Since its founding in 1984, John O’Brien has led Dalkey Archive Press as a stronghold of groundbreaking contemporary fiction. Publisher of three Nobel Prize winners and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, O’Brien continues to champion innovative fiction in resistance to the pressures of the American marketplace: publishing non-traditional narrative forms, keeping all books in print regardless of sales, and translating countless works of world literature despite the isolationism of the American critical establishment.
Recently, as O’Brien envisions his inevitable departure from the press, he has considered merging with Open Letter Press, a literary translation press housed at the University of Rochester. Catching wind of this, I reached out to O’Brien via email. As dark, witty, and audacious as the press which he helms, below O’Brien discusses American indifference to literary translation, the tendency for presses to inflate sales figures, the need for coalitions among independent presses, and the future of Dalkey Archive.
DASHIEL CARRERA: What do you see as Dalkey Archive’s role in contemporary literature and how has this role changed over the past decade?
JOHN O’BRIEN: The origin of Dalkey Archive was with my starting the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1980. I wanted it to be a forum for the discussion of contemporary fiction from around the world, and I wanted it to bring attention to writers who were being dismissed by the critical and academic establishments. The writers I was reading and was passionate about were ignored — such people as Gilbert Sorrentino, Nicholas Mosley, Douglas Woolf, Paul Metcalf, Jean Rhys, Luisa Valenzuela, Wallace Markfield, and many others. Though creating criticism around their work might develop a wider readership and open up different ways of looking at literature, many of their works weren’t in print because they didn’t sell well enough. So, I began Dalkey to get back into print what I thought were very important works of fiction and far more engaging than the books that were selling better and (how shall I say this?) easier to read. Again, I was working against the grain.
This soon led to my doing translations because you could see that the trend in commercial publishing was not only to put works out of print because of the marketplace (the American form of censorship) but it was showing signs of moving away from translations. In college, I cut my teeth on books from New Directions and Grove Press, especially their translations. And of course one had to learn about these books on one’s own since in America we have “English” departments that stay strictly within the boundaries of English. My view is that if literature is going to be taught, it should be taught as world literature. And this of course means using works in translation.
There are now many small presses that have taken up the cause of translations, very good presses such as Open Letter and Archipelago. But the media tends to avoid reviewing translations, especially from the smaller presses that are now the primary sources for publishing translations. And at the same time, the larger houses publish virtually nothing. Every once in a while a foreign writer will break through, and this then is held up as evidence of some kind or other. But we are talking about the great exception here, and of course we live in an age in which literature in general is marginalized.
But to try to answer your question much more briefly. Dalkey’s role is much the same as ever. Having emphasized translations for so long, it may be time to look to more American and British writers, as well as English writers from other English-speaking countries. I have gotten older, too much older along the way, and these days I’m focused on how to hand over Dalkey to the next generation and keep in print the 850 or so books we have. The United States is not great at preserving literature or at preserving publishing houses. I am hoping to help create a new model for how a publishing house can go on beyond its founder with its mission and values preserved. Copper Canyon and Graywolf are great models of presses that have survived intact but Dalkey is quite different from both of these in terms of its history.
Is the impending merger or collaboration with Open Letter part of this new model for the next generation?
What might be possible between the two presses is a work-in-progress. Both I and Chad Post, the publisher of Open Letter Press, have always been very interested in doing things in publishing that haven’t been done before. There are two issues here: 1) should small presses collaborate on a regular basis, share information, share office space, and perhaps even share staff? To their detriment, I believe, these presses do not think of ways to collaborate. A number of years ago, I tried to get a group of presses together to act as a group for the sake of publicity and fundraising. As a group we could do things and gain attention that weren’t possible on our own. But nothing came of this, largely because each press wanted to be fiercely independent; 2) the second issue is whether a literary press inevitably has to disappear when its founder does. These presses contribute so much to the literary culture and life in this country and beyond — shouldn’t they go on existing into the future?
Chad and I have been talking about what happens with Dalkey when I’m gone, and right now we are focused on how we can be of help to each other. Dalkey has this very substantial backlist of over 850 books, and Open Letter has who I think is the smartest person there is in terms of marketing. Right now we are speculating on everything from a close alliance to an eventual merging of the two presses.
