The following interview was conducted in-house at two different times, in 2000 and 2004. The purpose of the interview was to provide a very readable documentation of Dalkey Archive Press’s mission and history. It was amended in 2004, and likely will be amended again in the future, to reflect changes in the culture that have an impact on the work we do.
HISTORY AND MISSION
Q: Why did you start the Review of Contemporary Fiction?
A: The writers I was interested in-such people as Gilbert Sorrentino, Paul Metcalf, Douglas Woolf, Wallace Markfield, Luisa Valenzuela-were not being written about. Even though reading itself is a solitary experience, the impulse afterwards or even during is to want to talk to someone about the book, even if this “talking” takes the form of reading what critics have to say. But no one was writing about these novelists, and it was even difficult for me to write about them with any expectation that what I wrote would get published in journals at that time. If you wrote the 5,000th essay on Saul Bellow, you had a pretty good chance of getting it published because editors knew who he was and so publishing yet another essay on Bellow was safe. But they didn’t know who Douglas Woolf was, nor did they very much care about not knowing who he was. So, the critical establishment (however you want to define this, from academic journals to the New York Times Book Review) had a lock on what writers would be covered, as well as how they would be covered. One afternoon, Paul Metcalf was visiting me during one of his layovers at O’Hare airport, a habit he had gotten into in his trips across America. This particular afternoon, sometime in the spring of 1980, we were complaining about the state of literary criticism and said that someone had to start a magazine that would cover the writers who were being excluded. I decided that afternoon that I would be the one.
Over the next several months I mapped out which writers I wanted to devote issues of the magazine to, and also decided that the magazine would last for five years, feeling five years was enough time to get said what I wanted said and that at the end of that time, I would be ready to pack it in. I scheduled the first issue for the spring of 1981 and spent the next several months writing to people to ask them to contribute to various issues I had planned, as well as trying to learn how one goes about publishing a magazine. I didn’t have a clue about publishing-everything from copyright law to printing-and there was no one and no place in Chicago where you could go to ask about such things, even though there were a number of people doing literary magazines and small press books. It was, and still is, a very scattered community, and you can live in Chicago for years without meeting your “colleagues.” I had to learn everything the hard way.
So I started the Review out of a sense of isolation, as well as a kind of outrage at the fact that books and authors were reduced only to marketplace value. And I should say that, from the start, I wanted the magazine to break down the artificial barriers that exist among countries and cultures. It was my view then and now that one can’t properly come to terms with contemporary writing without seeing it in an international context, and it’s also my view that Americans generally don’t want to know anything about the world outside the United States unless they are planning a vacation.
Q: How did you get from the Review to starting Dalkey Archive Press?
A: The Press was never quite planned; I more or less backed into it, because there is no way that any reasonable person could start such a press with the expectation that it would last. Within three to four years after the Review began, there was money left over because there was almost no overhead involved with the Review except for printing bills. I decided that, with this money, it would be nice to reprint a few books, ones that really didn’t have much of a chance of ever getting back into print through a commercial house and ones that were perfect examples of the kind of fiction that the Review was championing. Among the first few books were Gilbert Sorrentino’s Splendide-H?tel, Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object, and Douglas Woolf’s Wall to Wall. In fact, all of these authors had been featured in the Review, and yet many or most of their books were out of print. So the Press started with the intention of restoring to print “just a few books.” But then within a year or two, a few new manuscripts arrived, ones that deserved to be in print but ones that no other publisher would touch. The relationship between the Review and the Press is this: the Review was providing criticism on overlooked writers, and the Press was in many cases publishing those same writers, or writers who belonged to a similar tradition.
Over the years my hope for the Press was that it would be the “best” literary publisher in the country, even if that honor might be by way of default. Whether it was through reprints or original works, I wanted the Press to define the contemporary period, or at least what I saw as what was most important in the contemporary period. Further, I wanted these books permanently protected, which is why from the start the Press has kept all of its fiction in print, regardless of sales. And as with the Review, I wanted the books to represent what was happening around the world rather than more or less being confined to the United States. Like the Review, Dalkey Archive Press was and is a hopelessly quixotic venture.
