Sometime around February, both somewhat crassly and in complete seriousness, I took to describing the still-newish 2019 as The Year of the Great Unclenching. The frenetic anxiety that had possessed me from working in a news cycle for the past four years that I can adequately only describe as a brain clenching its buttocks had finally begun to dissipate, leaving my mental faculties free and wanting to consume whole books again. (Apologies to all friends and strangers who had to endure me recount this self-mythologization at parties with an overenthusiastic use of the phrase “relaxed mental sphincters.”).
Since I lived in Harlem but went to lift weights three times a week at a gym in a Brooklyn neighborhood, for reasons I will explain another time—an hour-long commute each way transformed into the most peaceful uninterrupted reading time of the kind people (including me) moan about not having. At 9 p.m. on a weeknight aboard a nearly-empty 2 Train, nobody jostles you, nobody peeks over your shoulder, you don’t have to choose between balancing the book in one hand and clutching the pole with another, leaving me free to smirk to myself midway through Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack—the only other book that has come close to my everlasting love for Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, in the genre misguidedly given the insufferably twee name “coming-of-age” novel.
I have neither memory nor recollection of who told me about this writer or how I discovered her, but as the barest hint of my trapezius muscles began to emerge over the course of more Harlem to Crown Heights commutes, I inhaled Trapido’s entire body of work. Sex & Stravinksy, Noah’s Ark, The Travelling Hornplayer, Frankie & Stankie, Juggling and Temples of Delight—captivated by the way she manages to write the most charming books that take such perverse delight in the casual everyday cruelties that we, the members of the profoundly boring middle class, inflict on those (wives, husbands, offspring, mothers, fathers) when our indoctrinated veneer of fondness towards them wears thin, lobbing small grenades of destruction that do lasting damage, even as we cook dinner, fret over bills, and drink antacids to aid digestion. All I read this year were books by women who write in barbs so sharp their sentences seem capable of leaving nicks in the corners of your thumbnail. You carry their words with the same awareness that you would the hanging flap of skin leftover from a paper cut—aware always, but still unable to stop obsessively picking at it. I laughed when Muriel Spark rendered the do-nothing Writer Man character in Loitering with Intent with an evisceration so succinct it made me avert my eyes in second-hand embarrassment. I took in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which is un-showy and more restrained, but no less ruthless in its intelligence. I reread The Portable Veblen, which I’d first read back in 2016 when it came out and had momentarily forgotten what a strange, inventive and just plain weird book this was. I found far too many parallels of my own with Lolly of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes and Edith of Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. I choked with a certain crazed laughter while reading Halle Butler’s The New Me, in horrified familiarity at the scenes where the character endures the meaningless tedium of working full-time temp jobs. I read and reread Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything so many times over the summer that the brand new copy split apart at the spine. I put it back together with Gorilla Tape and read it again. I hope all these women will forgive me for comparing their writing to a hangnail. I love hangnails; they are my constant companion and keep me company when I am anxious, which is frequently.
Their writing did the same in a way.
So much of what I read is for work (editing Dorothy, a publishing project, and teaching at Washington University in St. Louis), but I did manage some stellar outside reading in 2016. These were my favorites of the “freebies:”
1. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book: smart, unpretentious, unclassifiable. With an obvious nod to Sei Shōnagon’s 10th-century The Pillow Book, Buffam’s is a fragmented essay-poem-meditation on insomnia, motherhood, marriage, and other “hateful” things. It’s littered with lists, delightfully funny (or just delightful), such as “Moustaches A-Z,” “Things That Give a Dirty Feeling,” or “Jobs from Hell.” Here’s one:
SOUNDS I DON’T EXPECT TO HEAR
A rose opening.
Silence on the 4th of July.
The mating cry of the King Island Emu.
Hecklers at the ballet.
Foghorns in the Mare Cognitum.
A rich man entering Heaven.
A poor man entering the Senate.
2. Renee Gladman’s Calamities: It would be hard to overstate my sense of Gladman’s importance to contemporary American letters. Calamities is a series of short linked essays (or, as I’ve heard her call them, ditties) most of which begin “I began the day …” It’s embodied, subtle, playful, rare.
3. & 4. Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoon’s Came from Woolworth and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman: The Comyns and the Townsend Warner are reprints somewhat recently published in the U.S. by NYRB. I loved both to an aggressive degree, especially Lolly Willowes, which sneaks up on you with its ferocity, so sharp and erotic and free.
This fall I taught a new graduate course on desire, so have been eyeball-deep in amorousness: Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter and Eros the Bittersweet; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime; Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text; T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty; texts by Anaïs Nin, Roxane Gay, Joanna Walsh, Carl Phillips, William Gass, Catherine Belsey, and Marie Calloway; and, one of my all-time favorites, The Lover by Marguerite Duras.
