Part 1 and part 2 of an interview with John O'Brien, founder of Dalkey Archive Press, over at Jacket Copy (thanks to HTMLGiant and Josh Maday).
Dalkey Archive is and has long been one of my very favorite presses, and Mr. O'Brien proves himself to be as intelligent an interviewee as an editor, which is quite a standard. I found myself at odds only with these lines:
But I absolutely do not think of a Sterne or a Joyce as "experimenters": they didn't experiment, they made these remarkable books whose ingenuity and art are rarely seen in other writers or matched. Their works are finished and complete achievements, not experiments. At the same time, I am very aware that there are writers who are "experimenters," who are trying out different forms and styles, and who are primarily interested in such experimentation. We, however, do not publish them.
Not (just) experiments, I get. There is and has long been a bit of antagonism for the "experimental" label, particularly when applied in an offhand and derogatory way. Which, frankly, it is here, by Mr. O'Brien. Sterne and Joyce: not "experimental," okay. Just those guys doing it today, right?
Now, Mr. O'Brien likely did not mean it in quite that way, and I have taken his words a tiny bit out of context, but still, they rest uneasily with me. Because here's the problem, as O'Brien well knows: to reach back to the beginnings of "fiction," to say (as he does) that
Fiction writing began with this strange consciousness of itself and the possibilities of playfulness, as though it were an inside joke with a great deal of eye-winking going on.
is to acknowledge that a writer like, say, Defoe would today be indistinguishable from those "experimenters" that O'Brien mentions off-handedly. Defoe might not be in O'Brien's personal canon, but the man could hardly be dismissed as merely "experimental." Defoe wanted to test the limits, to find out where they were and then stretch himself to meet them, and he did this consciously, as an experiment.
But don't you think that Sterne and Joyce were "experimenting" in the same sense? Don't we all experiment when we sit down to write? Flaubert's Bovary was an experiment, an experiment in the banal, as was his Bouvard and Pecuchet, a title that DA has in its catalog, and they were also of course major achievements. What I object to is not the dismissal of the work: after all, it has to stand or fall on its own merits. That is merely a truism. And I do not disagree that there are plenty of writers with ideas that might have been best left on the shelf until a better lab tech came along; failed experiments, perhaps, in search of the right catalyst. But it is not the "experiment" or even the "experimenter" that should be dismissed; it is the achievement, or lack thereof. The spark of creativity that might lead one to experiment with the form should rather be applauded.
I give O'Brien the benefit of the doubt (he has more than earned it): I'm sure that he is probably saying that he and Dalkey Archive would not publish a writer who is only interested in finding those limits, not stretching to reach them, a writer whose work is less an "achievement" than an "experiment." All well and good-- the man wants to publish work that he believes in (I believe in that work, too: I think that O'Brien has one of the sharpest eyes in English-language publishing right now, and I always give more weight to a book I don't know from DA than from any other house). I just feel that those lines go against the thrust of the rest of the interview, and what I have read of DA's catalog.
Speaking of that catalog, here's a bit from Ben Marcus, another Dalkey Archive writer, that appeared long ago in Harper's Magazine:
The elitists are not supposedly demanding writers such as myself but rather those who caution the culture away from literary development, who insist that the narrative achievements of the past be ossified, lacquered, and rehearsed by younger generations. In this climate artistic achievement is a legacy, and writers are encouraged to behave like cover bands, embellishing the oldies, maybe, while ensuring that buried in the song is an old familiar melody to make us smile with recognition, so that we might read more from memory than by active attention.
The true elitists in the literary world are the ones who have become annoyed with literary ambition in any form, who have converted the very meaning of ambition so totally that it now registers as an act of disdain, a hostility to the poor common reader, who should never be asked to do anything that might lead to a pulled muscle.
The essay is called "Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it: A correction," and I wish that I could quote it in full because it is a subscriber only feature, but Harper's is worthy of your money. Please do note the use of that word in the title, "experimental": I suspect that it is the use of this word that it is at the core of my unease.