Speaking only for myself, I am not quite ready to step away from Dalkey but I am certainly ready to turn over a number of our operations. One does reach the point when time takes a toll, one gets worn down. At the same time, I am very interested in creating a new model for small presses, especially in the area of long-term financial stability.
Stay tuned, as they say.
What would working with Open Letter enable Dalkey to do that it can’t do now? What would you tell an independent press who was skeptical of collaboration?
In this collaboration, Chad and I are primarily talking about marketing, publicity, and sales. He is a genius in this area of publishing. I know this is a vastly general statement without specific details to give you but we don’t have the specifics entirely developed. He would have a Dalkey backlist of about 850 titles to work with, as well as our frontlist. This would fill an enormous gap for Dalkey Archive.
What would I tell another independent press? Try to find another press to work with to address weaknesses, and start a partnership that benefits both. That could mean sharing staff, space, distribution. The hoped-for result would be lowering expenses while increasing revenue. The partnership could be with a press that editorially is doing something very similar, but could also be with an unlikely partner. For instance, could there be a partnership between a press doing highly literary books and one devoted to social causes? I think that there could be. Might they even merge? Sure.
In a 2004 interview for the Review of Contemporary Fiction, you stated that you though the ideal funding model for Dalkey would be some kind of endowment. Do you still believe that today?
Some presses only have a few years in them; they do some good books but then it’s time to get back to a reasonable life. The founders of some have no desire for their presses to continue, and fear what they will become in the hands of others. One of Dalkey’s principles was that our books — or literary books in general — should stay in print permanently, and do so regardless of sales. But this meant that something or someone had to protect the protector. Thirty years I began on how Dalkey could stay alive and flourish even if I couldn’t. Ultimately, it seemed to me, it had to be endowed, so that it could withstand any threat — a key person leaving, a distributor going bankrupt, an unexpected turndown in donated money.
So, I began generating ideas and testing various models. And continue to do so. I am rather convinced that I know how to do it but still need a few other pieces in place before starting to. The guru of nonprofit presses, Jim Sitter, started calling me Moses a number of years ago — that I would lead the Press to the Promised Land but would not myself see it. This was fine with me. I hope that this is what will happen.
Is it a model for other presses? Maybe. But I have built a backlist of books that should not be allowed to disappear, and I built it in a very conscious way — very well-known names next to very little known. I wanted it to be obvious why this press should not disappear. I built it to last.
What excites you about contemporary American fiction and fiction abroad?
One of the liabilities of being in publishing is that one tends to get isolated with one’s own books or books to be considered for publication, and this limitation for me is especially true of contemporary American fiction because I have been so focused on literature from other countries.
Having said that: my view is that the best writing these days is coming from Latin America and Eastern Europe. I’ll give you a short (I hope it’s short) list of the writers (and one book per writer) that Dalkey has been publishing who I think are phenomenal, each breaking new ground in one way or another and each struggling to find their audience in America: Dumitru Tsepeneag (Vain Art of the Fugue, Romania), David Albahari (Gotz and Meir, Serbia), Svetislav Basara (Chinese Letter, Serbia), Drago Janćar (I Saw Her That Night, Slovenia), Mario Levi (Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale, Turkey), Ignacy Karpowicz (Sonka, Poland), Joao Almino (The Book of Emotions, Brazil), Luis Chiterroni (The No Variations, Argentina), Pablo Katchadjian (What to Do, Argentina), Eloy Urroz (The Obstacles, Mexico). I could go on and on, of course.
These writers are not necessarily “experimental” (that awful word with which reviewers often label Dalkey writers), but they approach fiction writing as though, at one and the same time, they are very aware of the tradition of the novel but are writing the very first novel. There is freshness to their works, and never a sense that one has already read so many books like them. The reader is pulled into the making of the book, and amazed at how it is being done. And most of them have a very dark side coupled with an outrageous comic sense. They belong to that tradition established centuries ago by Cervantes and Laurence Sterne.
Are the titles you mention above able to find audiences abroad more easily? Why do you think these titles might be struggling to find an audience in America?
