| An Interview with Josh Thorpe of Off Cut Press |
Toronto’s Josh Thorpe gives new meaning to the phrase ‘writing from the margins.’ The 28-year-old owner of Off Cut Press is publishing tiny books that fit in the palm of your hand, produced entirely from the marginal waste paper of commercial print jobs. The first title, Very Short Stories, released at the tail end of 2003, featured zap fiction so short that readers might miss the stories if they blinked. None of the stories in the book were allowed to run longer than 100 characters. No, that’s not a typo.
The concept of the uber-short story is hardly new, and goes back to at least the 19th century. More recently, Florida State University started holding the World’s Best Short Short Story contest in 1986 and, since then, there have been one-off micro-fiction anthologies from major publishers—including Jerome Stern’s 1996 book Micro Fiction: An Anthology Of Really Short Stories. These books tend to feature stories running no more than 250 words, or about the length of a double-spaced typewritten page.
Having a publisher like Off Cut Press almost exclusively dedicated to printing literary shorts barely longer than the entire alphabet might seem something of a novel idea. However, technology is also allowing wireless and Web-based short short publishing houses to play catch-up. The United Kingdom boasts The Phone Book, which publishes super short stories that can be read on computers and some cell phones, and then there’s Story Bytes, which runs stories of infinitely ranging quality that run anywhere from two to 2,048 words. Still, Off Cut Press is something of an anomaly in a culture obsessed with the monster novel.
PopMatters spoke with Thorpe about Off Cut Press and the cultural (and even environmental) implications of some of its very short stories.
PopMatters: What gave you the idea to do a book of extremely short short stories? Was it a matter of simple economics or was there something else that attracted you to the format?
Josh Thorpe: I had heard about an occasional practice of the design and print industries where people would print promotional pieces and business cards on the margins of commercial print jobs. I wasn’t interested in doing promo pieces [when I found out about this]; I was interested in creating a beautiful by-product of corporate culture. The resulting project, Off Cut Press, prints only on the margins, or off-cuts, of commercial print runs. It’s a process that makes publishing cheaper, more environmentally sound, and conceptually satisfying. It also limits the size of the final product. My first book idea was to publish an un-bound edition of stories on loose pieces of one-inch-square paper. The contents of each page would max out the dimensions available. I created my call for submissions based on the amount of text I could fit on this page, one hundred characters. Later I learned that I could push the size to three inches square. I did. The result is not an art object, which the loose-leaf collection would have been, but a bona fide book: Very Short Stories.
PM: If the book is a waste byproduct of corporate culture, is Very Short Stories simply a culture jamming project or a means of throwing back all of the slogans and bits of billboard advertisements that we’ve been bombarded us with?
JT: Culture jamming? No. Off Cut Press is not telling capitalism or consumerism to go shove it. I’m just trying to make something strange and beautiful from the mainstream’s waste. Folk and modern artists use garbage and found objects to produce visual art, environmental engineers are constantly looking for alternative ways to produce material and energy, and I love all that. It’s a high to make something wonderful from what was going to be garbage. I guess, unwittingly, I did create at least the potential for a genre—whether or not it really is one depends on how popular it becomes. The content of Very Short Stories is quite clearly prose for the most part, and I don’t think there’s much else out there that we’d call prose that is so short. Any genre-creation, potential or real, was not intentional—I would not even have gotten into publishing at all had the off-cut bubble not appeared out of the blue and carried me away. I found out about the possibility of doing it and did it, that’s all.
PM: Was there anything about the environmental or recycling aspects of the project that was particularly attractive to you as a publisher?
JT: I’m willing to bet that the amount of energy consumed printing and binding Very Short Stories is less than the amount of energy it would have consumed to recycle that same paper. That’s a pretty sweet thought, that producing art is better for the environment than not producing it! I am not an out-spoken environmentalist, but I believe in doing good things in life. I use Tupperware for take-out. I’m pro- bike and foot. I’m for legalizing cannabis. Almost everything in my house is used. Off Cut Press likewise embraces these values.
