. . . The Underappreciated Masses . . .
Half of this post is inspired by comments Sam Miller made about this article he wrote about the mystery surrounding Don Mattingly’s birthdate and his Topps 1987 baseball card.
I’m not sure if these are immutable truths per se, but if you talk to enough people in the book industry, you’re likely to encounter two strains of thought: 1) each segment feels especially essential to the existence of the whole ecosystem (which really only proves that this is truly an ecosystem, and 2) each segments feels like their work is underappreciated (probably since only a handful of any of us make any significant money).
Without booksellers, books wouldn’t get the same attention and readership; without translators, there wouldn’t be any international literature; without authors, there aren’t any books; but then again, without publishers, there’s no product; or maybe the printers are really the most essential—unless you consider ebooks. You can go round and round with this chicken-egg situation, but what I’ve been pondering isn’t who’s most important, but which group would have the most interesting stories.
In other words, if I were hired as some sort of ‘book journalist” and was forced to choose to cover one “beat” and one “beat” only, which one would be the most consistently gratifying?
I’m not sure I have an answer . . . yet . . . although I’ll eliminate authors right here and now. Not that authors aren’t interesting people! The stories I’ve heard from Rodrigo Fresán are incredible, but it’s rare that an author is as interesting as their books. Most interviews aren’t all that unique or unexpected. They can be very smart, sometimes illuminating, but mostly are promotional—if not for their most recent book, for the aesthetic and mindset they embody. Which is totally fine, but if I’m being forced to choose one group of people to talk to and report on for the indefinite future, I think I’ll pass.
After writing my last post on Andrés Neuman’s Fracture, I felt inspired to really read for the first time since all this shit started. It was like his book woke me up again and gave me the mental space necessary to truly read and not just let the words flow by. To engage with texts again. And try and find connections, patterns.
In reading The Dreamed Part (trans. Will Vanderhyden) for this season of the Two Month Review, I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with Wuthering Heights. I’ve read Wuthering Heights exactly once, in high school, and remember only a handful of specifics. As interested as I am in going back to the source and rereading Emily Brontë’s masterpiece, I’m sort of more interested in the adaptations of this seemingly unadaptable novel. Like the Buñuel movie. Or, in this specific instance, Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter, the tagline for which is “a remaking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan.”
My initial plan for this post was to read all 850+ pages and riff on adaptations and the concept of the original as it relates to art and translation.
But then I actually started reading the book.
I spend a lot of time talking with translators of all levels. From burgeoning translators (my students), to the mid-career ones who send us submissions, to the masters of the moment (Margaret Jull Costa, Marian Schwartz, etc.). I’m both the chair of the ALTA conference committee AND the only non-translator. I’m talking to translators basically 24/7. Which is why I would never choose to have the “translator beat” for the rest of my life. Again, not because I don’t love translators or anything like that—I truly do—but I think the questions we end up asking translators are endlessly repetitive. It’s a profession that works best when it contains a bit of mystery. I love finding out about linguistic complications that lead to interesting choices that impact the interpretation of a book. (And stem from the translator’s interpretation.) But those are just results, analyzed in reverse. We’ll never fully know what it was inside the translator’s brain that led them to make the creative leap. The explanations are frequently interesting, but I kind of like the magic . . . A translator comes up with something that works because they are a creative artist. Trying to get to the heart of that is like asking an author “how they came up with their book.”
I think I’d shy away from hitching my writing horse to translators solely because I don’t think I have the right questions to cover them for the rest of my life in an entertaining and meaningful way.
The prologue of A True Novel is 166 pages long.
The preface—which is only four pages and precedes the prologue—boils down the core plot of the prologue to its essence:
A miracle happened to me two years ago.
It was when I was staying in Palo Alto in northern California, writing my third novel, or, more precisely, trying to write it. I lacked confidence, and progress was slow. Then, out of the blue, I was made a gift of a story, “a story just like a novel.” What is more, the story was meant for me alone. It concerned a man whom I knew, or rather whom my family knew, in New York at one time. This was no ordinary man.
