Mike Trout Floats All Boats
Let’s start with what this post isn’t going to be. It’s not going to be a post about nonfiction in translation even though I declared, just yesterday, that this is “Nonfiction in Translation Month” at Three Percent. That’s really going to kick off next week with a post about two true crime books in translation and a weird idea I have about . . . well, I’ll save that for now.
Anyway. Today’s post is going to be about two of my favorite things: Long, complicated novels and baseball. Kind of.
Last month I mentioned a plan to read all five of the translated titles from Marie-Claire Blais’s ten-book Soifs series. I never had a chance to cover her during Quebec Month, and I’m annoyed with myself for writing about so many long books by dudes, and so many short books by women. A ten-book project like this—which has won numerous awards and accolades—deserves some attention. (And I doubt many Americans have even heard of these books, much less read them.)
There was a bookseller in Washington D.C. (whose store has since shut down) who used to recommend Blais to me on the regular. I always wanted to read her but with more than 20 (?—Her Wikipedia page is no longer being updated, which is a topic for some future post) novels, I didn’t really ever know where to start. Not to mention, she seems like someone we should be publishing, but her books are available (what does “available” really mean in 2019?) in the U.S.
Her first book came out in 1959, and the last one I know of—Une réunion près de la mer—came out in 2018. That’s SIXTY years of professional, award-winning writing. By a Quebec woman who is now an American citizen, who has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, who was in a relationship with Mary Meigs and Barbara Deming for a number of years, and maintains a residence in Key West. How is her work not well-known? A writer from the Virginia Woolf school, her works should totally play to today’s readership, and yet.
Before I take that to the next step and kick off the rest of this wild post, I should say a few things about the first book in the series, These Festive Nights.
Originally published in 1995, this novel takes place in Key West (I think—the city is never explicitly named) mostly over the course of a single night in which the lives, fears, struggles, and ambitions of several groupings of characters are depicted in drifting, digressive, comma-laden, multi-page sentences that vacillate between the intensely personal and the larger socio-political situation in which the very wealthy live next to the extremely poor.
This is a tricky book to talk about, in part because it is so interior and repetitive like waves on a beach, but mostly because it feels like a stage-setting book. Many of the characters in this novel are explicitly named in future volumes. Like Augustino and the Choir of Destruction. I know that in the end, there are more than 200 interlocking characters, and in so many ways, this volume feels like an overture. Here are your main players, the conflict is life and death, equality and not, and the point is to try and understand human existence.
It’s a beautiful book, a book that calls to mind so many classic authors. It’s a book that strives to be classic, that takes the whole enterprise of writing fiction in a wholly serious way. And as much as I love the humor, there’s a stately impressiveness to building a fictional artifice like this one.
Given all that though, I’m loathe to say too much about what this book is “about.” It’s near the turn of the century. Melanie and Daniel have just given birth to Vincent, whose breathing is very tenuous. They’re having a swanky party to celebrate. Melanie’s mom has some issues of jealousy and resentment toward the young and vibrant. Melanie might become an important politician. Meanwhile, her aunt, Renata, is in town recovering from surgery. (And smoking when she’s not supposed to. And annoyed that her husband, a judge, gave out an unnecessarily harsh punishment.) There’s also the Pastor Jeremy’s family, which includes the troublesome Venus. And there’s Jacques, who dies of AIDS almost at the same time Vincent is born.
And there’s so much more. So many more characters (at least twenty that I can think of and my post-Portland memory is sketch) and so many more potential plot points that are introduced. I didn’t even mention the KKK. And so much more beauty. (I’m listening to “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed” by Los Campesinos! as I write this, and that seems like the perfect song for this book.)
Here’s an example of the paragraph-less style that runs throughout Soifs:
I already ordered all four of the other titles that have been translated into English, and although I’d be lying if I said that I was always locked-in to this book, I’m determined to see how it develops and builds. It’s impressive and deserving of the effort and time and attention.
Which is probably why it isn’t popular? Well, one reason why it’s not popular . . . It’s not Knausgaard. It’s not simple. It’s not auto-fiction. It’s not short, dark, and scary. It’s not a press that the American Twitterati pay much attention to. Which brings us to the fun part of today’s post. (I’ve been waiting to write this for weeks. Certain people heard me talk about this idea over and over and are probably just waiting for me to write it and STFU.)
*IT’S BACK. I DOWNLOADED MY FIRST LEADERBOARD FROM FANGRAPHS TODAY AND LOOKED AT WHO HAS THE WORST BB%-K% TODAY. ORDER IS RESTORED.
(Also, I got to watch MSU beat Duke—SUUUUUCCCCCKKKKKK ITTTTTT—on Sunday, which was like a little tiny cherry on top of my AWP experience.)
