On Publishing Stephen Dixon

Stephen Dixon was not a cartoonist (though he was a drawer, albeit one who sketched purely for himself), he was a prose writer, and died on November 6, 2019. I expected the literary community to sing his praises, but if an internet search is an accurate indication, he has gone largely unmourned, which should not, perhaps, have come as a surprise since he was never commensurately praised in a lifetime throughout which he consistently produced work of great literary excellence. The only posthumous tributes I found were one by Matthew Cheney, a nicely observed literary appreciation, and one by Kristopher Jansma, a lovely personal reminiscence. Imagine my surprise to learn that the literary world honors its less commercially successful masters and elder statesmen even less than the cartooning profession, but, though there may yet be time for some of their august journals to run a retrospective appreciation of his life’s work, this neglect at least prompted me to write my own, and to talk about the artist I published and the man I got to know over the last decade.

Between 2010 and 2019 I published four of his books, two novels and two collections of short stories, and considered him a compatriot and either a friend or something very close to it. I never met him, which I regret, and only spoke to him on the phone a handful of times, but we exchanged over 400 e-mails, many of which were collegial and intimate. I hope that by quoting from some of them I can give you a glimpse into who and what Stephen Dixon was.

First and foremost, there is the work. I would place Stephen in the company of and the equal to those American postmodern writers who were his peers, especially those that wrote large, ambitious, expansive works (though Stephen was both a minimalist and a maximalist) — William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace. Stephen wrote in the tradition of Woolf and Joyce, perhaps with a little James T. Farrell or Henry Roth (whom he called his “dearest friend”) or even Bukowski thrown in. He wrote about ordinary people and their ordinary habits and their ordinary upheavals. “I write a great deal about breakups,” he once said, “because I’ve had a number of breakups, and I write about reconciliations, too, because I’ve had a number of those too. What can I say? I write about the emotional life as I’ve experienced it and as I see it. I write about extreme emotional psychological moments, not only because they exist and I find them interesting, but because I’ve lived them.” Like Woolf and Joyce, he deepened the emotional depths he was striving to express by making consciousness itself recognizable through language; it’s as if he wanted to get as close as possible to recreating how the mind worked in its daily fluctuations of decision-making and the sense impressions it is constantly experiencing. He was, as he himself said, an interior artist, and increasingly so throughout his career, but he often expressed that interiority and the workings of the mind through action and dialogue, an astonishing balancing act that left the reader breathless and wondering how what he had just read was accomplished, so seamlessly close to life were his stories.

If I had to choose one work that serves as a ne plus ultra of his writing, it would be His Wife Leaves Him, a recounting of a marriage at the time of the wife’s passing, moving back and forth in time from her present state of dying to the moment they met to the vastness of their married life in between — a kind of literary reportage devoid of easy sentimentality but full of incident that attains greater meaning after the fact. (One could easily choose any one of his short story collections, too, or all of them together as a body of work; he wrote over 500 short stories, more than twice as many as his literary idol Chekhov, making him one of the most prolific short story writers in the history of literature). But, to me, His Wife Leaves Him is his single most sustained achievement, a dense chronicle of such empathy and aliveness that it staggers the reader’s senses. About His Wife Leaves Him, he said, “It’s definitely my most emotional work as well as, perhaps, my funniest. It might also be my most adventurous structurally, and also the cleanest and clearest writing I’ve ever done. It’s also my most elegiac. I’ve never been so satisfied with a work…”

Unlike many writers who agonize over the act of writing, Stephen found great pleasure in it. He was a habitual writer, a compulsive writer; writing was part of his being. He couldn’t not write. “I am obsessive,” he once told an interviewer, “in that I always have to have something to write. I would probably get ill if I didn’t have something to write. That’s why I usually start something new the day after I’ve finished something. And if nothing comes — I might try three or four times that day — I try again the day after, and if nothing comes that day, the day after that. I only feel good when I have something to work on.”

