Controversy & Value

I absolutely love the Virginie Despentes books that I’ve read, and Vernon Subutex 1—the first part of a trilogy that she concluded in 2017—is no exception. Like her other novels, the prose is direct, unadorned, and based very heavily in character. Very unlikeable characters. Offensive characters. Characters who are most definitely not woke.

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (FSG)

The set-up for this book is simple enough: Vernon Subutex, former owner of a hip record shop that went out of business, has been evicted from his apartment. He had been scraping by for a few years selling memorabilia and getting his rent paid by his most famous musician friend, Alex Bleach, who just passed away. Subutex finds himself on the streets, couch surfing with one questionable friend after another, and in possession of some VHS tapes containing Alex Bleach’s “confessions.” (Which no one—not even Subutex—has seen.)

The tapes serve as a MacGuffin for the novel, with Subutex’s bouncing from one apartment to the next working as the book’s engine, allowing Despentes to delve into the minds of one asshole after another.

No book is for everyone, but it’s my sense—based in nothing but occasionally reading the Twitter and devouring all YA book controversies—that the quickest way for a book to be “not for everyone” is by depicting characters who have qualities that are offensive (“cancellable?”) to the majority of socially conscious readers.

Before I run through a litany of offensive shit to make a pretty basic point, I want to state my own take on Despentes books: Her presentation of the limited (re: awful, racist, misogynistic, unsettling) viewpoints of her characters serve to make the reader uncomfortably aware that a)  these viewpoints exist in the world, and b) these viewpoints are damaging, damaged, fucked up. Despentes books are like meta-woke. The wokeness is in the response to the non-woke characters. She’s making her point not by stating it, but by illustrating the opposite in an entertaining, non-strident, non-dogmatic way. These novels are character-based in the best possible way.

So let’s get to some controversial quotes! Taken out of context, each and every one of these could launch a Twitter avalanche of outrage—if the majority of Twitter users read books for adults. (Also: Trigger Warning. For real. I’m intentionally pulling out the most offensive things I can find. Not statements that I in any way endorse, at all, but sentiments that are part of Despentes’s overall strategy for crafting fiction that can have an impact on real life.)

Five minutes in Monoprix and Xavier feels like blowing the place sky high. His local Monoprix Supermarket is run by morons. [. . .] Xavier feels like giving the fat Arab woman wearing the hijab in front of him a good kick in the ass. Would it be possible, just for once, to walk two hundred yards down the street without having to suffer their hijabs, their hamsas dangling from their rear-view mirrors, and their belligerent little brats? A filthy race, hardly surprising everyone hates them. [. . .] Now, here in Monoprix, he wishes he had brought a bazooka. The fat blonde flashing her ugly thighs in a pair of tight shorts who dresses like she’s a supermodel when actually she’s just a cow? Bullet in the head. [. . .] The fat piker staring at women’s asses while he picks out his halal meat? Bullet in the temple. The Yid in the fright wig with the repulsive tits that hang down to her belly button—he hates women with sagging breasts: bullet in the knee.

This depiction of an imaginary, yet frightful and very racist, mass shooting in a supermarket takes place on page 57, in the first chapter depicting Xavier. I half-joked about this on a Three Percent Podcast, but if this were a movie, its release would be delayed indefinitely.

Obviously, even if there were another WalMart shooting between now and the November 5th pub date, FSG wouldn’t postpone the publication of this novel (which has been available in the UK for a while, along with Vernon Subutex 2), since potential backlash and monetary losses for a novel in translation are a fraction of a fraction of a potential opening weekend for a Hollywood movie.

At the same time, and to go back to the point above, there are so many examples of YA titles being cancelled before publication in recent years for accusations of various forms of racism (see this or this), including when characters don’t realize fast enough that they shouldn’t judge our friends from Frolix 8 by the size of their tentacles.

From the Vulture article on The Black Witch, the first book of a trilogy:

The Black Witch centers on a girl named Elloren who has been raised in a stratified society where other races (including selkies, fae, wolfmen, etc.) are considered inferior at best and enemies at worst. But when she goes off to college, she begins to question her beliefs, an ideological transformation she’s still working on when she joins with the rebellion in the last of the novel’s 600 pages. (It’s the first of a series; one hopes that Elloren will be more woke in book two.)

It was this premise that led Sinyard to slam The Black Witch as “racist, ableist, homophobic, and . . . written with no marginalized people in mind,” in a review that consisted largely of pull quotes featuring the book’s racist characters saying or doing racist things. Here’s a representative excerpt, an offending sentence juxtaposed with Sinyard’s commentary:

“pg. 163. The Kelts are not a pure race like us. They’re more accepting of intermarriage, and because of this, they’re hopelessly mixed.”

