When Elaine Katzenberger became the publisher and executive director of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in 2007, she stepped into one of the most storied positions in American literature. Founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights—as a bookstore and, starting in 1955, a publisher—helped define the counterculture. Ferlinghetti had a discerning eye for talent: in 1956, he brought out Allen Ginsberg’s debut collection, Howl and Other Poems. While it is known for its association with the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance, the press has published an astonishing array of writers, including Malcolm Lowry, Ry Cooder, and Julio Cortázar. Like Ferlinghetti, Katzenberger remains committed to showcasing work in translation. Recently, we spoke by phone about where City Lights is going and where it has been.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti recently turned 100. That’s quite a milestone.
We had a big celebration for Lawrence. So many people flooded North Beach. The joy and love—and, of course, that Lawrence would be alive, and everybody would get to share that and be thankful for it, how much better this was than a memorial. But if it was a celebration of Lawrence, it was also a celebration of City Lights and the fact that people are genuinely invested in its continued existence—and the whole project of it, not just the bookstore but the publishing house.
How has that project evolved over the years?
The raw material of this place is still hugely potent. In part, that has to do with our legacy. Sometimes it means publishing something new about the Beat era or resurrecting a writer—an example would be Lew Welch. But there are also plenty of contemporary voices that need air and space, and that’s what we have to offer here.
What about San Francisco? It’s a very different city than it once was.
The most obvious shift is that the cost of living is so insane, it’s difficult to hire and keep new people. It’s a challenge faced by every business in San Francisco. Culturally, it’s a question I don’t know quite how to answer. The majority of the people who live here are no longer the assumed fellow travelers. At the same time, there’s still enough of a community of people who are interested in what we’re doing, and they show up to the bookstore all the time. There are a lot of writers in the Bay Area, although most have moved to the East Bay. There are also some good new presses, so beneath this dominant culture something else is happening, and that’s the conversation we are in.
How does this influence the books you’re publishing?
It’s a range, as it has always been. I’m about to publish two books in translation by Silvina Ocampo: Forgotten Journey and The Promise. Ocampo was one of Argentina’s 20th-century literary stars, but she hasn’t been translated much. I’m also bringing out books that are more or less debuts. City Lights provides a lot of opportunity to a writer. We can take chances and develop talent. One new title I love is The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book. On the surface, it’s about Brandon’s grandfather, who was incarcerated as an enemy alien during World War II—he was a Japanese immigrant. So it tries to excavate that history. But it also goes into contemporary culture and politics.
City Lights has always been political. But is it harder now, since politics moves so fast and publishing moves so slow?
It’s hard. We’re announcing a book called Beyond the Green New Deal. Stan Cox is the writer, and he wants this book to be part of the conversation. It will be out in spring. Books like that can be challenging. They are of the moment, and all the things that affect the bottom line become more critical. Many of our political books, though, are meant to be more evergreen.
I think of Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.
That’s a good example. Not all the political books we publish are literary. But when they are, like Roy’s book, it resonates with what City Lights is about. We are a lefty press, we have always published cultural/political stuff, but we’re a literary house. So the books that really fit the list become evergreen in those ways.
What’s the biggest challenge City Lights is facing?
I hate to say the A word—Amazon—but the landscape of how people buy books only gets more challenging all the time. That has a huge impact on our ability to keep going. The other thing, the obvious thing, is that publishing is still a New York business. There’s a lot of clubbiness we’re not part of. That can be freeing, but it also determines what gets attention. I’m not playing around here—the books I’m doing, I really believe in them. I want my authors to benefit. I want them to win those prizes and get those reviews and all the attention that should be theirs.
David L. Ulin is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times and the author or editor of many books. He is editing Library of America’s Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s, to be published in the fall of 2019.