This is where I say things that lead to trouble. Publishers have a distinct tendency to exaggerate numbers. There was a meeting years ago among small presses at the Mellon Foundation and each of the presses was asked what its single greatest problem was. The first one said that he prints 1,000 copies of a book of poetry, it immediately sells out, and he doesn’t have the money to reprint. Next publisher: same problem, he’d print 3,000 copies, it would sell out overnight, and didn’t have the money to reprint. I sat there thinking, What the hell? I publish fiction, and in the first year I typically sell 400-500 copies. I thought about it. If their books of poetry sell like this, then why don’t they have money? Well, they didn’t want to say how they really sold — too embarrassing. The next time when I was together with the same presses, the first one said that, yes, poetry, they just sold 25,000 copies. Foreign publishers play the same game in trying to sell rights: “50,000 copies sold already!” This week, I received an email from a foreign publisher who didn’t know the game: his email said “1,200 copies already sold.” A moment of truth.
There are always the very rare exceptions, but so rare as not to be worth mentioning. I was on a panel recently with one of my fellow-publishers, and before the panel started we were swapping figures on how typical translations sell for her, and she is the head of a very distinguished press. She said the typical number is 700. Another moment of truth. When the panel began, there was a surge in that number to several thousand.
Alright. So don’t believe publishers.
Does literature sell better in foreign countries? Per capita, yes, it seems to. These are countries where books and literature matter in a way they don’t matter in the United States (I can hear the uproar already).
Many years ago, I became letter-writing friends with James Laughlin, the founder of that great press, New Directions. In a letter to him, I said that, given the kinds of books that he and Dalkey publish, the potential size of the audience is 50,000, but they won’t like everything we publish and it’s difficult getting the word out to them. He wrote back and said that 50,000 was the size in the 1930s or 40s; now it’s 30,000! We were disagreeing over 20,000 in a country with a population over 300 million. Strangely, I don’t think either of us found this dismaying — just a statement of fact.
One publishes these books because one loves them. If you want to make money, sell insurance. Or even worse, go get a job at an Arts Council. The positions pay well and you don’t have to know how to read.
Or go be an editor in New York and do books about how to lose 35 pounds in a week.
One of my great regrets was that I never met James Laughlin in person. He invited me to come to visit him in Connecticut, but I didn’t travel in those days. Without New Directions, there never would have been a Dalkey Archive. New Directions and the old Grove Press when Barney Rosset was running it: they were the forerunners.
To try to answer your question: the media doesn’t help in that effort. Space for book reviews has shrunk, but even so, the media avoids reviewing literary translations, especially if they are from small presses. If Knopf’s name is on the binding, they pay attention, but that doesn’t greatly affect sales.
What is your hope for the future of American literature?
Even though I am not as current as I should be with American literature right now, here is my firm belief about both writers and readers: writers write; they more or less have no choice about this despite how marginalized literature generally is in the public eye. We continue to get very interesting submissions from both young and veteran fiction writers. The greater challenge is readership. It’s not a matter of whether the readers are out there but how to reach them effectively. This view proceeds from my view of both readers and the act of reading. No matter the distractions in our time, there is a deep need for many people to be reading. Reading is an experience, I think, unlike any other. I don’t quite know how to put this. Younger people — those in their teens and early twenties — turn to literature as a means of finding themselves. It’s in those years that reading habits are developed, but those habits remain even if the reasons for reading may change over the years. Reading is usually a solitary act in which you have to cut yourself off from everything around you and to be engaged with the book: it’s you and the book talking to each other. You come away from that seeing the world around you differently, with a new way of interpreting that world. I will not claim that the experience makes for a kinder and more humane human being — that kind of nonsense is reserved for the National Endowment for the Arts to say and its ongoing effort to appeal to local communities in order to keep Congress off its back; as far as I am concerned, the NEA has now become a social service program that has little to do with supporting excellent art. Reading proceeds from a need, a deep psychological need to find oneself and to try to make some sense of the world and the people in it.
But how to reach these readers? Electronic media are picking up some of the slack as print media for literature disappears. Dalkey is part of an initiative to create an international book show, and we will have an hour per week to interview writers, both our writers and those of other publishers. Trafica Europe Radio is spearheaded by Andrew Singer. It launches May 10 in New York and should be of interest to a wide audience. You can read about it here. It’s a huge undertaking and has been in development for the past three years.
In brief, I think the future of American literature is bright if the publishers are ready for it. I hate to end on such a promising note, but this is what I think.