19 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I first decided to undertake this project of writing about one 2018 translation a week, I knew that there would come a week in which I didn’t finish the book that I had planned to write about. This might be due to time constraints, or simply because I didn’t feel like finishing the book in question.

Well, it took less than two months to run into a book that I just gave up on: The Neighborhood by 2010 Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

I’ve got a lot to say about why I quit on this book, and how that reflects on readerly expectations, but I think the best place to start is by articulating my own reading history with Vargas Llosa.

Back in the 1990s, when I was working in bookstores and really starting to immerse myself in international fiction, Vargas Llosa was one of the Spanish-language giants you had to read, along with García Marquez, Fuentes, Cortázar, and Borges. There are other (better) Spanish-language authors from this same period (Onetti and Cabrera Infante come to mind), but these were the authors that I felt that I had to have some familiarity with if I was going to make any sort of claim to liking—and knowing something about—Spanish-language literature, especially what was coming out of Latin America.

Insecurity has played such a large role in my reading history. When I started at Dalkey Archive, I was greatly intimidated by the literary knowledge that everyone around me possessed. Not just John O’Brien—who, at that time at least, knew more about twentieth-century writing than anyone I knew—but also Martin Riker, Curtis White, Charlie Harris, Greg Howard, etc. (And that doesn’t even include David Foster Wallace, who was maybe the most intimidating?) The way they talked about the greats of the past century, from Céline to Gaddis to Gass to Queneau to Sorrentino to Ishmael Reed to Flann O’Brien to the wealth of undiscovered gems in the Dalkey Archive catalog (Stanley Elkin! Stanley Crawford! Nicholas Mosley! William Eastlake! Arno Schmidt!) really put into perspective how little I had actually read. I spent every spare moment of my first few years there catching up on the things I had missed. Granted, I had read a lot (someday I’ll write about the insane self-directed reading program I put myself through in preparation for the GRE English subject test), but not nearly as much as everyone else. This is how my personal canon was formed.

Before the Dalkey times though, I had read a couple Vargas Llosa books. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta was probably the first (and a good contrast with Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight) followed by Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, of which I remember nothing, and The War of the End of the World, which, assuming it still stands up, is one of those complete Latin American novels that’s political, harrowing, and all-encompassing.

Aside from personal insecurities, the other major motivating factor behind my reading choices was a desire to champion the more obscure greats. To find that incredible, transcendent book that wasn’t in every Norton anthology, that wasn’t being taught, that was rarely on display at the bookstore.

This has not changed at all.

Which is why, at that time, I respected Vargas Llosa more than I liked him. Too conventional. Too accepted. Not fringe enough. But then, at Dalkey Archive, John had me read The Green House and Conversations in a Cathedral and my opinion of Vargas Llosa skyrocketed.

These are both early books of his. (For those who don’t know, The Neighborhood is his nineteenth work of fiction to be translated into English.) And they’re fantastic. Conversations in a Cathedral is probably Vargas Llosa’s most experimental book that has a really intricate structure and requires a certain amount of attention and struggle for the reader to get into it. Exactly the sort of book I loved at that time! Too bad HarperCollins reissued these instead of letting us do them . . .

*


I haven’t read any of the recent Vargas Lllosa books. Nothing since he won the Nobel Prize in 2010 at least. Which is why I thought I’d give The Neighborhood a try. Like it would be fun to check in with him and see how he was writing these days.

That said, I did have some conflicting expectations going into this book. First off, I expected it to be dense and intelligent, with labyrinthine sentences—like his books of old. For example, here’s a paragraph from part IV of The War of the End of the World (translated by Helen Lane):

When a servant informed him who was asking for him, the Baron de Canabrava, rather than sending him back, as was his habit, to tell the person who had appeared on the doorstep that he neither made nor received unannounced visits, rushed downstairs, walked through the spacious rooms that the morning sun was flooding with light, and went to the front door to see if he had heard correctly: it was indeed he, no mistake about it. He shook hands with him without a word and showed him in. There leapt to his mind instantly what he had been trying his best to forget for months: the fire at Calumbi, Canudos, Estela’s crisis, his withdrawal from public life.

