John O’Brien: The Man Who Would Ban Happy Endings

Last Thursday morning, the publisher John O’Brien put out a cigarette and walked into the Washington Square Hotel for breakfast,

Last Thursday morning, the publisher John O’Brien put out a cigarette and walked into the Washington Square Hotel for breakfast, where he greeted William H. Gass. The novelist was reading The New York Times and eating a bagel and fruit with his wife, Mary.

“You never know who you’ll run into,” Mr. O’Brien said. They were both in town for the National Book Critics Circle Awards that evening. Mr. Gass would be presenting Dalkey Archive Press, the outfit Mr. O’Brien started in 1984 in the paradoxically named town of Normal, Ill., with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1995, Dalkey published Mr. Gass’ second and most difficult novel, The Tunnel, a dense, rambling monologue of more than 650 pages that begins with a history professor sitting down to write a short introduction for his magnum opus, a book about the Third Reich, that deteriorates into an encyclopedic personal history. Mr. Gass smiled and the two wondered how they would get to the ceremony. They pondered the rain. They would take a cab.

Dalkey was initially a humble extension of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, the critical journal Mr. O’Brien founded as a way to talk about authors who, like Mr. Gass (as a novelist, not so much as a critic), were overlooked by most of the academy for being too difficult, too self-conscious, too much of a trickster. With Dalkey, Mr. O’Brien set out to keep these authors in print. The subject of The Review‘s first issue was Gilbert Sorrentino and included an interview with the author by Mr. O’Brien that predicted Dalkey’s aesthetic. “It doesn’t seem to me that fiction should take the place of reality,” Sorrentino told Mr. O’Brien. “The idea of the mirror being held up to life is a very remote one as far as my fictional thinking goes. The point of art is literally the making of something that is beautiful, the making of something that works.” Since then, the press has become a touchstone of independent publishing. Its list now includes at least 50 new titles annually, more than half of which are translations. (Only 3 percent of the output of the publishing industry at large comprises books originating from languages other than English.) Mr. O’Brien has done nothing less than give a voice to an otherwise unspoken thread of contemporary fiction.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in canons,” Mr. O’Brien, who is 65 years old, said, sitting down at a table with The Observer. “It’s just that I believe in our canon.”

When Mr. O’Brien was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, he was submitting to academic journals articles about then obscure authors like Douglas Woolf, Flann O’Brien, Robert Creeley and Gilbert Sorrentino–who had called Mr. O’Brien’s attention to many of these writers in the first place. At best, the response he would get was, “There’s no currency here”; at worst, “We don’t know who that is.” One day, when the writer and critic Paul Metcalf, who died in 1999, was visiting Mr. O’Brien’s home outside Chicago, the pair lamented the lack of discussion about their favorite writers. They thought, “These writers deserve a journal of their own.” Within a year, Mr. O’Brien compiled the first issue of The Review, devoted to the work of Sorrentino. Creeley was the first person to agree to contribute.

“I mapped out five years for it,” Mr. O’Brien said. “And I decided, since I had started this with really no money whatsoever, that it would last for five years and become completely broke and then it would fold and become one of those magazines that people would say, ‘Hey, whatever became of. …’ And I thought that was fine. Five years is a good run.”

Twenty-seven years later and The Review is still mapping out what Mr. O’Brien calls a “constellation” of authors, an alternative canon. More recent issues have included “Writing from Postcommunist Romania” and “The Cuban Fiction Issue”; a forthcoming issue about failure addresses such themes as “Should I Kill Myself and How?” and “The Internet as Consolation.” Guest editor Joshua Cohen put the issue together with essays by Helen DeWitt, Jesse Ball and Sam Frank.

“John O’Brien has balls the size of a Henry James sentence,” Mr. Cohen told The Observer. “American literature has no better foundation.”

John O’Brien: The Man Who Would Ban Happy Endings