Despite its growth, Sellerio has retained one of the original aspects of its founders' personalities: Sellerio is the center observed from the fringes, and the discovery that the fringes are really the center.
The Sellerio publishing house was founded in 1969 with a small investment by Elvira Sellerio (née Giorgianni), and the renowned photographer Enzo Sellerio. The idea of opening a publishing concern took shape discussing it with writer Leonardo Sciascia and anthropologist Antonino Buttitta. The four of them were friends and prominent figures in Palermo's cultural landscape. In the 1960s Palermo was a peculiar city. For a thousand years it had been one of the capitals of the West, then for another thousand years it had been peripheral. The city had been a crossroad and melting pot of every crucial element absorbed by Western culture, which was both tied to and detached from. In each of its seasons of cultural fervor (and the ‘60s were indeed years of fervor), it produced an egocentric and conceited type of minor intellectual, and an original and creative type of major intellectual: both types marked by that peculiar dialectical movement, gazing out onto the center of the world from their own little nooks. Intellectuals who had to observe how the single styles and truths proclaimed elsewhere as infallible and absolute, became fragile and full of exceptions in Sicily. At first, they react with a certain resentment towards the center; a mixture of haughtiness and desire. Then they discover that after all their own little nooks are in turn the world. So, since the very beginning, Sellerio has been a publisher on the outer circle, interested in the fringes. Being a sort of province of the soul has enabled it to express a degree of universality, and has allowed it to be a subject instead of a niche; because a subject is inevitably a point of view. The province of the soul becomes the center.
Sellerio's early strategy consisted in a return to what Sciascia defined as an "agreeable" culture, in which engagement is not explicit: a culture of lightness that does not renounce elegance. It is a culture of ideas - it goes without saying - but ideas manifested through the beauty of things.
The end of the ‘60s marked the culmination of a considerable ideological and political commitment within Italian culture. But as always happens, once the summit has been reached, the downward slope begins. During Sellerio's early days there was the intuition that, willy-nilly, something was about to happen, something that in Italy would soon be called il riflusso, i.e. political disillusion. Everyone, it seemed, read solely about politics. During those years, everything was political, even literature and art. Everything was essential, ascetic, important and ostentatiously of poor means. If something had to be cultured, well at least let's have it experimental. Sellerio's first series was called La civiltà perfezionata (The Perfected Civilization). The books were printed on fine paper, and their pages uncut. Published in this series were the texts of the belletrists: refined and rarified literature, light years away from the storm of politics. The series was characterized by two stances, apparently parallel but actually convergent: Sicilian literature and the not very well known, yet very much refined, texts of European literature. Two stances that converge because they depart from the common "enlightenment" belief that culture needs no adjectives; that culture is in itself a transforming force. The first two publications were Mimi siciliani by the aristocratic scholar Francesco Lanza, and Lettere sulla Sicilia by Eugène Viollet Le Duc, a melancholic French writer (and architect) of autobiographical inclinations. Each volume contained engravings by great illustrators (Mino Maccari, Tono Zancanaro, Bruno Caruso) and an introduction that was called Nota (in part for the sheer delight of indulging in modesty, and in part for the sheer delight of indulging in the vanity of modesty). These Note, chiefly modeled on Sciascia's own occasional writings, hardly ever tackled subject matters directly, but rather alluded to them by seeking links and suggestions seemingly unrelated, yet actually hitting the target better than any zealous form of documentation. The Note are introductions, but they represent, if you will, individual readings. Lanza, for example, was introduced by Italo Calvino.
The first turning point: Leonardo Sciascia's L'affaire Moro
During its first years, dissent spread within Sellerio. Some wanted to maintain the small and dignified dimension of an amateur undertaking (along the lines of the Milanese house Scheiwiller, or of Salvatore Sciascia in Caltanissetta). Others wanted to measure themselves against the open sea, through a stronger, public, and perhaps national presence. In 1978 a book by Sciascia acted as the sword of Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian knot. L'affaire Moro is a classic Sellerio book, perhaps the first typically Sellerio book. Published as part of an élite series such as La civiltà perfezionata, it sold more than 100,000 copies. The book is a bold denouncement, written in Sciascia's characteristically magnificent prose. Though written to be read and enjoyed, it does not shy away from its responsibilities. In short, it marked the beginning of the Sellerio style, and established the publisher's place on a national level.
