On chapbooks

So, last week, as I was posting here looking for a title for my new chapbook, I was also trawling Facebook for title ideas and a friend of mine asked what a chapbook even was. She even apologized for being “just too lazy to Google it.” Which was totally cool with me — we’ve all been there — but after I started writing my (unnecessarily long for a Facebook comment) answer, I decided to Google it myself. And you know, the answers my friend would have found if she hadn’t been “too lazy” aren’t really very good answers at all.

Title page of a chapbook
Title page of a chapbook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you went to Wikipedia, for instance, you’d think the chapbook died in the Victorian era. The section on “History” gives the necessary background in broadsheets and pamphlets and then offers a very brief paragraph — just two lines — on the actual heyday of chapbooks, which begins not with their peak but with their decline:

Chapbooks gradually disappeared from the mid-19th century in the face of competition from cheap newspapers and, especially in Scotland, religious tract societies that regarded them as “ungodly.” Although the form originated in Britain, many were made in the U.S. during the same period.

And that’s it.

After that comes a long paragraph you would expect to be about the resurgence of the form in the mid-20th century and its current — and increasing — popularity. Instead, the longest paragraph in the entry actually goes backward in time, re-addressing the origins of the form and then, somehow, talking about pamphlets that might have sort of resembled chapbooks dating to the 17th century.

About the modern chapbook, Wikipedia offers only this single, short sentence: “Modern collectors, such as Peter Opie, have chiefly a scholarly interest in the form.”

Which is absurd for two reasons: one, there is SO much more to say about the contemporary chapbook! And two, “chiefly scholarly interest” my ass. The chapbook is alive and well as a literary art form and I don’t know a single collector who views them with “chiefly scholarly interest” — we’re readers and writers engaging in a living art, man.

So, back to Google: the second hit that turned up on my search led to what looks like a student project, which isn’t about chapbooks at all but concerns a specific story and its manuscript history; the chapbook background serves as a contextual introduction to this other discussion. And it’s a decent background, but it, too, focuses on earlier texts than I might like, so it’s more confusing than helpful.

The rest of the hits that Google turns up, for the first few pages anyway, are links to chapbook contests (almost all poetry) or chapbook “publishers” (most of whom are actually vanity presses).

So I thought I’d write my own perspective on the chapbook. It’s not comprehensive, and it’s not very scholarly, so kids, don’t plagiarize this for your homework. Rather, these are just some things I’ve picked up about chapbooks in classrooms, from fellow writers and publishers, and from my own experience.

The thing we call a chapbook today really got rolling in the Victorian era. Some of these other histories like to take it back to the 17th century, the 16th century, even the 12th century, but I think it’s a mistake to do so. There are a lot of reasons for this having to do with form and intent, but the simple reason is that the word “chapbook” doesn’t even show up in the language until 1824.

In form, the chapbook was — and still is — a small literary work, smaller than a book but larger than a pamphlet. Most of the time they were — and still are — self-published, too. The idea was that it was a way to share your work when no one would publish it, or as a means of convincing a publisher to publish it, or as a cheap, small form of literature for people who couldn’t afford to buy books. (The word “chapbook” is short for “chapman book”; chapmen were street peddlers whose name might be derived from the word “cheap.”) A lot of histories point out that in the chapbook’s heyday, education was improving and literacy was skyrocketing, but the newly-literate masses couldn’t afford to build a traditional library and thick, leather-bound volumes, so they turned to chapbooks (and their later Victorian successors, the penny-dreadfuls) for their literature. And this has a lot of truth to it, but for the discerning reader and the avid collector, the chapbook did sometimes enjoy a reputation as something more than just cheap street writing.

They died out toward the end of the Victorian era. Some sources blame the rise of newspapaers and magazines for the decline, and there’s a lot of truth in that, but, as I said, people figured out how to print books more cheaply, too, and the penny-dreadfuls became hugely poplar. (One of the first of them was a story called Varney the Vampire, which helped launch the vampire genre and paved the way for Dracula. But that’s another post.)

