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John O'Brien of Dalkey Archive Press, Part 1

July 16, 2009 |  5:00 am

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Before he founded Dalkey Archive Press, John O'Brien was so enthusiastic about new fiction -- and so frustrated by its lack of coverage elsewhere -- that he started the magazine "Review of Contemporary Fiction." The press grew out of that, publishing its first book, Gilbert Sorrentino's "Splendide Hotel," in 1984. Since then, O'Brien's press has published books by Donald Barthelme, Djuna Barnes, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Gustav Flaubert, Ford Maddox Ford, Carlos Fuentes, William Gass, Aleksandar Hemon, Aldous Huxley, Ben Marcus, Herman Melville, Manuel Puig, Ishmael Reed, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Philippe Toussaint and many more. Almost all of its books -- 462 titles -- remain in print, which shows a remarkable dedication to making them a part of the public discussion of literature. In this two-part interview with Carolyn Kellogg, O'Brien shares his ideas on postmodernism and much, much more.

Jacket Copy: The Dalkey Archive is named for a Flann O'Brien [no relation] book. How has that legacy shaped the direction Dalkey has taken?

John O'Brien: Well, Flann O’Brien’s work, rather than the name, has shaped Dalkey’s direction, but even this statement is a bit misleading. O’Brien’s writing is emblematic of the kind of writing I like. It’s his completely invented style (pulled from Irish life but shaped and re-shaped into a language that is O’Brien’s own), the crazed sense of humor, the creation of comedy out of the most mundane but at times desperate materials, the means by which he gets at character, and the reader’s sense that almost anything can be put into this stew that he is making. He absolutely rejects the notion of fiction as mirror to reality and the conventions that one associates with realistic fiction of modern times wherein, it seems to me, there is no need to read past the first page because almost everything to follow has been predetermined. The imagination is let loose in his fiction, and O'Brien takes fiction is a very different direction in terms of form than, for example, his countryman Frank O'Connor. In this sense, O’Brien represents a form of fiction that Dalkey Archive sees as the most interesting. But of course the name of the press (what John Banville has called the “unfortunately named”) was derived from Gilbert Sorrentino, that utter master of contemporary fiction who has yet to be discovered and appreciated. I had wanted the press to be called "Black and White," which was in part homage to one of his early books but also suggested what I thought fiction is: black type on a white page. He thought the press should be called "The O’Brien Press," but I had no interest in calling attention to myself; I was and am just a vehicle for the press, not the press itself. And so one day he suggested "Dalkey Archive," and it made complete sense, God help us.

JC: On your website, the publishing house is described as subversive, innovative, avant-garde, experimental. Do you think postmodern is a useful adjective when applied to fiction? Do you publish postmodern books?

JO'B: The most honest answer, which will seem quite self-indulgent, is that I publish what’s interesting to me and leave it to others to supply the adjectives. Many years ago, together with an editor at the press, we hit upon the word "subversive" because we were frequently asked to describe the fiction we publish and both of us felt that it was in fact "traditional," if one considers the history of fiction. We might appear to be "avant-garde" only in comparison to what is popular or taken seriously in the last several decades, but we are not avant-garde if you think of such writers as Cervantes or Laurence Sterne. If Sterne were writing today, he would be labeled a postmodernist, but what sense would that make, given when he was actually writing? As far as I am concerned, the history of fiction is one of invention, oftentimes playful and conscious of itself, but always pushing limits in terms of what it is and what else it can be. But I absolutely do not think of a Sterne or a Joyce as "experimenters": they didn't experiment, they made these remarkable books whose ingenuity and art are rarely seen in other writers or matched. Their works are finished and complete achievements, not experiments. At the same time, I am very aware that there are writers who are "experimenters," who are trying out different forms and styles, and who are primarily interested in such experimentation. We, however, do not publish them.

JC: How important do you think awareness of form, or a sense of play, is to telling a story in contemporary fiction? 

The answer, and what "All That Jazz" has to do with it, after the jump.

JO'B: I think it should be, and I do emphasize "should," at the heart of contemporary writing, but this playfulness is not always foregrounded as such. Fiction writing began with this strange consciousness of itself and the possibilities of playfulness, as though it were an inside joke with a great deal of eye-winking going on. The critic Viktor Shklovsky spent a lifetime tracing and exploring such things in relation to fiction, even as related to what would seem to be the un-playful writing of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The fiction that I find unreadable is that which seems unaware of anything that has been written before, and the reader is supposed to go along with what is truly a “suspension of disbelief.” I find this fiction to be boring and condescending to the reader, though apparently many people like it. I think that such fiction is best made into a 94-minute Hollywood movie or a television series wherein you know what a character is going to say before the words roll out of the mouth. Or you know who is going to be proved guilty because, despite the evidence early on, the guy is dressed a certain way or is too slick, as though all slick people have probably murdered someone. So, to try to answer your question, I think both writer and reader should have this "awareness of form, or sense of play" in order to be able to take pleasure in what is being written or read. This is a reasonable expectation to have for the reader, in the same way that it is for the other arts. I am also fully aware that some publishers seem to specialize in producing novels that one can "enjoy" without ever having read any novel before and may never read another one after that; such fiction, for me, is passive entertainment of the worst kind, but is often promoted as "a novel that will change your life," as though that is what fiction is supposed to be doing.

JC: Since Dalkey Archive published its first book 25 years ago, how has what is innovative changed? Is it a moving target, or do you think innovative fiction is still working against the same traditions?

JO'B: I suppose that I have answered this in one way or another already. Fiction plays off of a past, itself and other art forms. As Shklovsky and other Russian Formalists argued, writers look around for materials and forms, and this often leads them into the past, resurrecting forms that have sat ideal for a hundred or more years, and sometimes forms that are not literary, such as journals or newspapers. The interesting writers are forever in search of such things, driven by the desire to do something different, though not necessarily wildly “innovative." They will often find a form that seems to have come to a dead end, such as what Dostoyevsky accomplished with the detective story, asking the question: "Is there something here I can use? What can I do with this thing?" Or what Joyce did with Homer. Writers are forever up to new things that are drawn from the past, but then done differently. At the same time, you have a genius like Manuel Puig who exploits a contemporary, or near contemporary form, such as Hollywood movies, but in doing so he is also drawing upon the well-established tradition of "re-telling an old story." Puig discovered a gold mine in movies, which up until then had not been much exploited by writers. Bob Fosse’s utterly remarkable movie "All That Jazz" is an example of something in film. He took a worn-out form of the Hollywood musical and reinvented it, though I know that many people groan if you tell them that this is a great work of art: "Oh no, it’s a musical." These are the same people who will proudly announce that they don't own a television.

JC: What lessons do you think mainstream publishing has missed in the last few decades, either creatively or business-wise?

J'OB: Dear God, one could spend a lifetime trying to answer this. Publishing is a very strange world and seems to function according to practices that are completely un-businesslike. Publishing is very slow to change or to adapt itself to changes that surround it. Most publishing, and perhaps the best of it, is done by way of hunches and instinct, but that is no way to run a business. The publishing world should have recognized 15 years ago the rise of the chains but also their inevitable demise because of the enormous cost of space and personnel. It should have also recognized how developing technologies, such as print on demand and the Internet, would change how people read, how they will get their books, and what form the books might take. As recently as the mid-'90s, and probably after, publishers thought that Amazon could not survive: imagine people buying books without being able to browse! Publishing is always about 10 to 20 years behind the times, and is now suffering enormously as a result. Have publishers learned any lessons for the past few decades? I don’t think so. They are still trying to catch up to about 1990.

... come back for more of our conversation with John O'Brien later today.

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