The second turning point in Sellerio's history was the Memoria series of small blue books. This marked the advent of small publishing, at a time when the common slogan was “small is beautiful.” The involuntary development of a virtuous circle involving the notion, in the collective imagination, of the Italian style.
Sellerio's arrival on the national scene was, as Sciascia would have said, fortunate, fortuitous, and fraught with events. It was, nevertheless, an opportunity not to be missed, and in the autumn of 1979, the series that was missing from Italian publishing was issued, with the blue covers and the characteristic bindings. The first thing to take into consideration with the Memoria series is the graphic design. The deep blue of the covers was revolutionary in an era of metallic gray book covers, as was the fine paper, and the figurative pictorial image at the center of the front cover, framed in the same color given to the letters of the title. This produced a chromatic effect that accentuated what, even then, was considered daring originality. The color of the letters and of the frame changed from book to book: yellow, sky-blue, gray, red. Rarely was white used. The book as physical object once again became a thing of elegance, with its short square shape designed to fit easily in a jacket pocket. There was only one rule regarding contents: an intelligent curiosity ("intelligent", Sciascia used to say, meaning an "intelligence with the reader" - thus named after the expression "intelligence with the enemy" - that must be swift, subterranean, and perhaps complicit) that the book was to communicate to the reader, rendered with literary style and, above all, a sense of lightness. And the sense of something delightful. With an overlapping of fortunate events that often surrounds capable enterprises, the Memoria series accompanied – and perhaps encouraged or, perhaps we can even dare say, inaugurated – a series of innovations in what was then beginning to be called l'immagine. It was the beginning of the small publishing style. It originated in the idea of considering Italian products examples of beautiful objects: made well and made with style. The Memoria series, which attracted readers and reviews, sustained this tendency and was sustained by it.
The Bufalino case as consecration on a national level. What other publisher could have discovered Diceria dell'untore? Sellerio's discovery of Bufalino was the result of the publisher's style of work.
A man already on in years. A typical Sicilian secondary school teacher, extremely cultured, yet impenetrably reserved. Not enamored of self display, he looked more like an erudite than a talented writer. And then there was his ultra-refined baroque style, which seemed to belong to the first half of the 20th century. The Sellerios' 1981 encounter with Gesualdo Bufalino was fortuitous, and came about only as a result of Elvira's approach to work. She had, by then, begun to work full time as editorial director of the enterprise. Her approach, or style, was marked by limited planning and limitless curiosity. This combination made possible the small inquiry that led to the discovery of Diceria dell'untore in Bufalino's desk drawer. Would Diceria dell'untore have been discovered by a more disciplined publishing firm, or as the result of a more efficient approach to work? Be things as they may, Bufalino's novel marked Sellerio's consecration among national publishers. It won a well-deserved Campiello award in 1981, and heralded a change in Italian culture, as well. Italian narrative literature had, as it were, turned an important page, and ushered in a season of new writers.
Essays related mostly to history, to the sciences of language, and to what in Italy used to be called varia umanità. Scientific rigor, yet at the same time the attempt to revive the old literary essay, which does not consist in mere vulgarization, but rather in the ability to preserve style, and a sense of curiosity and innocence when addressing even the most theoretically abstract and scholarly subjects.
