Exploring Modern Magical Realism

Whatever Happened to Avon Bard?
b y   b r u c e   t a y l o r   ~   M A R G I N

AMONG OTHER things, the book imprint, Avon Bard, was known for its surreal, often dream-like and vivid covers. Also distinctive was the white banner across the top of the cover announcing the title, author's name and one or two short comments by publishers, writers or newspaper reviewers announcing the wonderfulness, brilliance or cleverness of the author.

And then there were the illustrations. The cover art for Seven Serpents and Seven Moons, for instance, a novel written by Demetrio Aguilera-Malta and first published by Avon Bard in l98l, features a vivid blue background, a Christ-like figure stretching his arms across the frontispiece and, lower down, heads of snakes, a crocodile and a chimpanzee smoking a cigar while a very large frog sits upon its head.

Another cover (The Ex-Magician and Other Stories, by Murilo Rubiao) depicts one set of railroad tracks curving off toward the left, half way up the cover; in the foreground, right, a very exotic, blue-petaled flower (an orchid?) and above that, on tall poles, a narrow awning covering the length of a walkway, the end of the awning hung in narrow flaps hang as if made from a doily.

My introduction to the Bard line came about in the mid-seventies when I purchased Eye of the Heart, the classic collection of "Short stories from Latin America" (as the cover blurb says) edited by Barbara Howes. What fascinating cover art: a woman, exotic, with dark hair cascading down over her right shoulder and swept back over her left, a thin gold necklace with a gold crucifix, the slight smile and the gaze—oh, that penetrating, haunting gaze, like she's studying you, knowing you.

Then I saw other books of similar cover design: for example, One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its equally exotic image of a man and a woman in a passionate embrace with a lurid red-yellow sun behind them, and around the figures, a jungle—or, are they themselves part of the jungle, a strange blend of flesh and foliage? Evocative. Strange. And soon thereafter, Hopscotch by Julio Cortazár, with the same style of cover graphics: the white masthead with the black lettering. The cover art: the Eiffel Tower on the left, the moon in the upper right, and a gentleman, sitting on a building, cigarette dangling from his right hand, looking down at a small figure on the street. In front of them, the lines in place for a game of hopscotch.

At that time, I'd never seen such interesting, intense, evocative art before on paperback covers.

Still, my newly acquired books sat on various bookshelves for several years like books so often do. When I did finally read them at last, I discovered the cover art and the work of the writers made for a perfect marriage, and I became hooked.

Not only that, I was curious. As a writer, I was producing work in a similar imaginative vein. Until that point, I had no idea what the heck it was called, or even that it had a name.

These books (of 37 Avon Bard or Bard publications surveyed that mention the work is magic realism) represent the imprint's goal in publishing "distinguished Latin American Literature"—more often than not, described as "surreal," "dreamlike," "a blending of fantasy and reality." In the two specific books mentioned, we see an attempt to define Magic Realism:

"Now recognized as one of the major literary influences in Latin America, Aguilera-Malta made a vital contribution to the development of 'magic realism,' a creative blend of fantasy and myth, imbued with the vision of social and political turmoil."

Seven Serpents and Seven Moons seemed worthy enough for the publisher to qualify it as magic realism. However, when one looks at the entire list of 37 books published under the Avon Bard or Bard imprint, it seems almost inescapable that the line was dedicated to Magic Realism.

What exactly was the vision at Avon Bard in the first place?

The story begins in May, l955 when Avon, under Charles R. Bryne, editor-in-chief since l951, announced the Bard Books imprint. This was to be a quality series, and had been in preparation for a year and would be available only through bookstores. The first titles were The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyaim and The Meaning and Psychology of Dreams by Wilhelm Stekel. Later, the publisher re-released Henry Roth's Call It Sleep.

In June, l959, the Hearst Corporation purchased a controlling interest in Avon and it became known as the Avon Book Division of the Hearst Corporation. However, the Bard imprint seemed to have gone into a period of dormancy from the late fifties; it wasn't until l969, under Robert Wyatt, that Bard, which had evolved out of the Avon Library under Peter Mayer (named Avon's editor in-in-chief in l965 and publisher in l969,) was relaunched and began publishing distinguished Latin American novels which included the softcover edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez in l971. This distinguished Bard as a major American publisher of Latin American fiction, according an article by Wendy Smith in Publisher's Weekly (1981).

The distinction came about, according to Wyatt, not through any particular plan: "We sort of tacked the Latin American titles on as they came along."

It appears that the Bard imprint has been flexible; while publishing a great deal of Latin American fiction, it has also printed and reprinted works by Saul Below, Thornton Wilder, Janet Frame, Ismael Reed, Clancy Sigal and Heinrich Boll.

As of l981, there were about l00 titles on the Bard list. Many had a print run of l6,000; however, titles such as Emperor had a print run of 40,000 and Hotel, 23,000. As of l982, One Hundred Years of Solitude, which also won the Nobel Prize for literature that year, had a print run of 800,000.

Bard continued to be a distinct imprint until late l986. In l987, for reasons not clear, a transition occurred involving the Discus imprint.

The Discus imprint first appears on books published during that year; it is seen, for example, on Graveyard of the Angles by Reinaldo Arenas. On its title page, "A Bard Book/Published by Avon Books" was replaced by the Discus Imprint and "Avon Publishers of Bard, Camelot, Discus and Flare Books," although the cover design is exactly the same as Bard from the year before.

However, the book sizes increased by 25 percent—from the characteristic pocket book format to a 5¼×8-inch trim size.

By May l988, another change. The books shared the same cover graphics, but on the inside title page (for instance, in Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado), the Avon Books Discus logo was imprinted. Gone is any mention of Bard.

Up until the late 80s, and early 90s, the same cover format keeps appearing: the vivid art, the one-quarter white masthead. But then even that last vestige of Bard, for reasons that are again not clear, went into apparent dormancy.

It is in a 1998 Publisher's Weekly article by Calvin Rein that we learn that publisher Lou Aronica "has announced a revival and makeover of its dormant Bard imprint, with plans to publish literary fiction and nonfiction in hardcover, trade paper and mass market formats." However, in the book titles that were to be released, the emphasis on Magic Realism and South American Literature is not evident.

In July, l999, HarperCollins purchased Avon. The following September, they announced layoffs; Avon publisher Lou Aronica was let go. The Bard imprint was discontinued altogether.

One can only wonder, especially with the success of such films as Big Fish, Moulin Rouge and American Beauty, among others, along with Oprah's celebrated feature of One Hundred Years of Solitude just last January, how an imprint such as Bard, with its contemporary emphasis on Latin American literature and a 15-year track record as a successful magical realist publisher, wouldn't find today's atmosphere very welcoming to such a publishing venture again.

This author hopes so.

With thanks to Rick Simonson of Elliot Bay Book Company and Zola Maddison, Graduate Staff Assistant at Suzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle, for their advice and assistance in preparing this article -- Bruce Taylor



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