L.A. Is Evil chapbooks
L.A. Is Evil chapbooks (Photo credit: ‘Lil)

For a long time cheap novels and magazines held sway, and for the most part they still do, but then the ’60s happened. As subversive poetry and essays met up with the advent of the copy machine, we saw a resurgence of self-produced pamphlets, radical treatises and manifestos but also some poetry. And from there, the chapbook reemerged as well. As the hubbub of the counterculture died down, chapbooks slipped into the shadows again, but they haven’t ever quite gone away, and these days, they’re a legitimate literary form in their own right, with contests exclusively for the chapbook. And yeah, there’s also still a strong DIY culture of people who produce their own.

One thing that’s interesting is that chapbooks, as a modern literary form, have almost exclusively consisted of poetry. Initially, you saw a lot of political essays, too, but when things settled down and the chapbook became its own thing, poetry was king. This makes a lot of sense: when you only have a couple dozen pages in a pocket-sized book, you need a form known for its brevity and compactness – something you could stuff in your pocket and read in an afternoon at the park.

Generally speaking, chapbooks still cling to this modern tradition. But in the last few decades, we’ve seen the emergence of flash fiction, first as an experiment and then as a sub-genre and then as a vogue. These days, it’s widely accepted and popular as a prose form, especially now that so many lit journals are web-based and people are reading more fiction on e-readers and iPhones. Also recently, the stand-alone story publishers like One Story magazine, featherproof books, Artistically Declined Press, and Mendicant Bookworks have garnered a ton of respect. Consequently, we’re seeing more fiction chapbooks now. There are even a few publishers who specialize in chapbooks, including fiction.

In my own work, I have produced six chapbooks now. The first two are pathetic photocopied-and-saddle-stapled collections of bad poetry I wrote in college and ran off on the school’s copy machines. I was ambitious and took them seriously enough back then — I even managed to talk the campus bookstore into stocking them and sold all of three copies (I made $6) — but seriously, they’re pretty bad.

Even so, the second one includes a few short fiction pieces, because even back then, I was questioning the weird prejudice against prose in chapbooks and wanted to try to squeeze some fiction in.

The other four are all unpublished. Two of them are sitting at publishers right now; they both are pretty short and consist almost entirely of flash fiction (though one has a relatively long story and a couple of just-over-flash stories). A third one is longer, almost a slim book-length collection, with some longer stories in it; the whole thing is Texas-themed. And the fourth is a trilogy of connected stories that loosely ties into my long story collection; I have this idea of using that chapbook as promotional material for the long story collection.

Cherry: Chapbook
Cherry: Chapbook (Photo credit: bjanepr)

Why so many? I respect the form. I like it the way I like flash fiction, actually: it manages to say a lot in relatively little space, so you feel like you’re reading a full collection — and you are — but everything is more compact, more meaningful, yet, maybe, less burdensome. A chapbook is a little like the Winnebago of fiction books: it can sometimes be a bit awkward, but it’s portable, it’s fun, and if you get in there and start opening doors, you realize how much space can exist in such a thing, that no nook is wasted, no corner useless, and it is really, really well designed.

Or, that’s the hope, anyway.

I do still like the idea of DIY chapbooks, and I might like to self-publish one here soon. In fact, I have a neighbor who does hand-bound bookmaking, and I have this idea that we could get together — I could print the pages and she could do the binding — and put out a super-limited run of a handmade chapbook. But that’s a project far down the road.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

3 thoughts on “On chapbooks

  1. Sam, here’s the thing. You can go and amend the Wikipedia entry – that’s the ethos of wikipedia. 🙂

    Once, when I was researching for my second novel, I spent a lot of time on sites dedicated to the Battle of Waterloo. One one in particular they had pages and pages dedicated to ‘How Wikipedia has got it wrong’. I thought to myself at the time that as most google searches were going to bring up Wikipedia before they brought up their specialist site, if they really wanted to inform people they could have spent all that effort up-dating the Wikipedia pages. I have found duff info on Wikipedia, but not a lot – it’s not Yahoo Answers, where some dork in Winsconsin gives a one-line wrong answer to everything…


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