I know half of everyone reading this just clicked on “37 Facts That Will Blow Everyone’s Minds When You Drop Them In Casual Conversation” at the first mention of baseball, but for the rest of you, you’re in for a wild treat.
Here are a series of statements that I want you to assume are all true. If you do, the rest of this post is bonkers fun; if you don’t, I’m just going to annoy you for graph after paragraph.
First: Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. Over the history of baseball, no one has started their career at this level. No one has had a peak quite like this. He’s the absolute best. How can I be so certain? According to Fangraphs, he’s accumulated 59.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement, hold tight for an explanation) in eight seasons. He isn’t even 28 yet. (Baseball players are in their prime at 29.) He’s third among all active players in WAR, behind Albert Pujols at 88.1 WAR (100 years old), and Miguel Cabrera 77.1 WAR (literally played 16 seasons). Mike Trout is good at the baseball. Most thinking people would tell you that he’s the best.
Digression Number One: WAR is Wins Above Replacement. What does that mean? As simply put as possible, this is the number of wins a team gains by playing Mike Trout over the thirty-first best center fielder in MLB. The average replacement player is 0.0. Everyone better has a positive WAR (they hit and field and run better than the scrub) and Chris Davis has a very negative WAR.
Second: What if you moved Mike Trout to a team that’s not the Los Angeles Angels
of Anaheim? (Fun fact! I’ve been to Anaheim to salivate over Trout and Ohtani. It’s not L.A. It’s barely a city. It sucks! Anaheim is basically Place. Also your train system sucks and you need better shade in your stadium. Thanks for the skin cancer, Place.)
Digression? Number Two: What if there were a “translated book” equivalent to Trout? Bolaño was maybe the first Trout? His books were a lot of IARTF (Influence Above Replacement Translated Fiction), which, is pronounced “I Are Terriff” like “terrific.” Oh dear. Here’s that off-the-rails moment. Remember: You have options. BuzzFeed is super worked up for your clicks. They have great CAB (Clicks Above Replacement), but zero IAC (Important Addition to Culture).
Three: Who is the current IARTF (uhhhh? ISAR: Important Sales Above Replacement? Someday I’ll reconcile my love for quantification with my spiritual belief that numbers are dumb.) Ferrante! She’s on the Home Box Office and sells tens of thousands. (SPOILER: The vast majority of translations sell less than 1,000 copies.)
Third Digression Which Is Just a Front-Handed Insult: So FSG is doing the new Ilya Leonard Pfeiffer book? Because it’s all Big Ideas and Consumable? THAT’S SO CUTE. Good luck, guys!
Four: There’s a way to do math and figure out what would’ve happened if Trout played for any of the other teams in MLB. Would they have made the playoffs? (Mostly yes, but sometimes no!)
Here’s to the Fourth Time: What would’ve happened if New Directions had published Blais’s These Festive Nights? Would Blais be Lispector 2.0? (Maybe Lispector 1.5, since Blais is better, but not as millennial?) How about TFN by Coffee House? (That might not work as well, since they only do Latin American authors?)
Five: Let’s make two new, very related assumptions. If a popular press publishes an unpopular book, it will be more popular. And: If a press that’s not as popular publishes the Trout-Ferrante of their moment, their whole brand will benefit. GET THOSE WAR/ISAR!
The Digression Numbered Five: What would happen if we took the Ferrante-Trout and 1) assumed the sales/WAR automatically raised the profile of the press who published her by the same amount it did to Europa and 2) had an impact on the other books that press already had published? Like, if X Press had published My Brilliant Friend, then Book Z would’ve been popular because it was “from the publisher of My Brilliant Friend.”
Six: This seems like exactly the sort of game that Three Percent came into existence to talk about. So let’s speculate about what various titles would benefit from the halo-effect of Ferrante.
Transit Books (+Ferrante)
This is a tough one to project. I mean, Transit hit a major donger (aka a home run, not anything sordid) with their very first book, Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, but unless you get really, really lucky, it’s hard for any new press to maintain that sort of momentum. There’s always a shiny new thing around the corner, and the sophomore slump is real.
Transit has been around for three years now, and are definitely an above average press. The Wioletta Greg book got them some serious play, and everyone seems to love All My Goodbyes. That said, they are still distributed by Consortium/Ingram, so their reach isn’t near that of Penguin Random House or any of the Big Five. Without any hard data, or any actual calculations that make even a modicum of sense, I’ll put Transit at 2.0 PAR (Publishers Above Replacement). A book from Transit will sell two times more than it would from a “replacement” press.
Although we all know that a book’s sales are closely tied to the past performance of the press publishing it (for instance, Zone would’ve sold more if Riverhead did it, since it would be a “Riverhead book” and not an “Open Letter book”), for the sake of this silly argument, we’re going to assume that all sales remain the same, and if Transit did the Neapolitan Quartet, they would’ve sold hundreds of thousands of copies and received the same amount of publicity.