The opening paragraph of The Green House is thirteen pages long, so I’ll just quote the first few sentences in Gregory Rabassa’s translation:

The Sergeant takes a look at Sister Patrocinio and the botfly is still there. The launch is pitching on the muddy waters, between two walls of trees that give off a burning, sticky mist. Huddled under the canopy, stripped to the waist, the soldiers are asleep, with the greenish, yellowish noonday sun above: Shorty’s head is lying on Fats’s stomach, Blondy is breathing in short bursts, Blacky has his mouth open and is grunting. A thick shadow of gnats is escorting the launch, and butterflies, wasps, horseflies take shape among the bodies.

Neither of these are “blow your top off” sort of quotes, but they’re both good for setting the scene while retaining a certain distance that compels the reader to try and figure out what’s happening. These are sentences written by a professional writer. A writer who knows what he’s doing. I expected that from The Neighborhood.

At the same time, I didn’t expect The Neighborhood to be anywhere near as great as these early books. My expectation is that Vargas Llosa is past his prime.

There’s no logical reason why an author’s twentieth book can’t be his best. But it rarely works that way.

     (AuthorTalent(TAL) x CraftAwareness(CA)) / PublishedWorks(PW) = CurrentAbility(ABL)

This is a callback. But one that fits, even if that equation is garbage. Basically, authors have a certain amount of inherent skill. And as they learn their craft, they hone this skill more and more. But the more books they write, the less fresh the ideas and the inherentness really seem. The more books they publish, the more craft takes the place of pure talent, and the less interesting the books become. See: John Updike. See: Philip Roth. See: Joyce Carol Oates.

So I expected something really smart, written in a way that was as engrossing as it was challenging, but nothing that would rewrite my general assessment of what Vargas Llosa was.

And maybe that’s exactly what this book is. And maybe this weekend it will get a glowing review in the New York Times or win the National Book Award in Translation and I’ll feel compelled to pick this up again sometime and give it another chance. But for now, I’m done.

*


There’s a great Tim Parks essay in Where I’m Reading From about quitting books. (I can’t find my book, and can’t recall the title of this piece, but trust me, it’s a real thing.) Not necessarily because the book is bad, but because you’ve gotten what you want to get out of the book already, and there’s nothing more to be gained by finishing it to the end.

Granted, this makes more sense if you’re the type of reader who reads the type of books that are more about style than plot (how many people set aside a detective novel mid-mystery because they have a good enough sense of what the author is up to?), but still, it’s an intriguing—and liberating—idea. It’s probably a good approach for reading Knausgaard! You don’t need to know the ending to know what makes his writing particular.

For me, fifty pages of The Neighborhood was enough to feel like I get the style and structure, and that I just don’t care. Yes, I know this is slightly different from what Parks is talking about, but it’s not like I hated this book—it just doesn’t have anything more to offer me at this time.

*


I have more to say about expectations, the right books at the right time, and West Cork, but I should probably make a list to explain what shut down The Neighborhood for me:

1) It opens with a lesbian love scene that feels like someone who’s read about lesbians and thought it would be trendy to include something like this in their novel. It’s like reading a book by an old man (Tom Wolfe?) about teenagers (I Am Charlotte Simmons?) in which nothing sounds quite authentic.

I abide by the idea that writers should feel free to write about whoever and whatever they want, but the workmanlike prose in The Neighborhood mixed with the strange prudishness of all the characters drags this particular storyline into a realm of unbelievability. This is a novel in which all the parts of novel-making are laid bare. You can see it all being constructed, which definitely doesn’t help.

2) Fuck this dialogue. Sorry, I’m done pretending that I can sound smart. The real reason I just quit was because of paragraphs like this:

“Everything in this life has a solution, Quique, except death.” He encouraged him: “Go on, tell me all about it, as Luciana, my younger daughter, says.”


What the fuck is that? Not only is “tell me all about it” not a phrase marked by youth or hipness, but why is one friend reminding the other of his younger daughter’s name. This is unnatural and dumb.

On the other side of things, this is probably my favorite bit:

“I finished the article, boss. One-Eye will shit fire.”


