American Literature Is "Massively Overrated" [How to Turn a Positive Article into a Rant]
This morning, the Guardian: ran an interesting piece recapping a session on the “global novel” at the Jaipur Festival—a session that got a bit heated when Xiaolu Guo called out, well, contemporary American writing1:
“Our reading habit has been stolen and changed” said Guo. “For example I think Asian literature is much less narrative . . . but our reading habit is more Anglo-Saxon, more American . . . Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it’s so realism, so story-telling driven . . . so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society.”
“I love your work, Jonathan,” she told Franzen,2 “but in a way you are smeared by English American literature . . . I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated, and I really hate to read them,” she said.
Two cheers for Xiaolu Guo! I read a lot of books—written in English and from abroad—and find overrated shit from all over the globe. But percentage-wise—and this is a trick of reading in translation, since most of the really awful stuff stays in its own language—American books probably have the highest ratio of dreck to gold. There’s this whole “stylelessness” writing that’s invaded American prose, thanks to MFA programs? to the commercialization of publishing? to J-Franz? to lazy readers? to the competition of Breaking Bad and Archer? and it’s a bit of a bummer.
But that’s not my rant. I do agree with Guo in a lot of ways, and abhor the way mainstream culture hypes the shallowest of art works for reasons that are uninteresting to me personally. But we have a choice not to read/engage with this.3
The Pulitzer-winning Indian/American Jhumpa Lahiri also laid into America’s literary culture, saying that it was “shameful the lack of translation, the lack of energy put into translation in the American market”. “It is embarrassing, to me, and I think just getting out of America for a little while makes you much more conscious of that,” said Lahiri, who currently lives in Italy and has not read anything in English for the last two years.
OK, here is the seed of my rant. Lahiri’s totally right on one hand—especially with her statement about how the Italian paper listed 7 American books in their “Best of 2013” list, and how that’s something that will never happen in the U.S.—but “lack of energy put into translation” strikes a little close to home.
I’ve been on about the number of books published in translation in America since the inception of this blog, and I do feel like the number could and should be higher. There are only so many books you get to read in your lifetime—and even fewer that have a life-changing impact on you—and for those books to remain locked off from readers . . . Also, this was the promise of the Internet—everything available from everywhere at any time—and the backbone of the long tail theory.
But let’s put that aside. As of now, I’ve identified 484 works of previously untranslated works of fiction and poetry that came out in 2013, and although this is a very modest number—how many of these have Lahiri or Franzen read? And shit, I know a lot of people who have put in a LOT of time and energy and whatever into translating, publishing, and promoting these 484 works. And I’ll bet like 5 of them were invited to Jaipur, and, and this is speculation, that these panelists know next to no details about the vibrancy of the translation scene in America. They know one thing—the number of translated books per year is paltry—and then use this to categorize the entirety of translation publishing in the U.S.
I don’t know any of these panelists personally—except for J-Franz, who I met at an event for the NEA where he publicly made fun of Dalkey Archive and the work I was doing there—but my suspicion is that, like with the generalization behind the “American fiction is massively overrated” comment, they’re all thinking and talking about mainstream publishing. The Big Five, Four, Two, whatever it is. Of those 484 books I mentioned above, Random House published 14 titles and Penguin 16. The largest publishing company in the world—responsible for 25% of the English books produced yearly throughout the world—accounted for just over 6% of all the translations published in America last year.
That’s pretty shitty for The world’s first truly global trade book publishing company.
So here’s my overall point: If you’re lamenting the lack of translations in America, you should start looking for them. There could always be more, but ENERGETIC people like myself are brining attention to hundreds a year, and you could easily familiarize yourself with what’s available—and maybe find a great book in the process—and with who’s doing what and what it is their doing with a simple Google search.
I’m all for popular authors sounding off on issues like this, but I’m kind of sick of them using the platform to lament something they’re only tangentially involved with. Use the Jaipur festival to sing the praises of Archipelago Books or Melville House or Restless Books. Talk about the recent increases in quality fiction from Russia and Brazil. Speak in specifics—this is the Age of Information and all that you need to know to make an intelligent comment on the translation situation is at your fingertips.4
1 I think this statement needs a lot of qualifiers. A sentiment that sort of ties into the rest of my rant. There are a ton, absolute TON, of lazy, bad, realist, mainstream, boring, shitty, Franzen-esque writers writing in English. And some others—a much smaller percentage to be sure, if only for the reason that qualifying something as “great” means that it’s in the top XX%—are writing really interesting, strange books. (A mere 340 pages into Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, I’d put her in that second camp.) But we all know the process and situation that Guo is talking about.
2 I hope she guffawed internally when she said this.
3 Sort of. There are commercial forces at work that draw in young, talented writers with promises of unlimited Petrón cocktails and trips to exotic literary conferences like in, well, Jaipur. In today’s publishing landscape, you can choose to write whatever you want and find a way to get it out to the public—via self-publishing, ebook only deals, any thousand micropresses out there—but the money still tends to flow down from the coffers of the Penguin Random Amazon Times.
4 Somehow I managed not to attack all my usual suspects in this rant. So, for good measure: Just saying something like “the only translation I’ve heard of recently is Bolaño’s 2666, so obviously there’s a problem” is like relying on Flavorwire to give you all the info you need on contemporary writing. BOOM. POST OUT.