Q: What is the aesthetic of Dalkey Archive Press? Avant-garde? Experimental? Innovative?
A: The “aesthetic” of the Press has been identified with all of those adjectives, but I have never agreed with any of them. There is certainly an aesthetic on which both the Review and the Press are based, but I may not be in the best position to say what it is because for me there is no set agenda. I respond to the writers and books I like, rather than trying to fit both of these into a formula. There are many so-called experimental works I don’t like, ones that basically go through the motions, ones that almost defy a reader to find anything engaging in them.
Several years ago someone in an interview tried to get from me a one-word description for the kinds of books we publish, and she suggested the words that you have. I finally said that the correct word was “subversive,” which is still the word I would use, though I know it’s rather useless in terms of trying to pigeonhole what it is we publish. My point was that the books, in some way or another, upset the apple cart, that they work against what is expected, that they in some way challenge received notions, whether those are literary, social or political. And this is precisely the kind of fiction that I find interesting: it does things I haven’t seen before, or it requires me to be figuring out how in the hell the writer is doing what he or she is doing. This is of course quite removed from the idea of being a passive reader, that you are in the backseat of the car and the writer is taking you on a tour.
In relation to the idea of the subversive, I do have a very conscious sense in selecting a book for publication that this is an author who is saying something that people don’t want to hear-that it will make them feel uncomfortable, even if they love the book. I agree with the view that the Russian Formalists held in the early part of the twentieth century that art alters perceptions and that those altered perceptions can have a rather direct impact on how perceptions are altered elsewhere, the most obvious being in the political realm. For the Formalists, conventional art reinforced the status quo everywhere within a society, which is reassuring for those with power. But art that makes one see things differently can easily affect how people see the world around them and then begin to question institutions of power. This is why dictators tend to be so quick to silence the artists; they understand the subversive nature of art.
Q: Why was CONTEXT magazine started?
A: As its name implies, it was started to create a context for reading modern and contemporary literature and addressing cultural issues. In many ways, it is the kind of publication I wish that I had had access to when I was in college and graduate school because it provides a guide to what to read, but also provides a way to read it. It is founded upon the rather perverse idea-perverse in terms of how books are treated in our culture-that books do not grow old. That is, they are forever being read by someone for the first time, or even the second or third time. But our culture tends to treat literature as though it is “timely” and therefore books are usually written about only when first published, or later when-at least some of them-get written about in scholarly ways, or what passes for scholarship. It’s also the case these days that individual writers do not get written about by critics. For instance, twenty-five years ago a serious writer who had, let’s say, three or four novels out, would already have a body of criticism written about the work, several articles and a book. That doesn’t happen any longer, partially as a result of what has gone on in academia. So it is even harder now than it was twenty-five years ago to find criticism about contemporary writers. CONTEXT is also concerned with a certain kind of literature and with establishing the historical context and tradition for this literature. When you read reviews in such places as the New York Times, there is a sense that this is the first novel that the reviewer has ever read, and inevitably the basis for liking the book and recommending it to readers is whether it has a good plot, likable characters, and tells us something that will be useful in our everyday lives. There is no sense that this particular novel has its place among-and should be evaluated against-a whole history of other novels.
Q: Why is the publication free?
A: The point is to reach as many people as possible, especially college-age students and younger staff at bookstores, in other words people who are more or less just beginning their serious reading. Depending upon subscriptions or bookstore circulation would be nearly hopeless. A typical store, for instance, would probably be able to take three copies if it were paying for them, and those copies would get buried in the magazine section. In regard to college students, most don’t even have good stores available to them. So our advisors at schools distribute twenty-five copies or more to students, and some use them for classes. There is no way we would be reaching these students if we had to depend upon paid circulation because there is no effective way of getting to the students.
Q: Why does CONTEXT focus on the 18-24 age group?
