercial marketplace.

Recently, Farber took on the huge job of publishing “an enormous 800 page novel that no editor or agent wanted to even read.”  It was called Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes. (Farber related how the close friend who sent Marlantes’ manuscript to him was influenced by reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch as an undergraduate in a class on Victorian literature taught by Professor U. C. Knoepflemacher.) This long novel that, Farber thought, would maybe sell a thousand copies went on to win the praise of readers for the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, given to exceptionally promising first fiction. This brought Marlantes’ book to the attention of the New York publishing world, and Farber was contacted by Grove/Atlantic about a joint publishing venture.  Matterhorn has gone on to have a front page review in the New York Times Book Review in which Sebastian Junger, author of A Perfect Storm, observed that “you get the feeling [Marlantes] was not desperate or impatient to be published. Rather, he seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now wants to pass along the favor. And, with a desperate fury, he does. Chapter after chapter, battle after battle, Marlantes pushes you through what may be one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam or any war.”  Having reached #10 on the New York Times Bestseller List, Matterhorn is now one of today’s highest selling books of serious fiction.

This surprising widespread commercial success is not, however, the primary goal of El León. Farber points out that novelist, playwright and critic Ishmael Reed, an emeritus professor in the English Department and MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient, told him some years ago that even he sometimes had trouble finding publishers for his work.  El León has thus served as a forum for the dissemination of hard-to-place work or the writing of young writers, including two former students of Farber’s at Berkeley— Benjamin Bac Sierra, whose novel Barrio Bushido is forthcoming soon and Shawna Yang Ryan, whose novel Water Ghosts was eventually picked up by Penguin.  (Shawna also served as an interlocutor in a recent video which Andrea Young completed on Farber.)

This kind of shepherding of work into print is an extension of the commitment that Farber has both to his students and to writing.  And he demands no less of a commitment from his students themselves.  His creative writing seminars are not, he says, “just another class.” They are based on a mutual level of respect and effort, in which each student is asked to write a one-page single spaced critique of each piece being discussed for that class. Farber asks his students to end each of these critiques with a formula along the lines of “This is just my opinion, and I know my opinions are subject to change.  Thanks for listening to my critique of your work.”  To counterbalance the gravitas, however, Farber brings – and encourages his students bring – cookies and sweets to class.  “When you’re eating junk food together,” he says, “you’re can’t really kill each other.”

Farber’s refreshing combination of humor and weightiness also finds its expression in his own literary production.  He has published over twenty-five books, which span the genres of fiction, non-fiction, text for photography, epigrams, and even a screenplay.  He reports that he had no notion of a career trajectory and was never schooled as a writer.  Rather, he was a voracious reader and, living in Boston, Berkeley, and New York as a young man, found the heart of his social life in bookstores, which led both  to his early nonfiction and then his first book of short stories (Who Wrote the Book of Love?).  From there, it was novels and creative non-fiction, including the 1988 Compared to What?, his attempt to describe what it meant to be a writer, to appraise what he had, without having wholly intended it, become.  Also an avid surfer, however, Farber has written nonfiction about the (warm!) ocean (On Water and The Face of the Deep) and worked on three  collaborations with master marine photographer Wayne Levin. One of Farber’s recent works – The Beholder (or Le Regardeur as the French translation just brought out by Editions Gallimard titles it) – is the first time Farber tackles the portrayal of sex.

To hear him talk about his career as a writer, publisher and teacher, one realizes that, for Farber, writing and reading literature are less tools for analyzing his experiences than a fundamental part of experience itself.