Interview with John O'Brien, Dalkey Archive
We catch up with John O'Brien, founder of Dalkey Archive Press, to discuss translation, the joy of discovery, and the point of literature.
You've just brought out Best European Fiction 2013, edited by Aleksandar Hemon. How did the series get started, and what do you think makes it so successful?
The original concept was suggested to me by a very smart editor at a university press, but he suggested that it be an anthology of the five or six major languages. For marketing purposes, I suppose that would have been smart, but it would have excluded most European countries; as you can tell from our list, I have always tried to be inclusive rather than exclusive. So, I decided that it had to be limited to Europe, and I also wanted it to include as much of Europe as possible.
What's the story of Dalkey Archive? How did you get to where you are, and what kind of cultural need do you see yourself as fulfilling?
The Press grew out of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, which I started in 1980 because the writers I was interested in were being completely ignored; I wanted a discussion to start, and to have it take place on an international basis. The early issues were devoted to Gilbert Sorrentino, Paul Metcalf, Hubert Selby, Juan Goytisolo, John Hawkes, Nicholas Mosley, and Luisa Valenzuela. The impulse was international, because I think that literature has to be read in the larger context of world literature, and you could see, even back then, that 'literature' was being reduced to the Anglo world. I wanted to help create a community of readers who, regardless of how many people there might be, were interested in these and similar writers and would feel that there were at least some other readers out there who agreed with them. And I was also interested in reaching younger readers with these authors, so that they would have an easier time than I did in finding out about them.
Dalkey Archive is noted for its commitment to the radical, the challenging and the avant-garde - you have a backlist that would make any scholar of serious 20th-century and contemporary literature drool - and also for championing literature in translation. How did these two strands become so dominant for you, and do you ever find that they conflict with each other?
The most interesting writers for me are the ones who do the unexpected, the ones who take big risks and want to do what hasn't been done before. Oftentimes, this newness will be formal in nature, but just as often it's a newness in how the world is perceived. This literature is everywhere present, but is kept safely in its place and generally ignored. I suppose that one perverse point I wanted to make is that the impulse to write a novel is an impulse to have fun, to play with the form: that this is the origin of fiction and novel writing, and that this kind of writing can be found in all countries and cultures.
If people like plot-driven fiction and fiction that formally is quite conventional, that's fine. Let people read what they want to. But this 'other kind of fiction' that interests me is not just ignored by the media but is treated with hostility, as though it violates what fiction should be. This kind of bias isn't of course limited to literature. I wanted to make this kind of literature more widely available (if it's not available, it doesn't exist), but then to treat it differently as well: to protect it, to create criticism around it, to treat it as cultural artefact rather than as a commodity.
My desire to do translations was, in many ways, quite selfish: it was the only way for me to be able to read these writers! I am far less interested in the idea of translation as translation wherein all kinds of claims are made about this literature, as though it were a genre unto itself. I don't believe that translations lead to better understanding among people. I think that's a silly idea, and one that's used hypocritically to justify translations and thereby get money for them. I also don't think that literature in general makes for better human beings. I don't believe in many of the bogus ideas out there these days, many of which have become associated with translations and a so-called translation community. Readers want good books; they aren't really concerned about whether they are translations or not. But readers are often overlooked in this multi-layered discussion of translations.
What do you see as the particular challenges facing publishers of translated fiction in today's marketplace?
The challenge is not so much with translations but with serious literature generally. And that challenge consists in getting the word out and gaining intelligent review coverage. So, that is the big challenge. The other challenges are those that were always there: how to afford translations and how to find the most interesting writers? Both of these are economic issues, and there is virtually nothing in the United States or the UK to help. A publisher must invest in travel to countries, must invest far more editing time with translations, and must spend more money in marketing translations than for works originally written in English. Strangely, Dalkey gets criticised for how much it invests in marketing, and gets criticised from within this so-called translation community. I suppose, therefore, I should be saying that this translation community - or certainly some segment of it - is another challenge, and this is a rather bitter pill to swallow.
What kind of constituency do you think there is for literature in translation?
