The Dorothy project: An interview with Danielle Dutton

Hilary Plum
June 6, 2012
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Just out today on the Kenyon Review Online is Elaine Bleakney’s review of two novels by Renee Gladman, Event Factory and The Ravickians. Both novels were published by Dorothy, a publishing project; I had heard a great deal about Dorothy before picking up Gladman’s fantastic Event Factory and upon finishing it was hungry to know more. Dorothy’s founder & publisher is the writer Danielle Dutton—author of S P R A W L and Attempts at a Life—and she kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the press.

HP: Dorothy, a publishing project is notable immediately for its emphasis on the word project; your mission statement says that you are interested in how “[your] books might fit together and collectively become a ‘project’.” I’m drawn to this idea, which points to the community around any one book: this seems an essential part of the small press ecology, in which readers can turn to particular presses year after year, and we can trust these presses to put the books we (don’t know yet that we) need in our hands. This also seems like a notion that includes readers more fully along with writers and publishers. Maybe we can become better readers of one Dorothy book, for instance, by having read another; maybe in accumulation books can deepen or make more space for certain aesthetics, and readers will be part of this too. I was wondering, how have you seen this idea of a “project” take shape with Dorothy’s list so far, now that you’re two years in? How do you imagine it continuing to develop in the future?

Danielle Dutton: First off, thank you for saying all that so beautifully. I think you’ve articulated the philosophy of the project as well as I ever do, so maybe what I can best add are some comments on the practical aspect of things, the various strategies you have to come up with as a publisher to effectively serve your philosophy. With a publishing project that does not measure success primarily in dollars, and that does not have many dollars with which to achieve its success, you find yourself needing to be creative but also very practical about how you proceed.

One of the first things I decided when conceiving of Dorothy was that “success” would mean more than finding great books and publishing them well, it would mean that the project itself would be sustainable, not a flash in the pan—and for me that meant it had to be small: two books per year, which I thought was a number large enough to keep readers interested but small enough to insure 1) that I would have time to find fantastic things to publish every single time, 2) that I would have time to really edit the books, really design them, really market them, in short to do a good job by them, even with a family, a full-time job, and my own writing, and 3) that I would be able to afford to keep publishing even when losing money, which I assumed the project indefinitely would be (although I’m happy to say that it already isn’t).

So there was this serious effort in the conception of Dorothy to be practical, and yet within those limitations, to succeed with all of the press’s goals. All along my hope was to generate new readers for different kinds of books, to create some cross-over from one aesthetic to another, and what that became, in practical terms, was that each year’s two books would draw from different aesthetic traditions, but would be conversant with one another, even if only, initially, in my own mind. They would be published simultaneously in a uniform size and shape and sold individually for the same price every time, $16, regardless of length, or sold together through our website for $25 for the two. As a way to get people interested in both books together, that discount has worked pretty well: the vast, vast majority of our website sales are for the paired books, not individual titles. And occasionally someone will tell me (or write about how) they went to purchase a specific book but then decided to buy that book along with its year-mate.

It will be really interesting to me (and I hope to other people) to watch how the accumulation of pairs of books starts to come together across the years as a thing. As the list continues to grow, I start to think of the project more that way—less annually and more cumulatively. I’m sure the nature of the project will change as this becomes increasingly the case, but I’m not yet sure what those changes will be. At the very least, with each book the “identity” of the project changes, its personality develops, and in that sense it’s like getting to know someone book by book—although that someone isn’t me, that personality isn’t mine, it belongs to this thing called Dorothy, and I’m getting to know it as well.

HP: The Dorothy project also states that it publishes books “mostly by women.” I was wondering if you could talk about this choice—were there particular writers or types of writing you felt weren’t being published or widely noticed, and was this writing often by women? (Sometimes I can get a bit dismayed at the maleness of the small press world—though perhaps you do not share this grumpiness—and was happy to discover a place that could serve gently as a corrective or just offer a broader conversation.)

DD: I do share the grumpiness, in fact, and I think a broader conversation is a kind of corrective. It was important to me, when I was first conceiving of Dorothy, to start a press that felt (at least to my mind) like it was needed in the world (we all know there are already a lot of presses, a lot of books, so many words, etc.). I wanted to do something that could work to close up some gaps that I felt needed closing, and the “mostly by women” function of the press is one of the ways Dorothy was designed to do that. I started the press before the amazing, dispiriting Vida numbers made the gender inequality in publishing a somewhat regular topic of conversation, but the sense of inequality was certainly already there. I felt it, absolutely. Not as a kind of cold-hard statistic, of course, but in the frankly misogynistic things I’d hear very smart men say about women writers or writing by women, in the kinds of books (i.e., mostly by men) that people seemed to talk about and teach and review all around me, and in the whole awful idea of “women’s fiction,” this notion that we should/could categorize writing by women as a particular kind of writing, rather than as individual instances of a vast multiplicity.

HP: One of your first titles was a reprint of Barbara Comyns’ 1954 novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Will the press continue to bring back neglected works and thus re-create a sort of tradition or mini-canon? I like this idea of publishing contemporary writers alongside their forebears, if we can use this word, as a way of having a deeper conversation about fiction.

And: what writers or works would you love to see reprinted or celebrated again today? (Whether or not Dorothy might publish them.)

DD: Part of the fun of the Comyns, for me, was that I didn’t know anything about her before someone gave me a copy of the then-out-of-print Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. The decision to seek the rights for the work came pretty much the second I finished the last page. I’m always hoping to be surprised as a reader, and discovering a new-to-me writer is one of the best surprises. So I would be happy to publish another reprint, if something as magical as Comyns’s book came along, but I don’t have anything in mind right now, and I’m not actively searching. More important to me than pairing contemporaries with their forebears is the mixing of types of books, as a way of keeping the project fresh and vital, conceptually loose. I prefer to work within a sense of fluid possibility than feel trapped inside the sort of rigid structure and expectation that the very word canon conjures for me. So, in Year 2 I published an original translation from French of a collection of stories for young adults (although I contend they are actually for just-plain-adult adults), while this fall (Year 3) I’ll be publishing two first novels by young women English-language writers. I’ve published original works before but never a first novel, and the prospect of introducing a new writer to the world, and the responsibility of that, is very exciting to me. I’ve thought that I would like to do a book of literary theory, or perhaps a hybrid monograph. I had one in mind but I don’t think it will become available to me.

I guess one outside steering factor—I mean outside just my own tastes and literary interests—is that, as I mention above, I like to respond to (my sense of) what’s needed, and it seems to me that generally speaking reprints are not in such bad shape these days. There are a number of great presses covering a whole lot of ground, and with the move into ebooks, it seems unlikely that books will even go out of print much in the future, so reprints won’t be important in the same way that they have been for the past few decades. More important might be new translations or further translation of great writers of the past, and in this category it’s exciting to see Clarice Lispector being celebrated again. New Directions has just published beautiful new translations of her books. She’s one of my favorites.

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