In 1976, Sellerio inaugurated two series of non-fiction and essays: Biblioteca siciliana di storia e letteratura and Prisma. Biblioteca was Sellerio's first history series. The title of the series vaguely evokes the figure of Benedetto Croce. Though perhaps without any explicit intention, Croce indeed underlies the entire history of Sellerio. Why is it that we cannot but call ourselves Croceans? Perhaps because Croce was, above all, a great man of letters. The history pursued by Sellerio is history with a capital H, what Les Annales termed evenementielle: the history of great and important events. Not that there isn't also a social and material history, a micro-history: see the Quaderni series, founded in 1984. Above all, these books were published with the goal of being read more than studied (yet Sellerio also publishes a book by historian Francesco Renda, Storia della Sicilia dal 1861 al 1970, the most complete history of post-Unification Sicily). Prisma, instead, represents the most classical and most specialized non-fiction series: it addresses language and literature studies in the broadest sense of those terms. Other series have followed throughout the years: La diagonale and La nuova diagonale, concerning themselves with essays, letters, diaries, biographies and travel memoirs; and Fine secolo, created and directed by Adriano Sofri and devoted especially to the literature of civil rights. But the rule that binds them all to a common ground is always the same: never lose the innocence and curiosity. Never lose sight of the fact that knowledge is a horizon, not a finish line. If it loses its power to enchant, knowledge is mere technicality for technicians. An example of this is La Sentenza, by Luciano Canfora, which investigates the execution of the Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, and the involvement in that execution of the Hellenist scholar Concetto Marchesi. Canfora is intellectually engaged in this work, owing to his leftist political stances, his anti-Fascism, and to being a Hellenist himself. But this engagement does not prevail over objectivity; if anything, it gives the book greater passion. Since 1990, Canfora has directed Sellerio's Città antica series, the only collection of classical writings with parallel critical studies and texts aimed at the vast sphere of non-specialized readers.
The 1980s of Tabucchi, Consolo, Adorno, and Maria Messina. Sellerio finds itself on the frontline when, with a new sense of pride, Italian narrative literature discovers, or rediscovers, another generation of writers.
Following the publication of Diceria dell'untore, the name of Sellerio was somehow linked to the new wave of Italian writers. Sellerio, in its own small way, helped revive the exportation of Italian culture. It was soon discovered that in addition to the translation rights for Bufalino's works, the translation rights for other writers published by the company were also extremely in demand, above all books by Antonio Tabucchi, Maria Messina and Luisa Adorno. It is in many ways indicative that they were not previously unpublished writers, but rather writers whose works had fallen into oblivion. They were rediscovered and their careers (or, in the case of Maria Messina, posthumous reputation) relaunched by Sellerio; yet another sign that the ‘80s indeed represented the age of small publishing; an age capable of exercising a modernizing function in contrast with the idleness and lethargy of the giants of the publishing industry. For this new wave of Italian écriture Sellerio (together with few other names) constituted a driving force.
The sleeping giants awaken. The large publishing groups absorb the smaller ones, with managers in place of the old guard, marking the end of small publishing. Sellerio, together with a few others, resists the trend, and launches a new genre of Italian detective stories. Can Sellerio still be considered a small publisher?
In 1990 Sellerio published a slender volume. It was a novel, the story of a police commissioner investigating a murky crime during the transition from the Republic of Salò to the democratic Republic of Italy. The commissioner, named De Luca, is an honest, if skeptical, officer of the Fascist regime, in a period in which these two qualities – honesty and skepticism – cannot go hand in hand. The novel has all the makings of Italy's first “revisionist” thriller, focusing as is it does on the human interest of an historically perverse age and time. But its author has enough culture, talent and intellectual honesty to stem what could have been a small scandal and, indeed, make a literary case of it. One can say that Carta bianca, by Carlo Lucarelli, marked the beginning of a new genre of Italian thriller. It was followed by a flood of Italian and foreign crime writing, para-detective or police-like novels, of remarkable interest and success that seemed to confirm the prophecy of a great Swiss writer imported to Italy by Sellerio. In 1985, Sellerio published a novel by the peculiar and unorthodox Swiss crime writer Friedrich Glauser entitled Il grafico della febbre (The Graphics of Fever), which has seen roughly ten reprinted editions. It was Glauser who wrote, “detective stories are the best tool for spreading reasonable ideas.” Sellerio's current series of crime writing seems to abide by this prophetic motto. At the summit of this crime writing adventure, a new genre was discovered: the Sicilian school of crime-writing, along with two names that tell their own tale: Andrea Camilleri and Santo Piazzese. Sellerio's editions of their books were successful and sold widely. Riding the wave of a singular sort of 1990's euphoria, Sellerio also inaugurated other series, such as Il castello, which chronicles the great literature of the non-globalized world – from Ireland to Latin America, and from Africa to the works of African-Americans. Among these series is Il divano, which places under the reader's eyes the most diverse eccentricities, such as those pertaining to collectors of non-existent objects, or to scholars of lost objects, or to manuals concerning totally useless practices. The series encompasses a range of remarkable intellectual richness, of spirit, elegance and charm, that enabled Sellerio to escape the publishing storm of the ‘90s, which was marked by the awakening of the sleeping giants. This was the age of the new and immense publishing concerns, the so-called synergies that took books out of the hands of publishers turning them into gadgets. Again, Sellerio was an exceptional and unique case of small-scale publishing: an artisan as sturdy as industry itself; a group of amateurs better than the best professionals; the most rigorous method to their madness. But are we still talking about a small publisher?
