Michelle Pretorius: Dalkey Archive Press focuses on literary, experimental fiction. Could you talk about some of the other things you look for as an editor when you read a new manuscript? Is there a set criteria?
Jeremy M. Davies, Senior Editor of Dalkey Archive Press: No, there’s no set criteria, which makes this question (a frequent one) very difficult to answer, no matter how many times it gets asked! Each of the books we like or publish harbors a fundamental ‘suspicion’ toward the assumptions of narrative, and this suspicion is shared by as many great novelists considered ‘traditional’ as by the ones grouped in that ‘other tradition.’ Perhaps the word I’m looking for is ‘skeptic,’ in the classical sense more than the colloquial. The means of expressing this skepticism are innumerable, but it’s always obvious when it isn’t there, when an author and/or style is leaning on a presumed ‘consensus reality’ (which includes a presumed consensus as to what constitutes good writing) so heavily that it might as well, for me, originate on another planet.
I’ll add that I/we smell as many rats in so-called “experimental fiction” as in so-called “realist” fiction, so it’s not just a matter of “camps.”
MP: How often do you publish new authors or do you give preference to authors that have publication credits? It seems like a lot of authors like Gilbert Sorrentino and Jean-Phillipe Toussaint have built a relationship with the press. Are your contracts geared towards multi-book projects?
JMD: The two names you mention are exceptional cases. There would be no Dalkey Archive without Gilbert Sorrentino–our first book was a reprint of his Splendide Hotel, and his advice guided a good number of the Press’s early acquisitions and has great influence here to this day. (A good way to get something noticed is to say, “Sorrentino loved this book . . .”) His death in 2006 was a serious blow to the Press and American letters both. And then, Toussaint just happens to be one of the great living authors writing in French. He is, as they say, Important. It wasn’t a matter of his winning us over book by book. That said, it’s very rare that we sign on more than one book at a time by an author. There have been exceptions, where our confidence in a given writer overrode our natural tentativeness (rightly or wrongly). And then there are certain authors whose work we have committed to for no other reason than that we can’t imagine their producing anything we wouldn’t consider worthwhile.
But no, we don’t publish debut authors all that often. It’s happened and will happen again (I know of at least two coming up in the next couple of years). This is simply because there aren’t very many whose work both (a) excites us and (b) doesn’t get published elsewhere first. Besides which, there’s only so much a publisher can do, and our mission has never been about “breaking” new talent. Most of what we do comes down to preservation. Preservation of the place of foreign literature in English; of important writing that the mainstream, commercial publishing world has abandoned; and so forth. In no case does it have anything to do with the length of one’s CV.
MP: Which books, representative of Dalkey Archive Press, would you recommend to readers?
JMD: In terms of reprints, I’d say the most characteristic and important of the Press’s books would be Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds and Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. The very first book published by the Press was Sorrentino’s Splendide Hotel, so that’s another important one. In terms of originals, Wittgenstein’s Mistress is quite enormously important at well. In terms of recent books, I would suggest our recent Mina Loy prose collection, Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch, Daniel Robberecht’s Arriving In Avignon, and anything by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. (I could keep on going, but that seems overwhelming enough as it is.) The Best European Fiction Seriesis also pretty central to the Press these days.
MP: What do you find is the benefit of publishing an anthology like Best European Fiction 2011 and a journal like The Review of Contemporary Fiction every year for a press? How do you go about gathering the stories for the anthology or do you rely on submissions?
JMD: It’s a combination of both solicited work and open submissions, for BEF. For the Review, all articles are solicited, usually by a guest editor who is “curating” an issue to address a particular theme or author – we don’t accept blind submissions. The benefit of both projects is precisely as stated in my answer to #2, above, re: preservation. We want to get good work out into the hands of the Anglophone reading public as well as hopefully providing the critical context in which it can be appreciated. Keeping alive whatever conversation might be had about the great authors being marginalized by the wonderful climate of late capitalism. The benefit is the benefit of any literature. Which is either entirely useless, or of persistent and violent necessity, depending on who you ask.
MP: How many people are involved in the decision making process for selecting manuscripts? What is the process that a manuscript goes through at Dalkey Archive Press before the final decision to publish is made?
JMD: This depends on the day. Anywhere from one to four people. Books generally land on my desk, I read at least a little of virtually every one; I hand off most to our editorial assistant to read and reject. Once in a while something really stands out and I usually (very quickly) send out a message to our Director and Associate Director. Sometimes, then, there is uniform agreement, sometimes enthusiasm flags. In the latter case things drag out over months and months. In the former, we can be lightning quick. When I really like something that I’ve brought in on my own, I generally write a reader’s report. When our editorial assistant wants to stand up for a MS, or we have sent something to him for his opinion, he always writes a report, making a recommendation yay or nay. That’s a very simplified view of the process, but accurate: somewhat democratic, somewhat arbitrary, always grounded in enthusiasm or lack thereof.