This would easily add about 7 PAR to Transit’s profile. Especially since Ferrante is a good fit for the press. It makes some degree of sense; I could see these books coming out from Transit.
And as a result, I think a lot more people would read Lessons for a Child Who Arrives Late by Carlos Yushimito, translated from the Spanish by Valerie Miles.
“A mascot for an electronics store dreams of making it in the drug world of Rio de Janeiro. A tin man ponders the mysteries of death as a heart starts to take charge of his limbs, while in a place not so far away a boy tries to play the piano like Margarita, the teacher’s cruel and beautiful niece. In stories filled with violence and tenderness, love and disconnection, Carlos Yushimito’s long-anticipated debut explores the subtle space of estrangement.”
Deep Vellum (+Ferrante)
DV is another press that six years in (six years?! fuck the passage of time) could use a massive injection of cash and commercial appeal. If Will had published the Ferrante books, I think the main thing that would’ve changed is that DV would have wound up doing more of Carmen Boullosa’s titles. (Instead of her leaving for Coffee House.)
Developing Boullosa over a half-dozen more books—while basking in the glow of the Ferrante sales halo—would easily add 5-6 PAR to Deep Vellum’s profile.
New Directions (+Ferrante)
Which makes me think of other potential baseball-inflected publishing statistics. Who has the best strike-out rate? Like, which press is the most consistent in bringing out titles that find an audience? I suspect that ND would be up there, although the fact that they have such a rabid fanbase, even a total whiff would probably sell better than a number of Open Letter titles.
Given the press’s longevity, those rabid fans, it’s international core (Marias, Sebald, Aira, Krasznahorkai, etc.), they’re already a 10 PAR publisher. But what if they did Ferrante?
It seems like such an odd fit at first glance . . . As a result, I don’t think it would add that much to their overall value. Maybe 1 PAR. Maybe.
I’m sure that it would help Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann sell a few more copies, and maybe the 1,000 holdouts who don’t own a single Lispector book would finally pick one up, but for the purposes of this little thought experiment, I think Ferrante would have a much bigger impact at a different press.
I don’t even know what to say. Dalkey used to be a 6-7 PAR press, but given that people can’t seem to get a copy of Scar by Sara Mesa, it’s hard to posit a world in which Dalkey gets the same level of sales for the Neapolitan Quartet that Europa did. And in some ways, this level of success would run counter to Dalkey’s brand as a rock-throwing, anti-establishment press that’s more concerned with literary quality than sales.
Let’s call it a wash. Ferrante would add 0 PAR to Dalkey’s profile.
Open Letter (+Ferrante)
Real talk: If we published Ferrante, we wouldn’t be in the same “you’re too small for author XYZ” boat so many sister presses also find themselves in. But then again, our list is loaded. And y’all don’t even know the half of what we have in the works. (Especially in terms of Spanish-language authors. ND is the only other press out there that can match us in terms of Latin American and Spanish writers. Full stop.) I haven’t been this giddy about our forthcoming books in a while. Part of that is the books, part of that is the new cover design, part of it is the addition of Anthony to our team.
That said, if we got the Ferrante PAR Bump, I would be suspicious and question my understanding of how the world works. Open Letter is best as an underdog. If we got the respect our books deserve, what would I write about every week? I was already accused of being “too happy” last week during AWP. I’M LOSING MY EDGE.
Then again, a Ferrante would likely get us those sweet sweet major donations that we need to keep going . . .
Coffee House (+Ferrante)
CHP + Ferrante would invert the current Minneapolis non-profit publishing scene, transforming Coffee House into the “Big Brother.”
New Vessel (+Ferrante)
New Vessel is maybe the best landing spot for Ferrante in this little game. They have a lot of books that could sell exceptionally well, but need that one massive hit to generate the necessary momentum and brand awareness to maximize on their backlist. They’re probably a 1-2 PAR press right now, but with Ferrante, I think they’re closer to a 10. The Jean-Philippe Blondel books (already selling really well) would be megahits. On the level of Europa’s Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Of the Big Five, this is the best actual fit for Ferrante. They have a solid history of doing translations, they have a noted interest in Italian literature and poetry, and they have the resources to really sell all of her books.
Which is why I don’t think she adds any PAR to their press. The sales are definitely better than what they did for Theory of Shadows, but FSG is already so stable and established that it really wouldn’t change much.
I can’t even. I think I need to stop now . . . There are many more presses I’d like to try this out with, but I think you get the point. And thinking about Murakami and Ferrante under the same imprint made me barf a little bit in my mouth. What the world doesn’t need now is more top-heavy consolidation.