It would be appropriately Dixonesque at this point to loop back to the beginning — or our beginning. A mutual friend, Paul Maliszewski, dropped Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds an e-mail introducing him to Stephen, who passed the contact on to me because I’d edited all our prose books to that time. To my great shame, I was unfamiliar with Stephen’s work. He wanted to publish a collection of his short stories, which he sent to us as a Xeroxed manuscript. I set about reading them, my first exposure to the unique rhythm of his prose; once I’d become acclimated to those purposeful rhythms, learned to appreciate them, and understood how they served his interpretation of life, I fell in love with his work. These stories became What Is All This?, which we published in 2010; as it turned out, it was an inauspicious beginning to our relationship.

This is where I introduce Stephen Dixon the man – his personality, temperament, character, which was on full display during the fraught publication of What Is All This?, a massive book: 62 short stories, nearly 600 pages long. We had to optically scan all the pages from Stephen’s typescript. The technology, less sophisticated in 2009 than it is now, resulted in typographic glitches on every page. We cleaned up the galley in our office, but our outside proofreader, our last defense against typos, failed to catch innumerable mistakes. Stephen described it in this cringeworthy but accurate way in an interview in Bomb: “There were about a thousand errors in the hardcover version, but they were mostly my fault because at the time I was in a deep bereavement state over the death of my wife and didn’t pay sufficient attention to the galleys as I should have.” He was right about the errors, but wrong about whose fault it was; it was mine, not his. This is as good an example as I can cite of Stephen’s generous and forgiving nature. He had every right and reason to be angry, but I don’t remember him displaying any anger; in fact, his congenial nature was further displayed in a phone call between us where we almost got into an argument as to whose fault it was — him arguing it was his, me arguing it was mine. I won. I was deeply chagrined at this professional lapse; I let Stephen down, not to mention everyone who bought a copy of the book. We immediately proofed it again, corrected it, and published a softcover as quickly as we could. Stephen was pleased with the results.

The rest of our professional life together from then until he died went without a hitch. Our professional connection was light and loose enough to spill into a personal one too. Over the last decade, we exchanged over 400 e-mails, and although many of them were purely utilitarian — proofreading or scheduling questions — many of them veered from the collegial to the intimate, and into areas of my own aesthetic curiosity when I’d ask him questions about his process, working habits, and his opinions of other writers. He would talk about these subjects in interviews, but he never wrote essays; I don’t know why, since I think he would have been good at it, and I’m sorry now that I never asked. But I’d like to give you a little more insight into Stephen Dixon, the author, critic, and man through a few excerpts from those e-mails, which don’t merely impart information but give a juicy sense of how his use of vocabulary, metaphor, syntax reflected his thinking and feeling.

By my count, he spent almost five and a half years writing His Wife Leaves Him. In a November 24, 2009 e-mail, he gave me a progress report on the book and offered a look into his writing process:

Today I’ve been writing the first draft of the new chapter of my novel-in-progress, HIS WIFE LEAVES HIM. Been working on the novel for 3 1/2 years. Told you that already. The first draft is very important. To write it I have to be like a fighter ready for the fight. Right mood and conditioning. This one feels like 2 fights. Won the first and am ready on second wind for the 2nd. Now I’m going in back to do the 2nd part. A lot’s counting on it. It means steady work for the next 2 months. Then one long chapter after it followed by lots of shorties and I'm done.

And almost two years later, June 11, 2011:

I am finally done with the novel, and the corrected version of it, minus about a hundred mistakes, is in the hands of the literary agent.

The period between the time he gave it to his agent and October of that year was fraught, however. I received the 225,000 word manuscript on June 24. I hadn’t read it quickly or followed up with his agent, and on October 26, Stephen wrote me a letter reluctantly expressing his frustration. This e-mail reflects what I learned was his characteristic sincerity and his guilelessness, his absolute refusal to wheedle or to be anything but straightforward in his feelings, even when it involved “business,” where expressing one’s true feelings may not necessarily be to one’s advantage. It also displays a genuine annoyance at the publishing business, something I think he felt keenly throughout his career. He was in fact so frustrated by the process of agenting a manuscript to publishers that by October 19, 2011, he’d had it:

I’ve asked the literary agent to withdraw HIS WIFE LEAVES HIM from the publishers that have it now. I’ve come up with a new strategy. I hope this doesn’t inconvenience you.

