Never Fact-Check a Listicle
Back when I kicked off my 2018 Translations series I chose to include Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi as the fourth book from January I would read and review. And why not? It won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction1 and came with pretty high praise.
“A haunting allegory of man’s savagery against man and one of the most essential books to come out of the Iraq War, or any war.”—Elliot Ackerman, National Book Award finalist for Dark at the Crossing
I actually don’t know Eliot Ackerman’s work, but his brother is a wrestler, although the real kind, not the fun WWE kind. Regardless, this book is “one of the most essential” and I’d like to think that I read some essential books.
“An extraordinary piece of work. With uncompromising focus, Ahmed Saadawi takes you right to the wounded heart of war’s absurd and tragic wreckage. It is a devastating but essential read, one that I am sure I will return to again and again.”—Kevin Powers, bestselling author and National Book Award finalist for The Yellow Birds
I do know Kevin Powers though and . . . wait. There’s a trend developing here. Two National Book Award finalists who both think the book is “essential”? What are the odds? That’s weird.
“Brilliant and horrifying, Frankenstein in Baghdad is essential reading.”—Rachel Cordasco, World Literature Today
Trifecta! This book is essential. All I can glean from this is that one day Rachel2 will be a finalist for the National Book Award. (Get writing, Rachel!)
“Gripping, darkly humorous . . . profound.”—Phil Klay, bestselling author and National Book Award winner for Redeployment
Lesson #2: If you win a National Book Award, you don’t have to say a book is essential.
(Bonus points to The National for using a thesaurus: “Tells a vital story.”)
But what makes a book “essential”? Can a book even be “essential”? What does that mean? It’s just not possible for a book—any book—to be urgent, necessary, or luminous. I just listed the three jacket copy/blurb words that drive Coffee House’s Caroline Casey insane. There’s a podcast from some years back where she loses her shit about this. “Books do not give off light!”
And she’s right. The usage of these words in blurb speak is fairly lazy and basically a non-signifier. Show me a book that’s essential to living and I’ll show you 100 million people who don’t read. It’s especially odd that Penguin used two blurbs postulating this same imaginary world on the back cover.
The other blurbs—not necessarily worth repeating here—also have a lot in common: “A haunting allegory,” “horrifically funny and allegorically resonant,” “a haunting allegory,” “this haunting novel,” “a haunting and startling mix of horror,” “darkly humorous,” “funny and horrifying,” “stay for the dark humor,” and “touches of black comedy.”
I’m glad I read this essential allegory of darkly comic horror!
I’ve been an audiobook devotee for years now. Ever since I admitted to myself that I am never going to make enough time to read all the random books that sound interesting, but which aren’t essential to my career or life. Books like The Luminaries or A Brief History of Seven Killings, two audiobooks I totally loved.
Sometimes audiobooks are just flat out entertaining—like Seven Killings, which is as much an audio performance as anything else—and other times, they’re just totally function. A sort of life hack to getting things finished and off the “to read” shelf. If I only listened to these on my bike rides to and from work, I would finish a 250-page book every week. That’s not bad!
To be honest, I usually listen to these at the gym . . . with the Kindle version in front of me. That’s totally overkill, but for some of these books, it’s essential that I have both to really be able to get into the text. Besides, running on a treadmill is boring as fuck. Having someone read in my ear while glancing at words on a page, or touch-flipping a page, is literally 400% more engaging than running.
So I listened to Frankenstein in Baghdad. But since I try not to give my money to corporations like Penguin Random House (which makes such a difference), this time I didn’t get the Kindle version. For whatever reason, this totally wrecked my ability to really comprehend this book. Not that I couldn’t follow the plot—which isn’t all that complicated, really, given that most of it is in the title and those essential blurbs—but that I kept drifting off due to all the descriptive bits that, to me as a reader, seemed unnecessary.
Even before he spoke I had made up my mind to buy the recorder, not because I needed it but as a kind of charity. I was even more resolved when I heard he had large debts and needed to pay them off before going back to his family in Maysan Province. But I didn’t expect to buy a story or pay four hundred dollars. I couldn’t pay such an amount on short notice.
Perfectly normal paragraph. One that you can more or less skim when you’re reading. “Made up mind to buy the recorder . . . more resolved, large debt . . . can’t pay on short notice.” Got it. Good.
Is there anything else in there that truly adds to the style or story? Not really. some details, but nothing that’s written in such a striking manner as to hold your attention. Nothing essential anyway.
The thing about listening to audiobooks though is that they’re so slow. Whatever you can read in a minute takes about two-and-a-half when read out loud. That can really strain your attention if most of what’s being read is superfluous information related in a fairly flat style. And for this book, I just couldn’t.
