ABOUT DALKEY ARCHIVE
An Interview with John O'Brien
The following interview was conducted in-house at two different times, in 2000 and 2004. The purpose of the interview was to provide a very readable documentation of Dalkey Archive Press's mission and history. It was amended in 2004, and likely will be amended again in the future, to reflect changes in the culture that have an impact on the work we do.
HISTORY AND MISSION
Q: Why did you start the Review of Contemporary Fiction?
A: The writers I was interested in-such people as Gilbert Sorrentino, Paul Metcalf, Douglas Woolf, Wallace Markfield, Luisa Valenzuela-were not being written about. Even though reading itself is a solitary experience, the impulse afterwards or even during is to want to talk to someone about the book, even if this "talking" takes the form of reading what critics have to say. But no one was writing about these novelists, and it was even difficult for me to write about them with any expectation that what I wrote would get published in journals at that time. If you wrote the 5,000th essay on Saul Bellow, you had a pretty good chance of getting it published because editors knew who he was and so publishing yet another essay on Bellow was safe. But they didn't know who Douglas Woolf was, nor did they very much care about not knowing who he was. So, the critical establishment (however you want to define this, from academic journals to the New York Times Book Review) had a lock on what writers would be covered, as well as how they would be covered. One afternoon, Paul Metcalf was visiting me during one of his layovers at O'Hare airport, a habit he had gotten into in his trips across America. This particular afternoon, sometime in the spring of 1980, we were complaining about the state of literary criticism and said that someone had to start a magazine that would cover the writers who were being excluded. I decided that afternoon that I would be the one.
Over the next several months I mapped out which writers I wanted to devote issues of the magazine to, and also decided that the magazine would last for five years, feeling five years was enough time to get said what I wanted said and that at the end of that time, I would be ready to pack it in. I scheduled the first issue for the spring of 1981 and spent the next several months writing to people to ask them to contribute to various issues I had planned, as well as trying to learn how one goes about publishing a magazine. I didn't have a clue about publishing-everything from copyright law to printing-and there was no one and no place in Chicago where you could go to ask about such things, even though there were a number of people doing literary magazines and small press books. It was, and still is, a very scattered community, and you can live in Chicago for years without meeting your "colleagues." I had to learn everything the hard way.
So I started the Review out of a sense of isolation, as well as a kind of outrage at the fact that books and authors were reduced only to marketplace value. And I should say that, from the start, I wanted the magazine to break down the artificial barriers that exist among countries and cultures. It was my view then and now that one can't properly come to terms with contemporary writing without seeing it in an international context, and it's also my view that Americans generally don't want to know anything about the world outside the United States unless they are planning a vacation.
Q: How did you get from the Review to starting Dalkey Archive Press?
A: The Press was never quite planned; I more or less backed into it, because there is no way that any reasonable person could start such a press with the expectation that it would last. Within three to four years after the Review began, there was money left over because there was almost no overhead involved with the Review except for printing bills. I decided that, with this money, it would be nice to reprint a few books, ones that really didn't have much of a chance of ever getting back into print through a commercial house and ones that were perfect examples of the kind of fiction that the Review was championing. Among the first few books were Gilbert Sorrentino's Splendide-Hôtel, Nicholas Mosley's Impossible Object, and Douglas Woolf's Wall to Wall. In fact, all of these authors had been featured in the Review, and yet many or most of their books were out of print. So the Press started with the intention of restoring to print "just a few books." But then within a year or two, a few new manuscripts arrived, ones that deserved to be in print but ones that no other publisher would touch. The relationship between the Review and the Press is this: the Review was providing criticism on overlooked writers, and the Press was in many cases publishing those same writers, or writers who belonged to a similar tradition.
Over the years my hope for the Press was that it would be the "best" literary publisher in the country, even if that honor might be by way of default. Whether it was through reprints or original works, I wanted the Press to define the contemporary period, or at least what I saw as what was most important in the contemporary period. Further, I wanted these books permanently protected, which is why from the start the Press has kept all of its fiction in print, regardless of sales. And as with the Review, I wanted the books to represent what was happening around the world rather than more or less being confined to the United States. Like the Review, Dalkey Archive Press was and is a hopelessly quixotic venture.
Q: What is the aesthetic of Dalkey Archive Press? Avant-garde? Experimental? Innovative?
A: The "aesthetic" of the Press has been identified with all of those adjectives, but I have never agreed with any of them. There is certainly an aesthetic on which both the Review and the Press are based, but I may not be in the best position to say what it is because for me there is no set agenda. I respond to the writers and books I like, rather than trying to fit both of these into a formula. There are many so-called experimental works I don't like, ones that basically go through the motions, ones that almost defy a reader to find anything engaging in them.