Again, I think the issue is literature rather than translation as such. My view is that reading is a very special, nearly unique experience that some people - but not all - need in their lives, and they will go on needing this. As far as we can determine, our audience is between 20 and 30-years-old: those are the avid fans, the ones seeking out alternatives to what is usually promoted as serious literature. They want to find out what else is out there. These readers in particular are receptive to reading writers that they had not previously heard of. And this audience is, I think, underserved. It is the same audience I sought to reach when I started the Review 33 years ago.
Of your recent releases, we at Booktrust have been especially thrilled by Toomas Vint's A Unending Landscape and the new translations of three works by Danilo Kiš. What's the story behind these books?
The Kiš books came about after years of trying. We had a very good intern, who then became an editor at the Press, who discovered those Kiš books. But there were problems with copyright. Every year or so, we would check with the rights holder, and in one of those years the problems went away...
I am really glad to hear that there is a good reaction to the Vint book. This came about as a result of visiting Estonia and meeting with writers. The book agency there has been wonderful in helping to arrange visits and in setting up meetings. I was able to spend a long afternoon with Toomas, and we worked out a publishing plan for his works. Estonia, by the way, is one of those countries that people don't think of very much, but it is a country that has extraordinary writers who go untranslated. There are several other of these writers that Dalkey will be publishing.
How do Context and the Review of Contemporary Fiction complement your publishing model?
The Review, as I explained earlier, is what came first: it set the tone and direction for all else that followed. I was at the age where it was still possible to say that everyone else was wrong and I was right. That's the kind of attitude that causes one to start a magazine or publishing house. Context came about many years later, and my intention with it was to reach a youngish group of readers with materials I would have liked at that age. There's a naive view that college students get all that they need in the classroom: this simply isn't true. If you will, they get conventional wisdom in the classroom. So, I wanted a publication that would help to direct them to other places, authors, countries. It succeeds perhaps half the time. It's a free publication, and has a good circulation in its print version, and then gets read online as well. I think that it will become more important to us in the future.
Finally, what does the future hold for Dalkey Archive?
Ah, now you're asking the big questions. The issue facing the Press now is what happens with the Press after I'm gone. From the start, my intention was that the Press would go on after me, and much of which I've tried to do over the years has been directed at trying to ensure that the Press has a life that is separate from me. On a very practical level, that means money: having the financial resources in place that will protect the Press and allow it to flourish. On a more abstract level, though, there is the ongoing question of how much Dalkey Archive Press is me: this is a view that is brought to me rather than one I am very much aware of.
I can't do very much about the second of these, but the first one is solved through money, and I suspect that the second one is solved by solving the first one. I don't have any answers for either of these. The outside world will have to decide whether this press should be preserved, and by this, I mean--or I think I mean--a few individuals who will step forward with the money to sustain the Press.
But the second part is quite complicated, and has to do with a 'culture' that Dalkey represents in terms of what a publishing house should be, how should it behave, what risks should it take, how should it position itself in relation to the rest of the publishing world. To select just one example of this: a friend - a very knowledgeable person about the state of publishing - once accused me of behaving more like a museum than a publisher. He meant many things by this, and none of them were complimentary. But when he said this, I thought, 'Exactly! He's right. And what's wrong with this? Nothing.' One of the things that he was pointing out is my disinterest in 'the moment'; my concern with our books is a year and ten years from now. If I had the opportunity to publish a best-seller, I'd probably say no: that's not what has driven me for the past 30 years. What has driven me is creating a safe haven for the finest literature of our time, a place where the books are talked about and valued outside of the marketplace. So, I don't know if it's possible to hand this down to someone, this way of thinking.
I believe, however, that the core idea of the Press can be preserved, and that this will require that our board ensures that it's preserved by wisely selecting a successor, or perhaps a few people who will take my place. And this is a process that we are going through right now. I am trying to find the two or three people who will take my place. If the board and I can find these people, then I think that within three years or so, I'll just be someone who putters around at the Press, someone who tells stories, and someone who will be a bridge of sorts to the future.