By contrast, I’m not listening to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and am locked into it 100%. And in December, Dhalgren kept me captivated for all 38 hours (or so). For me, style is an absolute key to being able to pay attention. Books that ride on accurately relating extraneous information are ones that I should read with my eyes, skimming the meh parts.
Where to start! There’s so much here that’s right down the middle of the “What Makes Chad Mad” plate. I would bat .400 against this article. I’m the Mike Trout of making fun of shit like this!
Easy digs first: The tenth most reviewed book of 2017? Frankenstein of Baghdad, which was released on January 23, 2018. Good work!
But that’s a nitpick. I mean, once upon a time Tilted Axis posted a list of four books in translation by women to read for Women in Translation month, but had to delete one when they realized the author was a man. Mistakes happen. Hell, look at every one of these posts. (Although these aren’t clickbait and clickbait is FAIR GAME for being called into question seeing as sites like LitHub and Buzzfeed and Flavorwire—for all the good they do do—namely profit by strip mining culture and aggregating the work of others for their own benefit. This used to be called exploitation, but now it’s called “strategic content reformulation.”)
What’s more astonishing though is what made Frankenstein in Baghdad 2017’s tenth most reviewed book in translation.
In case you’re not a long-time reader or Three Percent Podcast listener, I should take a second to explain that this entire “ranking” on LitHub is based on LitHub’s Book Marks project. A literary Rotten Tomatoes, this launched a couple years ago with the intent of pooling reviews, assigning them a grade (used to be a letter grade but now they just put them into very broad buckets), averaging them, and listing which books are the “most reviewed,” “best reviewed,” etc. It’s a poor man’s attempt at applying math to literature and pretending this has objective results.3
I wrote a very long chapter of a never-to-be-published book about poor Book Marks and all its problems, and Tom and I ripped it a few times on the podcast. But rather than start from a theoretical perspective of why this is an overall bad idea that rewards popularity over diversity (which, not surprising, given recent LitHub controversies, especially concerning Arabic literature) and is just an attempt to create more clicks for a clickbait website and more sales for The Big Five, let’s get all empirical and look at the data.
According to Book Marks (still one of the worst puns in the book world . . . see, the books are given “marks” and “bookmarks” are a thing you put in books and denial aside MY GOD do we live in an industry of lose-lose puns [redundant?]), Frankenstein in Baghdad has received seven reviews. Seven?! That’s interesting . . . Here’s the list: NY Times (rave), Booklist (rave), Chicago Tribune (mixed)4, Seattle Times (rave), World Literature Today (rave), Kirkus (positive)5, and Publishers Weekly (positive)6. That’s it. Seven reviews makes your book the tenth most reviewed translation of 2017. (Even though it came out in 2018, yes, I’ll stop now.) The number one, most review book in translation received fourteen.
By contrast, fucking Maze Runner: Death Cure has 132 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. One hundred and thirty-two. Compared to fourteen.
What does that mean? Two things: That fourteen is a small sample size for judging anything, and that Book Marks is pretty constricted in where it’s drawing its reviews from. There is a listing at the bottom of their “How It Works” page of where LitHub pulls from to construct Book Marks, but the list does smack of exclusivity. But there are plenty of legitimate (“indie”?) review sites not included (SPOILER: Quarterly Conversation, The Complete Review, Music & Literature, Drunken Boat, Three Percent, and many many more, all of which review 20 times more translations a year than O: The Oprah Magazine, but maybe we’re…not professional enough? Or experts about translation7?) all of which is just another sad-but-true indicator that, much like Trump’s America, this industry also thrives on the rich getting richer and shaking each other’s hands as they do.
Example: The New York Times reviews a lot of Penguin books. They just do. And these books are highlighted on the Book Marks website as the most reviewed (and best reviewed). Coupled with LitHub’s spiderweb strategy of gobbling up all lit blog traffic for their own content, readers might actually be fooled into thinking this is some kind of democracy and buy into the narrative that the best new books are always from the biggest presses, and why bother with anything else? Point being: as “fun” as listicles can be in a world more and more dependent on instant gratification, they’re never really eligible for face-value or all-inclusive accuracy. Like all those cover blurbs at the beginning, the information in question is being curated in a way that, while some may see it as essential, is in fact detrimental to the entire process. A monoculture thus does make.