Several years ago someone in an interview tried to get from me a one-word description for the kinds of books we publish, and she suggested the words that you have. I finally said that the correct word was "subversive," which is still the word I would use, though I know it's rather useless in terms of trying to pigeonhole what it is we publish. My point was that the books, in some way or another, upset the apple cart, that they work against what is expected, that they in some way challenge received notions, whether those are literary, social or political. And this is precisely the kind of fiction that I find interesting: it does things I haven't seen before, or it requires me to be figuring out how in the hell the writer is doing what he or she is doing. This is of course quite removed from the idea of being a passive reader, that you are in the backseat of the car and the writer is taking you on a tour.
In relation to the idea of the subversive, I do have a very conscious sense in selecting a book for publication that this is an author who is saying something that people don't want to hear-that it will make them feel uncomfortable, even if they love the book. I agree with the view that the Russian Formalists held in the early part of the twentieth century that art alters perceptions and that those altered perceptions can have a rather direct impact on how perceptions are altered elsewhere, the most obvious being in the political realm. For the Formalists, conventional art reinforced the status quo everywhere within a society, which is reassuring for those with power. But art that makes one see things differently can easily affect how people see the world around them and then begin to question institutions of power. This is why dictators tend to be so quick to silence the artists; they understand the subversive nature of art.
Q: Why was CONTEXT magazine started?
A: As its name implies, it was started to create a context for reading modern and contemporary literature and addressing cultural issues. In many ways, it is the kind of publication I wish that I had had access to when I was in college and graduate school because it provides a guide to what to read, but also provides a way to read it. It is founded upon the rather perverse idea-perverse in terms of how books are treated in our culture-that books do not grow old. That is, they are forever being read by someone for the first time, or even the second or third time. But our culture tends to treat literature as though it is "timely" and therefore books are usually written about only when first published, or later when-at least some of them-get written about in scholarly ways, or what passes for scholarship. It's also the case these days that individual writers do not get written about by critics. For instance, twenty-five years ago a serious writer who had, let's say, three or four novels out, would already have a body of criticism written about the work, several articles and a book. That doesn't happen any longer, partially as a result of what has gone on in academia. So it is even harder now than it was twenty-five years ago to find criticism about contemporary writers. CONTEXT is also concerned with a certain kind of literature and with establishing the historical context and tradition for this literature. When you read reviews in such places as the New York Times, there is a sense that this is the first novel that the reviewer has ever read, and inevitably the basis for liking the book and recommending it to readers is whether it has a good plot, likable characters, and tells us something that will be useful in our everyday lives. There is no sense that this particular novel has its place among-and should be evaluated against-a whole history of other novels.
Q: Why is the publication free?
A: The point is to reach as many people as possible, especially college-age students and younger staff at bookstores, in other words people who are more or less just beginning their serious reading. Depending upon subscriptions or bookstore circulation would be nearly hopeless. A typical store, for instance, would probably be able to take three copies if it were paying for them, and those copies would get buried in the magazine section. In regard to college students, most don't even have good stores available to them. So our advisors at schools distribute twenty-five copies or more to students, and some use them for classes. There is no way we would be reaching these students if we had to depend upon paid circulation because there is no effective way of getting to the students.
Q: Why does CONTEXT focus on the 18-24 age group?
A: It focuses upon reaching them, but they are not the only people we are trying to reach. In any event, this is a group that has always been ignored in publishing, except by Time and Newsweek magazines. There is a belief in this country that people this age don't read anymore, as compared, let's say, to students thirty years ago. People who say this handily forget what thirty years ago was like. How many of their college chums were reading Dostoyevsky or Dante? I knew a lot of students who got through college without ever having read a novel, either in class or out of class. So, there is this myth that there aren't any young readers. I think that there are as many as there ever were, and they are as badly served now as they were a quarter of a century ago. They are basically ignored as a group.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of the Dalkey Archive?
A: We are in the process of bringing under one roof the best of modern and contemporary literature and creating a space where this literature is protected from the whims of the marketplace. What this suggests is that at the heart of our mission is an educational, interpretive function that goes well beyond what most publishers are doing, or even need to do. Unlike many small presses, and certainly unlike commercial presses, we have always been rooted in critical inquiry, which is most obvious in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and more recently in CONTEXT. If through some miracle all good books were published and kept in print by other publishers and if there were no longer a need for Dalkey Archive, we would still have the same mission we now have, but would place an even greater emphasis on interpretation and education.
NONPROFIT LITERARY PUBLISHING
Q: If sales are not Dalkey's primary motivation, how can you compete in a market economy? How can you afford to continue publishing books?
