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New European Fiction [PEN World Voices]

This post originally appeared here on the official PEN World Voices blog. I still have 2-3 to write . . .

Granta editor and former NBCC president John Freeman opened up this event talking about how Best European Fiction 2010 served as a sort of print version of the PEN World Voices Festival. Containing something like 40 writers from across Europe, the anthology really is expansive in scope and represents a very ambitious missiomcn.

Colum McCann and Alexandar Hemon kicked off this two-part event discussion the infamous 3% statistic and the need for more translated literature. It’s interesting that both are transplants—Hemon from Bosnia, McCann from Ireland—who have achieved enormous success here in America, which, initially might seem to defy the belief that Americans are anti-international fiction. As McCann pointed out though, the American literary scene really isn’t insular at all—it tends to absorb foreign writers pretty easily. But as Hemon pointed out, it may be open to foreign writers, but it’s fairly insular when it comes to foreign languages.

Which is the great benefit of the Dalkey anthology/ongoing “Best European Fiction” project. Even though there are only 350 or so original works of translated fiction and poetry published in the U.S. every year, interested readers can now find out about at least a couple writers from Liechtenstein or Slovenia or wherever.

Following the McCann-Hemon conversation, valter hugo mae from Portugal, Naja Marie Aidt from Greenland/Denmark, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint from Belgium/France all read short pieces of their work to an incredibly enthusiastic crowd. (My estimation is that about 60 people were at Le Poisson Rouge for this event.)

valter hugo mae’s piece about a woman trying to poison her husband by putting a little cleaning solution in his nightly dinner struck a bit close to home. I was just telling someone yesterday about a time when I was convinced that my now ex-wife was poisoning me. I’m (pretty) sure she wasn’t, but still, thanks to this piece, I guess I can better understand the thrill she might have gotten from slipping a little something into my food?

Half-kidding, but honestly, the excerpt he read was really excellent, as were the bits by Naja Marie Aidt (I actually met her in Iceland last fall—she’s very charming and wonderful) and Jean-Philippe Toussaint.

After the readings, the conversation continued touching on issues of whether or not English was taking over the world, what authors from Portugal and Denmark need to be translated, what “Europe” and “European literature” actually mean.

It was an interesting conversation and overall event, that clearly laid out some of the issues that those of us working in international literature and publishing deal with on a regular basis. And the bits about America’s perceived literary insularity were particularly fascinating. Because I think they’re right—it’s not that the literary scene is anti-foreigners, it’s that the marketplace is anti-language. And although Hemon wanted to avoid the topic of who’s to “blame” for the dismal 3% statistic, it is a valid question to try and unpack, one which resurfaced when he asked the audience why they don’t read more literature in translation.

The audience really is the key to this whole question, especially now that any reader anywhere in America can order a copy of any published book. Today’s issue is about creating demand. And that’s one of the risks re: reporting on a festival like this. The crowd was electric, the writers all well-received—let’s just hope that this wasn’t a “preaching to the converted” sort of event. Or at least that these readers will go tell everyone they know how awesome the Liechtenstein literary scene is.

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