"You Have Nothing to Lose but Your Spoons" [ALTA Conference]

As if it isn’t obvious from my earlier posts about ALTA, I’m a huge fan of the conference, the people, the panels.

(To riff on the nature of the panels for a second: these are almost anti-MLA type events. It’s an unwritten—or maybe even written—rule that you don’t read a paper on an ALTA panel. You talk. You expound. You discuss and share. And you use concrete examples. Which is why these talks are so interesting. Russell Valentino gave one of my favorites of this conference when he talked about the tricky business of translating dialogue. About when to use “he said” and how frequently, and how never to use “he exclaimed” and how these sorts of writerly guidelines are different in different languages and it’s up to the translator to sort it all out according to English conventions.)

That all said, there’s still the possibility of letdown. And for me, that came in the form of Ilan Stavans’s speech about the “future of language.” There’s so much about his presentation that bugged me—not to mention the fact that he basically just flew in to give this speech and took off almost immediately afterward—that I’m not even sure where to start.

To be honest, I’m not even sure I can really encapsulate what it was he was going on about. He started by making a fairly-dubious connection between the fact that you never really use the future tense in Spanish and the lack of Latin American science fiction. Seriously.

I can’t say that I’ve read a lot of international science fiction, but it took all of a minute to uncover Cosmos Latinos, an anthology of Latin American and Spanish sci-fi that includes works from as early as 1862 and quite a few from the “First Wave” of sci-fi writers who were working in the 60s and 70s. (And even found a review in case anyone is interested.)

It’s not terribly surprising that Stavans didn’t mention this (or might not even know about it), since he seemed only able to reference the most predictable of all writers and books in the most unsurprising of manners. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Carlos Fuentes. Borges. And in terms of Latino/Latina authors, we heard about Junot Diaz (and oh how we heard about Junot Diaz) and Sandra Cisneros. It was like being back in Freshman Comp! He even managed to work in Saul Bellow as an example of a writer whose new books would be read by everyone as soon as they came out—back in the days when people still cared about books. Putting aside the possibility that literary tastes have simply moved on, it’s not unusual in a time of rapidly proliferating choices—even the crappiest of B&Ns has a selection that dwarfs what you would’ve found in Lima, Ohio’s best bookstore back in the days when we were still “cultured”—that people would choose to read different things.

The most mental of statements though was when Stavans said that he “didn’t agree that we were writing less.” Writing less? Who thinks that? We all know (and here I am pulling that same Gladwellian “we” . . . ) that there are way too many books being written, published, and packed on bookshelves. You can debate whether we’re reading less these days or just reading different, but I don’t think there’s much support that writing is on the decline . . .

From this swirl of confusion came Stavans grand conclusion about the role of Spanglish in the future of language. Which is totally fine and probably true . . . until he went on about the Great Spanglish Work that would have to be translated into both English and Spanish. What sense does this make? That language and culture will be more bifurcated and isolated in the future? If so, that’s kind of stupid, right?

Ah well, whatever. I should say that other people at the conference really liked this (he even drew some spontaneous ovations during his speech), so I might be on my own here. It just reminded me a bit too much of Malcolm Gladwell’s style. The odd proclamation at the start, the dubious assertions, the grandiose conclusions, the somewhat contrarian conclusions, etc. Since I think Gladwell is a danger to society, I’m feel like it’s a public service to link to a few anti-Gladwell commentaries from Deadspin, The Nation, the New York Times, and Three Quarks.

There. I’m done screeding for the day and can get back to all things happy. Like mailing out copies of The Golden Calf and finishing our Spring/Summer Catalog . . .

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