I didn’t know what this meant (and still don’t), but told him I would read the manuscript soon, regardless, and hoped this was only a temporary setback. He replied on October 20:

I’ll let you know in a week about WIFE. Your letter was very kind and thoughtful and meant a lot to me. I’m leaving [my agent]… I don’t like the way they conduct their business. I’m through with literary agencies in America forever, and probably also through with mainstream publishers. They’re lazy and haven’t any new ideas.

On October 26, he wrote:

Have you read the new novel, HIS WIFE LEAVES HIM, and what do you think? If you wanted it, could you have it out in a year? You were my first choice of the publishers the agent sent the novel to in June, and after 4 months I told the agent that time was up for all the publishers that had the novel—10 of the 13 still did; three had rejected it in a matter of days after it was first sent out, or 2 did, and a third took another week or two (Bloomsbury: “I’m afraid I haven’t as much patience for experimentation as I once did.”). I had asked the agent to tell the publishers still holding on to the novel, and presumably just sitting on it, which is an impossible way anatomically to read a novel, to read it or say they need more time to consider it, but he didn’t and the publishers stayed mute. (I’m through with American agents forever.) All this has greatly disturbed and dispirited me. I don't want to be sneaky or cunning or manipulative or duplicitous or devious about this in any way. I am really just stumbling and bumbling along in my ignorant
and unprofessional way. I am an atrocious agent for myself. I don't want to antagonize or alienate anyone. I realize the difficulty and expense in publishing this novel. I wouldn’t hold it against you in any way if you rejected it or couldn’t meet the timing terms.

I felt so badly for not having found the time to read the novel in those four months that I tried to make amends by making an immediate decision; the next day, I wrote:

I understand and sympathize with all your trepidations, disappointments, and bewilderments over navigating the confounding labyrinths of the publishing industry. You send out a book you slaved over for God knows how many years and you haven’t the slightest idea who’s looking at it or by what mysterious and probably capricious process it’s being dealt with. We operate out here in our own, isolated little world and everything I hear from friends about The Publishing Business is fairly horrific. One reason we started the company, lo those many years ago, was so that we could behave like human beings and not like professional automatons.

That said, I have enough confidence in you and your writing to accept HIS WIFE LEAVES HIM.

He replied that he’d “love for HIS WIFE LEAVES HIM to be published…” and followed up with another e-mail that day that shows how he combined small personal incident with practical matters:

Great hearing from you. My computer blanked out for about 2 hours, I just got it back on, after being sent to Bangladesh for a while and then got the most wonderful customer repair woman at Verizon in the States, and in minutes she got my service working again and your message popped up. It feels good to be connected again. I’ll send you the printout of HIS WIFE LEAVES HIM by Priority Mail tomorrow.

I started reading the 690 page manuscript shortly thereafter. I was puzzled, though. I had read a few pages and hadn’t come across a new paragraph. I thought there may be a formatting glitch. I continued reading. Five pages, 10 pages, 15 pages. No new paragraph. I realized at some point, of course, that this was deliberate. I didn’t reach the second paragraph until page 39. I hadn’t realized what I’d gotten myself into — and I was thrilled. That paragraph, that 39 page paragraph, was stunning. Pure Dixon, as I was to learn. (The second paragraph ends on page 86.) Agreeing to publish it, even without having read it, was one of the best publishing decisions I’d ever made.