A: It focuses upon reaching them, but they are not the only people we are trying to reach. In any event, this is a group that has always been ignored in publishing, except by Time and Newsweek magazines. There is a belief in this country that people this age don’t read anymore, as compared, let’s say, to students thirty years ago. People who say this handily forget what thirty years ago was like. How many of their college chums were reading Dostoyevsky or Dante? I knew a lot of students who got through college without ever having read a novel, either in class or out of class. So, there is this myth that there aren’t any young readers. I think that there are as many as there ever were, and they are as badly served now as they were a quarter of a century ago. They are basically ignored as a group.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of the Dalkey Archive?
A: We are in the process of bringing under one roof the best of modern and contemporary literature and creating a space where this literature is protected from the whims of the marketplace. What this suggests is that at the heart of our mission is an educational, interpretive function that goes well beyond what most publishers are doing, or even need to do. Unlike many small presses, and certainly unlike commercial presses, we have always been rooted in critical inquiry, which is most obvious in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and more recently in CONTEXT. If through some miracle all good books were published and kept in print by other publishers and if there were no longer a need for Dalkey Archive, we would still have the same mission we now have, but would place an even greater emphasis on interpretation and education.
NONPROFIT LITERARY PUBLISHING
Q: If sales are not Dalkey’s primary motivation, how can you compete in a market economy? How can you afford to continue publishing books?
A: We are dependent upon donations and grants to make possible what we do. For example, we would not exist now without the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council, especially in the first several years of the Press. The Illinois Arts Council was the first place to give us a grant, and that grant meant the difference between being able to continue the Review and not being able to. The NEA came along a few years later and is primarily responsible for allowing Dalkey Archive to exist. Of course, there are other important funders as well. Certain foreign governments, especially the French, have helped with some of our translations. But the significant funders for the Press, all starting around the same time in the early 1990s, have been the Mellon Foundation, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, and in particular the Lannan Foundation. The combination of these three, each with a different purpose, has had a major impact on the Press and has allowed us to get to where we are now. Without their support, the Press could not have survived. It’s that simple.
Q: Why hasn’t literature been funded in the same way that other art fields have been?
A: As with all of the arts, literature was once upon a time entirely made possible through patrons. This goes at least as far back as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. They were able to write because their patrons provided them financial support. And this was of course true of all of the other arts. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, literature and commerce got mixed. With the emergence of a literate middle class and the technology to produce books in mass numbers, publishers emerged who could make money from selling books. Thus we have such people as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, whose books could make a lot of money for both the writers and the publisher. Books became a commercial enterprise. The relationship between literature and commerce worked relatively well-with such notable exceptions as Herman Melville-into the twentieth century, though one can easily point to a writer like William Carlos Williams whose books were almost exclusively published by small presses and, later, by James Laughlin at New Directions. Yet, until perhaps as late as the 1970s, one could assume that all “good” books were available and that the marketplace would support them, or at least such pioneers as Alfred Knopf and Horace Liveright wouldn’t let commerce completely determine what would be published and what would stay in print.
Starting, however, in the 1970s and ’80s, the situation began to change. Larger publishers bought out smaller ones, merged lists, and cut lines that weren’t profitable. Even though commercial publishing has always been concerned with profit, it also had certain standards of what a book should be in order to be a book. Those standards no longer exist. If you write a book called How to Lose 50 Pounds in 5 Days, someone will publish it. Since it is printed and has a cover on it, it’s a book! It was Alfred Knopf who said that best-sellers would kill publishing, that they were insidious. It would be impossible to find a New York publisher now who would agree with him. You might find some editors who would agree with him in a bar late at night in a very private conversation, but they certainly would not agree with him in terms of how to run a publishing house.
So, a certain path was set for publishing thirty years ago and the only thing that surprises me is that commercial houses haven’t changed even more than they have. Commercial houses would object to what I am saying here and indeed they can point to certain books on their lists that are not only remarkably good but also do not make money. True enough.
But if you take a longer view of all of this-let’s say from the 1950s to the present-you know that a number of serious literary books are not published at all by these houses or that there is only a token effort at publishing them to maintain a pretense of seriousness. You can see this, for example, with plays, which commercial publishers used to publish. They are now almost the exclusive domain of a nonprofit press. Poetry and translations are very nearly in the same situation. And then you have the reality of how long serious books stay in print. Dalkey Archive publishes or reprints books that thirty years ago would have been done by commercial publishers and would have been kept available, regardless of sales. This is a radical shift in the publishing scene, a shift that has occurred so gradually that it is not easily detected.