If Mizumura had wanted to, she could’ve started the “true novel” right there, right after that. But instead, she chose to recount her childhood encounters with Taro Azuma, her life in Long Island, the rise and fall of her father’s fortunes, her return to Japan, her struggle to become a writer, and her fortune at being able to teach at Princeton, the University of Michigan, and Stanford—all of which mimics Mizumura’s life.
But Taro Azuma, the man she knew as a child who became a multi-millionaire Heathcliff? The man whose life story she is “gifted” while struggling with her third novel? Well, he’s the one part of the prologue that is invented.
Editors? Oh, fuck no. You couldn’t pay me enough to interview and cover editors for the rest of my career. Do you like listening to pretentious boring people who hide their insecurities behind sales numbers and awards? Hearing an editor talk about a book can totally kill your desire to read said book. Art shouldn’t be evaluated in relationship to its total sales, and yet, the most common refrains among this segment of the book industry is “well, it sure did exceed expectations!” and “it’s a great book, but just didn’t get the sales it deserved.” Editors talk about craft like mechanics talk about cars, except that they want to “pimp out” every “ride” to be the thing that will get them reflected glory via sales levels. It’s not about the art itself, it’s about getting the approval of the masses.
I blame agents for this in part, which is why I’m going to toss them out right here as well. The most successful agents are the “best” because they’re always working the angles. They’re like cut throat Wall Street bros, but working in a tiny pond. With books. And they too try and value books in the weirdest way. A book is “good” based on which high profile editor acquires it. And by “high profile,” I mean “has the biggest checkbook.” Covering agents and their deals? Hard pass.
The idea of the “invented part” in A True Novel really resonates with me, thanks to Fresán. He’s constantly fighting against the autofictional trappings in his triptych—the inclination to assume that since The Writer sort of resembles Fresán himself, that it is him. This is generally a garbage sentiment, and bad criticism. But we live in an age awash in the desire to wed the desire to share one’s personal experience with the idea of literature and art. Identity politics are very important; not every novel needs to be speaking your own truth. Fiction should be broad enough to welcome all viewpoints, and neither Twitter nor the marketplace should restrict that.
I set A True Novel aside for a minute after reading the absolutely brilliant “From Story to Novel” section of the prologue. In this bit, Mizumura unveils her game for this novel. She writes about how she wants to tell Taro Azuma’s story because it was so similar to Wuthering Heights, that “what I set out to do was thus close to rewriting a Western novel in Japanese.” But she doesn’t actually rewrite Wuthering Heights. She veers. She writes something unique that differentiates itself from Brontë’s novel in part because of the Japanese language. (It’s worth noting that the most recent Mizumura book to come out in translation is The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English [trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter].) This is where things turn very curious.
The problem lay elsewhere.
Taro Azuma’s was a true story. Yet, because it seemed so close to fiction, the more I went on writing, the more uneasy I felt that something important—something I can only call a sense of the real—was slipping through my fingers. [. . .] I was well into the work when I decided that the difficulty I was having probably came from the difficulty of writing a “true novel” in Japanese.
The term “true novel” once played a crucial role in the development of modern Japanese literature. The period when Japan opened its doors to the West, beginning in 1868, coincided with what might be called the golden era of the Western novel. [. . .] It was inevitable that Japanese novelists would also be moved by a desire to reproduce what they perceived to be the most highly evolved form of literature. For them, and perhaps for other non-Western writers, the type of novels written in nineteenth-century Europe, ones where the author sought to create an independent fictional world outside his own life, came to represent the ideal.
This is a bit of a spoiler, but if the Western tradition started with the idea of a “true novel” that is both independent of the author and totally invented (New Criticism really helped push this all along almost a century later, trying to divorce the text from both the author’s intentions and the emotional response of a reader to it), we’ve course-corrected in a severe way in which authors are frequently chided for “writing about what they don’t know.” Meanwhile, in the Japanese tradition, they started with a sort of autofiction, then tried to break out of that.
