Our Latest Partner Bookstore: Dallas’s Deep Vellum Books (Part Two)
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Read Part One of this post here!
In 2019 Dallas’s still-young Deep Vellum publisher acquired two other small publishers, expanding its list and broadening its mission from translation to include work originally written in English and launching an imprint, named for a nearby nineteenth-century utopian settlement, “La Reunion,” representing “the many voices of our state.” Then in 2020 Deep Vellum made an even more consequential acquisition; it merged with the legendary Dalkey Archive Press, on the brink of the death of Dalkey’s founder and major domo, the above-quoted impresario, John O’Brien. O’Brien conjured Dalkey Archive (named for a signature Flann O’Brien novel on its list) in the 1980s, when he set out to repair what seemed to him a gap in America’s attention to contemporary literature from his perch at Illinois Benedictine College in Lisle, Illinois. Like Will, O’Brien had an in-the-round approach to representing writing he thought important to American readers: he was not just about publishing books but about cultivating a readership for them and imaginatively developing institutions to support them.
He began with a journal, naming it, capaciously, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, which was meant to cover contemporary literature that he felt the academy was ignoring. Then he discovered that many of the books he was trying to promote were out of print, becoming a book publisher almost by accident to plug the holes. His stated goal was to keep these books in print forever, to give them time to find their readership (while creating for his tiny stuff immense headaches of storage and logistics). But he was not content to wait around for that readership. He tried running a “Center for the Book” in Chicago to summon a circle of readers, and then (“unfortunately, Chicago is not a great literary town”) set up shop in various universities, hoping to train up the translators and readers his sometimes demanding books required, recruiting academics to pass out a second (free) literary magazine to students, to catch them early, and, incidentally, recruit a cadre of devoted followers to engage in meagerly paid “publishing fellowships” in Dalkey’s eventual basement office in the too-perfectly named town of Funks Grove. (This extremely colorful story can be enjoyed in the zestily ambivalent recollections of Chad Post’s Substack, Mining the Dalkey Archive, in this reminiscence, and in an interview with the late publisher on the eve of his joining up with Deep Vellum.) As Dalkey protégé Martin Riker (who went on to be one of the founders of the innovative Dorothy Project) noted, Dalkey published lots of translations not because they wanted to be “niche,” but as a “means, rather than an end,” to fulfill their commitment to providing readers with works of enduring merit over the long haul. As O’Brien earned the appreciation of a clutch of major, otherwise unrecognized authors and travelled the globe in search of work to publish, he had a coalescing awareness that literature itself grew from connections that reached beyond a single language.
O’Brien was crusty, bossy, impractical, and managed to estrange as many brilliant editors as he collected (you may have heard about his “Worst Job Posting Ever,” in 2012), but these proteges remained committed in their various ways to his project, Open Letter’s Chad Post so much so that, after he trained Will Evans up to start Deep Vellum on some very Dalkey-like principles, Chad teamed up with Will to secure Dalkey’s backlist on the brink of its extinction and fold it into Deep Vellum, for rerelease this spring. Next month Deep Vellum/Dalkey Archive will begin bringing out new works inspired by the Dalkey ethic and reissuing its classics.
Not all Dalkey’s books may be for everyone, perhaps some not without a serious run-up, but many of us cherish certain Dalkey volumes that, given the press’s somewhat unorthodox approach to marketing, we came upon in unlikely places—usually the shelves of a bookstore that understood us. (I like many encountered David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress on a long-standing corner pile on a table in New York’s The Strand, and never let it go. See this thread for a delightful collection of Dalkey enthusiasms. To this list I may devote my retirement.) Which returns us to our theme. Writing may be everywhere, but it also needs to be in very specific places to be read. It is not enough for a book to “exist” somewhere if readers are not in these places, and it is not enough to put books—particularly challenging books—in front of people if people are not nurtured to be ready for them. As John O’Brien has said, countries spend their culture money on symphonies and operas, but “books come to define what many countries are to us, how we come to know those cultures.” And it is to this life-saving mission that bookstores in general—and original bookselling thinkers like Will Evans and John O’Brien—commit themselves
So now in the Spring of 2022, as the differences among us truly threaten to swallow us whole, and as Deep Vellum is poised to release the first round of books and reprints of its Dalkey Revival, and as we partner up with their bookstore, linking to it in our posts and bringing you their news, we also invite you to think about the larger effort here: to bring a broader range of books—and with them visions, perspectives, awarenesses—within the American purview generally as well as a specific American purview, to develop our capacity to build things of expansive value within our often ruthless commercial imperatives, to fortify the nexus of on-this-block and everywhere that bookselling represents.
Read a letter from Will Evans on Ukrainian literature at Deep Vellum: “To write this letter makes me so emotional it feels impossible. I have spent my entire life studying Russian and Ukrainian literature and culture, and even with all of the historical precedent leading up to this moment, I truly cannot believe that we are here … I started Deep Vellum with the mission to bring the world into conversation through literature, with the maybe naïve belief that reading and writing are revolutionary acts that can and should change the world …”
Read Deep Vellum author Mikhail Shishkin on the current war in Ukraine: “What can a writer do? Only what they can do: Speak clearly. Silence means supporting an aggressor. In the nineteenth century, the rebellious Poles fought against the Russian Tsarist authorities: “For our freedom and yours …”
A note about Bookshop.org: We will be linking in our Book Posts this spring to Deep Vellum Books through their portal on the bookselling platform Bookshop.org, Bookshop.org supports independent bookstores’ online sales and returns a share of the profits to them in an effort to create a viable, locally based alternative to Amazon. Find out more about Bookshop.org here.
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing snack-sized book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box, as well as free posts like this one from time to time to those who follow us. We aspire to find new ways to spread the reading life across a fractured media landscape. Subscribe to support our work and receive straight-to-you book posts. Among our posters: Joy Williams, John Banville, Jamaica Kincaid, Mona Simpson.
Deep Vellum Books is Book Post’s Spring 2022 partner bookseller! We partner with independent bookstores to link to their books, support their work, and bring you news of local book life as it happens in their communities. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 with our partner bookstore during our partnership. Send your receipt to email@example.com.
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