Q: So what is the current situation? Are foundations and individual donors the new patrons?
A: The short answer is yes, although foundations and individuals are not accustomed to supporting literature, and certainly not the publishing of literature. Most do not even know that there is a field of nonprofit publishing. Also, on the surface, at least, there does not appear to be a problem. Stores are filled with books, or at least things that look like books, what Gilbert Sorrentino has called “bookoids.” One can’t claim that books aren’t being published by commercial houses. And one can’t claim that no good books are being published.
A second problem is that publishing, by its very nature, is national and international in scope, serving communities and artists around the globe rather than serving a particular geographical locale the way that a nonprofit theater does. Most foundation funding for the arts is limited to the geographical location of the foundation, and yet the programming of a publisher goes well beyond that location. So, the publisher does not “exclusively” serve the local community. The reality, however, is that a healthy local literary community is possible only when there is publishing going on in that town. Writers gravitate towards where the publishers are, whether they be book publishers or magazines.
Another problem that literary publishing has is that it is not visible in the way that a theater or an orchestra hall is. A publisher, by and large, doesn’t have a public face. A simple test of this is that almost no one, unless you are in the business, pays attention to who publishes a book. This is very different from a nonprofit theater; people strongly identify with the theater because that is where they go to see a play. But most people get their books in a store, not in a publisher’s office. While many people say that such and such a book changed their lives, you can be sure that they could not tell you who published the book. The identification is with the book and its author, not the publisher.
All of this adds up to problems in relation to funders. The only solution is that funders expand their understanding of what value literature provides and what is needed for it, or literary publishers emphasize aspects of their mission other than publishing itself that foundations can recognize without compromising what it is publishers do.
Q: Despite the challenges of raising money for literary publishing, Dalkey Archive press continues to be fiscally stable from year to year. Yet part of Dalkey’s mission is also to keep these books in print in perpetuity and to continue to develop audiences for them. Given the uncertain funding climate for literary publishing, this raises the question: How will Dalkey Archive Press be able to survive financially into the distant future? If Dalkey isn’t permanent, then how are the books kept in print?
A: The permanence of Press is THE critical issue for the future. The interest from an endowment, plus sales and annual fundraising, will not only protect us from any marketplace disaster but will allow us to function at full capacity, which means that we will be able to reach as many readers as possible, maintain highly professional staff, and compensate writers and translators at a higher level.
Q: But Dalkey Archive Press has existed for over 20 years without an endowment. Can’t you continue without one?
A: Without an endowment, I have a very hard time envisioning a future. We are now too large to go back to a one- or two-person operation, such as we were 20 years ago. And the amount of money involved in supporting the 400 or so titles we have in print is really significant. Our operating expenses alone (everything from computers to office supplies and phone) comes to over $100,000 each year. In the late 1980s, our entire budget was about that amount. Strangely, the difference between our current budget and our budget with an endowment is not all that great, but it is what would make the difference.
Q: Couldn’t you just raise that extra few hundred thousand dollars each year without having to tie up so much money in an endowment?
A: Put simply, no. For us to raise this “extra few hundred thousand dollars” would mean that a significant part of our resources, both personnel and dollars, would have to be devoted to raising money. We would wind up doing what many large arts organizations do: have a larger fundraising staff than an artistic one. But, more importantly, I don’t think that, because of the difficulties of raising money for literary publishing, we would be able to raise this much money on an annual basis. In other words, it’s not a matter of whether we are willing to try to do it; it’s a matter of whether we could.
Q: So how will you raise this endowment?