Finally, my “year in reading” wouldn’t be complete without The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George and Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger (translated from the French by Cécile Menon & Natasha Lehrer). These are the books I spent the most time with, the ones I was able to get seriously and satisfyingly intimate with. Meanwhile, here at Dorothy we’ve begun putting together a book we’re nuts about for Fall 2017: the first ever Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington.
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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.
This year, my pleasure reading happened in fits and starts, in between ominous deadlines and periods of resting my brain with easy sitcoms (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Mindy Project, Seinfeld). In January, I was most thankful for Roxane Gay’s company in Bad Feminist, as I was in the final sprint of two years spent translating The Complete Stories, by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, while processing an explosive breakup and the Charlie Hebdo shooting in a place where I hardly spoke to another human for two weeks. In those essays and in Gay’s columns throughout this year of turbulent events, I have found wise and generous ways of navigating vulnerability, messiness, violence, and troubling clashes of opinion.
Reading in the nowhere space of airplanes leaves a satisfyingly concentrated imprint on you. Two books to be absorbed in focused bursts are Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green. I read both on a flight to Hawaii in February, for a birthday trip after turning in the Lispector manuscript and before heading back into edits and my long-derailed dissertation. Citizen, which mixes poems, visual art, and brief pieces somewhere between prose poem and essay, made me hyperaware of everyone around me in the airport and on the plane, as it tracks those barely perceptible charges of racial prejudice and consciousness of difference that seep into our everyday interactions. It also made me obsessed with Serena Williams, in time to jump into conversations about the U.S. Open and Drake.
Self-Portrait in Green, translated by Jordan Stump, was a different revelation, a crypto-memoir that swings in fragments between France and an African country that evokes Senegal. It swept me into a dream saturated in green hues (banana leaves; a woman’s bright dress; a series of mysterious, seductive yet melancholy green women) and cut with powerful, sensual images that recall the films of Claire Denis, with whom NDiaye has collaborated.
March through October became a torrent of Elena Ferrante, when I wasn’t wringing my hands and hunching my shoulders over work. I’m not earning any originality points for this pick, as one among hordes of women (and quite a few men) who’ve gotten drunk on any or all of the anonymous Italian writer’s seven novels to date — though I think of the Neapolitan Novels as four installments of one very long book. I’ve been surprised and excited to encounter this writing from inside women’s lives and bodies that’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. I also struck up an admiring acquaintance with Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, whose work has led me to read Primo Levi and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
I finished my dissertation, exhaled, and hit the road with Patti Smith in October. I listened to her narrate M Train two times over as I drove alone from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back, for a family visit and a reading. Besides Horses, the thing I love best about Patti is her uninhibited worship of heroes and talismans, intertwined with a romantic idealism usually found only in teenagers. She collects stones from a prison in French Guiana to bring to Jean Genet, swoons into a bed at Frida Kahlo’s Mexico City house-museum, joins the elusive Continental Drift Club out of a fixation on the explorer Alfred Wegener’s boots, and still fantasizes about a café of her own at the age of 67. Though the hardcover has pleasingly silken pages and includes the photographs she describes taking, I prefer the audiobook because it makes you feel like you’re hanging out with Patti, listening to her tell stories in her craggy, wry, cowboy-from-New Jersey voice, saying words like “yelluh” and “worter.”
The end of this year has taken a decidedly witchy turn. I first discovered John Keene through his translation of Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer and was eager to read his fiction in Counternarratives. Who knows what book of spells Keene used to conjure these hypnotic, quasi-historical tales involving mystical convergences? Together they form a composite portrait of colonialism, slavery, and their influence in the New World, jumping between Brazil, North America, Haiti, and elsewhere, in the 17th to 20th centuries. My favorite story, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrows,” is populated by Haitian witches and Catholic nuns in Kentucky.
Sometimes when you go around calling something “one of my favorite books,” to the point that you name your Wi-Fi network after the title character, but can only recall it in vague outlines, it’s time to check in again. So I reread Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman, described in the 1999 NYRB reissue as “an aging spinster’s struggle to break away from her controlling family.” An admirable cause, obviously, but I’d always liked Warner’s own description of it as a “story about a witch.” Yet I had forgotten how long we have to suffer with Laura, “Aunt Lolly,” under the thumb of her uptight aristocratic family in decline (think Downton Abbey but shabbier) before she decides that single ladies have rights too and moves to the rural village of Great Mop. Never have I experienced a more tranquil, nature-loving account of meeting Satan, aka the Loving Huntsman, and joining a mild-mannered community of witches. In one of her nonchalant conversations with Satan, Lolly explains, “That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”
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