2016: The year my daughter learned to stand on her own and walk away. It’s also the year my son learned about the Holocaust, that it happened, and not that long ago. He is five, she is one. If this opening relies too heavily on the metaphorical, please forgive me: I refuse to besmirch my entry with a certain someone’s name, he has crowded my Internet and my brain too much already.
I also would like to assert the pleasures of this year, no matter what happened in November. Those pleasures cannot be rescinded. I had a good time writing a book, seeing friends, meeting my youngest niece, cooking with my husband, even gossiping via direct messages on Twitter (oh god please don’t hack me, Russia!). I watched my son graduate from preschool. He learned to read. When we rang in the new year, his baby sister was a basically a tadpole; now she can amble across the living room and ask for raspberries and point at everything in the room, a perpetual desire machine. Dat, Dat, Dat, she calls out. One day my son said, “Dolls are for girls — in TV commercials.” On another day he said, “Movies and stories usually open with the villain. It’s the bad thing to get you interested.” Reading isn’t just the ABCs.
Speaking of reading. There were also books in 2016. Great ones.
Like everyone else, Oprah Winfrey among them, I loved The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I loved it because it does what it wants story-wise, demands you just go with it, but on the level of plot or structure it’s not at all messy. As we used to say in high school: it’s tight. More quote-unquote ambitious novels need to take note of this book’s symmetry and precision. I’ve long been a fan of Whitehead’s work, in particular his graceful and surprising turns-of-phrase. This new one is just as beautifully written, but the power of its prose held me in the paragraphs rather than single sentences or similes. See this one early on, describing the interruption of a rare party among the slaves:
The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always — the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.
The rhythms here are brilliant, the sentences describing the celebration’s end — “The music stopped. The circle broke.” — as brief as the humanity each slave momentarily experiences before “the eternity of her servitude” takes it away. The cruel assonance of “eternity” and “servitude.” There are so many paragraphs like this in The Underground Railroad. The book contains flashes of Whitehead’s classic sharpness, that ironic gleam of his that I’ve always loved, but it peers in at the edges; the subject matter requires sincerity, gravity. The sharpness, though, keeps this from feeling like a safe, milky-glow historical story. This terror feels present, is present.
Another book that rocked me was Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, which is about present-day South Central Los Angeles and its epidemic of murder and violence. Like The Underground Railroad, it’s about vulnerable black bodies, about our American failure to protect and value black Americans. Leovy is a reporter for the L.A. Times and she covered homicide from 2001 to 2012, embedding herself in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division a couple years into this assignment. Her thesis is simple: “When the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” She argues that “perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former a kind of poor compensation for the latter.” She continues:
Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”
The book is a tremendous journalistic feat. Leovy is able to make statistics and historical data coherent and compelling, and she depicts the lives of those affected by these traumas with a vividness that can only come when you’ve truly seen someone and tried to view the world through his eyes.
These first two books are clearly defined, respectively, as fiction and nonfiction. Another favorite from this year bled into both categories: Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. I had never heard of this little svelte book when I bought it from Green Apple Books in San Francisco. I was simply attracted to its square shape and its cover drawing of a blonde woman. I didn’t even read the back cover. Turns out, Barbara Loden was an actress who starred in Wanda, the only film she also directed. I am not a movie buff — in fact, I rarely watch movies, especially the “important” ones — but I realize I love reading descriptions of film scenes. There’s a kind of inert vividness to these descriptions, a scrim between me and the dramatic moment, that I find almost erotic. Léger intersperses descriptions of Wanda with passages about how she came to know this movie, how she tried and tried to understand Barbara Loden herself. Woven into these, too, are autobiographical asides. One begins: “Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men.” The result of these combined fragments is delicious and mysterious.
Aside from these three new favorite books, I also found a new favorite author. I discovered him over the summer, when I was tired of reading what everyone else was reading or had read. What initially drew me in was the vintage Bantam paperback, tucked into a neighbor’s front yard Little Library. Lurid red, with the phrase WIFE TROUBLE in big gold letters on the back. The novel was The Barbarous Coast, published in 1956 and written by Ross Macdonald, an L.A. pulp writer who was raised in Canada. Bookseller-friends had recommended his work to me before, but this was my first foray. Macdonald’s detective is one Lew Archer, a quippy loner as they usually are, and I didn’t care as much about the story — a beautiful dead girl, a fancy beach club, etc. — as I did about the writing. The writing! “Manor Crest Drive was one of those quiet palm-lined avenues which had been laid out just before the twenties went into their final convulsions.” It’s cool and stylish. I love it. I noted the sexist shit, too: “Her breath was a blend of gin and fermenting womanhood.”