A: We are dependent upon donations and grants to make possible what we do. For example, we would not exist now without the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council, especially in the first several years of the Press. The Illinois Arts Council was the first place to give us a grant, and that grant meant the difference between being able to continue the Review and not being able to. The NEA came along a few years later and is primarily responsible for allowing Dalkey Archive to exist. Of course, there are other important funders as well. Certain foreign governments, especially the French, have helped with some of our translations. But the significant funders for the Press, all starting around the same time in the early 1990s, have been the Mellon Foundation, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, and in particular the Lannan Foundation. The combination of these three, each with a different purpose, has had a major impact on the Press and has allowed us to get to where we are now. Without their support, the Press could not have survived. It's that simple.
Q: Why hasn't literature been funded in the same way that other art fields have been?
A: As with all of the arts, literature was once upon a time entirely made possible through patrons. This goes at least as far back as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. They were able to write because their patrons provided them financial support. And this was of course true of all of the other arts. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, literature and commerce got mixed. With the emergence of a literate middle class and the technology to produce books in mass numbers, publishers emerged who could make money from selling books. Thus we have such people as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, whose books could make a lot of money for both the writers and the publisher. Books became a commercial enterprise. The relationship between literature and commerce worked relatively well-with such notable exceptions as Herman Melville-into the twentieth century, though one can easily point to a writer like William Carlos Williams whose books were almost exclusively published by small presses and, later, by James Laughlin at New Directions. Yet, until perhaps as late as the 1970s, one could assume that all "good" books were available and that the marketplace would support them, or at least such pioneers as Alfred Knopf and Horace Liveright wouldn't let commerce completely determine what would be published and what would stay in print.
Starting, however, in the 1970s and '80s, the situation began to change. Larger publishers bought out smaller ones, merged lists, and cut lines that weren't profitable. Even though commercial publishing has always been concerned with profit, it also had certain standards of what a book should be in order to be a book. Those standards no longer exist. If you write a book called How to Lose 50 Pounds in 5 Days, someone will publish it. Since it is printed and has a cover on it, it's a book! It was Alfred Knopf who said that best-sellers would kill publishing, that they were insidious. It would be impossible to find a New York publisher now who would agree with him. You might find some editors who would agree with him in a bar late at night in a very private conversation, but they certainly would not agree with him in terms of how to run a publishing house.
So, a certain path was set for publishing thirty years ago and the only thing that surprises me is that commercial houses haven't changed even more than they have. Commercial houses would object to what I am saying here and indeed they can point to certain books on their lists that are not only remarkably good but also do not make money. True enough.
But if you take a longer view of all of this-let's say from the 1950s to the present-you know that a number of serious literary books are not published at all by these houses or that there is only a token effort at publishing them to maintain a pretense of seriousness. You can see this, for example, with plays, which commercial publishers used to publish. They are now almost the exclusive domain of a nonprofit press. Poetry and translations are very nearly in the same situation. And then you have the reality of how long serious books stay in print. Dalkey Archive publishes or reprints books that thirty years ago would have been done by commercial publishers and would have been kept available, regardless of sales. This is a radical shift in the publishing scene, a shift that has occurred so gradually that it is not easily detected.
Q: So what is the current situation? Are foundations and individual donors the new patrons?
A: The short answer is yes, although foundations and individuals are not accustomed to supporting literature, and certainly not the publishing of literature. Most do not even know that there is a field of nonprofit publishing. Also, on the surface, at least, there does not appear to be a problem. Stores are filled with books, or at least things that look like books, what Gilbert Sorrentino has called "bookoids." One can't claim that books aren't being published by commercial houses. And one can't claim that no good books are being published.
A second problem is that publishing, by its very nature, is national and international in scope, serving communities and artists around the globe rather than serving a particular geographical locale the way that a nonprofit theater does. Most foundation funding for the arts is limited to the geographical location of the foundation, and yet the programming of a publisher goes well beyond that location. So, the publisher does not "exclusively" serve the local community. The reality, however, is that a healthy local literary community is possible only when there is publishing going on in that town. Writers gravitate towards where the publishers are, whether they be book publishers or magazines.
Another problem that literary publishing has is that it is not visible in the way that a theater or an orchestra hall is. A publisher, by and large, doesn't have a public face. A simple test of this is that almost no one, unless you are in the business, pays attention to who publishes a book. This is very different from a nonprofit theater; people strongly identify with the theater because that is where they go to see a play. But most people get their books in a store, not in a publisher's office. While many people say that such and such a book changed their lives, you can be sure that they could not tell you who published the book. The identification is with the book and its author, not the publisher.
All of this adds up to problems in relation to funders. The only solution is that funders expand their understanding of what value literature provides and what is needed for it, or literary publishers emphasize aspects of their mission other than publishing itself that foundations can recognize without compromising what it is publishers do.