Yes, you just read that with your own two eyes. This is one of the times my jaw dropped in horror and I had to walk away from this book.

I’ve not read The Black Witch (and never will) and am not part of this subculture of Twitter, so I really shouldn’t comment, but if we applied this viewpoint to Vernon Subutex 1  . . . I can only imagine that most people would be appalled by its publication. And miss out on Vernon’s comments a few pages later, after he spends some time with Xavier, who, we all know—readers, characters, and author alike— is a garbage human. Here’s Xavier talking about Elisabeth Lévy, a newscaster, followed by Vernon’s internal response:

“If you don’t like it in France, just pack your bags and fuck off back home, you bitch. They really piss me off, these Zionists, they’re everywhere these days. This is a Christian country, last time I checked. I’ve never been anti-Semitic, but if you want my opinion, we should napalm the whole region, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Iraq, same deal: napalm. Use the land to build golf courses and Formula 1 racing circuits. I could fix the problem in no time, let me tell you . . . But it’s a pain in the ass to have to listen to some half-wog Jew talking about France like this is her country.”


Xavier has always been a right-wing cunt. He has not changed, it is simply that the world is now aligned with his obsessions. Vernon does not rise to the bait. Personally, he likes Elisabeth Lévy. You can tell she’s a woman who enjoys sex. And coke—which is an added bonus.

As a reader, we go from shock and uncomfortableness, to a sigh of relief (tinged by a bit of moral anxiety over the use of the “c” word), back to uncomfortable, since Vernon’s viewpoint might evade Xavier’s racism, but leans into some misogynistic assumptions.

Pulling quotes like this . . . man, this book should be so controversial. Or, if the world were more rational and less knee-jerk Twitter, this book would engender a discussion about how non-PC authors can convey socially progressive ideas. A paper/panel on the moral discomfort of reading this book (which, again, is one of the best Man Booker International finalists of the past few years) would be fascinating. I want to see/read someone much smarter than me—and with much more time to devote to this—work out all the subtle ways that Despentes manages to dismiss all of the perspectives in the book. (Minus The Hyena, who might be our moral compass?)

It’s not just the male characters who are offensive in this novel—just check this bit from Sylvie, one of the women Vernon gets “involved with” in the course of his itinerant travels:

When Laure comes to dinner, Sylvie discreetly steers her toward the sofa for fear that her gigantic ass will break her favorite armchair. When they talk about guys, Laure joins in as though she were one of the girls. But with the face like the back end of a bus and the manners of a trucker, her only hope of getting fucked occasionally is the rise and rise of functional alcoholism. It must be awful to have a figure that no amount of dieting, exercise, or surgery could make attractive.


Since I really, really want you to read this book, I’m going to step away from the most controversial statements and just include some nice jabs at social media (because trying to offend chronic Tweeters and Facebook users is 100% my brand):

But then Facebook came along and this generation of thirtysomethings is made up of solipsistic psychopaths verging on insanity. Naked ambition stripped of any sense of legitimacy.


She would like to track down the asshat who came up with the idea that every headline on the Yahoo! homepage should be a riddle—the “incredible discovery at the Chicago airport”—the psychopath who came up with the most irritating clickbait formula imaginable by not telling readers what the article is about.


Past the age of forty, everyone is like a bombed out city.

I’m going to stop here, I think my point is made: this book is offensive to everyone in a way that gives rise to a more nuanced point of view. It reminds me of the best of Ismael Reed. Books like Reckless Eyeballing that pillory everyone—from the obvious targets of those in control (whites, males, capitalists) to those who are marginalized, yet still imperfect.

If you don’t like it? Don’t read it. But there’s a reason Virginie Despentes is a rock star in France and the rest of the world, and the precision with which she depicts these offensive, limited viewpoints is an incredible reminder of what people need to rise above.


That post above was initially going to be part of the Women in Translation posts, but I didn’t get it done in time, and it felt/feels not in the spirit of the month.

So I decided to do something different. And although it’s always fun to write posts with secret connections that no one seems to pick up on, it can also walk me into one of my depressive episodes, so, to avoid that, here’s a spoiler: I decided to pair a book by a female author (one controversial, one that’s not), with a book about translation that’s written by a male (one that’s not controversial, one that might be).

Sympathy for the Traitor by Mark Polizzotti (MIT Press)

What makes Sympathy for the Traitor by Mark Polizzotti valuable to emerging translators and others involved in this field of study?

1). It’s not an overly theoretical book. From the “Ground Rules”:

As an additional disclaimer, I should note that those looking for a flashy new theory need not bother reading any further: there are plenty of them out there, from the prescriptive to the prohibitive (not to mention the plainly abstruse), and I don’t intend to add to the noise. Consider this rather an “antitheory,” or perhaps just a common-sense approach.