3) This “one-eye” thing bugged me so much though. It comes up in a chapter in which a muckraking journalist is trying to get dirt on a stage actress who shit on his paper on a nightly talk show. Here’s more crappy dialogue from when he’s berating a photographer he hired to get really unflattering pictures of her:

“It isn’t a question of giving her publicity of raising the one-eyed cow’s fees. It’s a question of sinking and defeating her, of discrediting her forever. It’s a question of their throwing her out of the show because she’s ugly and old and can’t move her ass. These pictures are going to illustrate an article where we say that the one-eyed cow is turning the show at the Monumental into a hodge-podge that nobody can stand.”


Admittedly, I’m totally going to incorporate “hodge-podge” into my active vocabulary? “Riverdale is such a hodge-podge!” (Damn it. That’s actually a good way of describing that show. WHICH IS AWESOME.)
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4) I had enough of the plot. A seedy reporter has pictures of a powerful CEO getting nasty at an orgy and wants to take him down. The CEO’s wife starts a secret affair with his best-friend’s wife. There is a guy they all know who has been kidnapped who they mention with near disinterest a few times. The reporter driving the plot is motivated by vengeance. Cool. I don’t know how this all develops or is resolved, but I’m good.

*


Again, this book isn’t bad . . . well, that dialogue is bad, objectively bad, but aside from that, it’s fine. Some people will likely like this book. And maybe it gets more interesting! It’s possible that the mosaic structure of jumping from character to character will spiral outward to people who aren’t annoying and don’t speak like morons.

It’s just not the right book at the right time for me—possibly because of my expectations. I expected something different from Vargas Llosa. And I’d rather not have this book bitch up my personal feelings about his writing.

I know this is by far the most restrained and serious of these posts to date, and as tempting as it is to swerve back to the funny, I want to say two more serious things about expectations.

For anyone who knows anything about behavioral economics, they know how powerful they can be. If you have a certain expectation, you can overwrite what you actually experience so that it fits your pre-existing schema. You can come to believe in insane things based on small samples that happened recently. You can dispense with contradictory knowledge that would enhance your understanding of the world and its nuances simply because it doesn’t fit what you already know you know is what you know is right.

In the class I teach on world literature and translation, this came up in regard to Filip Springer’s History of a Disappearance (trans. by Sean Bye), a work of Polish reportage about a city in Western Poland that has a crazy history and that essentially collapsed in on itself and is now completely gone. It’s an interesting book that juxtaposes factual history with people’s warped recollections and pieces together a fairly depressing history of a place.

My students didn’t know what to make of this book at all. They had expected it to be a “novel,” which, in their world means a book with a main set of characters and a primary plot that’s developed from page one till the end. A book in which there isn’t a protagonist to follow was a bit baffling to them. They had no idea what to make of this book and it ruptured their idea of what a book could be in a few ways—the main one being that they simply didn’t like this because it didn’t fit their expectations.

This is my insecurity about the future of reading: That the way in which the market ends up taking popular books and making them MEGAPOPULAR (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, to a lesser extent the Knausgaard and Ferrante phenomenons, whatever garbage BookMarks is tracking) will create a set of literary expectations in readers that will train them to look for a very small range of things to define a “good” book. This sort of blindered view of literature has always existed, but right now, thanks to our late-capitalist moment and the nature of aggregating websites online, there’s a crazy velocity to books that make it. It’s not like there are even twenty really popular books at any point in time nowadays—there are about seven. And these dominate all conversations, all the top spots on BookMarks as the “most reviewed” titles. They’re on every bookstore front table—B&N and indie—and promoted through every extant algorithm. If these books—which are usually pretty fine, if not using very predictable tropes with slight deviations, basically the NPR of fiction—are responsible for wiring readers’ expectations, there will be little space for the odd, the defiant.

*


I have a lot to say about expectations in relation to West Cork, the Audible Original podcast/audiobook about the still-unsolved murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.

Firstly, I know this will come as a shock to some, but Serial wasn’t the first podcast ever produced. That said, it would be ignorant to claim that it didn’t have a huge impact on the nature of podcasting. What used to be an audiospace for smart people to say smart things to each other about various topics turned commercial1 and over-produced. And one that was based in a particular style of narrative.