PM: How long has Off Cut Press been an ongoing concern?
JT: Since December 16th, 2003. That’s when we launched Very Short Stories, the first piece. I had conceived of the press a year previous.
PM: I gather publishing ultra-short fiction doesn’t exactly pay the bills.
JT: I make most of my bread writing and editing for various clients, from lawyers to flower boutiques, but I also compose experimental music for concert situations. I recently transformed radically a Tom Waits song by stretching and morphing it for Rhodes, Wurlitzer, two electric guitars, lap steel guitar, two violins, and jaw harp. I’m pretty involved in the Toronto music scene. A bunch of the authors in Very Short Stories are musicians or composers.
PM: It seems to me, though, this kind of writing says something about our society and just how limited attention spans have become. I think it’s pretty obvious that TV, movies, video games and the Internet have all cut into the reading public’s time, which seems to get smaller and smaller every year. Is your press getting fiction out to those people who might not ordinarily crack open a book or a magazine simply because they don’t have time to read?
JT: Bill Kennedy, a Toronto writer and co-organizer of a literary reading series called Lexiconjury, wrote an interesting article in Word recently in which he suggests that we expand our concept of literature to include new media: maybe the text in a video game or a Web site can be thought of as literary. If you accept that, it becomes harder to know what shape literature is in these days—maybe it has entered a very exciting time. That said, yeah, I think people that don’t normally spend much time with fiction have read Very Short Stories. It seems to have a broad appeal, from the avant-garde to people who barely read. Some people think it’s brilliant and conceptually stimulating, others just think it’s adorable! Either way is good with me. Let me point out, though, that while Very Short Stories is immediately graspable, and in that sense “accessible,” it also contains some pretty far-out writing. It’s not as fast a read as you’d think. It bears thought, and it bears multiple readings.
PM: Some people might argue, though, that by limiting stories to 100 characters or thereabouts, you’re somehow limiting narrative possibility, especially at a time when longer short stories—the novella, for instance—appear to be on a kind of endangered species list. How would you react to that potential criticism?
JT: Anyone offering such a criticism—to be threatened by a tiny book of tiny stories—would have to be a real grump. Yes, the 100-character constraint places great limitations on narrative possibility. It also creates all kinds of freedoms. There is a wonderful history of constraint in art-making, the most obvious recent example being Christian Bok’s Eunoia, the book that limits each chapter to words containing a single vowel. The French Oulipo movement is another. Artists who place restrictions on their art-making tend to focus their attention on media and materials. Consequently, their stories employ wordplay, fantasy, strange imagery, and a kind of brilliant succinctness, but not much personal confession or emotional subtlety. Writing teachers are fond of telling students, “If you can say what you want to say in fewer words, do it.” Very Short Stories takes that to an absurd conclusion, where brevity actually acts as a creative force. I think if you asked the contributors about their experience working on these stories, you’d find that most of them found it creatively stimulating. A lot of these people wouldn’t have considered publishing their work or even writing submitted stories to Very Short Stories. Good stories.
PM: There are ‘zinesters who’ve made drawings on the backs of business cards, and then either posted them to the Web or put them in their own ‘zines. Does this project derive its roots from the ‘zine world at all?
JT: No. I’m pretty green on the ‘zine scene. I like ‘zines, I like comics, small press stuff, book art and everything else that’s interesting. But it was pretty much a fluke that I ended up doing this thing—a sweet one, but a fluke all the same.
PM: It strikes me that this has got to be a whale of a project to market. For instance, I’m not sure of many bookstores that would be interested in taking a self-published book that’s three inches by three inches. Where have you found support or buyers for your book?
