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Statistical Noise [Granta]

It took a few more days than I had hoped, but I have officially read all twenty-five pieces included in this new Granta issue. (I wonder how many people actually do read it from cover to cover. And what percentage that is of all the copies in circulation. God, I’ll bet that number is depressing, whether it’s Granta, an Open Letter title, or, even a NY Times best-seller.) Which is going to make writing these last four posts a lot easier—at least in terms of grouping together five pieces per post in a way that sort of makes sense.

For example, this post—which will consider the influence on the publication of translated titles from the included countries—is mostly about the science-fiction pieces in the collection. Valerie Miles, Veronica Esposito, and I talked about the prevalence of speculative writing on this second list of “best young Spanish-language novelists,” considering there weren’t any in the 2010 list. (At least not that we could remember. Feel free to point out our memory gaps in the comments.)

Anyway, I actually want to start with Dainerys Machado Vento and Will Vanderhyden’s “The Color of Balloons,” which has exactly no science-fiction elements, but is really lively, sarcastically funny, and a true joy to read.

I don’t want to give away much of the story—basically, a young woman who has been trying to get pregnant goes to a gender reveal party with her partner, and ends up making a scene—but the awkwardness of the interactions at the party feel especially fitting as the world starts to reopen.

Here in NY, we no longer have to wear masks, given the high rate of vaccinated adults and the low infection rates. (Which is in contrast to Texas, where you don’t wear masks because FREEDOM.) I absolutely love going to my local bar, walking in maskless, interacting with noticeably more relaxed couples and their dogs, and generally feeling like life is finally about to start again. (Don’t get me started on the possibility of being able to travel to Europe in TWO WEEKS.)

I don’t know why—I’m not particularly attractive, or that interesting to talk to—but pre-COVID, I used to end up in some truly odd conversations with randoms. Which I lived for! When that went away, I had to pivot and, like many people, I spent the past year and a half working on my self. On personal envy, on concepts of self-worth/self-hate, and, especially of how to create a positive vibe, since we live in a universe of abundance and like attracts like, which is both a great sign for a doctor’s office and a potential key to success.

At the same time, my mind totally broke sometime this past winter. John O’Brien’s death, the absurd insurrection that was straight out of South Park, and all the COVID COVID COVID left me scattered and lethargic. Goodbye, self-esteem! So long, sense of purpose! Logic, who you even be? Which, going back to that like-attracts-like spiritual concept, is probably why over the past few days, every nutter in Rochester has been all up in my business.

I’ve had people come up and talk to me, initially about the St. Louis Cardinals, before abruptly turning to talk about PAW Patrol. (“Chase is on the case! Right? Those pups are on a roll!” “Sir, I’m not sure if you’re a pedo or not, but you’re getting into some weird territory.” “Rubble is my favorite.” “You are over 50 years old!” “Ryder is such a good role model.” “I’m sorry, but I don’t know who that is and I’m uncomfortable . . .”)

There was also aa guy who “stopped” me outside of the Eastman House though. He froze me with his wild eyes, and punched the wooden fence as hard as he could. Without breaking eye contact, he said, “Fuck you, fence! You stay on your side and I’ll stay over here. God have mercy on your soul.” And then nodded and walked on.

Summer 2021 is gonna be fire.

*

Last post, I looked at the predictive nature of Granta with relation to how many fiction works the writers on their lists wrote post-inclusion, and how many books from the first Spanish-language authors ended up being translated. It was sort of predictive, I suppose, although it wasn’t 1:1, and without the counterfactuals (namely, the number of authors who either qualified for the list but didn’t send their work in, or those whose work was submitted, were passed over, and went on to have illustrious careers), the results were muddled.

Let’s do it all over again! This time though, let’s just look at the countries that were represented in the first issue and see if this had any impact on publication in English translation. To that end, here are two hypotheses:

1.) Editors love finding hot literary scenes, trying to get ahead of other presses and find the next big thing. (To use a current example, just think of all the young female Korean writers who have broken out over the past few years.) So, if there’s a really interesting piece from a particular country—especially a country that is currently under the radar when it comes to being translated—an editor might seek out the contemporary writers from that particular country, and maybe their predecessors; or,

2.) Despite the fact that to readers immersed in Spanish-language lit, there’s a difference in approach, style, and concern between writers from Spain and those from Argentina, the vast majority of people just lump all these works together as being “Spanish.” As such, inclusion of a story from, say, El Salvador, will make little to no difference in what’s acquired and published in the ensuing years.

To try and prove one of these two contradictory hypotheses—either the country of origin of included authors matters in terms of future availability of works from that writer’s country, or it doesn’t—I looked at how many books were published from the respective countries in the three years prior to the release of the first Granta list (2008-2010) and the three subsequent years (2011-2013).

One note before sharing my findings: In contrast to the 2021 list, the 2010 one was much less diverse in terms of country of origin. That list included writers hailing from eight different countries , whereas the 2021 list features twelve. (But still no Venezuela! Listen to the most recent podcast to get that ref.) On the 2010 list there were authors from: Argentina (8), Bolivia (1), Chile (2), Colombia (1), Mexico (1), Peru (2), Spain (6), and Uruguay (1). (As Valerie mentioned, the 2021 list includes writers from outside of the typical “cultural hubs,” such as Costa Rica/Puerto Rico, Cuba, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, and Nicaragua.)

In support of hypothesis 1, there was an increase in works of fiction published in translation (NOTE: all the following numbers are for works of fiction only) from the countries featured in the 2010 list in the three years following its release. Between 2008 and 2010, 99 titles were published in English translation from the eight included countries, and between 2011 and 2013, that number went up to 122—a 23% increase!!

