Much like the books he published, John O’Brien (1945–2020) was a complicated man. He was an idealist who devoted his life to a self-described “quixotic enterprise” of creating a repository for strange, innovative fiction from around the world—fiction that would stay in print forever, for future generations of readers to discover and wonder at.
John had impeccable taste in literature. He especially liked French and Eastern European literature that toyed with ideas of repetition and variation, frequently centered around a hapless narrator who struggles to understand what’s happening to him. Through the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Dalkey Archive Press, CONTEXT, and more recent projects like the “Black on White” podcast for Trafika Europe Radio, John O’Brien changed the shape of contemporary literature forever.
From my first day working for Dalkey Archive (July 5, 2000) till the day John passed away (November 21, 2020), his biggest concern was for the future. Not his own—not a day went by without John making a dark joke about his certain demise, like a Beckett character come to life—but the future of the press. Even when we got back in touch in the summer of 2019, after almost a decade of avoiding each other, the first thing he wanted to talk about was what would happen to all the books after he died. As Ish Ibrahim said during John’s memorial service on December 9, “he loved books . . . and Arvo Pärt. And his dogs. So much.” In some ways, this man—who was both my mentor and a big source of my angst—was very simple.
He was, by far, the most demanding boss I’ve ever known, unafraid to tell you exactly what he was pissed about, leaving those around him with the impression that their next minor mistake would be their last. His expectations were sky-high, which could be a blessing (if you took advantage of his belief in you, you could be a major player in Dalkey’s operations from day one) but could also be nearly criminal (like the infamous internship ad considered the “worst job posting ever”). Everyone who worked for Dalkey has a story about how and why they left.
Which is only to be expected given John’s incredible ability to burn bridges (and stubborn resistance to mending them). Over the six years I worked with him, I heard innumerable stories about fallings-out he had with authors, agents, employees, former friends, wives, and colleagues—although the group of people who especially irked him were university administrators.
Hence the checkered history of Dalkey Archive Press, an indie bookstore darling turned nightmare employer. A press dedicated to the future led by a man afraid to get out of his own way—but who undeniably left an incredible mark on the literary world, the nonprofit publishing field, and thousands upon thousands of readers.
Dalkey Archive Press grew out of the Review of Contemporary Fiction. As a professor at Illinois Benedictine College living in Elmwood Park, Illinois, John wanted to create a space for scholarship on “experimental” authors. The sort of authors he found most interesting—Gilbert Sorrentino, Paul Metcalf, Hubert Selby, Coleman Dowell, William Gaddis, Nicholas Mosley, to name a few—weren’t generally taught or discussed in academia because there wasn’t enough scholarship money available for grad students to write theses about them.
After a few years, and thanks to a change in tax law related to publishers’ inventory, a number of texts that were foundational to John’s literary aesthetic were out of print. And thus, the Dalkey Archive Press was born. In 1984, Splendid-Hôtel by Gilbert Sorrentino became the press’s very first title, and over the course of the next decade, Dalkey established itself as the home of the most interesting avant-garde writing, a mixture of reprints (Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley), original experimental works (Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson), and quirky translations (First Book of Grabinoulor by Pierre Albert-Birot, translated from the French by Barbara Wright). And then, in 1990, came Chromos by Felipe Alfau, and Dalkey’s status changed forever.
Felipe Alfau was born in Barcelona in 1902, immigrated to the US after World War I, published a collection of Calvino-esque stories (Locos: A Comedy of Gestures) in 1936, and was completely forgotten to time until Dalkey Archive editor Steven Moore—a literary legend in his own right—found a copy at a yard sale, read it, loved it, and found Alfau living in a retirement home with a completed novel in his drawer.
Chromos was the book that John would frequently point to in his “lectures” on publishing. (“Chad, here’s lesson number one hundred and sixteen: never trust agents.”) As a small nonprofit, Dalkey was “making it” at that time, but to really thrive, the press needed a “breakthrough” that would take it to the next level. (Some things never change.) That came to Dalkey in the form of one of the most publicly controversial National Book Award nominations in history.
From the November 27, 1990 New York Times:
Split by what one juror called “deep ideological divisions,” and criticized by some publishers for selecting strangely obscure works, the deliberations, particularly those of the fiction panel, appear condemned to reflect the turbulence of a publishing industry that has been swept by change in the last year.
“There is acute dividedness over nearly everything,” said Paul West, a writer who is a fiction juror. “I came out of the selection process for finalists feeling that only a couple of the five books represent my tastes, preferences and standards.” He predicted that a lunch session today to choose the winner for fiction would be “stormy enough to ruin the meal.” [. . .]
For the first time in many years, Alfred A. Knopf, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Simon & Schuster had no books nominated. [. . .]
“It's a fairly obscure list,” said Sonny Mehta, the president of Alfred A. Knopf. “It looks as if they were looking around for books that have not had their fair share of praise.” [. . .]
Another senior publisher at a major house, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of the fiction list: “It's bizarre as hell. I would be sad if the jurors were taking the position that small is good. But it looks a little like that.”
