How Danielle Dutton Wrote Certain of Her Books: On Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other

Danielle Dutton. Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2024. 169 pages.

In Big Fiction, his compelling account of how conglomeration has impacted American literature, Dan Sinykin argues “that authorship is social and distributed widely” (8), casting as villain the Romantic myth of the author as a near-solitary engine of creativity. He draws our attention to how, since around 1970, the publishing industry’s system of marketers, editors, designers, philanthropists, wholesalers, and retailers exert pressure that is, perhaps unconsciously, internalized by authors in their quest to reach readers. Books, Sinykin tells us, whether Big Five, independent, or non-profit, are, inescapably and as a matter of course, always products of collaboration. Few wear this fact on their sleeve as proudly, or stylishly, as Danielle Dutton.

Dutton is an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis and editor, designer, and co-founder of Dorothy, a publishing project; she was formerly production manager and book designer at Dalkey Archive Press, where she collaborated with artist Nicholas Motte during the press’s most visually striking period, including covers for books by Mieko Kanai, Jean-Phillippe Toussaint, and (the late, great) Stanley Crawford. Throughout the genre-hopping miscellany Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other, Dutton takes us on a joyous, and sometimes unsettling, tour of experiments composed with a “generative model of collaboration,” writing in response to, or in conversation with, “other artists and other forms” (103). The book is portioned into four sections: “Prairie,” a set of five stories heavy with an ambient dread of climate crisis and various other looming threats; “Dresses,” a commonplace-book collection of passages; “Art,” housing an essay on ekphrastic writing; and “Other,” which gathers eight prose pieces plus a one-act play.

Thirteen of the book’s sixteen pieces were previously published and cohere in this collection in illuminating ways. “Acorn,” a microstory, originally published in The New Yorker, about a writer grappling, at the behest of her friends, with the concept of “the body” in her writing (118), resonates much more strongly here, with its neighboring “Other” pieces, particularly “Writing Advice,” a Lydia Davis-infused defense of “little books that nobody reads” (135), and “Not Writing,” a riotous meditation on Dutton’s writing life, replete with enemies—works-in-progress under the guise of bugs, snakes, and “an enormous gray pulsating slug” (123)—and some co-writing, formally-daring friends: “Meanwhile, K and S are collaborating on tone … R is giving a series of lectures on drawing and language and lines,” nods to Kate Zambreno, Sofia Samatar, and Renee Gladman (120-121). Parts of Dutton’s introduction to the And Other Stories edition of Ann Quin’s Tripticks are woven into a new piece, “A Double Room,” alongside a discussion of Cristina Rivera Garza, a Dorothy author who, like Dutton, not only acknowledges but rejoices in the notion of writing as “a community-making practice,” noting, “If we write, we write with others. Inescapably” (132).

Dutton’s work is intensely referential but inclusive: it’s not at all hidden that we’re reading what was written with others in mind. Each of her books, including the earlier Attempts at a Life (2007), SPRAWL (2010; republished 2018), and Margaret the First (2016), include a bibliography of sources and notes identifying those with whom Dutton engaged in her particular approach to collaboration. These appendices are part-key and part-rabbit hole: in Attempts at a Life, the note for a minimalist translation of “Jane Eyre” points only to a few lines from Robert Duncan’s “An African Elegy,” which—evident only if one looks up the complete poem—are about Dutton’s hero, Virginia Woolf (75); while in SPRAWL, a pages-long paragraph lists forty-plus “writers and their works [who] unknowingly provided words and ideas for use in the writing of” the novel (127).

One of the greatest pleasures in reading Dutton is encountering and mingling among the community of references she assembles. “Sixty-Six Dresses I Have Read” sees Dutton playing the role of author-curator, opening up a space where discrete pieces of text—passages mentioning dresses—are arranged as art objects, as an installation. The passages are numbered but otherwise not identified until the source list at the end of the piece, and while it can be read straight through, tracing out connections, the open floor-plan encourages us to meander around the space, move forward or backward, wonder if we might recognize a phrase we’ve read or a moment we’ve experienced once before, take a quick spin with a bit of prose we might want to dance with again. The guest list includes Dorothy authors Amina Cain, Giada Scodellaro, Leonora Carrington, and Rosmarie Waldrop; Margaret Cavendish and Samuel Pepys of Margaret the First fame; plus others who appear, if briefly, in other pieces: Kim Hyesoon, Marie Darrieussecq, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Fleur Jaeggy.

The middle section of “To Want for Nothing,” a three-page, three-part prose piece, is a quoted report of a reader attempting to articulate their experience of a moment in a novel:

It’s night and I’m reading a book, and inside my book it’s night and a woman is reading a book. Then she starts reading out loud, fragments of lines that speak to her—“violence, yes, but the acceptable face of violence, the kind of banal cruelty enacted within the family” and “the hum of ordinary life” and “the story of a woman who has lost something important but does not know exactly what”—and that’s when I realize that I have read this book. Not the book I’m reading, but the book inside my book, the one the narrator’s reading from. (137)

This section captures something of the experience of occupying Dutton’s fictional, or near-fictional, spaces, these momentary pangs of recognition of another artwork, another artist, traces from reading or viewing left on the surface of this other story. In this case, the narrator of “To Want for Nothing” is reading Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, and the novel-within-the-novel-within-the-story—the one Dutton’s narrator recognizes from the lines quoted by Luiselli’s narrator—is Suite for Barbara Loden, written by Nathalie Léger, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, and published in 2016 by Dorothy.

