John O'Brien, the founder of Dalkey Archive Press, died on November 21 in Illinois. He was 75 years old.
O'Brien founded Dalkey Archive Press in 1984, four years after he created the literary journal Review of Contemporary Fiction. “The Press was never quite planned; I more or less backed into it, because there is no way that any reasonable person could start such a press with the expectation that it would last,” said O’Brien in an interview explaining the origins of the press.
The publishing house became known as the home to some of the most daring writers working in English, from Anne Carson and William Gaddis, to Carol Maso to Gilbert Sorrentino, as well as home to several authors of classics, such as Flann O’Brien – who wrote the novel for which the press is named – and Gertrude Stein. But it is perhaps best known around the world as a publisher of translations, often from countries long-overlooked or marginalized, such as those in Eastern Europe and South America. Authors in translation on the Dalkey Archive list include Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize-winner from Belarus; Carlos Fuentes from Mexico; and Luisa Valenzuela from Argentina. Over his career, O’Brien published nearly 1,000 books from 50 countries, a number of which he was justly proud.
O’Brien always kept an eye on maintaining the literary lineage of the world. “I wanted these books permanently protected, which is why from the start the Press has kept all of its fiction in print, regardless of sales,” he said in the same interview, conducted in 2004 with members of the Dalkey Archive Press. At the time of his death, some 850 Dalkey Archive titles were still in print.
O'Brien admitted to The Los Angeles Times, "Yes, the press is purely an expression of my aesthetic interests and what I admire and like to read." He bristled at the characterization of his publishing house as Avant-garde, experimental or innovative. He did not want to succumb to such cliches, though he did admit that his title selection was deliberately subversive. “I do have a very conscious sense in selecting a book for publication that this is an author who is saying something that people don’t want to hear-that it will make them feel uncomfortable, even if they love the book," he said on the Dalkey website.
After founding the press while teaching at Illinois Benedictine College, O’Brien moved it to Illinois State University, before moving to University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and then University of Houston-Victoria. He had recently spent several years living Dublin, Ireland, where he opened an office for the press and held dual citizenship.
Among his achievements, O’Brien was awarded the Sandrof lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics’ Circle in 2011, and in 2015 was appointed Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts & des Lettres in recognition of his significant contribution to French arts and literature by the Minister of Culture and Communication of France.
In one of his last interviews, one in which he outlined the challenges a publishing house like his own faced, he was asked by the Los Angeles Review of Books about his thoughts about the future of literature and publishing. Perhaps contrary to what one might expect, O’Brien was sanguine. “I think the future of American literature is bright if the publishers are ready for it,” he said, adding, “I hate to end on such a promising note, but this is what I think.”
Shortly before O’Brien’s death earlier this month, he secured plans to see his publishing program continue under the guidance of Deep Vellum Books of Dallas, Tex.
He leaves behind four children and is survived by two older brothers. An online memorial service to honor John O’Brien’s life and work will be held on December 9. Details to follow.