JT: The beauty of Off Cut Press is that there is no pressure for it to be profitable. That allows me to avoid the hard sell. I have consigned Very Short Stories at a few good book stores in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada. I sent out a few press releases. The rest is up to interested readers. The bookstores I’ve approached have been very supportive. They don’t mind the size—it works well on the counter, and at $5 Cdn a pop it seems to be selling well. Pages, an independent bookstore in Toronto, sold about a hundred in the first six weeks of release. Just to be clear, what I’m doing is not considered “self-publishing,” since I am the editor and there are a ton of writers in the thing. Off Cut Press is seen as a legitimate small publisher. If a distributor were interested in getting Very Short Stories or future titles in more peoples lives, I’d be interested.
PM: Have you had a lot of submissions, or have a lot of other writers come up to you expressing some kind of interest in this project?
JT: Both the book and the press have been popular, yeah—very short stories are fun to write and fun to think about. I’ve met all kinds of crazy people, read books I wouldn’t have otherwise read, and gotten a lot of moral support. A lot of local writers (from Toronto) have sent in other manuscripts for consideration. I appreciate that, but Off Cut Press projects are going to be more a curator-driven project than a culled one.
PM: Where are your writers coming from? Is it a pretty Toronto or Canada-centric book, or are you getting submissions from weird corners of the globe?
JT: Some are from the States, but more are from Canada. Many live now in Toronto. My call for submissions started in Toronto and went out from there. I posted to international e-mailing lists, but I don’t think anyone submitted from further abroad than the US.
PM: What else is lined up on your slate?
JT: I hope soon to release a book by Ryan Driver, the fellow who drew the cover of Very Short Stories, called Jokes of Toronto. It’s a surreal book of riddles that is not very funny but is very hilarious. Very Short Stories Two I want out by Christmas 2004.
PM: What sorts of things are you looking for when it comes to things that you’ll consider for publication? Your Web site says you like to see “a folky kind of avant-garde.” What does that mean?
JT: Off Cut Press may publish literature from 11th century Tibet or 20th century North America as well as works from avant-garde writers, non-native English speakers, children, computers, and all kinds of sources I can’t imagine right now—anything that’s linguistically or conceptually beautiful and unexpected. Non-fiction and visual art are possible too. One thing’s for sure: Any book we publish is going to have to be conceptually strong and will have to work in a small format. I haven’t the literary background to allow me to be a competent straight-ahead fiction or poetry editor/publisher, so my press can’t offer much in that way. I won’t be publishing anything that doesn’t immediately get my imagination going. Currently without a major distributor, Very Short Stories can be ordered by contacting the editor directly via email@example.com or by visiting The Off Cut Press Website.
Is Less Really More?
One hundred characters in search of a context in which to band together to create or subvert meaning.
The above quote comes the first “story” in Very Short Stories, a collection released by Off Cut Press, a new Toronto publisher that publishes books so portable that they easily fit in your back jeans pocket. Changing the words “100 characters” to “63 very short stories” would be a pretty neat summation of this collection in a sentence.
Despite being no bigger than the palm of your hand, Very Short Stories is not as entirely an out-there proposition as it might seem. There are a surprising number of contributors here who have a fairly high literary reputation. (Well, at least in Canada, eh?) George Bowering was installed as Canada’s first poet laureate for a two-year term in 2002, and already has 60 books behind him. has published a couple of poetry books, and has a novel about to be released in Canada and the UK. Toronto contributor Doug Tielli is not only known in his own right as a writer/musician, but as the younger brother of Martin Tielli, a semi-famous member of indie-rock’s The Rheostatics. And if that weren’t enough street credibility for ya, there’s even a contribution culled from an anonymous corporate newsletter. Cool. Well, maybe.
There’s a strange push-and-pull between the commercial and the experimental here. On one hand, Thorpe says he wanted ordinary people (your, quote, “parents” and “girl next door” types) to read this book, and it appears he selected contributions from your Average Joes/Janes on the street in response to that ambition. However, these submissions rest somewhat uneasily among the aforementioned literary heavyweights, many of whom often take the opportunity here to be ultra avant-garde.