Soon after finishing the book, I bought The Far Side of the Dollar on eBay. I longed to read another Macdonald, but like the first one, it had to be an old dime-store paperback, its pages yellowed and flaking, the jacket copy over-the-top cheesy (“I’m the man women can’t forget and some men don’t live to…”). Again the crisp language. Lew Archer’s assessments of women — “Legs still good. Mouth still good.” — continued to rankle, and I began to collect these instances…for what, I am not yet sure. Maybe as a reminder that this way of seeing females is historical, at least half a century old. It is also our inheritance. And it persists. I’m going to read The Galton Case next.
Now onto 2017. Sometimes I am fearful and despairing about what’s to come. Not entirely, though. I won’t let that happen. To start, there will be books.
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Danielle Dutton is a writer, editor, and publisher who might shift the way you read. Author of Margaret the First, SPRAWL, and Attempts at a Life, her writing is compact and quick as it contemplates the strange banalities of domestic life. Her prose finds wonder in the uniformity of the suburbs, or the particularities of 17th-century aristocratic life. It’s funny and full of strange consequence.
Dutton also runs Dorothy, a publishing project, one of the best independent presses in the United States. Dorothy is dedicated to “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women.” Dutton works on all components of each Dorothy release, including curation, editing, and design. In just seven years, with writers like Renee Gladman, Joanna Walsh, Joanna Ruocco, Nell Zink, Amina Cain, and more, Dutton has brought together the work of some of the most electric voices in contemporary publishing.
Each Fall, Dorothy publishes two new books simultaneously. This year, Dorothy continues its pattern of innovation, with genre-bending French writer Nathalie Léger and out-of-nowhere wunderkind Jen George. Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden seamlessly blends biography, memoir, film criticism, and auto fiction, as it contemplates the star of a 1970 art-house movie. George’s The Babysitter at Rest is a hilarious and one of a kind story collection that has already earned the adoration of writers like Ben Marcus, Sheila Heti, and Miranda July.
I wrote to Dutton to ask her about this year’s Dorothy releases, and her work as a curator, editor, writer, and reader.
The Millions: How did Suite for Barbara Loden and The Babysitter at Rest come into your hands? What was the process like of editing these books, and working with Jen George and Nathalie Léger (or Léger’s translators)?
Danielle Dutton: In the case of Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest what happened was fairly straightforward: I read her story “The Babysitter at Rest” in BOMB (it had been selected by Sheila Heti for BOMB’s 2015 Fiction Contest), and I thought it was incredible. Totally unlike anything I’d read. After about three paragraphs I could feel my hands getting shaky. And this is very often the case, that it’ll take only moments for me to sense that I’ve found the right next book — when this is happening, in those rare and wonderful moments, I actually feel somewhat physically unwell. It’s like I’m literally being overwhelmed by what I’m reading. So, that’s one way I know I want to publish a book: vague nausea. Anyway, I got in touch with the editor at BOMB, who forwarded a message to Jen, for whom my interest was, of course, totally out of the blue, and the whole thing went from there.
With the Léger, Stephen Sparks, who manages San Francisco’s Green Apple Books on the Park, and is an incredibly smart reader and one of our most trusted advisors, put us in touch with one of the book’s translator’s, Cécile Menon. Essentially, he recommended us to her and her and the book to us.
In terms of the editorial process(es): with the translation there wasn’t a ton to do. We chose to Americanize spelling, and we did have a few lines here and there that we went back and forth about with Cécile and her co-translator Natasha Lehrer, but the book was very beautiful and basically ready to go (it had just been published in the U.K.). We worked more with Jen. She sent us a number of stories and we whittled it down to the five you see in the book, and then we worked with her on them, arranging and re-arranging, laughing — the raw material of Jen’s brain continually amazes me. Even her emails make me laugh. The process was, I think, really productive, collaborative. It’s been a delight getting to know Jen and getting to see her see her first book enter the world.
TM: The books that you write and the books that you work with at Dorothy tend to have levity — often a sense of humor — in common. What draws you toward lightness in writing? What’s it like to edit humor in other people’s work?
DD: That’s an interesting question, or series of questions. My first thought is that, editorially, we generally leave the humor alone — it’s either there or it isn’t. It’s more often what’s around the humor that might need attending to, the stuff that allows the funny parts to be funny, unburdened, or as you put it, light. But humor is one of those things like voice, if it’s good it’s because it doesn’t sound like anybody else, and then why would you want to mess with that.
TM: You used to work as a book designer at Dalkey Archive Press. Are you involved in design at Dorothy, too? What are your ambitions in the way you design books? What was it like working on the design of this year’s Dorothy books?