This idea is put in stark relief when you list the publishers of the most reviewed translations of 20—: New Directions (the go-to press for translations among 99% of reviewers8), FSG, Riverhead, FSG, New Press (sort of surprised, but mostly because I found Black Moses to be a really tedious book compared to Mabanckou’s other works), New Directions, Knausgaard or I mean Penguin, Counterpoint, New Directions, Penguin. How many of these presses really do translations? One. New Directions. The rest are dilettantes that leverage money and power for cultural goodwill. I’m so glad LitHub can give them a pat on the back for their utter devotion to bringing international voices to America!
Another thing! If seven reviews over all of
2018 2017 is enough to be the tenth most reviewed translation then translated literature has a serious problem. Or not? Most indie press buzz is from booksellers. Actual readers. The typical promotional structure is so removed from the presses who invest the most intellectual capital into diversifying book culture. And LitHub is 100% reinforcing that structure with . . . well, their entire website. That’s their actual M.O., which is clear as day if you pay attention or just look at this post in question.
Wait. WAIT. Why isn’t Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli NOT on this list? It was reviewed in the New Yorker, New York Times, Kirkus, NPR, Publishers Weekly, LITERARY HUB, Rolling Stone (!!), New York Times Sunday Book Review, GQ, Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, Harper’s, The Nation, Minnesota Public Radio (I’m sure the NY-centric LitHub is . . . nevermind), Financial Times, Vulture, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Miami Rail, Brooklyn Magazine, Latin American Literature Today, In These Times, Times Literary Supplement, The Intercept, World Literature Today, Remezcla, The Millions, Paste, The Riveter, Shondaland, The Rumpus, more LITERARY HUB, Dissent, Writer’s Bone, Bookwitty, Proximity Magazine, Texas Observer, Houston Chronicle, In Order of Importance, Ploughshares, Signature, THE Magazine, and Drunken Boat. That’s 1 . . . 2. . . . 7 . . . 14 . . . 41?! More than 14! So, why, again, isn’t this book on the list? Even restricting it to LitHub Friendly sites, it’s more than enough. Maybe there’s a problem with the whole Book Marks system? SHOCKER.
I’m not done railing. Come back tomorrow for a February Translation Preview filled with fiery opinions, critical analysis of publishing economic structures, and jokes. Tell your friends. Don’t let listicles get all the hits. Read different and think.9
1 One of the weirdest lines in the reviews for this book comes from Dwight Garner’s piece in the New York Times, “It is no surprise to learn that he won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a kind of Booker Prize for the region, for Frankenstein in Baghdad.” Let’s not get into the question as to whether this is surprising or not—which presuppossed a knowledge of “the region’s” books and what the award rewards and all of that—but just look at that “kind of Booker Prize” bit. From Wikipedia: “The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) (Arabic: الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية) is a literary prize managed in association with the Booker Prize Foundation in London, and supported by the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi.” Yeah, kind of like a Booker Prize for the region. Or, simply, “A Booker Prize for Arabic writing.”
2 Full disclosure: Rachel is a friend and former guest on the Two Month Review who blurbed Fresán’s The Bottom of the Sky.
3 Another disclosure: If there was a way of calculating wRC+ for books based on advance, marketing budget, sales, and cultural impact, I would probably love it.
4 This is what makes a review mixed: “Given these characters’ remove from the Whatsitsname, it’s difficult for them to captivate. Perhaps the reason for this owes something to the author’s rather obvious pursuit of allegory.” In other words, having a nuanced read is “mixed.” This is the ONLY mixed review. All the others are “raves” or “positive.” If you don’t see a problem here, email me so that we can argue.
5 I can’t distinguish between a “rave” and a “positive review” and I don’t want to put more effort into this.
6 What does it mean that both “positive” reviews are from the trade magazine (less influenced by buzz and advertising, the ones reviewing the book well in advance of publication), whereas the “raves” are from the handful of remaining newspapers that review books?
7 If you don’t see a problem with this either, just DM me so that we can argue.
8 I love New Directions, but the world is sheep and they are easily the most established publisher of hip intellectual books just sitting out there ready to be reviewed.
9 I got so invested in banging out an old school Three Percent rant-icism that I forgot to make one very important point: this book was translated by Jonathan Wright. You wouldn’t know by looking at the book’s cover or it’s Amazon page but I’m so very sure that’s not because Penguin doesn’t give two fucks about translators, but because . . . I’m out of bad jokes. Jonathan Wright once wrote a post for us that I use in my class every year, and which, thank the gods above, always makes my students rail against Andrew Wylie, Alaa Al Aswany, commercial publishing, bad ideas of what makes a good translation, and “My wife understood my need for the solitude.” So good to see you again, Jonathan. I hope you’re well.