Edgy Novelist Goes Mainstream

A writer whose books explore the sweetness of mutilation, the beauty of violence and the eroticism of school shootings has found an unlikely home at the corporate-owned publishing powerhouse HarperCollins. Until now, Dennis Cooper, nothing if not a cult icon, has only ever published with independent presses; last week, he left his longtime publisher, Grove/Atlantic, and signed a three-book contract with Harper Perennial, an imprint at HarperCollins that specializes in paperback originals and literary reprints.

Mr. Cooper is a guy who couldn’t get interviews with Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor when he worked at Spin because they both thought the things he wrote about were too weird. Why is a major conglomerate willing to come anywhere near him, let alone put him under contract for a book of short stories, an essay collection and a novel that he has not even begun writing?

Mr. Cooper’s agent, Ira Silverberg of Sterling Lord, is optimistic about the deal, if not a little puzzled by the fact that it happened.

“I’m very, very protective of Dennis, and the whole idea of sending him to this big house was a little bit scary,” he said on Monday. And yet, the big house wanted to publish him, while Grove/Atlantic—once home to the Beats, the French avant-garde, as well as radically experimental New York writers like Kathy Acker and Robert Coover—did not.

As of last year, Grove/Atlantic had published seven of Mr. Cooper’s novels and one collection of his poetry. The first of those novels came out in 1990, while Grove was under the stewardship of publisher Aaron Asher. At that time, Mr. Cooper was already a star in the New York art world and a favorite on college campuses, and Mr. Asher published him with great enthusiasm.

But late last year, when Mr. Silverberg went to Grove’s current publisher, Morgan Entrekin—who bought the company in 1991—with a book of short stories called Ugly Man that Mr. Cooper was ready to publish, Mr. Entrekin said he wasn’t interested unless the collection came bundled with a proposal for a novel. Mr. Cooper didn’t want to do that—he hadn’t yet figured out what his next novel would be about—so he walked away.

Leaving his longtime publisher was something Mr. Cooper had been thinking about for a while anyway, and he has written frequently about his turbulent breakup with Grove on his blog.

“The thing is that the writing has been on the wall with Grove Press for a while now, so although I’m very sad about getting the heave-ho, it’s not a shock,” Mr. Cooper wrote in January. “The head of Grove Press does not like my work much at all. He only really kept publishing me because my work is connected to Grove’s history, and he wanted to maintain that image of the press.”

(Mr. Entrekin could not be reached for comment because he was traveling.)

With his bags all packed, Mr. Cooper just needed somewhere to take them. As luck would have it, one of the people reading his blog was Tony O’Neill, a novelist who had just placed a book at Harper Perennial and was working with a young editor there named Michael Signorelli, whom he liked and recommended. Mr. Cooper mentioned Mr. Signorelli to Mr. Silverberg, who was skeptical at first. “I was kind of like, you’re kidding—Dennis at Harper!?” he said. But when he learned that Harper Perennial publisher Carrie Kania had been a devout reader of Mr. Cooper in college, and that Mr. Signorelli was genuinely interested in working with him, Mr. Silverberg ditched his reservations.

After working as Ms. Kania’s assistant, Mr. Signorelli, just 24 years old, was made an assistant editor two months ago. He is “shocked” and “very excited,” he said, to be editing Mr. Cooper, who, at 55, has already served a full term as an icon of outsider literature. Mr. Silverberg is interpreting Mr. Signorelli’s enthusiasm for Mr. Cooper’s work as a sign that a new generation of college-age Cooper fans might be ripe for recruitment.

The fact that Harper Perennial is a major rather than an independent shop does not bother Mr. Silverberg, who has been a champion of small-press publishing ever since 1985, when he took his first job in the book business as—wait for it—a publicist at the Grove Press. As it happened, Mr. Silverberg said, it was he who brought Mr. Cooper over to Grove in the first place.

“[Harper Perennial is] doing what a lot of us used to think the smaller and independent presses were meant to do, but they’re doing it with a lot more muscle,” Mr. Silverberg said. “It’s kind of the new version of this old-school hipster publishing, happening within a major conglomerate.”

Mr. Cooper doesn’t have any qualms about leaving an indie for a major, either.

“If Sonic Youth did it, I figure I could do it!” he said, referring to when the avant-garde rock band signed to David Geffen’s record company in 1990. “They used their power effectively.”

Edgy Novelist Goes Mainstream