The Serial model—a long-running story filled with reversals, shocking revelations, cliffhangers—spawned a million deviations. Suddenly, this was the way in which podcasts should exist.2 This was all the rage. (For season one at least. You can’t go home again, can you Carol Sarah?)

And then there was Finding Richard Simmons and Shittown and maybe few other things whiskey is preventing me from remembering right now. My basic point though: These all work in a particular way. One hour. Cliffhangers to make the next episode seem like there’s going to be a big revelation. Ambiguity all the way down. It feels really comfortable to listen to these podcasts. They meet all expectations.

West Cork plays this game, but not exactly. There are revelations (for us who don’t pay attention to Irish news), a core mystery, reversals that mostly exist thanks to editing3, and ambiguity. But most episodes are 35 minutes. Most episodes don’t have a cliffhanger. Most episodes aren’t that revelatory. It’s a character piece that doesn’t quite one-up what came before. And can you really be bingeable in 20184 if you’re not one step more HOLY SHIT than the last podcast?

I want to break this series down in more detail, but I highly doubt anyone reading this has actually heard it yet. It’s good! It’s not great! The horse did it! But my point: Do we have a market that can support a quiet version of Serial? Or do we live in the arms race period of podcasting in which a murder has to be THE CRAZIEST MURDER WITH THE BEST CHARACTERS EVER to deserve a listen? What do we want? What are our expectations? And what does that mean about new start-up companies trying to make podcasts? Past performance influences future innovation and yet . . . What’s new and interesting and not designed to tickle the expectations crafted by NPR + Blue Apron + Square Space?


1 Where would Blue Apron be without podcasts? And podcasts without Blue Apron? Can you imagine who would be fucking nuts enough to sponsor the Three Percent Podcast? Is there a corporation trafficking in cynicism and middle-age? Who like swearing and other unpopular things? To be honest, I would shill for anyone—including Blue Apron, which, really? This needs to exist? I hate 2018. (I feel better now that I got one joke into this post.)

2 Sorry, now I just can’t stop. You should check out Finding Tammy Jo, a podcast from the local Rochester paper about an unsolved murder from 1979. It’s pretty horrible! Not only is the title an absolute lie—they found Tammy Jo’s body, they just didn’t know who she was, so what is “finding” anyway—but the production is such an aping of Serial that its identity is subsumed behind an attempt to take a popular format and shoehorn an uninteresting story into it. Also: one episode is just 2 minutes of piano.

3 Someday I’ll write about the relationship between This American Life, MFA programs, and PKD’s Valis in relation to the idea of what you believe as truth and why.

4 I literally punched myself for typing “bingeable” in a non-ironic way. I may have to stop soon. My fat belly can not absorb my own drunken fist.

9 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments



Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)

Although five books is most definitely a small sample size of throwaway proportions, out of the books that I’ve written about for this weekly “column,” Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci and translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney is my favorite. I don’t know where it will stack up by the end of the year—there are a number of titles coming out this summer that I’m looking forward to, and as a gesture toward impartiality, I’ll should really leave Fox, The Bottom of the Sky, The Endless Summer, and other Open Letter titles out of these evaluations—but for now I’d put it ahead of The Perfect Nanny, In Black and White, Frankenstein in Baghdad, and Theory of Shadows. (And that is how I would rank them, one to five.)

As you can probably predict, I’m not going to write a full, well thought out review for this book. If that’s what you want, I’d highly recommend checking out Lisa Fetchko’s review over at the _Los Angeles Review of Books. She breaks the book down really well, and even gets into a particular translation issue about the use of _ in place of _Yo(Y), which is also discussed in an afterword that will be of particular interest to translators or those interested in the translation—or editing of translations—process.

I’m going to use this book as an opportunity to write about something entirely different, but before I do that, I have two or three quick points.

1) I like the use of the charts in this book. I’ll come back to this in a few different ways down below, but drawings such as this one—which is preceded by, “Here’s where this story ends,” a statement that means more once you have reached the end—is what makes this book unique.