Here is a brief excerpt. One could practically choose a passage at random, which is nearly what I did. This will give you a microscopic flavor of his technique, or one of them. The narrator is interrogating himself, trying to ping his memory by having an interior dialogue with his deceased wife:

He gets up, turns on the night table light, goes to the bathroom, pees, drinks a full glass of water from the glass there and goes back to the bedroom, plumps up two pillows, smaller fluffier one on top of the other, gets on his back in bed and rests his head in the middle of them, reaches over to turn off the light. “So, Gwen, my little sweetie, what happened next?” he says. No, he thinks, better not talk out loud. Kids could hear and knock on his door and say was he calling them, or is anything wrong? So just in his head. “Gwen, my darling sweetheart,” he says in his head, “let’s do something we never did before and that's to have a conversation in my head. I’ll speak, I’ll keep quiet while you speak, and so on like that. You remember everything, so tell me what happened next.” “You know what happened next,” she says in his head, “if I’m sure I know what you’re referring to. You called me, didn’t hang up, let my phone ring, and I answered it.” “But what did we say? I know you must’ve said ‘Hello,’ and I must’ve followed that with ‘Hello,’ but probably ‘Hi, it's Martin, Martin Samuels, guy from the other night at Pati Brooks’ party, but really more so at her elevator and then in front of her building.’ But I forget what happened after—what we said—except with it probably ending with my saying ‘Do you think we can meet sometime soon for a coffee or drink?’ although with my probably saying right before that ‘Well, it’s been very nice talking to you,’ and your saying something like ‘Okay,’ and we set a date, time and place. But the rest. Help me; I want to go over as much of it as I can. To sort of relive it. Our first night, or night we first met. Because of what it led to. More than twenty-seven years. Twenty-four of them married. You may have loved someone more than me—in fact, I’m almost sure you did, two guys, but I never asked; didn’t want to put you in that spot—but you never loved anyone longer. So if not for that night, nothing. No kids. No life together, which might’ve been better for you. No thousands-of-times lovemaking. No Maine. No Breakwater Inn. No Hanna Anderson. No Georges Brassens. No France in ’81. No Riverside Drive apartment. No jogging nun running past. I’m saying all those noes for me. So no a lot. And also, long as I have your ear, or have you here—they’re so much alike, but what of it, right?—tell me, and this’ll be my only aside in this talk, and it feels like a real talk, doesn’t it?, other than for my nonstop monolog just now…you still there? I wouldn't blame you if you weren't.” “I’m here. The talk feels okay: real enough in its way.” “So I was saying, my darling…asking, with that ‘tell me’ before, if you forgive me.” “You’re being so loving. The ‘sweetheart’; the ‘my darling.’” “Because I love you, why else? Do you still love me?” “Let me try to answer your tell-me question. There were, since my first stroke, so many things to forgive you for. Just as there were many things to thank you for.” “Not ‘so many’?” “Just many. Couldn’t have been easy living with someone so sick and often so helpless, and with a fatal next stroke, coming anytime anywhere, especially after the second one, looming over her. And my face, when it froze on one side for a while and my mouth got twisted. You like beauty. Without seeming immodest, I’m sure my prettiness was one of the principal reasons you went for me, and I felt I’d become too ugly for you.” “Not true. I never looked away from you. I kissed that twisted mouth.” “Not how I remember it. You kissed other places on my face.” “Other places on your body, maybe, but I definitely kissed your lips. To me, no place was off base.” “I know I had a hard time looking at myself in the mirror when I brushed my teeth or hair. I looked like old Mrs. Ehrlich, do you remember her? But when she was almost a hundred and after part of her face got disfigured when she was mugged. I took you to see her twice. The last time when Rosalind was just a baby, since she was named after her.” “I forget that though now I remember it.” “But you could be sweet and I could be forgiving. I needed you. You kept me alive.”