Take, for instance, Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Limited time”—a story that only contains the words, well, “Limited time.” It’s the very last story in the anthology and it ends the book on a rather sudden stop, even though I know it’s supposed to reference back to the book’s confusing penultimate piece. (That one, written by Gary Barwin, goes “I’m born somewhere sometime and watch then learn to speak then find there’s only a limited number of.”)
In any event, the stories that work in this collection are the ones that don’t try so hard to be alienating or try to have some greater purpose other than to be entertaining. Coincidentally, they tend to have been written by those next-door neighbors I was telling you about earlier. Fascinatingly (and, I guess, somewhat ironically), these stories usually deal with some sort of cultural alienation, a great theme for a book printed on industrial waste if there was one.
“Walking through miles of suburban parking lots in the freezing rain, feeling like a movie of grief,” writes Maggie Helwig, creating something beautiful that’s also almost akin to urban haiku. Beate Schwirtlich’s contribution is equally compelling within a similar context: “You died on the most perfect day of July, your belly full of wheat tops, a blackfly biting your neck, in a field.”
Still, to go back to Olson, the main problem is “context.” There’s next to no underlying theme (one that’s clearly evident, at least) allowing these stories to link together, aside from the fact that most of them clock in at a pretty restrictive 100 characters. The second “story” in this collection, in fact, is called “A Hundred Characters” and features the capital letter K repeated no more or no less than 100 times. A little later in this pocket book, there are a couple of similarly experimental pieces featuring absolutely no spaces or punctuation between words. Legitimate avant-garde work or poorly conceived writing? You decide.
I can see a few parallels with this book, probably unintentional, to the hardcore American punk movement during the early ‘80s—embodied in bands like the Minutemen and Husker Du. Hard and fast ruled; songs lasted no longer than a minute. However, hardcore generally started to wise up as a genre circa 1984, once its practitioners realized that their music was, more or less, a mere punch-line to the musical question, “How non-conformist can we be?” These musicians soon learned that it they could only take so much repetition before the joke stopped being funny anymore. (The joke really being, of course the ridiculous and needless constraints they were putting on their music.)
Some might call it caving into the bottom line, but, lo and behold, longer, more complex and less noisy songs started to appear on these bands’ mid-‘80s albums. Towards the end of the decade, you even had Husker Du churning out an absolute masterpiece in Warehouse: Songs and Stories, a sprawling double-album of two to five-minute masterpieces that’s the Rosetta Stone of modern rock. Without going into a lot of great detail, I also see the album as a legitimate short novel—a loose narrative about a guy constantly trying and failing to find love from his late teens until old age. The only difference between this record and a book is that it’s just set to a really good beat you can (mostly) pogo to.
So what does all of this have to do with Very Short Stories? Well, the collection is like Husker Du’s early Land Speed Record (1981), released towards the start of that hardcore movement. It’s a very short album that had a whole lot of attitude, raw passion, sometimes-interesting sonic fragments and a whole lotta white noise. Basically, it had all the hallmarks of an artist trying to find their feet. The same could be said of Thorpe’s book. Right now, I’m not sure if this is an anthology of prose, poetry, a collection of gags, or something else altogether. It doesn’t, to roughly quote a Husker Du song, “make no sense at all,” but the experimental and more straight-forward “stories” here don’t hang all together all that well, either. Maybe the point of the book, being that it is from a ‘marginal’ press, is simply to exist solely as a byproduct of mainstream disembodiment? I don’t know. There are some pretty commercial writers here, after all.
Very Short Stories is a great idea. I love that it’s printed on the book industry’s waste paper. I also love that it mightget people either suffering from some kind of attention deficit disorder or various time constraints into reading more often on the bus or subway ride home. But I think that once Thorpe really figures out the nature of these stories, how they fit into a larger, more easily digestible thematic context, and who exactly they speak to—that’s when he might truly have something that’s not only succinct butwonderfully beautiful, unique and compulsively readable as well. Thorpe has got the warehouse. He just has to show us those songs and stories.