The new millennium saw a new experience for Sellerio, with five million copies of Camilleri's books printed in Palermo and read all over Italy, not to mention the translation rights sold as far as Japan. But that's not all.
First of all, one must comment on an experience potentially overwhelming and transmuting, and that, in fact, has not overwhelmed and transmuted. And here, we are not just talking of number crunching. Once again, in the age of multimedia and multinational communication giants, Sellerio has been involved in launching Italian literary culture from a Sicilian province where one can still eat jasmine ice cream, and some can still invest time in happily wasting it. Perhaps we still need to fully realize that in these first years of the new millennium there are two things that Sicily has exported everywhere, and only two things that are full of meaning and hope: Sicilian wine and Sellerio's “Blue” series of books. And not just books. In the autumn of 2000, Sellerio made its way into the field of multimedia publishing by producing, for the first time in Italy, an interactive cartoon inspired by the book Cane di terracotta. Sellerio's edition is a video-book and interactive game: an invention that was awarded honorable mention for the “Bologna New Media Prize.” Besides Camilleri, returning to books as such, the new millennium has been, for Sellerio, a period characterized by writers from all over the world; writers much spoken of, and who will be spoken of for a long time to come. For example, the Canadian Margaret Doody, who published a book and was then dropped by her American publisher. Doody made a detective of the philosopher Aristotle, a deductive and realistic detective, and sent the speculative thriller genre back in time. By ironically projecting him into the past, she removed every sort of anachronism from the genre, namely the speculative detection, something that looked impossible at the time. Her first book was a best seller, followed by another two in worldwide exclusive. More than 100,000 copies were sold. Another publishing miracle involved an elderly English woman, the European literary case of the last few years: Penelope Fitzgerald. She addresses the profound, invisible, and intense issues of life with a grace characterized by such delicate colors, that she has been compared to the great English painter JMW Turner. Add to this the sad yet captivating entertainment of the Russian writer Sergei Dovlatov, who has written about his experience as a Russian at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a sharp and desecrating wit that has the power, it has been said, of Anton Checkhov. Add to the brew the Chilean globetrotter Roberto Bolaño, “a Borges in the age of Tarantino,” according to a French critic writing on the occasion of Bolaño's death. A writer who dug into the past of South American dictatorships, and into the present of the Diaspora of his South American generation, to write realistic stories that seem to spring from Dadaist and Surrealistic fountainheads. Not to mention Sellerio's most recent discoveries: two detective-story writers of remarkable quality, and remarkable success. Gianrico Carofiglio, the author of Testimone inconsapevole and Ad occhi chiusi, is the creator of the Italian “legal thriller”, and his protagonist - the lawyer Guido Guerrieri - is so real, that only a long term magistrate like Carofiglio could have created him. And then, finally, there is the Catalan Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, with her two protagonists, inspector Petra Delicado and her deputy Garzón, so unforgettable with their bittersweet humor and kind-hearted harshness, that the famous critic Cesare Cases has called the author as an “outstanding Mediterranean writer.”