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.