Half a century later, and after numerous experiments, not all Japanese writers were so sure. Some still claimed that, difficult as it had proved in the past, Japanese novelists should continue to aim for what they staunchly believed was the ideal, a fictional world created by an impersonal author—a transcendent “subject.” Others thought that novelists should basically adhere to writing truthfully about themselves, because being true to oneself, and, ultimately, to life, is what ought to embody the highest aim in literature. Some went further and asserted that such writing was the very soul of Japanese literature, wehre the diary has been an esteemed literary genre for over a thousand years. The controversy led to the emergence of two terms of two different approaches to fiction, one normative and the other descriptive: the “true novel” and the “I-novel.”
Do all booksellers have the same basic stories? Right now, they all hate the fact that “selling” books means shipping objects to disembodied customers. That’s a bummer! That’s not what anyone signed up for! If I were asked to cover booksellers only right now, I would likely kill that COVID with a big gulp of bleach. But even during “normal” times? Booksellers aren’t all that more interesting than anyone else in this ecosystem. Having been one for years, I have the same stories about annoying customers, and the same chip on my shoulder about my recommendations not being adopted by the masses. (Even when I know that I was mostly just a megaphone for marketing folk.) Bookselling in the aggregate is less interesting than the individual personalities, but I think I’d rather drink with booksellers than have to interview and write about them.
What exactly is an “I-novel”?
In an “I-novel,” readers expect the writer to figure in the work in one way or another. Whether the work is in fact based on the writer’s life or is a contrivance is ultimately irrelevant. The author-protagonist of an “I-novel” is perceived as an actual, specific individual, one whose face may be publicly known in other media. The work is necessarily assumed to be truthful about that individual’s life. Moreover, readers tend to favor works that have no beginning or ending, and are fragmentary, finding them true to life, as life also has no opening or closure as such and is nothing but an accumulation of fragmentary experiences. In other words, what readers look for in this genre is the absence of the authorial will—of the intention to create, through words, an independent universe.
(It would be interesting to bounce this idea off of David Shields’s Reality Hunger.)
So, an “I-novel” isn’t exactly an “autofiction,” but.
This is where I paused in my reading of A True Novel. After she mentioned that I-novels are still all the rage in Japan, I decided to test out a hypothesis and picked up Breasts and Eggs.
Sales reps? They’re also great people, and I would love to understand the calculus they apply to all the various books from the various publishers and consortiums they represent. Why push Book X over Book Y? Why don’t you ever read titles from Publisher Z? Understanding how reps think might unlock a ton of marketing secrets for small presses everywhere. Or . . . or . . . it’s just about money. If you’re working on commissions, you’re incentivized to push the books with the best chance of selling. That calculus is actually just arithmetic. 15% of $0 is $0. Promote the buzz, follow the trends, keep your family in the black. That’s, well, not that interesting.
I would totally write about reps for the rest of my life if all they talked about was ways in which publishers tried to seduce them. I want to know all about the payola.
Full admission! I’m only 40% of the way through Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd.
Another admission! Not sure I get the hype.
After reading the first 166 pages of A True Novel, I knew I was in the hands of a brilliant writer. Having read the first 150 pages of Breasts and Eggs, I knew I was reading an I-novel that plays to our current market urges.
Because copying passages from my Kindle is painful and stupid (the book didn’t arrive before lockdown), I’m going to use Motoko Rich’s review in the NY Times as the best starting point to talk about this.
Kawakami has since become something of a literary feminist icon in Japan. Although “Breasts and Eggs” riled some traditionalists with its frank portrayal of women’s lives, those detractors are outnumbered by her fans, many of them younger women.
They relate to Kawakami’s sharp identification of society’s expectations for women and the efforts of her characters to upend them. In “Breasts and Eggs,” the narrator, Natsuko Natsume, muses about the tyranny of beauty as she tries to understand her elder sister’s obsession with breast implants. [. . .]
Kawakami gained even more renown as a feminist voice after a 2017 interview she conducted with Haruki Murakami, perhaps Japan’s most celebrated modern novelist.