2). Raises criticisms of Schleiermacher and Benjamin’s most famous translation essays.

More recently, [Schleiermacher’s] prescription of “moving the reader toward the author” has been embraced by proponents of foreignization, who aim to resist perceived Anglo-American ethnocentrism by bending English to the source language’s norms, and who see in Schleiermacher’s arguments a counterweight to the imperialistic, “domesticating” approach of most contemporary translations. The irony is that there is also a nation-building subtext to Schleiermacher’s argument that harks straight back to the Romans—and that, with its historical imperative of gathering all foreign treasures into the Teutonic storehouse, rings both idealistic and ominous.


Because translation is seen as derivative and abstract, its ultimate merit in Benjamin’s view is not to produce a new literary work, but rather to have “extended the boundaries of the German language,” the same case that Schleiermacher made for it in the previous century. [. . .] “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” Consequently, “whenever a translation undertakes to serve the reader,” it is by nature a failure. Translation, breathing of a “higher and purer linguistic air,” instead points the way toward, but never reaches, the “inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfillment of all languages.” It’s an enticing theoretical construct [. . .] But, devoid of human presence and disdainful of human response, it exists only in the most rarefied atmosphere, unconnected to real linguistic exchange, and its end point might be not so much pure as sterile.


3). Not 100% behind the “morality dictum” for why we should publish and read translations.

This is where I can’t help but feel uneasy with the moral subtext of statements such as [Edith] Grossman’s, however much I agree with them in spirit. On the one hand, I recognize the ethical benefit of seeing things from different angles, breaking out of our arrogant parishes. At the same time, there is a true-believer aspect to this way of putting the matter that ultimately does translation a disservice—not helped by the fact that the listings for many presses, especially the earnest independents, tend to skew toward a fairly homogenous, equally earnest, profile. As with many well-meaning efforts, the accent is laid on shoulds and oughts, whereas the real joy of translation is precisely the new vistas it affords, the thrill of discoveries not otherwise possible, the appeal to our sense of pleasure rather than duty.


4). Provides translators with a positive, “depends on the situation,” outlook. (This is something sophisticated translators know, and although it would be useful to articulate the intricacies of the “why translate X in this way and Y in another” situation, this is the sort of book that a grad student translator can read and alleviate their pure anxiety over what they’re working on—that is incredibly important.)

The question, as always, is whether the text produces the desired effect, to which the answer is, ultimately, subjective: a translator must first interpret the original, see what effect it has on her, and then try to represent that effect in a language and culture not the author’s own. Whether that original will have the same effect on other readers is anyone’s guess. [. . .] A translation has to represent the original in a way that allows a target reader to experience as much as possible the spirit and purpose and pleasure (or distaste) and vigor (or indolence) of the work on which it’s based. It has to speak to the reader in a way that justifies the original’s claim of being worthy of translation to begin with. It has to be convincing.


5). References me, indirectly. Not going to quote this, but being in an index is flattering—especially because they included my “W.”—and seeing Open Letter name-checked with Archipelago, Dalkey, and the like is gratifying.


6). Has some ideas about Venuti—whose latest books book is the one that will be featured next post. (Because I know from the index that Venuti’s Contra Instrumentalism addresses this particular book, I decided to start with Polizzotti first.) At the moment, I don’t favor Polizzotti’s viewpoint over Venuti’s or vice-versa, I’m just overjoyed that they are in conversation with one another. (Although Venuti not using the Oxford comma is a strike!)

Some of these academics champion “foreignizing” translations that intentionally flout the conventions of the target language to retain those of the source. [. . .] In Venuti’s telling, the literary translator comes off as a kind of CIA wet boy, perpetrating a terrorist act whose “violence . . . resides in the very purpose and activity of translation: the reconstitution of the foreign text in accordance with values, beliefs and representations that pre-exist it in the target language . . . [which constitutes] an appropriation of foreign cultures for domestic agendas.” [. . .] Venuti’s basic point is that translation must not be used to homogenize other cultural viewpoints, and that the “illusion of transparency” resulting from current practice obscures the culturally weighted contribution of the translator. [. . .] But as with many polemics, Venuti’s wilts under its own heat. Of course translation is a product of interpretative choices conditioned by the translator’s home culture. [. . .] (The irony is that Venuti’s own translations tend to read with at least reasonable fluency, further pointing to the academic gap between theory and practice.)

Perfect place to stop for today. Next week’s “Value & Controversy” will flip-flop today’s post, looking at Malina‘s value to culture and New Direction, and Venuti’s “controversial” new book.

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