The year-end buzz could hardly have been buzzier. Novelist (and Time cover guy) Jonathan Franzen popped up in the British newspaper The Guardian calling Ben Lerner’s first novel “Leaving the Atocha Station” “hilarious and cracklingly intelligent.”
The story of a pot-smoking, self-referential young American poet on a fellowship in Spain in 2004 was, Franzen wrote, “original in every sentence.”
It’s the kind of love generally lavished on fiction from big houses and big authors. In this case, the object of affection is a writer from Kansas known previously for his poetry, and a book published by the small Minneapolis publisher Coffee House Press.
Ben Lerner's first novel has won praise from all over.
“It’s by far our biggest title of the year,” said Christopher Fischbach, who took over this year as publisher of Coffee House after the semi-retirement of founder Allan Kornblum.
Coffee House rolled the book out with a first printing of 3,000 copies this fall. The small-press version of heck broke loose when “Atocha” was praised in a lengthy New Yorker review by James Wood in late October, and a rave by Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review, in the New York Review of Books.
It went into additional printings, and has now been sold to foreign publishers. Look for it in Spanish, Italian and other languages in 2012. Fischbach estimates that about 5,000 copies of the novel have sold, with about 10,000 copies now in circulation. That’s peanuts by “Twilight” standards, but significant for Coffee House.
“This is a book that’s difficult,” Fischbach said, “about art, by a poet.” He said that when Lerner, whose poetry has been published by Copper Canyon Press, pitched the novel to Coffee House, he was immediately taken by the manuscript. “It was dealing with authenticity and art, in a way that spoke to a younger age group in a post-ironic age.”
The critical response, paired with “I Hotel” being a finalist last year for a National Book Award, proves that “Coffee House, though small, has the potential to publish a book just as well, to get just as much, if not more, attention, than a big press might,” Fischbach said.
The Star Tribune review of "Atocha Station" is here.