In that interview, which recently appeared in translation, Kawakami — whose work Murakami has championed — questioned the “persistent tendency for women to be sacrificed for the sake of the male leads” in his fiction, echoing the frustration of other critics. (Murakami responded to Kawakami’s critique by noting that his focus was not on “individualistic characters,” but on how people interact with the world.)
To be described as a feminist writer in Japan “still has to some extent a negative image,” Kawakami said in an interview via Zoom.
When “Breasts and Eggs” won the Akutagawa Prize, Shintaro Ishihara, then Tokyo’s right-wing governor and a member of the prize committee, described the novel’s tone as “selfish” and “unpleasant and hard to listen to.” [. . .]
When she was 14, Kawakami said, she lied about her age to secure a part-time job at a factory that made parts for air-conditioners. To help with the family finances, she worked as a convenience store cashier, a restaurant dishwasher, a dental assistant and a bookstore clerk.
Growing up working class, she learned that “in most cases the rich stay rich and the poor remain poor,” she said. “Even with effort you cannot always change your life, and I had this severe lesson as a child.”
From its opening sentence, “Breasts and Eggs” is forthright about class: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had.”
To help support her younger brother when he was in college, Kawakami worked as a bar hostess. She later moved to Tokyo to pursue a music career, but it quickly stalled.
This is exactly why I wanted to read this book and talk about it with Tom on the Three Percent Podcast. This is a vital, revolutionary, important perspective. I’m totally there for the politics of this book. (Although wonder why two men translated it? I’m kind of over men translating the work of radical, transgressive women writers. Even if men “can” capture the voice, the optics suck, and I don’t see the gain. No offense to Bett and Boyd, but they’re not better translators than every other female Japanese translator. This is another reason why editors aren’t all that interesting.) But, uh, what about the writing?
Printers??? I know not of printers. Except that I assume they’re boring. That they couldn’t give fucks about the books running through their machines. And that their stories would be filled with mechanical malfunctions, occasional printing mishaps, some other sort of hijinks. I don’t know . . . I imagine dedicating your life to talking with printers would be like covering the “copy-and-paste” function. OK, I get it, you print things.
Other journalists? Is the best beat totally meta? Interviewing the interviewer? Maybe? Although I’ll bet reporters’ minds are just filthy with cognitive fallacies. The quest for objectivity is riddled with recency and confirmation bias—at least when it comes to reporting on books.
The writing in Breasts and Eggs is very functional. I like it because it’s fast; I hate it because it should’ve been edited. The repetitions, the lack of pace . . . they don’t serve its aggressive political agenda. It reminds me of the Calque interview with Michael Emmerich in which he talks about the difference between what Japanese readers prefer (and why) versus what works for American readers.
Here’s a bit of bloated dialogue about the main character having paid off her student loans that points toward the larger problem with this book’s style:
“Well, I’m just glad it’s finally over.” I said. “All those months where I thought it was gonna kill me to scrounge up 5,000 yen to pay the bill, and had to miss a payment to survive . . . You remember those letters they sent me? I can’t believe this is a state-run organization, the way they tread kids. They can be real bastards, shaking people down like that. They did a real number on me. I never want to see one of those notices again as long as I live.”
“I totally get it. But I think you’re gonna wanna get a load of this one. It almost looks like a diploma, like they want you to frame it and hang it on your wall. It’s real ornate, like a fancy birthday care. I guess they want you to celebrate . . .”
That’s objectively bad dialogue. My interest in this book is purely political, not stylistic. It’s a great 200 page book trapped in 450 pages. And such an “I-novel.” Do we really need more books about young authors struggling to write their first novel? (Put a pin in that for my next post.)
There’s no part of the book ecosystem that’s more or less interesting than the others. The whole thing? That’s got a bit of magic to it. But if you break it down, we’re all intelligent cogs who are most interesting when we work together. And support the whole instead of trying to get an edge for ourselves. This is my catastrophe practice for the week.