A: Ever since I started thinking in terms of an endowment, which goes all the way back to 1993 or so, I have imagined that it would come from a very few people, perhaps even from a single person. This is what I still believe. I think that there is a handful of people out there for whom literature is very important and who would like to make a dramatic impact on its future. In the world of philanthropy, a few million dollars is a significant amount of money, but such donations are made with some regularity. When Ruth Lilly made that 100 million dollar donation to Poetry Magazine a few years ago, most people were dismayed. They thought she should have spread the money around in order to benefit poetry more generally (this is of course a conventional view in philanthropy: give just enough money to keep organizations hungry). My reaction to this was that it should be a model for what happens with nonprofit literary publishers: if they survive for a certain number of years and if they are serving a vital cultural function, they should be endowed so that this work can go on indefinitely.
Ruth Lilly obviously loved what Poetry Magazine was doing and wanted it to last well into the future, and so she made sure that this would happen.
Q: How will these donors be given credit or recognized?
A: Well, first of all, I think that these donations will be truly charitable; we don’t have lifetime tickets to plays or the symphony to offer, nor bright lights above a marquee. Whoever gives to this endowment will have to be motivated by their passion for literature and what we do. At the same time, again going all the way back to 1993 or so when I first decided that our long-term future required an endowment, I think that donors could be recognized and honored by having the Press name a book series after him/her. This of course is a practice that is quite conventional in relation to universities: someone pays for a building and the building is named after that person or someone that person wants to honor. And this has also happened in relation to literary prizes. With books, unlike the building on a campus or even the literary prize, there is the opportunity to have this name go around the world because our books go around the world. In fact, we already have a few named series, ones in which individuals have made major contributions and have established series in honor of someone other than themselves. And we also had the Lannan Selections series, which was enormously important to us. In any event, one day I believe these series, such as the Eastern European or the British Series, will be named after someone. And since we keep our books permanently in print and since books have a way of circulating themselves, I think that this “naming” will bring well-deserved recognition to the donor, even though I believe that this will not be the donor’s primary motive, if a motive at all.
Q: And you believe that a few people will do this for Dalkey Archive?
A: I believe that we are a unique international organization-not only that the work we are doing is incredibly valuable to the culture but that no one else can do it. There can be an experimental theater in New York, another in Chicago, another in San Francisco, and so on, and in many ways they resemble one another, all appealing to their local communities and being supported by those communities. But nonprofit literary publishing has not and will not develop in this way. There is one Dalkey Archive Press, and it will not be duplicated elsewhere. And yes, I believe that there are people out there for whom the work we do is very important.
Q: What would you be able to do with this endowment that you can’t do now?
A: As I’ve said, when I started Dalkey Archive, my modest ambition was that it would become the best literary publisher in the country. My models were New Directions Press and Grove Press. I wanted Dalkey to be the Grove Press of the future, even though I limited our books to literary ones, unlike Grove. In any event, this is still what I want for Dalkey: to be the very best literary press, which for us means being the very best fiction press. So, what do I mean by “best”? First of all it means the quality of the books-books that will have enduring cultural value and therefore need to be available. I want us publishing the best literary books that we can find from around the world, regardless of sales potential. But I also want us to be able to spend what’s necessary to find the readership for these books; with an endowment, we would be able to double or triple our readership, and could insure that these books will be around 100 years from now. And I want us to do all of these things as a solid organization that will survive despite what happens in the marketplace, or what happens after I’m gone. In short, I want us to be able to function outside the usual norms of commercial publishing because I think we desperately need publishing houses in the United States that exist to serve cultural needs and therefore ones that do not have to focus on potential profit as a primary means for deciding what to publish.
As I indicated above, I think there are at least a few people in this country who also want Dalkey Archive to survive and flourish in this way and who want to have an impact on the future of literature that they otherwise could not have.
Q: I asked you a few questions about foreign literature almost five years ago. Those questions and your answers to them appear below, because they all still seem relevant. But before we get to those, let me ask: Do you still stand by your answers? Has anything changed in the situation?
A: Some things have changed: Dalkey, for instance, has significantly increased the number of its translations. I believe that translations now represent 50% of our entire list rather than 35%. Some of the best fiction ever published by Dalkey has come out in the last few years from foreign countries, utterly amazing work that in some cases had been left untranslated for many years.
