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John O'Brien of Dalkey Archive, part 2

July 16, 2009 |  4:50 pm

Johnobrien_dalkey In part two of our interview with John O'Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive Press (which is, by the way, not an archive), he talks about isolation, outrage, and what's new and exciting in literature after almost 30 years.

JC: The Dalkey Archive seems to be closely keyed to your own aesthetic. You described launching this project -- which began with the magazine the "Review of Contemporary Fiction" -- out of both isolation and outrage. Has becoming a publisher of criticism and of books themselves alleviated either of those?

JO'B: Yes, the press is purely an expression of my aesthetic interests and what I admire and like to read. I know that this must sound arrogant, but I do not intend it to be. Many people have pointed this out to me over the years, how closely tied the books are to my tastes and even personality, and they usually do not intend this as a compliment. When I published "Voices from Chernobyl" a few years ago (a book that went on to win a National Book Critics Circle Award), someone came up to me on the street and said that this “is not a Dalkey book. You’ve sold out.” I said I liked the book. He said, “So Dalkey is just about YOU?” I said, facetiously but with a straight face, “Of course, it’s always been just about me. Is this news?”

In any event, all I can say is that there are books, fiction as well as nonfiction, that I like, and that is what I publish. These books, with few exceptions, seem to be as out of fashion today as they were nearly 30 years ago. I suppose I feel less isolated today than I did back then, but only God knows why. Perhaps I’m too old to feel isolated, perhaps one has to have a sense of a long future ahead to feel the isolation I did back then.

Well, over 10 years ago, someone accused me of running the press as though it were a museum, and I thought at the time, “Exactly!” I wanted to create a constellation of books that would endure time, realizing full well that the audience for such books would develop slowly but that I would keep all of them in print, no matter how they were selling year to year.

As to rage, well, yes, that is still there, though perhaps not as obviously so as back then. Things are wrong with the world, all kinds of things, and I deeply believe in the possibility of change. So, the press is a response to, or a protest against, the way things are. The press challenges accepted conventions and beliefs. I don’t know why someone would want to be a publisher other than to be up to something like this. One usually starts a press as a form of protest against something or other, and then you hope that you don’t at some point become a parody of yourself. The “rage” at times has come out in ways that later on I have regretted. John Updike, for instance, was once a favorite target of mine, but over the years, while certainly knowing what kinds of things I had said about his writing, he did some very generous things for the press. But when you’re young, you often don’t realize that such figures are also human and not just icons that are available as objects of criticism. Yet the rage is still there, and I hope is properly directed at the frauds, the self-promoters, manipulators, and those who misuse the power that has come to them or that they have carefully acquired over a lifetime. I have, admittedly, a knee-jerk reaction to people with power, largely because of how they use such power. But this knee-jerk reaction has not always served some of the best interests of the press. For better and for worse, I do not know how to do things any differently, nor perhaps do I want to know.

As I get older, the looming question for the press is what happens to it after I’m gone. I started the press with the intention that it would outlast me, or else it would have been little more than an act of self-indulgence. The press has reached the point it has because many people have helped it over the years, perhaps chief of which was the Lannan Foundation, which means Patrick Lannan. The foundation’s generosity exceeded what one can ever hope from a foundation. But we have had several other funders who have helped as well, and we have a very dedicated board of directors that has been of great help to the press. The support of the University of Illinois has also been indispensable for us. And of course there have been some very good staff; this has by no means been a one-man show. But the press’s future is inevitably tied to its aesthetic vision, and that vision can be continued beyond me only if we succeed in our multi-year effort to raise an endowment that will at least provide the financial basis for the press to endure, face all of the challenges that come our way, and will allow the press to completely fulfill its mission, especially in its role as bringing the best of world literature to English-speaking countries, regardless of this literature’s value in the marketplace. Such an endowment will happen because, I believe, a few individuals will recognize the value of the press and the need to preserve it.

JC: Has the Internet, to your view, affected the discussion of literature?

JO'B: This will not be a popular thing to say, but I think that the Internet has had an insidious effect on “the discussion."

We're not offended. More from John O'Brien after the jump.