And obviously, all the Venn Diagram charts are why I initially chose to read this book. Who doesn’t like a Venn Diagram?! This is one statement about math and statistics that everyone can agree on.

2) In a way, this is The Perfect Nanny for an entirely different set of readers. Written to be a blockbuster, The Perfect Nanny includes a lot of techniques and tropes and literary moments designed to make a certain set of readers feel comfortably stimulated. The set of readers (R-1) who prefer linear plots, heavy character development, detailed settings, psychological tension.

Empty Set generates an equal amount of reading comfort in a different set of readers (R-2) who feel more at ease in a text of evocative fragments, acrostics, plots like puzzles, and characters whom you don’t feel obligated to relate to.

For both R-1 and R-2 these books are equally successful in their approaches. And R-1 probably doesn’t care for Empty Set (“too confusing!” “I couldn’t relate to anyone!”), and vice-versa (“I’d rather see the movie”).

You could, I don’t know, draw a Venn Diagram of these two subsets of readers . . .

3) Not to take anything away from this novel, but wow have January and February been slow months for international literature. There doesn’t seem to have been anything buzzing on Book Twitter or Book Marks or in the blogosphere (doesn’t anyone say that anymore?) or at Winter Institute. I’ve written about the drop in translations both of the past two months, but that was just focused on pure numbers, not quality or sales or impact or anything else. But looking back at what I have read, and forward to what’s on my docket, it feels like pretty quiet year so far.

Although I’m personally hoping this New York Times review of Madame Nielsen’s The Endless Summer changes that, this still feels a lot like the current situation in Major League Baseball—the slowest in all of history—in which no free agents are being signed and nothing at all is happening. There are so many interesting explanations for this situation in which several of the game’s best players are currently unemployed: it could be collusion, it could be that clubs have more advanced understanding of the value available in the free agent market, it could be due to the fact that 1/3 of the teams are tanking in 2018 and another 1/2 aren’t really in a position to do anything but tread water, it could be because of the new collective bargaining agreement and traditional big spenders (LA Dodgers, NY Yankees) trying to reset their competitive balance assessments by getting under the spending threshold for one year, or it could have something to do with yachts. God bless Scott Boras!1

Anyway, this combination of thinking about baseball (how to best build a team, player valuations, etc.) + reading a novel centered around set theory2 + a stray comment I made in an earlier post —> an idea to try and create some core concepts for a sabermetric approach to the book industry.

*


     Sales(S)

This is an obvious building block. People usually value books based on how many copies they sold. “We sold 10,000 copies!” Or, “It was a best-seller in Mexico!”

(Not to be confused with “Print Run(PR),” which is a number based in hope that signifies nothing more than the publisher’s wish to sneakily manipulate the bookseller market. Print Run(PR) is equivalent to Scott Boras’s bullshit stats packages for players like Eric Hosmer who are hoping to receive contracts that are far larger than the value they’ll generate for their team. Print Runs(PR) are generally lies.)

Are sales really all that useful of a statistic though?

First off, the latter statement up there—repeated way too frequently in meetings with foreign agents—is crap. It’s descriptive, not objective, and lacks any and all context. How many books did this title beat out to become a best-seller? For how long was it a best-seller? How predictive is the Mexican best-seller list for a book entering other markets? Are the coefficients mapping it onto the French and U.S. markets radically different?

Another criticism: Sales in a vacuum takes into account none of the expenses involved with generating those sales. A book with a million dollar marketing budget that sells 100,000 copies is vastly different from a book that sells 100,000 based on a viral video that cost $.49 to make.

It also doesn’t take into account the list price of the book itself. It’s obviously way easier to sell 10,000 ebooks at $.99 than 10,000 hardcovers of a scholarly investigation into the sexual life of mollusks that lists for $149.

Sales is like batting average. A nice metric the average citizen can understand, but really not all that valuable.