And although Alfau’s book didn’t win, the nomination was the start of Dalkey 2.0. This is what led to Illinois State University courting the press (it was based at ISU from 1992–2006), an explosion in interest in the books themselves, and a chance to be one of the presses funded by the Mellon Foundation and then the Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund—two funding projects that were essential in professionalizing nonprofit publishing.
It’s impossible to talk about John without talking about Dalkey, and it’s impossible for me to talk about Dalkey without talking about myself.
I came to Dalkey Archive at a rather special moment in time. CONTEXT, a free literary tabloid edited by John and sponsored by the Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, was being distributed through a network of indie booksellers and progressive academics, and the Lannan Foundation was giving the press a significant amount of money—the sort of money that John thought could allow Dalkey Archive to reach the next level. (This was around the time that Graywolf went from modest nonprofit to Super Nonprofit Press, so it was very, very possible.)
I don’t think I’ll ever really understand why John gave me such leeway, such encouragement. I was a twenty-five-year-old former bookseller obsessed with the Oulipian books Dalkey published (especially Raymond Queneau), with Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, and, to be honest, with anything Dalkey brought out. I forced Quail Ridge Books to buy two copies of everything John published—one copy for the store, one copy for me to purchase. I read a lot of Harry Mathews at that time and decided I would do whatever it took to work for the press that published Cigarettes.
It was at this time—as I was emailing John, suggesting he reprint obscure Julio Cortázar titles—that Dalkey launched its fellowship program, a sort of “grad school for publishing.” I moved to Normal, Illinois to get a $12,000 annual stipend and a chance to learn from my idols. Over the course of those six years, I learned everything I know about publishing—both good and bad. I learned the value and agony of nonprofit publishing; I learned how to punch above your weight class (capitalizing on The Third Policeman appearing on Lost, acquiring and editing Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich); I traveled the world with John, learning about international literatures and soaking up all his ideas and schemes; I learned how to grind some intellectual axes against shitty mainstream media and corporate publishing.
I also suffered. The story of how I left Dalkey Archive has no place in this article, although I’ve frequently joked that as soon as John died, I would write an oral history of the press and all the people connected to it. And someday, in that book or in other posts, a lot of wild stories will come out. For a decade, I remained bitter about the way I had been treated. Although I was able to carry on the “tradition” of Dalkey Archive via Open Letter Books and the University of Rochester, I held resentments. I had nothing good to say about John and was silently pleased by the fact that Dalkey couldn’t bring out books on time, that nothing was reviewed, that their stock seemed to be slipping from the time that I was there. Childishly, I chalked this up to karma finally biting John in the ass.
John was an eternal optimist with unrealistic goals. He spent his career looking for an assistant who could read his mind. He gave a lot of us misfits a chance. He brought together some of the most talented readers and editors of our time. From Steven Moore to Martin Riker and Danielle Dutton (founder of Dorothy, A Publishing Project) to Jeremy Davies (formerly of FSG, now the US branch of And Other Stories)—and many more after my time—John attracted the best talent available. He might have left behind a slew of complaints, unpaid contracts, general frustration, and distrust, but he also gave voice to so many amazing writers and translators who otherwise would never have had access to this world. (The publishing industry is filthy with Ivy League grads complete with trust funds and industry connections, something that drove John insane and was a reason he gave someone from Bay City, Michigan with a BA in psychology from Michigan State University the opportunity to be the associate director of one of the most important publishing houses ever.) The books, the art took precedence over the pedigree. John fought like David, throwing rocks at the establishment to try and tear away the bullshit and create a more equal playing field.
Was he demanding? The most demanding human I ever met. Was he controversial? Most definitely. Was he unflappable? He had a vision of literature that was unwavering. Was he concerned about the future? All he wanted was for these books to out-survive him. And they will.
John, we were supposed to get together today, December 16, 2020. I don’t know what you felt calling me in the summer of 2019, when I finally reached out to you and asked to be part of your and Dalkey’s future. I know that you forgave me. I forgave you. I know that when you said you were ready to die because the press’s future was safe, I was taking on a huge burden. I know that you loved and couldn’t show it; that you were vulnerable beneath your gruff, sarcastic exterior. That you valued friendship and loyalty—especially loyalty—and that you believed in a higher mission. I miss you and wish we had had one last chance to talk in person. To celebrate the future of Dalkey Archive and Deep Vellum. A moment when you would finally listen to me and “just take a break, we’ve got this, your legacy is protected.” I wanted to fulfill your desire from the final email you sent me, that we would have a chance to hang out for a few days before you shuffled off. I want to do you proud, John. And I will be writing about you for the rest of my life.
There’s a quote from Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth that John used to repeat on a regular basis. It shows up throughout the novel in different iterations (there’s that repetition and variation theme again) but is basically “we’ll never see the likes of him again.” John, your iconoclastic nature was divisive—just like your books—but was a necessary corrective for this industry, a fresh honesty of emotion and intellectual assessment that was so individual, so committed, that people didn’t exactly know how to interact with you. And John? We’ll never see the likes of you again.