33 1/3 editor Ally Jane Grossan talks about the series’ past and future

333 spines
For those who love music and books, there’s nothing finer than Bloomsbury’s critically acclaimed 33 1/3, which examines individual, seminal albums, in pocket books that pack a punch. The 33 1/3 series celebrates its 100th book, on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, on Thursday, September 11 and will be having a party for its 10th anniversary on Thursday, October 2, at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn.

Ally Jane Grossan is a commissioning editor at Bloomsbury. She edits academic books in the realms of pop music and sound studies and is editor of the 33 1/3 series, taking over from founding editor David Barker in November 2012. She is also co-editor of the forthcoming textbook, How to Write About Music. We spoke with Grossan via e-mail about the series and its history.

What was the impetus to start 33 1/3? Was there a particular book or piece of writing that was the inspiration?

David Barker started the series in the early aughts. I know that he got the idea from another book series that the previous publisher, Continuum, had on contemporary novels. That series, Continuum Contemporaries, was comprised of short books about beloved contemporary novels like Disgrace, High Fidelity, and The Buddha of Suburbia, among many others. David was inspired to apply that same formula to beloved albums of music.

How were you involved, and how have you stayed involved in the series over the last decade?

I became involved with the series like any sensible college student terrified of unemployment — as an intern. A college professor of mine had penned one of the early books in the series and he put me in touch with the series editor at Continuum. I had read a few of the titles in the series at that point and was elated to be involved.

That first summer, I eagerly took on reading projects and if I remember correctly, the first 33 1/3 manuscript I got to read was Mark Richardson’s book on Zaireeka. That internship turned into a full-time job as an Editorial Assistant the following summer. I was promoted up through the ranks and eventually wound up as the music editor when Continuum was purchased by Bloomsbury. Now in addition to the 33 1/3 series, I edit academic titles in popular music, sound studies and political theory at Bloomsbury, the new home of the series.

book cover - 333 master of realityIn addition to journalists and other writers, you’ve had musicians scribe installments. What do you find they bring?

The books in the series by musicians have two audiences. Black Sabbath fans are sure to pick up the 33 1/3 on Master of Reality, but because of the fact that’s it’s penned by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, we’ve got a whole different fan base interested in that book. I now have a deeper appreciation for the Mountain Goats song “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” off All Hail West Texas. Master of Reality is one of my favorite books in the series and takes a radical approach to exploring an album: fictionalizing it.

How has the series changed from its initial concept — was fiction in the early planning, for instance?

I think David Barker’s original concept was to really get to “the heart of matter” of great albums. When the series began, he had solicited proposals from writers he admired, but by the time the tenth or eleventh book came out the proposals were flooding in. There were so many creative approaches: fiction, guidebooks, memoir, etc. that the scope was expanded. During the last open call in 2014, I received almost 40 pitches with a “creative” approach including novellas, screenplays, one-act plays and graphic novels.

Which album proved most difficult to produce a book for?

The Clash’s London Calling. Three different writers have been under contract to write this book over the years and not one has been successful.

Are there any books you’re still crossing your fingers to see written? If so, what are they?

Definitely. Look for a wish list during the 2015 open call on 333sound.com.

book cover - 333 let's talk about loveWhich book has proved to generate the most commentary (it’s Let’s Talk About Love, isn’t it?)?

Yes, it’s Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love. That tiny book spawned a whole new conversation about taste and snobbery. It’s widely taught in college classrooms in freshman seminars, creative writing classes and by pretty much any cultural studies professor who comes into contact with it. I think it’s so successful because students react so strongly at first with, “Why the hell have we been assigned a book about Celine Dion?”

But then after reading it, their concept of highbrow and lowbrow culture has completely warped. There were so many interesting reactions to the book that we brought out a separate new edition that includes essays by James Franco, Mary Gaitskill, Nick Hornby and countless others.

What do you think of series such as Music On Film, which have applied the research / overview / pocket book concept to other genres?

I haven’t read any of the Music on Film books but I just might have to pick up the Spinal Tap one. Is there one on Monty Python and the Holy Grail? There should be. I do like it when the 33 1/3 apparatus of a tiny, focused study is applied to other genres. Our media studies editor has just started a series on video game design with the first installment covering Shigeru Miyamoto. Coincidentally, I’ve just signed up a 33 1/3 on the soundtrack to Super Mario Bros. In academic publishing, we call that synergy (rolls eyes).

Do you have any wild plans for the next ten years?

Yes, we’re going global! The possibilities for the series are infinite. As long as albums are being made, there are 33 1/3rds to be written. I receive so many brilliant pitches on Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Brazilian artists; the list goes on. So I’m teaming up with musicologists with various region-specific specialties to expand the 33 1/3 series to cover the greatest albums released all over the world. While our wide 33 1/3 audience may have never heard of artist like Yellow Magic Orchestra or Cui Jian, their influence in their respective countries is huge. Their albums deserve the microscopic 33 1/3 treatment and they’ll get it soon!

For more information on the 33 1/3 series, visit their website.

You can RSVP to the 33 1/3 tenth anniversary party and find out more details at the Powerhouse website.

Also — for the entire month of September, Bloomsbury has all books in the series for $10 (33 1/3% off!). You can get them at Bloomsbury’s store.