"Dear Provost Ludden": Novelists, Poets, Profs and Publishers Step Up to Support SMU Press

Before she went home yesterday to soak in a large glass of well-deserved wine, SMU Press Senior Editor Kathryn Lang forwarded to Unfair Park a rather large stack of missives she'd received yesterday following the news that SMU Provost Paul Ludden had decided to save the school $400,000 annually by shuttering its 73-year-old publishing arm. It's a very impressive roster of supporters that includes no less than Ann Beattie, Pulitzer winner Richard Russo, Dallas's own Ben Fountain, poet and novelist David R. Slavitt (who writes that "outside of Dallas, people mostly associate SMU with the football team and the press. You should not get rid of either of these") and other award-winning writers, publishers and professors.

And that's but a small sampling. As Lang told me yesterday, the outpouring of support keeps threatening to crash her e-mail. I suggested that perhaps she could convince Ludden to keep SMU Press alive long enough to publish these in a collection titled Dear Provost Ludden. A sneak preview of what that might look like is available after the jump with nine letter of support. Best thing we'll run on Unfair Park all day. Or, ever.

From Ann Beattie:

Dear Provost Ludden:

I write to you from the University of Virginia, where I am Edgar A. Poe Professor of Literature and Creative Writing. It is with shock and sadness that I have learned that SMU Press -- one of the most distinguished, reliable, essential presses in the country -- might no longer exist. It is a forum for serious thought in the intellectual community, and it is an important press for Texans and for everyone else who reads seriously. It greatly enhances the stature of your university, and it is counted on to bring forth important books that become part of the dialogue of the entire culture. Closing SMU Press would be a disastrous decision.
From Richard Russo:
Dear Provost Paul Ludden:

You must be dealing with grave financial circumstances indeed if you're seriously considering shutting down the venerable Southern Methodist University Press, but I can't help thinking there must be other, less soul-destroying options at your disposal. With commercial publishers currently under siege, university presses are even more important than they were fifty years ago and their budgets, in the grand scheme of things, are not large. Public outcry at the loss of the press is sure to be swift and loud, and I hope it will cause you to reexamine priorities.
From Alyson Hagy, novelist and professor of English at the University of Wyoming:
Dear Dr. Ludden,

I am writing to you as a longtime supporter of SMU Press. I am a fiction writer, a professor in an MFA program, a devotee of the short story. I recently attended an event at the recent AWP Conference in Denver hosted by SMU Press that would have made you and your colleagues proud. The room was packed. The panel, composed of new and eminent American writers published by SMU Press, discussed the state of fiction with an intelligence and grace that left all of us (even those of us crowded against the back wall) secure in the knowledge that SMU Press is one of the nation's highest quality publishing houses.

I am sure financial times are difficult. But I would like you and the administration at SMU to understand how highly those of us in the field regard SMU Press. Some university presses have foundered. SMU Press has not. Under the direction of Kathryn Lang, SMU Press is considered one of the exciting homes for short fiction in the nation. SMU Press has been transformative, ahead of the curve. Yes, the publishing industry is changing. What this means, I think, is that smaller presses like SMU Press have become more significant. Please don't allow the great work being done by Kathryn Lang and her staff to come to an abrupt, ill-considered end.
From David R. Slavitt:
Dear Provost Ludden,

I write to join my voice with those of many others to urge you to reconsider your decision about closing SMU press. It is has published many fine books and deserves to be supported and maintained, even in these difficult times. It isn't just for the press, though, that I write, but also to remind you that a university that hires and promotes on the strength of candidates' publications is morally obliged to maintain a press -- because the alternative is to be a parasite relying on "real" universities that do have presses. Is this what you have in mind? Outside of Dallas, people mostly associate SMU with the football team and the press. You should not get rid of either of these.

From Ben Fountain:
Dear Provost Ludden:

I am writing to express my deep concern over the announced suspension of operations of the Southern Methodist University Press. To do away with this venerable, vigorous, and extremely well-regarded university press will be a huge mistake for SMU and a true loss to scholarship and letters in the United States. Through the hard work and astute judgment of its staff, the SMU Press has built a strong and entirely deserved reputation in the world of letters for putting out first-rate lists of literary fiction and scholarly books season after season, year after year. It's one thing to dismantle an enterprise when it's faltering, moribund, or clearly run its course, but quite another to shut down a thriving and vital concern such as the SMU Press is today. Far from being a sideline or subsidiary undertaking, the Press lies at the core of the university's mission; as well shut down the liberal arts college, or limit classes to two days a week, or turn out the entire freshman and junior classes, as terminate an institution so central to education. University presses are part of what universities are for -- to gather, advance, and disseminate knowledge. The Press has brought tremendous credit to SMU throughout its history, and its reputation has never been stronger. To shut it down now will not only deprive SMU of an important resource, but will serve to discredit the university in the most fundamental way.