To me, this (and the other 405 pages in the book) is a miracle of prose writing. It sounds conversational, but it isn’t. No conversation unfolded this artfully. In its flow it resembles stream of consciousness, but it isn’t. Stephen said he eschewed artifice, but there is plenty of artifice here, masterfully so. It is all about pacing and rhythm; as he said, “It all comes down to words. The right words. The right union of words. The right number of syllables in the words. The right number of words. The right union of sentences. The right number of syllables in the sentences. The right number of sentences. Nothing can stick out. Everything has to work together. I work to make everything work. I know when everything is working to the whole. Pace is important to the actions and emotion of the piece, of course, and the words and juxtapositions of the sentences are important, of course, to the pace.” He had the linguistic equivalent of perfect pitch.

I published two more of his books: Letters to Kevin (2016), a screwball farce, and Writing, Written (2019), a smaller collection of short stories, and his last. All four of our books were designed by Jacob Covey, who was an admirer of Dixon’s before I was, and who was, as I recall, pleasantly shocked when I told him initially that we might be publishing a writer by the name of Stephen Dixon. Jacob always designed the book to visually complement the thematic thrust of each book, finely attentive to Dixon’s writerly mode. And Stephen was incredibly pleased with the design of all four books, which was incredibly gratifying.

I did not think Letters to Kevin was entirely successful, the screwball romp not being Stephen’s natural mode, but Writing, Written is a fine and appropriate collection to end on. The themes of its stories are about stories and the act of writing them in the course of telling them. How we came to the title was funny. Stephen originally wanted to title the book “Simple Stories,” about which I was far more aghast than I let on, but I suggested we could come up with a more evocative one. I suggested “Writing, Written,” hoping its interpretable open-endedness would appeal to him. He wasn’t keen on it. My heart sank. He ran it by several friends, all of whom liked it. My heart rose. But, no, days later he decided against it. Heart sank again. But, a couple weeks later, he wrote with typical good humor: “I take back what I said. After reading Nabokov on Tolstoy’s ‘Ivan Ilych,’ I’ve decided Simple Stories is not a good title for my new collection. You got there first, Nabokov second, me a distant third. It had such a melodic ring to it.” I was elated. A new title was back in the game. He asked for suggestions. Naturally, I told him I still liked my earlier one, but gave him a few more. He wrote, “Writing, Written is good but doesn’t completely work for me. Let me roll it around my brain some more.” Two and a half hours later, he wrote:

I’ve rolled it around.

Writing, Written.

Thanks for providing the title.

All’s well that ends well. I hope he was truly happy with it.

Stephen was a writer of immense integrity. Stephen worked many jobs over the years —schoolteacher, bus driver, sales clerk, artist’s model, waiter, bartender, in radio, as an editor at CBS News — but he never wrote commercially, indeed may have been incapable of it. He did not seem to give a fig for money or materialism, though he obviously had to, with his wife, earn enough to support a family of four (he had two daughters, Antonia and Sophia, whose references always reflected closeness, and to whom he dedicated What Is All This?). He seemed reconciled to the fact that he would not earn his living as a writer and did not write for money, for fame, for awards. “I could care less how my work is received,” he told Christopher Sorrentino and Alexander Laurence in a 2014 interview. “Long ago I decided that worrying about getting published and getting reviewed and about the places where one’s reviewed and what page the review is on, etc., was a waste of time and would take time away from what I liked doing most in life and that’s writing. I don’t write for an audience to be published and certainly not to get attention or reviews or fellowships or prizes. None of that means anything to me. I write because it’s what I like to do.” Elsewhere in the same interview, he said, “The energy in my writing might come about from my love of writing and rewriting. I write with this premise in mind: that nobody asked me to write; I’m writing because I love to write.” This is remarkably practical, sensible, and sane, and could serve as instruction-by-example to young people who want to be genuine artists. I’m not sure if one’s motive to making art is necessarily morally superior to another, and in the end it’s the work that matters however it was accomplished, but Stephen had an integrity that was positively adamantine yet never show-offy or tendentious. One good example is the first story he sold to Playboy in 1968. He relates:

[The] first story of mine Playboy took [they] wouldn’t publish with the original ending. I was broke then, couldn’t even afford a telephone (the acceptance came by telegram on my apartment front door doorknob) and Playboy paid me $2,000 for the story, added a thousand for making it the lead story, and also gave me a pair of cufflinks and a $100 bonus at the end of the year. …They didn’t like the ending. So I rewrote the ending over and over again. They said, no, we want our ending, and my agent at the time said, ‘Do it! They’ll take more stories.’ So I let them re-write the ending and I was mortified. I told myself never to compromise again, no matter how much money they give you. I said, You went off the track once, now don’t go off a second time. If you do, you’re finished as a writer.