Actually, that’s kind of a lie. Batting Average has values that most people can recognize as “good,” (.280) “amazing,” (.320) and “hall of fame.” (.340+). What are the equivalents for books? If I tell the people sitting next to me at the bar that we sold 3,000 copies of a book, will they think that’s great? Or pathetic? Without a commonly accepted baseline—among the larger audience, not just book nerds—this doesn’t mean a whole lot.

And it doesn’t take into account the idea that a book is more than its purchases. Thought experiment: Which is better? A book that sells 10,000 copies, 2,000 of which are read, with 10 readers capable of recalling the book one year later, or a book that sells 1,500 copies, 1,000 of which are read, with 200 readers taking this to the grave? (A: If you’re Big Five it’s the former, if you’re nonprofit the latter. There is no unified theory of sales.)

     (Sales(S) x List Price(P)) x Readership® – Fixed Operating Expenses(FOE) – Printing(PR) – Author Payment(AP) – Translator Payment(TP) – Marketing Costs(MC) = True Profit(RP)

OK, so this is two steps in one: I’ve added in all the variables mentioned above (costs, list price), but then thrown in the idea of “Readership®” to try and point at the fact that overall impact of a single printed book isn’t a one-to-one ratio with copies sold. On the most basic level, there are used copies. How many students a year buy used copies of The Great Gatsby for class? Or check it out from a library? A book’s true value, or “Profit” (capitalist term, I know), is always and forever greater than the number of printed copies.

We’re still missing a few things though: What about people who know about a book, yet don’t buy it? And what about the longevity of readership? It’s one thing to read Gone Girl and then keep on living, another to read Ulysses and have your life perspective changed. That Cultural Value(CV) isn’t captured here, and I’m not sure it ever can be quantified in this way. So let’s change tactics a bit.

     ((Expected Sales(ES) x List Price (P)) – ((Publishing Interest(PI) + Agent Status(AS)) – Total Expenses(TE))) ) = Cash Profit(CP) + Cultural Capital(CC)

If we really want to create a sabermetric approach to books, we have to look for exploitable inefficiencies in the marketplace. And my first inclination is that these inefficiencies come in two flavors: leveraging reputations against author advances and finding a way to decrease artist payments.

That’s not quite right though. Let me back up a bit and math this out.

In the early 2000s, there were no translations3 and there was a major gap between the best /most expensive translators (Margaret Jull Costa, Edith Grossman, Richard Howard, Gregory Rabassa) and everyone else. Without a middle class—and without competition—certain publishers saw an exploitable inefficiency. How much can you make when you pay $1,000 as an author advance, $1,000 to a grad student translator (“Hey, yo, we’re gonna like, launch your career!”), and can get $3,000+ from foreign agencies desperate for American publishers to acknowledge that their literature even existed? In that situation, you can flip 2,500 sales into a decent amount of money. That is the dirty truth of translation publishing in the early part of this century.

Then things changed! International lit got more popular. Translators got organized. Now, the idea of going overseas to find the best books that no one knows or cares about is complicated by the two dozen new presses trying to beat you there, and the combination of ethical obligations in relation to translator payments and agent involvement in raising author advances (good in the short term, maybe, and probably not in the long term, but that’s its own metric), raised Total Expenses(TE) in an astronomical fashion. As well as altering the Agent Status(AS) (“I have the next Ferrante on my list . . . “) and the Publishing Interest(PI) (“We’re starting a new press and want in on the hot trends, so which book is the one that’s going to get us critical attention AND be most readable by the (R1) readers of The Perfect Nanny?”). Increase the second half of the equation above while not changing the overall sales, and you’re going to kill your margins.

That doesn’t mean that publishers will stop pursuing books that are unlikely to earn back expenses. Look at Penguin paying a million dollars for a Knausgaard novel. There’s basically no way that he’ll earn that back in straight sales. Same with Knopf and Javier Marías. PRH can definitely expand the audiences for these authors, but there’s a ceiling. Even knowing that, they’re willing to go ahead because there’s a value just to having these names on your list. Reputation, cultural capital, whatever you want to call it, it’s part of this equation as well.