Academia also seems to have become aware of the importance of translations. We relocated to the University of Illinois in late 2006 in order to be part of a new center for translations that the university was planning on creating and which it very recently officially established. Reviewers also seem to be paying more attention, especially on-line reviewers, such as Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review. A number of foreign governments have also devised some inventive ways of supporting translations. What hasn’t much changed is philanthropic support for translations, especially among foundations. The Lannan Foundation is still the only national foundation that supports the publication of translations.
Q: Okay, so my previous questions-going back to 2002-were these:
Dalkey Archive Press has recently announced that it will be publishing more foreign titles in the coming years, particularly works in translation. But the Press has always published foreign writers, starting with the translation of Yves Navarre’s Our Share of Time in 1987, and its list currently includes works from twenty countries. So how is what Dalkey is currently doing with world literature any different from what you’ve been doing all along?
A: It’s true that we have always published a significant number of translations. In fact, I think that about 35% of all of our books are translations. But it’s the right time, at least in some ways, to reemphasize this commitment to foreign literature and the need to see literature in an international context. Of course, doing this will be a challenge. The review media is largely disinterested in translations, and this means that sales for translations will be lower than if we were doing a novel by an American. More importantly, foundations in this country seem to have a particular antipathy towards translations. A foundation will be far more likely to fund third-rate poets reading to beleaguered schoolchildren than fund the publication of some of the most important foreign literary works. Foundations of course are forever patting themselves on their backs for being so diverse and multi-cultural, but they intend these sentiments to have a very limited application. But I digress. We know that there are hundreds of truly important novelists from around the world who will never be available in this country unless Dalkey Archive translates and publishes them.
Q: You say it’s the “right time” to reemphasize Dalkey’s commitment to foreign literature. Do you mean primarily because of the current political climate, or are you talking about what’s happening in the publishing industry, or something else (or a combination)?
A: Interesting question. The short answer is: Both. But it’s been “both” for a long, long time. Commercial publishers used to be measured, in some form or another, according to the quality of their foreign writers. It seems impossible to imagine today, but thirty years ago major foreign writers were being published by Avon, Dutton, and McGraw-Hill. The precipitous drop in translations relates to basic changes in commercial publishing, which has moved more and more towards being a “business.”
The other part of your question goes to the heart of America’s conception of itself and its relation to the rest of the world. Over the years I have found that many Americans-from readers to reviewers to critics to academics to publishers and of course to politicians-take pride in knowing almost nothing about the rest of the world. Academics will probably bristle at this thought but, at least in relation to literature, all you have to do is look at the courses that are offered featuring the literatures of other countries. Not only don’t they teach these literatures, they don’t read them.
In any event, there is a kind of pride taken in how little we know about the rest of the world. And this is coupled with a belief that, if given the chance, all other people would want to be Americans, would want to enjoy our way of life, would want our political system, our economic system. And then of course we try to impose our tastes-for purely economic reasons-on the rest of the world. But at the end of the day, we are shocked and hurt and utterly bewildered at the fact that America is hated by many people and governments. And then we manage to turn even that into evidence of our superiority.
I think that it’s of absolute importance that the literature and intellectual thought of the rest of the world be readily available in this country, and that these be valued and respected. Otherwise, we become this strange, isolated country that survives only because it possesses the military and economic dominance that it does, not because it is the epitome of civilization and freedom. There should be an immersion in this country’s schools of world literature.
Q: But why literature? If what we’re talking about is the need in the U.S. for cultural exchange, for developing America’s awareness of other countries so that we can become more responsible world citizens, how is literature better or different in accomplishing this than, say, reading the newspaper?
