A Week In Books: New Quixotes on the block

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All new literary publishers kick off with the best of intentions. Time after time, they raise hopes of bringing the friendly face and personal touch into a business otherwise governed by the stiff code of the corporate suit. So Bloomsbury began, floating on a tide of goodwill from authors and agents, in the late Eighties. Now, it looks as if the stunt-addicted cynicism bred by the Harry Potter millions has wrecked all that. If persistent failure can spoil young businesses, so too can runaway success.

I had suspected as much before my midnight tryst on 20 June, when I was amazed to find myself manhandled by the firm's minders as Bloomsbury plc slammed its doors in the face of waiting reviewers - to whom it had promised to deliver copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. At least that meant I appreciated the joke on page 579, when Harry, Ron and Hermione ponder career options for young wizards in the run-up to their OWL (Ordinary Wizarding Level) exams. "Have you got what it takes to train security trolls?" asks one leaflet. My impression is that Bloomsbury plc has some way to go in this department.

Yet the gap that the pristine Bloomsbury (not the vainglorious, post-Potter Bloomsbury) once aimed to fill remains as wide as ever. Many writers crave the attention of a smart and sensitive "boutique" publisher, capable of tilling the middle ground between the hopeful amateur and the conglomerate behemoth. As long as that need endures, idealists with more taste than cash will try to satisfy it.

The latest squad of literary Quixotes to hoist their lances is Maia Press, created by Jane Havell and Maggie Hamand. This experienced duo have, between them, picked up awards for fiction-writing, editing and design. Managed, for now, on the slenderest of shoestrings, Maia vows to provide premium levels of editorial support and consultation to authors. It will pay royalties at a standard rate, but offers no advances. Neither do the founders yet draw any salary. This is back-to-basics fiction publishing, a cool breeze blowing through an industry hothouse that likes to cultivate big money, big talk - and big fibs.

Maia has launched its little bark with a trio of attractive paperback originals priced at £7.99: Sara Maitland's story collection On Becoming a Fairy Godmother and a pair of novels, In Denial by Anne Redmon and Leaving Imprints by Henrietta Seredy. From the title I have read so far, Maia's ship deserves a fair wind. The estimable Sara Maitland (who, at the other end of the entertainment business, once collaborated with Stanley Kubrick) rings changes on myth and legend in 15 ingenious stories. She skips gleefully around the flamboyant Feminist Gothic territory marked out by writers such as Angela Carter and Marina Warner. Female figures from folklore (a nostalgic Maid Marion), the Bible (prophetic Deborah and murderous Jael), Greek myth (Helen of Troy, who runs an aerobics class) and history (the Scots witch Isobel Gowdie) people a brisk, witty gathering.

What unites Maitland's culture-crossing cast is a shared preoccupation with memory, ageing, and the "strange longings and losses" it bestows on women - as well as their vision of the renewal that lies on the far side of regret. Let go of youthful folly and worry, these fabulous creatures suggest. Instead, "dig deep into the resources of your own imagination and of all the stories you have ever heard and come out proud and wild and free". Life-transforming magic ceases to be the monopoly of those pesky celebrity teens. As Stephen Sondheim almost wrote: send in the crones.

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