     Expected Sales(ES) = Author Fans(AF) x Purchasing Coefficient(PC)

If someone were able to come up with an algorithm that was even 90% accurate in predicting sales, they would be in a position to basically print money. Long time readers—or anyone involved in the book word—know that publishers don’t really do any market research. Unlike movies, there is no pre-release tracking figures for blockbuster titles. Sure, you can “have a pretty good sense” about how well a book is or isn’t going to sell, but outside of Harry Potter, James Patterson, and a handful of other brands, the error bars on predicted sales are really wide.

Past performance by the author and publisher are major indicators of how a particular title will sell, so maybe this is something that could be calculated . . . Throw in a few sensible metrics about the author—Twitter Followers(TF), Reviewing Connections(RC), etc.—along with some sort of figures about the publisher—Sales Reps(REP), Average Reach(REA), Influencer Access(IA), etc.—and maybe you can come up with some sort of prediction.

     (Pace of Reading(PAC) x Length(LEN)) x (Character Connections(CC) x Plot Points(PP)) x Buzz(BUZZ) = Reading Desirability(DES)

Amazon’s metrics about how fast people read various books, where they tend to stop, which titles are most/least likely to be read in their entirety, etc., totally freak literary people out. There are a ton of Silicon Valley people who would love to create a program that would use some complex algorithm to churn out best-selling book after best-selling book without any author’s involvement whatsoever. They would flood the market with exactly what most people want, all more or less for free, and utilizing some sort of textual analysis that combines all the typical plot elements of popular books (hero’s quest, typical plot structure of rising action, climax, denouement) with other quantifiable elements (language level, sentence and chapter length, number of chapters) that have been found to keep readers engaged and flipping pages.

Take all that, mix in some BUZZ (readers want to feel like they have to read a book so as to not be left out) and you can figure out how likely a book is to appeal to a wide audience.

     Turnover(TO) x Cash Profit(CP) x Hipster Quotient(HQ) = Indie Stock(IND)

Bookstores actually have the ability to come up with a ton of different measurements, depending on what they want to track or evaluate. Sales per linear foot in given sections. How fast different subjects turn over. Average amount spent by a customer. Frequency of returning customers. There’s tons of data sitting right there that could be analyzed in a totally straightforward fashion.

But indie stores aren’t necessarily about efficiency in the way Barnes & Noble or Amazon would like to be. Part of their reason for being is tied to having the books that you don’t always find at the big box stores, at pushing a sort of aesthetic agenda that sets them apart. If, as a store owner, you could always know which books will both increase your coolness factor with your clientele and sell with the necessary velocity to keep you paying your rent, you’d be in the best spot possible. This might seem intuitive, but I think it can be a bit more complicated depending on how you value your reputation. For example, you may not want to carry Fifty Shades of Gray because you have standards, but that means you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. And carrying too many different titles that sell one time a year, yet make you seem like the smartest bookstore around, is a recipe for closure. Figuring out that balance—and which books maximize Cash Profit(CP) and Reputation(REP)—would be ideal.

*


There are tons and tons of different types of equations one could come up with in hopes of finding exploitable inefficiencies. And that could be kind of fun! But so is ignoring data completely and publishing/reading/stocking a book just because it feels right.

Besides, a lot of this calculus is already done on a daily basis by most everyone. Even though it’s not quantified in a sortable, sharable way, people are constantly making these sorts of decisions. They may not think about them quite as honestly as they should though, and maybe something like a set of publishing sabermetric ideas could help publishers and stores be all that they could be. It’s fun to come up with various calculations, mostly because it makes you think about what you’re actually trying to measure, and why the measurements you might already have fall short. It can help define your mission, and by working in various intangible benefits, you can better justify various investments or decisions.


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1 For anyone not willing to click through (and good on you!), here’s the amazing quote from super-agent Scott Boras:

The off-season is like the America’s Cup. We have 30 boats in the water. They take off and eventually they get to the free-agent docks. Normally, there are trade winds, and there are economic investments in the capacity of the boat, which allow those boats to get to the appropriate free-agent docks.

This year, there was a detour to Japan, where there was a $250 million asset available for $3 million (Ohtani). All boats went to Japan. Then they sailed back a good distance. They came to Florida and found a sinking ship and all of its cargo was in the water (Dee Gordon, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich). All teams tried to load it on their boats.