This kind of resolve comes from the inside, can’t be moved by reviews or fellowships or prizes, and is, it seems to me, profoundly moral. What he wrote was as close to the truth as his art could take him and he didn’t want it mucked with.

We would occasionally stray into literary or personal matters. Before I knew he admired Beckett, I wrote this on February 10, 2014:

There is a question, perhaps not even a question, that I’ve been meaning to bring up. And that is your affinity with Beckett — I’ve been reading a lot of Beckett recently, and at least I think I see one. There is, first, his disregard for paragraphs! More importantly, when I read WIFE, I felt that you got as close to reflecting human consciousness in language as you can — as close as Joyce got. And Beckett, of course, is trying to do the same thing. But I have a problem with him, which is that he does it by eschewing narrative as much as possible. This is probably my limitation, but my mind simply wanders when there’s only the most tenuous narrative. In Malloy, he keeps dragging a narrative back, but there are long stretches where it simply unravels into...something else. I like his short stories because they are brief tour de forces and I can maintain the attention. WIFE, however, never strays far from narrative.

Anyway, I obviously didn’t have a question per se so much as I wondered if you liked Beckett and [if so] could talk about what it is you like about him.

He replied, the same day:

I love Beckett's language in fiction but I also get lost in his tenuous narratives. I too like the short stories best, of his fiction, and “Ping” I think is the best story I’ve ever read. I’ve been called crazy for thinking that, but [that] one really works for me. I like it that Beckett makes me figure out what the story means. I don't like Godot but I do like Endgame, about as much as I like Pinter’s best plays. But I like the short plays best, and “Catastrophe” is as good as a short play gets, in addition to his radio plays, especially the one—I forget the title—of the old married couple walking home from the train station. I’m not saying much here; you sort of said what I would have said. About Beckett and Joyce. I should probably say I like reading about Beckett more than I like reading Beckett. I like artists who have stuck to it and were great and whose success didn’t come at all or came late.

I like Beckett’s poetry too and Joyce’s “Ecce Puer” is my favorite poem, along with Beckett’s “Cascando.”

I got the impression that Stephen did not waste his time generally, and certainly not with cultural frivolities. He was focused and driven and knew that life didn’t last long enough. When it came to art, he was an unapologetic elitist, and unlike most of us, made of weaker stuff — who watch lousy movies, stare at screens for hours on end binge-watching shitty TV series, and waste time jerking off on the internet — he didn’t spend time with the second rate. Buried amidst a long paragraph of “good advice for writers,” he wrote: “Turn the TV off and keep it off except if it’s showing something as good as a good Ingmar Bergman movie. Keep reading, only the best works, carry a book with you everywhere, even in your car in case you get caught in some hours-long gridlock.” In other words: Don’t waste time, every minute is precious. Notice that his standards were Olympian enough not to include any old Bergman movie, but a “good Bergman movie.” That’s hardcore.

I have to confess that I don’t know how to end this reminiscence. I could go on about how I’ll miss his contribution to the public good, and him personally, and how his prolificity was a source of inspiration to me, but I’ve said enough. I’ll end this with one last quote:

“I used to tell my students, ‘If you have any problem with ending a story, just shut the door, close the window. Have the characters say goodbye and leave, just simply end the story.’ And I’m fascinated by the endings of short stories and how poorly it can be done and how easily it can be done too. By just sort of ending. Simply.”

Goodbye, Steve.