Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White: Dalkey Archive Press and That Job Ad

spiralIf you work in publishing, or are looking for a job in publishing, you may have seen the help wanted ad posted by Dalkey Archive Press last week. The University of Illinois-based press is looking to expand its London office and move on from founder John O’Brien’s stewardship, with two or three people at the helm and a group of support staff. Not a particularly radical concept, nor is the idea that employees will be hired mainly from a pool of eligible interns. The job notice, though, has raised hackles everywhere.

Not only is Dalkey looking for individuals with the appropriate level of skills, background, literary knowledge, and motivation, they’re asking for a little something extra in terms of dedication. They seek candidates who will be deeply devoted to the Press and its mission, who will conduct themselves in highly exemplary fashion, and who, among other qualities:

look forward to undergoing a rigorous and challenging probationary period either as an intern or employee; want to work at Dalkey Archive Press doing whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed; do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.).

Those who cannot answer yes to all of the above—and a few other vaguely outrageous requirements—are encouraged not to bother applying. Now, I’m not familiar with hiring regulations in the UK, but surely the part about family obligations is enough to make HR officers everywhere grind their teeth. And that’s nothing compared to the reaction that rippled through Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs, which consisted mostly of outrage, disgust, and the pronouncement that, if it is in fact a joke, it’s not all that funny.

As it turns out, the ad isn’t exactly a joke, but it’s still pretty funny. And as anyone who’s ever worked a low-level publishing job knows, it’s not that far from the truth. You work long hours for shitty pay, get yelled at a lot, and don’t have much of a life, for a while, outside your immediate milieu—all in hopes that you’ll prove yourself well enough to work your way up the rickety professional ladder. Labor laws prohibit employers from actually saying so, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the norm in a whole lot of places.

At least, that’s the big publisher model. It’s a little harder to scoff when you remember that Dalkey Archive Press is supposed to be one of the good guys—a small press that publishes really quality out-of-the-mainstream work, often in translation or previously out of print or both. We’re not supposed to laugh at them… are we?

In an exchange with the Irish Times, Press director John O’Brien explains that the advertisement was “a modest proposal. Serious and not-serious at one and the same time.” He adds,

My 25 years of experience with interns has been very mixed: the most common problem being that they aren’t prepared, don’t know what to expect, hope that a job might be at the end of the rainbow, and yet don’t have a clue as to what an employer is looking for. Employers wind up frustrated that they put in so much time, and the interns wonder why a job wasn’t forthcoming.

Fair enough. And just to put things in context, GalleyCat explicates the “modest proposal” reference, linking to Jonathan Swift’s original satirical essay of the same name.

Good satire doesn’t just poke fun; it pushes buttons. It makes us a little uncomfortable. You can draw a straight line from the Swift essay to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Wall Street Journal article Let Them Eat Dog a few years ago, which is one of the last times I remember quite this level of indignation pinging around the ether (aside from the Bonsai Kittens, but that was a long time ago).

So bravo to Dalkey Archive Press for making people sit up and take notice, at any rate. Not to mention offering actual jobs at a house you could be proud to work for. Even if the job notice does come with the caveat:

Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.

It concludes, “Candidates from EU countries are encouraged, but if English is not your first language, you must have a very high level of both verbal and written skills.” And since I’m not applying for a position there, I’m going to commit the cardinal sin of giving unsolicited advice: “written skills” are verbal. The phrase you’re looking for is “oral and written skills.”

Of course, if they open up a New York office, I may regret that.

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3 Comments to Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White: Dalkey Archive Press and That Job Ad

  1. December 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Sadly, no:

    “Verbal” is correct. “Oral” _primarily_ refers to anything mouth-related. Only its secondary meaning relates to speech.

  2. December 19, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mr. O’Brien:

    My name is Jefferson Washington. I am currently employed as a slave on the Sweet Magnolia plantation near Yazoo City, Mississippi. I wish to expand my horizons beyond the plantation and am considering a career in publishing.

    Originally, my overseer allowed me to enroll in night classes at the University of Mississippi, as long as it didn’t lower his metrics on the number of pounds of cotton I picked during the day. While taking classes in world literature at Ole Miss, I became an intern in the facilities department in a role in which I maintained over a dozen men’s rooms on campus. Unfortunately, several white janitors union members complained that I was taking their jobs away from them, and I was dismissed. Because I no longer could earn my keep, I was forced to leave school and return to the plantation.

    My disappointment was palpable. As you know, it is rare for a slave to know how to read, and it is rarer still to find a slave who knows how to read and interpret Uzbek experimental fiction, to give just one example of my numerous strengths. So I am applying for one or more of the advertised positions. I can cite the following qualifications, which I believe provide an excellent match for your requirements:

    -Highly productive picker of cotton
    -Minimal whip scars, demonstrating my complete cooperation with management’s business model
    -Ability to receive and execute orders without question, or dirty looks that can get you lynched
    -Fluent in the literatures of former Soviet republics

    I should add there is one additional benefit of hiring me: my presence would increase the diversity of your operations exponentially.

    Unfortunately, my master does not appreciate these efforts to improve my station in life, and he sees little use in either studying or publishing literature. If my master truly wanted sophisticated reading, he should look no further than the Review of Contemporary Fiction. I, myself, read your journal religiously, taking a pass on the nightly dancing and spiritual-singing of my less-literate colleagues (at no small social cost I might add).

    So I am contacting you in hopes of joining your publishing team. If I were hired, you would have an employee dedicated 24×7 to Dalkey Archive’s success. I sincerely hope that you agree I am the best applicant whom you will hear from. Given my background, I believe the transition from field slave to unpaid intern would be seamless. However, you may need to exchange something in-kind for my master to hire me out. Lightly worn clothing and/or slave quarters, built either at Sweet Magnolia or on the University of Illinois campus, would likely persuade him to release me to your care.

    Thank you for your consideration; I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Yours very truly,
    Jefferson Washington

  3. Parker's Gravatar Parker
    December 25, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    As you point out in your story, “it may be a sign of our desperate times that a lot of folks who read that ad took it at face value.” It is quite alarming that anybody would believe everything they read, especially someone such as Tim W. Brown, who has gone on a smear campaign making postings to every website which has a “story” on this Dalkey ad.
    This is what I gather…take it or leave it…Mr. Brown has had a pretty dismal career in writing, as evidenced by his current position as a technologist for global financial institutions. Mr. Browns resume of accomplishments include: speaking at the Rockford Writer’s Guild in Rockford, Illinois (where?), readings at bars in NYC with fellow authors from the same house that publishes him – Gival Press (who?), and writing four books that have become pretty irrelevant. An interesting fact about Mr. Brown is that he is a card carrying member (paid membership) of the National Book Critic’s Circle. During his time as a member, he has had to issue apologies for the numerous errors he has made in his reviews. Perhaps Mr. Brown can stop looking to Dalkey Archive Press’s numerous NBCC awards with jealously and instead search for some inspiration to better his “career” in the literary world.
    Mr. Brown seems to suggest in his cover letter that O’Brien is looking for slaves. Judging by Mr. Browns resume on the website he has created for himself, Mr. Brown has never had the need for an intern. Does it make a lot of sense for someone to criticize someone else when they have no experience on the subject? Who benefits from the internship relationship anyways?
    Finally, I am gathering what is really behind Mr. Brown’s attempted smear is simple. He has probably sent numerous manuscripts to Dalkey and has never heard back. He ends up having to settle for third rate publishers, like his current Gival Press (who gives out many, many awards to the authors they publish……what an accomplishment!)

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