JO'B, continued: Is it worse than the effect than what the bastions of literary tastes in the past have had? Probably not. But there is a lack of intelligence and depth in so much of what gets said and talked about on the Internet in relation to literature. Gossip and "being in the know" pass for in-depth reflection and argument. I am also struck by a certain social dimension of the Internet, that so many of the people who invest a great deal of time writing for it or on it are so friendly, so sincere, so righteous, so community conscious in an awful kind of way. "I want to be liked" seems to be a motive behind what one reads there, rather than wanting to take strong and perhaps unpopular positions. Under a banner of being controversial, so many on the Internet are preaching to each other and trying to be as inoffensive as possible, as though literary criticism and discussion are just another form of what people are doing on such things as Facebook. There’s a disquieting sense of "I want to be known, I want to be recognized, I want to be liked." I don’t think that much of interest or enduring value comes out of such desires or motives.

JC:  I assume that, like all publishers, the Dalkey Archive has a big stack of unsolicited manuscripts. What other avenues do you pursue to find new work?

JO'B: In addition to accepting unsolicited manuscripts, we have a number of ways of finding books. Since we do a large number of translations, we pay close attention to suggestions from translators, who are usually very good readers and recommend only those books about which they are enthused. I personally also travel a great deal to foreign countries to meet with publishers, critics and academics to get their suggestions and recommendations. Nothing is a good substitute for such travel and the ability to have in-depth conversations with a wide range of people; this of course is a very time consuming and expensive way of finding books, but it is the most effective. But there are also new works by authors we regularly publish and have a commitment to. One would think that the Internet would make this process easier because of the large amount of information that there is available, but frequently there is little information about the kinds of authors that we are looking for. Book conventions are also rather ineffective for us because publishers are usually promoting their most recent books that may not be their best books. I am not interested in the newest or the hottest, and the meetings at conventions are usually limited to 30 minutes, and then on to the next one. So, of all of these, visits to other countries is by far the best means for our finding books.

JC: After close to three decades, what do you find energizing and exciting about literature?

JO'B: Finding remarkable books books throughout the world is very exciting. I don’t know how else to put it. It is like letting loose a kid in a candy store. To come across some writer or work that I previously knew nothing about, and to realize that I am in the presence of artistic greatness and am reading something unlike what I have ever read before, this is a thrilling experience. And then to be able to make this work available to other readers is very gratifying and meaningful. I can think of no better way to pass one’s time in this world than to be making something that I believe will endure well beyond me and that will give great pleasure to some reader fifty or one hundred years from now. I never ceased to be amazed by discovering a book that is doing something different, that the author has found a new way of resurrecting an old form or is treating a subject that no one else has touched, or dealing with it in some very different way. Reading is a rare pleasure that I think is unique. The reader moves at his own pace, his imagination up against that manifested in the text. One must imagine as one reads in a way that one doesn’t with other art forms, especially when up against the kind of literature that Dalkey publishes. One can’t dose off for a while and still be engaged, or one can’t be distracted. It’s an area of experience where one is alone, and one can derive a special form of delight.

JC: What are some of the best books of the last five years that we haven't heard of? What makes them so good?

JO'B: This is really difficult to answer because there are so many. "Vain Art of the Fugue" by the Romanian writer Dumutru Tsepeneag is a masterpiece: comic, sad, inventive, all working out of a simple structural principle of a man catching a tram and trying to get to a train station to meet a woman; this scenario is repeated in a variety of ways (thus the title). One reads this and thinks, "How simple an idea! Why didn’t anyone do this before, or do it in this way?" And yet it is not the "idea" of the form but its execution that makes this work so compelling.

Another is Micheline Marcom’s "Mirror in the Well," an obsessive novel about a woman, apparently happily married, who has the time and opportunity to try to "find herself." She proceeds to have destructive sexual affairs that cheapen and degrade her. Marcom is working in a very risky area here, writing about the truly liberated woman who has to come to terms with her freedom to do as she wants, and this freedom destroys her. No other woman writer I know has looked at this subject, or at least not the way that Marcom does.

A third one is non-fiction, Viktor Shklovsky’s "Energy of Delusion," whose overt purpose is to figure out how Tolstoy wrote "Anna Karenina." As Shklovsky did for a lifetime, though not a single work of his criticism was translated from Russian until Dalkey published his "Theory of Prose" almost 20 years ago, he uses Tolstoy as a way of exploring how writers write, how they select one method rather than another, how else could they have done something. Shklovsky is one of a kind, and it’s terribly unfortunate that he wasn’t translated into English many, many years before because I think his work would have changed how we think about and approach literature. Brilliant as he is, Shklovsky always approaches a book or writer with utter humility, asking the simplest of questions and then speculating on possible answers. In the process, he opens up the world of fiction in all of its glory and complexity.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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