A: Why indeed. I suppose that many forms of “exchanges” are useful and demonstrate interest. Comprehensive world news would be great, but of course it doesn’t happen. I think that CNN devotes half an hour a day to covering the rest of the world. Other news sources cover foreign issues only when they relate to the United States or are great human interest stories. . . . I suppose your question goes to the heart of the “why” of art, and my view is that there doesn’t have to be a “why” to art beyond art itself. In other words, I think only the philistine mind thinks that art needs a social or moral justification. So, I will not argue that the world would be a better, safer place if only Americans read foreign literature, or were exposed to foreign art more generally. But, as the Russian Formalists argued almost a century ago, the experience of art forces one to reinvision both art and the world around it, and as such is a fundamental source for maintaining one’s sense of the world and oneself. Whether you agree or not with this view, let’s just for the moment assume that it’s true. I think it becomes difficult to be in utter awe of another country’s creations of the beautiful and then also want to obliterate that country and its people. (I suppose here that I should exclude politicians from this statement because of their endless desire for the accumulation of power.) A prerequisite for war, as well as bigotry, is that one sees a people or a country as a stereotype, as something sub-human or non-human; this is why politicians spend so much time trying to create stereotypical images for those countries they want to go to war with.
I attended a conference in Paris a few years ago in which a group of American and French editors discussed the problem of how few French books are translated into English and published in the United States. The Americans on the panel were completely bewildered by the nature of the complaint. And an imbecilic editor from the New Yorker more or less said that too many French books were being translated and that Americans, including himself, weren’t interested. It was as though the Americans were insulted by the suggestion that they should want to read more French books, and underlying this was the sense that everything that happens of significance happens in the United States and so there is no reason for Americans to care what other countries are doing. So, we wonder where this deep-seated anger comes from, and then ask, “Where’s the appreciation? Don’t they remember that we saved them from the Germans 60 years ago?”
Q: I think you’ve covered most of the issues behind this decision to publish more foreign writers, but in the process you’ve also identified the biggest problem any American publisher faces when publishing foreign writers (particularly literary writers), which is finding American readers. Let’s hope that not all Americans share your New Yorker editor’s disinterest in French literature; perhaps more to the point is that most Americans, even people who read a lot, have never been exposed to any French culture at all (Au Bon Pain doesn’t count) and wouldn’t know where to start, and so wouldn’t start anywhere. I would say this holds true for any country other than France as well. This is why American commercial publishers don’t publish more foreign work, because it’s so hard to market and, consequently, it doesn’t sell well. So what can the Dalkey Archive do about this?
A: It’s an absolute fact that translations are harder to “market” and sell than a novel written by an American. A large part of the problem is that readers rarely hear about these books because book review editors are disinclined to review them (this based upon a view that the newspaper’s or magazine’s readership isn’t interested), and stores-suspecting that there will not be a reasonable demand because of the lack of coverage-are less likely to stock them or stock them in sufficient numbers. So, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, it’s necessary to try to create this interest, as we try to do through CONTEXT and the Review. But something has to happen on a broader scale, obviously; and that something has to be beyond the marketplace value of translations and the coverage of translations. In other words, whether it’s through government or individuals, money has to be made available to support translations and the creation of critical materials that will provide a means for readers to approach world literature.
Q: What, then, do you finally hope to accomplish? On its best day, how many books will Dalkey Archive be publishing? What sorts of books? What other publications? And what will be the impact of all of the above?
A: On our best day, I think that we will or should be publishing about twenty-four books per year, perhaps evenly split between original titles and reprints. Even in a country this size, one cannot-to paraphrase Eliot-bear too much literature. The point is always, though, not how much but how effectively; in short, do we reach as many people as possible with them or do we just print them? Small publishers are oftentimes awful at getting their books out to people, even though of course the marketplace determines many of the limitations. The “kinds” of books won’t change, except that we will publish more translations. I am obsessed with finding writers in unlikely places, or writing that normally wouldn’t ever be translated into English because of its difficulties or inventiveness. I believe that there are writers of this sort everywhere but that we don’t see them because they do not conform to American publishers’ stereotypes of what, for example, African or Middle Eastern literature is like. So, I want to find these writers and publish them, though this obviously will be even more hopeless financially than doing the American ones of this sort. What impact will this have? One never has the answer to this question. I hope that it will shake things up, cause writers and critics to re-inspect what they do and think, cause academics to open up their classes to other kinds of writing. But maybe this is too much to hope for. What in fact happens-which is what one must settle for-is that you plant seeds out there for others. Revolutions happen in small ways. Or at least change happens in very small ways. But without that change, the culture just falls back upon itself and remains stagnant.