William Gass: In Praise of John O’Brien and Dalkey Archive Press

By William Gass

Multiple NBCC award winner William Gass, a Dalkey Archive author, was on hand at the NBCC awards ceremony March 10 to honor Sandrof lifetime achievement winner Dalkey Archive Press and publisher John O'Brien.

I am here to represent, and also to receive, a portion of this esteemed award, because if the books in the Archive weren’t so wonderful, you wouldn’t be paying the Press this recognition. I think there will be enough of your prize to go around.

There are a surprising lot of us, many volumes strangers to this land. We have come to Dalkey, some of us, to escape flogging, to find readers worthy of our words, if I may brag a bag’s load for all of us, although we are modest under normal circumstances, retiring, shy, unread even by friends. We resemble our namesake – a sot named Flann O’Brien, who was ready to hide his genius under any name but hisown – yet the work of each of us, dying of indifference in the commercial world, has now a refurbished life, thanks to another O’Brien, bless his Irish heart, our covers colorful again, every firm line of words put upon imperishable paper, and bound in the great US of A.

These are books whose looks we can be proud of, and in translations, where that is required, of breathtaking skill and utter dedication, performed by virtuosos of their art. The Archive is an achievement only a determined traveling man could manage. John brings through customs books in every lingo, from – for us – remote parts of the world: Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, Croatia, Idaho. Stateside novelists have known, since the Latin American writers shook us from our sleep in the sixties, that we were ignoramuses, but ignoramuses with an excuse: our arrogant, ignorant, self-absorbed nation cared only for the literature in our language, and if Canadian, not that. How could we have anticipated this continuing flood of competition?

Now we can get an idea of how badly beaten we have been. Dalkey Archive’s list is a banner of victory. It stands for a war that John O’Brien fought almost by himself for many hard scrounging years: to keep these books in print in a language we were willing to read; to get some of them read; to teach us, as that scoundrel Columbus did, how wide the literary world is, how stocked with artistic advances we have, before now, refused to acknowledge. Writers share with you – critics and readers – our appreciation of his extraordinary accomplishment.

Paris Review interview with William Gass.

Photograph by David Shankbone

Novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, philosophy professor William Gass has received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism three times, for "Habitations of the Word" (1985), "Finding a Form" (1997) and "Tests of Time" (2003). His other honors include a PEN/Nabokov award for lifetime achievement.