Good, good, except for the fact that those numbers are devoid of context . . . Between 2008 and 2010, 851 works of fiction were translated from all languages. That jumped to 1,193 for the years of 2011-13, which is a, gulp, 40% increase. In other words, the overall growth in literature in translation far outpaced the growth in translations from the Granta countries.

Ironically, comparing all books translated from Spanish, regardless of country, in these same two three-year periods, there was only a 14% increase. So, maybe inclusion in Granta was beneficial? I DON’T KNOW.

*

The “hardest” sci-fi story in this year’s Granta has to be Mateo García Elizondo and Robin Myers’s “Capsule,” the high concept of which is that the government has found a cheaper and more “humane” way of dealing with criminals condemned to spend the rest of their life in prison. I’ll let García Elizondo take over:

Even so, I was found guilty on all three counts, and I became one of the world’s first prisoners to be sentenced to the capsule: a new correctional method recently approved by the regulatory agencies of the United Nations and internationally lauded as the most humane means ever designed for dealing with lifers like me. The cheapest, too. Instead of having to house us, feed us and keep us entertained for the rest of our lives, some genius on the Penitentiary Commission had the bright idea of sealing us up in lead-and-titanium spheres measuring two and a half meters around and shooting us into outer space.

It’s kind of traditional sci-fi—an idea that the author plays out to its bitter, discomforting end. But if you like your fiction like you like your black holes—darker than dark—you’ll dig this story. Especially the “get out of jail free” button that just launches the convict into the terrifying nothingness of space.

You may already be familiar with Andrea Chapela and Kelsi Vanada’s “Borromean Rings” from Kelsi’s reading that we posted last week. Set in the future after a climate catastrophe that’s cut the narrator and her “bunker” off from the rest of the world, this story avoids the explanatory nature of traditional hard sci-fi to focus on a polyamorous relationship. (Non-traditional relationships are a hallmark of the stories in this list, which gives me hope for the future generations. Tear it all down, kids.) Or, to be honest, it’s almost a poly relationship. Which leads to a simple, yet vital, life lesson: Shoot your shot before the world collapses.

*

That last little statistical dump seems pretty conclusive with regard to this particular approach to explain the “value” of being on the Granta list . . . or does it! Before we make any final conclusions, let’s look at the publication history for the countries on the 2021 list that weren’t on the 2010 one. Comparing their 2008-10 numbers with thee 2011-13 ones might allow us to argue our way into showing how the Granta issue did spark an in the literary scenes that were featured.

There are five countries in the 2021 list that don’t appear on the 2010 one: Costa Rica/Puerto Rico (in honor of Carlos Fonseca’s desire to be categorized as being from both, I’m merging data from both), Cuba, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Nicaragua) only had a 13% increase in fiction publications in translation into English between 2008-2010 and 2011-13, which is below BOTH the overall rate of growth (40%) and the rate for works from the countries on the 2010 list (23%).

Although, to argue against this, the 2010 list contains countries ripe for Translation Explosion™️. If you compare works of fiction in translation from the 2010 Granta countries that were published between 2008-2010 to the number published between 2018-2020, you’ll find a 77% increase. There was “only” a 64% increase in all translations from all languages over that period, so . . .

*

 

Aura García-Junco and Lizzie Davis’s “Sea of Stone” is one part of the “statue suite” that Valerie Miles sequenced into the middle of the issue. It’s about a future in which people vanish only to reappear as statues. It’s a fun story with intersecting P.O.V.s that also incorporates different media. (Think news reports. Think survey results.) It’s also probably the most YA of the sci-fi stories. Which isn’t a judgement, just an observation.

The success of YA science fiction (oh, Hunger Games) has opened up a space for whip-smart young writers to toe that line between being really talented and knowing how to impress teens. It’s a fun tightrope to watch be walked in which the complaints against sci-fi back in my day (nonsensical plots, bad character development, so so so so so much misogyny) have been replaced by other concerns (woke characters, a non-binary future, the domination of the illusory nature of social media influence over laser guns) that now bug the Boomers.

Anyway. Here’s a taste of her work:

*

I think about a comment I read somewhere, somewhen, from Kathy Acker about her love for the middle of stories. That point at which the writer is really exploring. The pieces have been set in place, the ending will be clear soon enough, but that middle act. . . That’s where the action is.  Where the transformations take place. (It’s why I usually pick paragraphs at random to quote in here. I’m looking for the flow, not for the paragraph that’s been the most workshopped.)

To that end, here’s a random quote from Michael Nieva and Natasha Wimmer’s “Dengue Boy,” which is set in what remains of Argentina in 2272 and features a protagonist who is basically a mosquito:

‘Speaking of meat,’ he said.

And as everyone watched, El Dulce began to furiously jerk his weenie with his thumb and index finger. After a few minutes, before the group’s riveted eyes, a skinny clear streamer shot from it, falling into the sand like a glob of snot.

‘What about the rest of you? Aren’t you going to beat the meat?’

Oh geez. I’m not joking when I write that I closed my eyes, scrolled the PDF of this story, and landed at those paragraphs. I feel like I just performed some dirty version of the I Ching.

Given how wonderful of a random ending this is, I’m just going to save my larger ideas about numbers and nonsense for later. There are only 15 more pieces to cover . . .



2 responses to “Statistical Noise [Granta]”

  1. I am a translator, author and trustee of the Griffin Prize in Canada – can I talk to someone from #% about submitting to you an article about the art of translation which I think could be quite a bomb to read?

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