MP: How much do you involve authors in the entire process from revising to marketing and distribution when you decide to publish them?
JMD: Depends, in the first place, whether they speak English. With an original English-language book we work very closely with them, going over every sentence. With a translation, it’s usually the translator with whom we hash out the final text. We edit both types of book more or less identically – does it read well, does it work on its own terms, does it make sense (or as much sense as intended), etc. Marketing and distribution aren’t things most authors want to be involved with. Of course we do set up a lot of events, particularly for our National Literature Series and BEF, and in those cases authors are invited to participate in publicizing their work. In terms of setting up readings and the like, authors often do this themselves, with Dalkey acting as a sort of support crew – making sure books arrive on time to be sold, coordinating with bookstore managers, etc.
MP: How do you distribute books and what means of distribution do you find most successful?
JMD: We are distributed through WW Norton, who get our books pretty much everywhere in the world, as well as onto all e-book platforms.
MP: Dalkey Archive Press has an international presence. To what extent do you collaborate with your offices in London and Dublin on a new book? Do all the European publications get released in the US and vice-versa?
JMD: Yes, generally we have world English rights to our titles, which means that we can sell our editions everywhere (which is why Norton is a good fit for us as a distributor). In rare cases we have rights only to the US and UK, or just US, or world outside of country X, etc. Depends on the contact. 95% of all editorial and production work happens in the US office. London and Ireland are primarily publicity and development offices at this time, though this is likely to change in future.
MP: Dalkey Archive Press also translates and re-releases important works of fiction from all over the globe. How do you select these works?
JMD: I would say this isn’t an “also”; publishing new English-language fiction by younger authors is the “also,” in point of fact. Reprints are what the Press was founded to do; as this becomes less important (with POD and e-books, reprints are a doomed market), translation has become our primary focus. But to answer your question, it’s about the same as stated above. With reprints, we often receive suggestions or submissions regarding or from authors whose work has gone out of print. I’m always reading possible reprint books and seeking them out is a great deal of fun, even if most never see the light of day. With translations, we get these every way you can imagine. Some are submitted by translators the same as a hopeful author might submit her MS; some come in via agents of the foreign rights people working for publishers in other countries; some we sniff out ourselves. With untranslated work, we generally commission a sample translation and reader’s report from someone who is fluent in the language in question, and base our decision on this, triangulated with whatever criticism we can track down.
MP: What is the press’ philosophy on digital media?
JMD: Just about our entire frontlist is available in e-book format. Since our backlist is over 500 books strong, it might be a little while before it gets digitized, but this will happen by and by. We have no great animus toward e-books: we’re a nonprofit; part of our mission is simply to get the books out into the world and read. We don’t much care how they’re read–on a screen or on wood pulp, one is still serving the culture. The only problem with e-books is their undermining the bookstores that keep small, independent publishers going. And that’s a problem that no one has quite managed to solve yet.
MP: You published your own book, Rose Alley, with Counterpath and have therefore been on both sides of the publication process. How (if at all) does working with another press and editor inform your work with authors at Dalkey Archive?
JMD: Even before RA was published, I was seeing things from both sides, in that I myself (as a civilian) would certainly have submitted work to Dalkey in time. It was and is very easy to put myself in the place of authors sending in work, or having to put up with my endlessly fussy line edits, and so forth. But one needs to get a little numb to survive on either side of the divide. (Presuming that divide survives whatever next stages await the publishing industry As We Know It.)
I went into the process with Counterpath very much hoping not to be any of the sorts of author I myself have had cause to complain of. I might even have been successful. And Counterpath was nothing but gentle and helpful, and hopefully never had to wring their hands over my intractability, arrogance, self-righteousness, and so on.
Still, I would have been quite happy to have a very aggressive editor combing over every line of my book and making me own up to any instances of laziness, muddled thinking, etc., that they found there. It would be silly, not to mention immoral, to behave as though that different rules applied to one’s own work. Something many authors and translators (especially translators) don’t understand that every book is a collaboration, no matter how tight a grip you (whichever you you are, and at whatever stage in the process) think you have on it.
About the interviewer:
Michelle Pretorius was born in South Africa and has lived in London, New York and the Midwest. She is a graduate student in Fiction Writing at Columbia College and has been published in The Copperfield Review and The Columbia Review Lab.