Dutton addresses more concretely the composition of these lived-in, referential spaces in “A Picture Held Us Captive,” the lone piece in the “Art” section and the book’s center of gravity. Here, Dutton considers instances of and possibilities for ekphrastic writing—writing in response to visual art—that diverges from traditional practice: writing that doesn’t “describe an artwork at all, or not in any conventional sense” (85), but aims to create “something more like a conversation” (87). Dutton offers a sense of ekphrastic writing as “a dialectic … between art’s ability to make strange what has grown familiar and translation’s desire to make recognizable the experience of one artwork inside the space of another” (82). She walks us through examples of how this works: Eley Williams “[endeavouring] to capture something of the spatial, aesthetic, transformative visual experience” of standing in front of Bridget Riley’s “Movement in Squares” (86); Nathalie Léger’s ekphrastic treatment of filmmaker Barbara Loden’s Wanda, where “Huge swaths of the book are simply the film unfolding” (94); Lydia Davis’ sentences that “sound” like “the language—if it were language—of a Joseph Cornell box” (88).

Dutton references her earlier work as a further example, noting the generative relationship she had with Laura Letinsky’s still-life series Hardly More Than Ever while writing SPRAWL, a 115-page, single-paragraph monologue. The composition of the novel had “an air of collaboration about it … I felt deeply connected to Letinsky’s work, so much so that whenever I lost momentum or confidence, her project or vision could re-invigorate my own” (92-93). Letinsky’s photographs present scenes where “Everything seems about to collapse. Life itself feels staged and the stuff of life half rotten” (84). In inventorying the contents of Letinsky’s still lives (“The sugar bowl with blue lace patterns sits at the edge of the table. It might even hover centimeters above the linen tablecloth. A saucer has pink, yellow, and blue flowers, a gold rim” [59]), Dutton explains she was “trying to capture the energy of the absent-present image as if I were a camera” (103). Reading SPRAWL, the ekphrastic lists precipitate a momentary suspension in the narrator’s rapid-fire thoughts. Time freezes but story still happens, or seems to have happened; we’re suspended in the aftermath of a “half-rotten” scene, experiencing a strange sort of presence, of being there—“a static state filled with vibratory motion,” Kathleen Stewart describes the still-life (19)—before being swept back into the monologue.

The most unsettling of the “Prairie” pieces, “Installation,” opens with a woman and her companion at a river. From there, things are less clear: her companion goes missing, there may be a climate disaster unfolding, until she’s suddenly—where?—a dark room, fireflies, hundreds of them, “so many different kinds” of lights, a catalog, a voiceover. It’s disorienting. It’s also, we learn in the notes, in conversation with two stories—Virginia Woolf’s “In the Orchard” and Anna Kavan’s “A Bright Green Field”—and Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots (“a way to infinity,” Kusama describes them). While we needn’t be aware of these points of reference, partners in collaboration or translation, each of the pieces lends a layer of seeming-unendingness to the atmosphere of the piece.

The most haunting, if somehow still playful, piece is the stunningly innovative closer, “Pool of Tears (A Play in One Act),” inspired by Kiki Smith’s Pool of Tears 2 (after Lewis Carroll), an etching-and-watercolor depicting Alice treading water alongside an array of animals. Stage directions are extensive: in the opening scene, as the swimmers come into view and those in the audience “recognize them as characters from their dreams … every member of the audience thinks of what Amitav Ghosh says about recognition” (141), and by Scene 2, “everyone thinks about the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky and his different use of that same term” (145). The piece meditates on problems—of terminology, of non-problems, of cause-and-effect—as well as silence, the huia (a now-extinct songbird), and memory. Ruminating on Mikhail Bakhtin’s claim that the novel is “the only genre … in total affinity with” the world circa 1941, Dutton’s Alice wonders what sort of genre—what sort of “machine for thinking”—could help us most effectively navigate “the new world now, around me, with all its newer newness” (151). Souvenirs from this new world are strewn throughout the book. The narrator of “Nocturne” mentions climate horrors in Sweden, Oman, Germany, Czechia, Siberia, California, and Texas amidst “the hottest week in the world” (10). At the end of “Story with a Hole,” the narrator awakens to see, on television, “a prisoner fighting the fire in return for early release,” an act that, the prisoner tells the camera, “makes you feel like you’re part of a civilization” (140). Dutton noted in a 2019 interview with John Vincler in Music and Literature that she’d “been trying to write a novel in which [Smith’s print] figures. It’s been slow going.” While there’s enough here, on a sheer ideas level, for a novel, maybe the one-act play is the machine we needed, at least in this instance, as Dutton again shows she is a masterful practitioner of the—seemingly any—small form.

Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other is a welcome addition to the boundary-resistant genre of “weird little book.” It reminds me of Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, with its artistic statement-of-purpose accompanied by demonstrations of how questioning our teaspoons might work in practice. It reminds me, too, of Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, in its anecdotal, form-hopping account of art and life (as a court attendant; as an editor, teacher, mother) in the waning days of a current order. While sharing many of the preoccupations of her earlier books, this work feels profoundly informed by Dutton’s experience as an editor, designer, and publisher.

Works Cited

Dutton, Danielle. Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2024.

Dutton, Danielle. SPRAWL. Seattle/New York: Wave Books, 2018.

Dutton, Danielle. Attempts at a Life. Saxtons River: Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007.

Sinykin, Dan. Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023.

Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Vincler, John. “A Conversation with Danielle Dutton.” Music and Literature. 26 March 2019.

Dan Irving lives in Connecticut and teaches literature and writing in New York.