I strongly urge you to reverse your decision to suspend the operations of the Press, and, moreover, urge you to support and promote this fine university institution to the fullest extent possible.

From Liz Van Hoose, associate editor at Viking Penguin:
Dear Ms. Lang,

I'm writing in support of SMU Press, a beacon of excellent publishing and a steward of great writing. It was working as an undergraduate intern at the Sewanee Review in the late 1990s that I first began to comprehend how publishers cultivate a persona, not just in what they publish but in how they publish their writers'  work. And it was reading review copies from SMU Press that led to this revelation. Losing myself time and again in your books, I knew even at twenty that the world would be much worse for the wear if not for university presses that publish literature, particularly collections of poetry and short stories. SMU was an exemplar then, and remains so now. Shuttering it would be a lamentable gesture by a university that has done so much good in the world.

From Ladette Randolph, director and editor-in-chief of Ploughshares at Emerson College:
Dear Kathy,

Steve Yarbrough, my colleague here at Emerson, just forwarded your dismaying message about the closing of SMU Press in June. To say I'm shocked would be an understatement. I'm deeply saddened.

SMU has published some of the most important contemporary literary fiction in the country. Despite your small staff, you regularly get the attention of major review media, which all of us know is next to impossible these days. Your keen eye for quality in combination with good design and an efficient, focused eye toward marketing, has created a reputation that far outstrips your size.

As a former university press publisher, and now the editor of a major literary journal, I'm personally and professionally very concerned about the short sightedness of this decision. The SMU Press has contributed greatly to the reputation of its university, and while I'm sympathetic to the demands of budget cuts, the value of your stellar reputation and how that reflects on Southern Methodist University, relative to the costs involved in keeping the Press running, suggests this is a short term solution with unexpectedly negative ramifications.

If I can help in any way, Kathy, please let me know. This is indeed worrying news.

From 2008 National Book Award finalist in poetry Reginald Gibbons:
Dear Kathy Lang,

As one with considerable experience -- both as a writer and, in past years, as a university-based editor -- with the financial pressures on university publishing, I am writing to express my sorrow at the news that the president of SMU has decided to "suspend" the operations of the university press. I know nothing of the budgetary management of the press, of course, so I don't know if your president's action is motivated by an unspoken criticism of these. Even if it is, that action seems extraordinarily severe; to eliminate a university press is without question to diminish the academic life of the whole institution, and to turn out the lights of one of SMU's most important beacons in the American educational landscape, and of course in Texas itself.

And if the president's decision is not motivated by something the press itself has done wrong, but instead by very misguided sense of proportion regarding what is truly of value to an academic community, then an especially unfortunate decision has been made. Intellectual and cultural life in Texas, of which I am a native, are marked by heroic efforts through the twentieth century to deepen the understanding of Texas history, peoples, politics, thought, art, culture and of course Texas writing. And SMU Press has both historical stature and continuing success through the decades that prove its contribution to the life of the state.

As our culture becomes more and more saturated by the information and images offered on electronic media, a university press like SMU's is an absolute human good because it stands against the superficiality and simplistic thinking of the media; and it insists on the value of sustained argument, substantial academic and literary works, and the maintaining of a continuous history of engagement with knowledge, judgment, and creativity. SMU Press unites the great monuments of thought and study, education and research, of the past, with those of today -- like all university presses at their best. And it does so in a state which, among its best minds and in its best institutions, including SMU, once sustained its own intellectual and creative traditions with pride.

You have most probably already communicated such points to the president and the board of trustees, and asked them to consider that the comparatively small investment in the press as a well-run and historic institution justifies itself many times over. Perhaps you can plan ways of integrating the press further into the life of the SMU community. I hope such efforts are possible and popular within that community. This decision is like boarding up, or worse, a historic Texas building--and how few there are of the same caliber as SMU Press--that embodies the best of the past. What should be done instead, respectfully and lovingly, is the kind of restoration and repair that brings the past back to us and creates meaning for the future, just as when a beautiful old Texas house is restored and repaired and sustained. I hope you will find widespread and steady support. Apparently you need a generous Texan with the means to donate an endowment; I would hope you can find such a person. Perhaps likening the press to one of those old Texas houses will excite the imagination of such a donor. Imagination, as well as intellect, is what SMU Press has always served.

From novelist Kathleen George:
Dear Kathryn,

I heard the terrible news about the sudden meeting and felt a need to write to you.

I can only believe that someone in the administration at SMU is unaware of the prestige in which the SMU press is held in the wide literary world. I am in Paris now where people speak of it as one of the rare great small presses which keep literary works alive.

Please let me know what can be done to inform the University officials of the high standing of SMU publications. This closing down simply cannot be. It makes no sense to kill a winner. Any university of significance would die to have a press operation like yours.

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