DD: Yes, I do all the design at Dorothy. I think the aesthetic of the press has a lot to do with my limitations as a designer, honestly. Essentially, I am not a designer. I wasn’t a designer when I got to Dalkey, even though I wound up being the book designer there for several years. Minimal was key! I’m actually quite pleased with some of the covers I managed to do there — the covers of both Édouard Levé books, for example, or of Mina Loy’s stories and essays. And I think — I’d like to think — I’ve found a way to make my limitations work at Dorothy as well, though the aesthetic I’ve developed with Dorothy is very different from the Dalkey stuff.
The first thing I do with each cover is find the right art. The art is my focus. I generally manage it by looking all over everywhere, scouring art school tumblers, raiding friends’ Facebook photo albums, just looking all over, really, hoping to find a piece that matches the writing’s energy. I don’t like a cover to be overly illustrative, or literal, but more collaborative with the text. The exception, actually, is the cover of Suite for Barbara Loden, which is an illustration of a still from Barbara Loden’s film Wanda. But something about it being an illustration of a still left space. It still felt open, suggestive, like a sketch.
TM: I was planning to ask you about your great new novel, Margaret the First, but then I realized that you haven’t been asked in interviews about your other new book, Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera. Here Comes Kitty is a narrative collage book constructed by you and Richard Kraft. What was it like collaborating on a book? How did you “write” it?
DD: Here Comes Kitty is really Richard’s book. He’s a visual artist and he had this series of collages he was working on based out of a Cold War comic book called Kapitan Kloss, which is about a Polish spy infiltrating the Nazis. Richard basically exploded the Kloss narrative with all these bizarre and wondrous intrusions: from Amar Chitra Katha comics of Hindu mythology to underground porn comics like Cherry to just a bunch of bunnies. As he was working on it, he decided it wasn’t quite chaotic enough, I guess, and he contacted me and asked if I would write a text of my own to accompany the images. Our idea was that the images and the text would be in some sort of conversation but neither would attempt to explain the other. To echo my answer about design above: the relationship would be more suggestive than illustrative.
Ultimately we decided (out of a shared love for the collaboration between John Cage and Merce Cunningham) to work separately, each thinking about the other, wondering what the other might be up to, but not knowing, just sort of trusting it to work out, and also being interested in whatever discordant notes might arise. I actually did look at some of his earlier work, as inspiration, to find the tone …and, conversely, Richard knew my book SPRAWL very well. So, yeah, for most of the time we worked with or toward each other remotely — one in Los Angeles and one in St. Louis. The result is, as we’d hoped it would be, a cacophonous book that is sort of rhyming and riotous at once.
TM: Between being a publisher, professor, writer, mom, etc., it’s incredible that you still seem to manage to find time to read. What are your strategies for carving out reading time?
DD: The vast majority of my reading is for teaching or for Dorothy. My strategy for fitting in other reading is pretty dull: I read a lot in the summer. For a while I was reading non-work stuff before bed each night (a long stretch there with Angela Thirkell novels), but I’ve slipped into the habit, at this medium-to-late stage in the semester, of watching TV at bedtime instead.
TM: Do you put books down? Or do you finish what you start? How do you prioritize your reading (beyond teaching and Dorothy)? The Angela Thirkell novels, for example — what kept drawing you to them?
DD: I do put books down, yeah, all the time. I’ll put them down after one page. That’s harsh, and it means I probably miss out on work I might appreciate, but if I’m not immediately interested in the writing it’s hard to justify the time. The Thirkell books are an odd exception. The writing isn’t great. There’s also a certain amount of problematic politics in them (they’re from the 1930s and ’40s). I started them because they’re a series set in the English countryside and I was looking for something easy, bedtime reading. That’s not what I’m normally looking for when I read, but I was feeling stressed out and wanted pleasant little stories about mostly happy people. I did actually grow to admire them more over time. There’s a wonderful sense of ease about them. This sometimes means the books feel too loose, or repetitive, but also they don’t feel labored. It doesn’t feel as if Thirkell was wringing her hands over them, and for some reason I find this refreshing. It feels a bit free.
TM: Seven years in, what’s the hardest part of running Dorothy?
DD: It’s definitely just finding the time.
TM: What’s the most rewarding?
DD: The money and power and fame! Also I really like working with these strange, brilliant writers.
TM: What’s something you’ve read in the past year that you’ve loved?
DD: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman
TM: What’s something you’re looking forward to reading, but haven’t yet?
TM: In the classroom, what’s a book that you love teaching, and why do you love teaching it?
DD: Just this semester I taught Marguerite Duras’s The Lover in a new course on desire, and it was incredibly satisfying, a very rich conversation, because it’s such an open text, there’s so much to wonder at — the politics, the way Duras writes sex, the way desire is enacted structurally. And then one of my favorite short stories to teach is Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies.” It’s hilarious, for one thing, but also it gets students to see what you mean when you harp on about how a character is made up of language, or what you mean when you say that there should be action in the writing itself.