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Avant Guards

Publishers of "difficult" literature keep their heroes in print.

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After college, in the mid-90s, Martin Riker played piano on cruise ships sailing the Caribbean. He took the job because it gave him plenty of time to read.

Though he had a bachelor's in literature from Carnegie-Mellon, Riker thought he needed to play catch-up--there were holes in his education. He had decided to fill in the gaps on his own after a friend recommended Gilbert Sorrentino's 1971 Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, an "experimental" novel about New York's art scene of the 1950s and '60s. The book's narrator details the lives of various characters, who provide different takes on the same world. The tone shifts from humor to anger to solemnity. "It was like nothing I'd ever read before," Riker says. "It was certainly not the stuff that I was being fed as a literature major--the Raymond Carver or even, back then, the Don DeLillo."

In his novel Sorrentino was unafraid to acknowledge other writers as influences, citing books that Riker tracked down and read. Riker discovered that a lot of these works came from the same publisher: Dalkey Archive Press. The company had made its reputation resurrecting out-of-print books by early-modern "avant-garde" writers, including Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and it later reprinted books by such contemporary writers as Robert Coover, John Barth, and James Merrill. Riker met some Dalkey sales reps at an education conference in Pittsburgh, and, he recalls, "basically bought out half the table of display copies."

Dalkey Archive--the name's borrowed from the title of a novel by the inventive Irish comic writer Flann O'Brien--was started in 1984 by John O'Brien (no relation) in Elmwood Park. Three years earlier O'Brien had founded the small but well-regarded journal the Review of Contemporary Fiction. In 1992 he moved his press and journal to Illinois State University in Normal, where they've flourished. The review and publishing company have spawned another publication, Context, and together they're the largest nonprofit literary arts organization in the state.

Four years ago Riker enrolled in the master's program at ISU and got a graduate assistantship at Dalkey. As an added bonus, he got to study with writer David Foster Wallace, another Dalkey fan who initially came to Normal to work with the press. Now, as Dalkey's self-described "poster boy," Riker has his hands full. The Dalkey headquarters at ISU employs approximately 15 full- and part-time staffers, and its book list has just over 235 titles. Riker's been put in charge of development for both the press and Context (where his official title is associate editor), and over the next five to ten years he'll oversee the operation's move to Chicago, where he hopes to expand O'Brien's mission under a new name: the Center for Book Culture.

Riker points out that the purpose of the Review of Contemporary Fiction has always been to provide critical commentary on authors of exceptional merit who are largely ignored by mainstream media. He sees the desire to educate--and to promote work that's sometimes called "difficult"--as being at odds with the aims of commercial publishing houses. Riker says Dalkey defines contemporary literature as work written during the past 100 years "instead of the past 15 minutes."

He believes the publishing industry's need to sell books produces a bias toward realism. Often, Riker says, "commercial reviewers think they're putting on objective goggles when they sit down to review a work of fiction, but what they're really putting on are goggles that have very specific expectations about what a work of literature should be." As a result, relatively innovative or "experimental" writing gets abused by the critics. "In effect, they end up saying: 'This orange is terrible at being an apple!'"

Riker says O'Brien's model for Dalkey Archive was New Directions, one of the first small independent publishers in the U.S. Founded in 1936, New Directions continues to develop an audience for such writers as William Carlos Williams, John Hawkes, and Ezra Pound. In this spirit, Dalkey Archive was founded to keep the books the Review championed from going out of print. Riker singles out William Gass's The Tunnel. "After 30 years of hoopla, with people waiting for this massive book, it comes out and then went out of print in a year." Or consider the case of Stanley Elkin, whom Riker calls "one of the greatest writers of the 20th century." Seeing that his entire corpus had gone out of print, Dalkey decided to release not one or two but all seven of his titles.

Dalkey Archive has gone on to publish original work and literature in translation, and Riker says it's proved there's an audience for innovative fiction. The decision to open the Center for Book Culture in Chicago, he says, was motivated by the need to sustain and build this community. "First and foremost we're about talking about books," says Riker. If Dalkey were primarily about publishing, he explains, its focus would be on sales. "We'd rather donate 1,000 books than sell 800 books." This preference has been put into practice through a donation program for libraries.

Now in its second year of operation, the Chicago office of the Center for Book Culture has a staff of three. Riker says his first year was spent making contacts, and he's presently focused on building a board of directors. "We want to have a local constituency of individuals who are really involved with the organization," Riker says, "people who know about the organization, take part in the things we do, and help to support us financially."

O'Brien has characterized the Chicago literary scene as "marked by underdevelopment." Most of its literary magazines, he says, are underfunded and frequently depend on volunteers, so they lack stability and fail to live up to their promise. Riker's developing several new programs, including publications aimed specifically at Chicago, which will also promote the city's authors to the rest of the country. A recent issue of Context, for example, includes an article by Baffler editor Tom Frank, and the November issue has an essay by Chicago writer Aleksandar Hemon. To ensure that Context benefits the Chicago community, 2,500 of the 10,000 copies of each issue are distributed here for free.

Context, Riker says, was launched to reach a wider audience than the Review of Contemporary Fiction, which goes mostly to libraries. "The Review will be pertinent 100 years from now to anybody who wants to study these authors," he says. Context is aimed at the 18-to-24 age group. It's intended to be more readable and timely, yet it also draws from the past. Excerpts from Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, and Cervantes are meant to provide a background for understanding the work published by Dalkey. "It's not like postmodernism came out of nowhere," Riker says. "It's not like Donald Barthelme or John Barth invented metafiction." He hopes this gives new readers "some kind of entrance or new way of thinking about the work."

Riker says Context and the Center for Book Culture fight the popular notion that avant-garde literature is inaccessible. "To scale down art for people on the assumption that they won't understand it or won't appreciate it is a greater pretension than the suggestion that certain people, because of their location, education, their economic needs, or their educational background, don't deserve access to the finest works of literary art--that, we feel, is just wrong." He suggests that certain works are viewed as difficult because they're not read or talked about; or perhaps their subjects seem unsettling. "Anything that makes you question your assumptions about things generally is not easy," Riker says. "Even if it's not hard to read, it's not easy to swallow."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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