Novel concepts

Small publisher quietly (and subversively) keeps classics in print

Our culture has become so bovinely accepting of the idea that leisure time is for shopping that it influences literature in a couple of ways. One, with television it has pretty much destroyed the idea that reading is a viable way to spend your free time; and two, it encourages the notion that new things are best.

Thus, there are whole swaths of the country where people are generally unaware of the fact that a certain number of pretty good books were written before Jonathan “High Literary Artist” Franzen came along.

The sad evidence abounds: Open the newspaper and what do you see? Bestseller lists (an enabler of the herd mentality if ever there was one). You walk into Barnes & Noble, and what do you see? The bestsellers themselves, great tottering stacks of them threatening to kill you. You will wade deep into that shiny, brittle landscape, past vast deposits of Señor Franzen’s bloated extravaganza, before you find something that isn’t new—before you find, say, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Er, on second thought, you probably won’t find that one. In most B&Ns, though fortunately not Chico’s, Catcher isn’t on the shelves—it’s kept behind the counter and you have to ask for it, for reasons that have been variously explained to me: Either it’s among the most-likely-to-be-shoplifted books, or it’s too obscene or subversive or something for today’s delicate (don’t let those tattoos fool you) young people. In fact, Catcher isn’t the only book kept behind the counter at B&N (go ahead, ask them). All kinds of other major subversives and experimentalists are back there, too, from Vladimir Nabokov to Jack Kerouac to William Burroughs to the heinous Paul Auster.

And, in a greater sense, and for equally depressing reasons having ultimately to do, I think, with clearing shelf space for the higher-profit-margin new—what, the explicit sex and vulgar language of The Corrections is better for kids than hearing Holden Caulfield talk about “goddamn phonies"?—there are numerous other books kept behind the metaphoric counters of modern America. This is true especially if they are edgy—I mean, really edgy—and/or experimental, and especially if they are more than a year or so old. And it’s especially true if they are written by a dern foreigner.

Nonetheless, let’s just say for argument’s sake that you’re a perverse so-and-so and you would like to read such. Where to go?

Hop on the Internet and visit the website of the Dalkey Archive Press——the site of perhaps the most quietly subversive publisher in the country.

Dalkey has made it its mission to “keep in print as many of the great experimental books of the last 100 years as possible,” including many books that were out of print in America when Dalkey first published them, as editor Chad Post explained it to me when I tracked him down at company headquarters in Normal, Ill. And of the 240 books Dalkey has published so far, only two have been allowed to lapse out of print, both books of interviews with Latin American authors that had simply gone out of date, Post says.

I first came upon Dalkey when I was looking for books by the great French surrealist Raymond Queneau. Then I discovered that Dalkey also published Celine. Its British list was particularly impressive—lots of Henry Green, Aldous Huxley and Nicholas Mosley. And, of course, on their Irish list was Flann O’Brien, author of the book that gives the press its name, The Dalkey Archive.

But Dalkey doesn’t just publish old books by non-American writers; it’s also the home of numerous American authors, including many still in their prime, thank you very much. It’s picked up out-of-print titles from William Gass, John Barth and Stephen Millhauser. And it’s the exclusive publisher of one of my favorite short-story writers, Harry Matthews (including his newest, The Human Country, due out this fall).

In fact, the company is currently headed by one of the modern novel’s better innovators, Curtis White. And it was founded by one of its better analysts, John O’Brien, who started the press in 1984 when he realized that most of the books being discussed in the magazine he’d started four years earlier, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, had gone out of print.

Founded as a nonprofit and housed on the campus of Illinois State University, Dalkey first published Splendide-Hotel by Gilbert Sorrentino (the press has since published 11 more of Sorrentino’s books). Two years, later, Dalkey began publishing new books, as well.

Currently, Dalkey publishes about 16 books per year, four to six of which are new titles.

Most of its books, you’ll note, are precisely the kind that are kept behind those metaphorical counters that I mentioned earlier. And yet, interestingly enough, the press is doing better than ever, thanks precisely to the fact that mainstream publishers have adopted a repulsion similar to that of chain booksellers to books that are truly edgy or subversive or, often enough, particularly arty.

As Dalkey’s Post says, “A lot of interesting things are becoming available because conglomerate publishers treat books as a commodity, not as art objects.”

Granted, being a nonprofit makes it a little easier to be daring. Post admits being a nonprofit “allows us to do all kinds of things other publishers would think was crazy,” but then goes on to add, “such as keeping a book in print forever!”

The fact that keeping important books in print could be considered crazy gives you some sense of where things are at in mainstream publishing these days. It gives you some sense, too, of why we should be grateful to publishers such as the Dalkey Archives Press.

Dennis Loy Johnson edits the MobyLives Web site.