That took additional time. Then, as they moved forward to the free-agent docks, they found other ships dumping cargo—Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay and a few others—which then slowed their arrivals to the free-agent docks. So, trade winds, Japan, shipwreck in Florida, more cargo-spewing, all those things artificially delayed the arrivals to the free-agent docks.


Sorry, I have no idea—but I love it! More literary agents need to go off the rails when making random comments about the books they’re trying to auction. That would liven up book journalism!

2 Representative bit from Bicecci and MacSweeney’s Empty Set:

There isn’t much documented evidence of this, but during the military dictatorship in Argentina, teaching basic set theory was prohibited in schools. We know, for example, that a tomato belongs to the tomato(TO) set and not to onion(ON) or chilies(CH) or coriander(CO). Where’s the threat in reasoning like that? In set theory, tomatoes, onions, and chilies might realize they are different foodstuffs, but also that they have things in common, like the fact that they can all belong to the fresh hot salsa(FHS) set and, at the same time, to the Universe(U) of cultivated plants(CP), and might perhaps unite against some other set or Universe(U); for example, that of canned hot salsa(CAHS). In short, a community of vegetables. Venn diagrams are tools of the logic of sets. And from the perspective of sets, dictatorship makes no sense, because its aim is, for the most part, dispersal: separation, scattering, disunity, disappearance.


3 My sabermetric principles apply to BOOKS in general, not just translations, but I want to focus on exploiting this market since it might explain what’s going on in 2018 with the weird decrease in translation publications.

Although! Let me promise the four of you reading this that next month I’ll run some three- and five-year rolling average stats to avoid comparing 2018 to the Best Year Ever. I’ve been statistically irresponsible and I know it. Sorry.

6 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Before getting into the February translations, data on what’s being published (or not being published), and all the random stuff, I wanted to point out a few modifications to the Translation Database at Publishers Weekly that were recently implemented.

First off, when you’re entering a title, you can now choose “Male,” “Female,” “Both” (for books with multiple authors or translators of different genders), or “Undisclosed.” I know there are lots of other options that could/should be included, but for now, this seemed like the best way of giving non-binary authors and translators a different option while ensuring that the data going forward is compatible with what’s been collected over the past ten years.

Also, if you want to change your gender on your listings—or update a pub date, correct a typo, etc.—on that same form you can click “correction to the database,” which will let me know that this isn’t a new/duplicate entry, but a signal that there’s something wrong in the existing record.

Finally, for all us Excel nerds, you can now get the “tab delimited” data for any search that you make. Just enter in your criteria and click the link at the top—right next to the newly added line indicating how many titles fit your criteria. Once you have the “tab delimited” listings up, highlight and copy all the information and then choose “paste special” in Excel and select “text” and you’ll instantly have a sortable database with ALL the information for the individual records. Magic!

And please keep entering your titles! I really want to bulk up the children’s and nonfiction sections, and although I have plans on how to do this in a more systematic way, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that before the summer break.

OK, on to the February data!

Everything Still Sucks, or, When Are We Renaming the Blog 1%?

Remember last month when it seemed like all the translations had vanished? And when I postulated that it was probably just a small sample size and things would all even out? It’s one month later, the sample size is still small, and there’s still hope for the future, but man, this is disconcerting.

Just like last month, it’s possible I’m missing some titles, but I spent almost all day tracking down books, including looking into a bunch of presses that brought out translations in 2017, but nothing this year, and still, at the end of the day, there are only 28 works of fiction and poetry in the database for February 2018, compared to 51 last year. That’s an INSANE drop off.

In the first two months of 2017, 100 works of fiction and poetry in translation were published in the U.S. for the first time, compared to only 59 this year. I would still bet that by the end of the year, this will normalize—I’ll find a stash of missing poetry titles along with a few new presses that were off my radar—but if it doesn’t . . . that’s huge. Over the past decade there’s been a huge growth in the number of translated titles (367 in 2008, 620 in 2017), membership in ALTA has increased (or at least attendance at the annual conference), there are more university-based translation programs, more awards for translation . . . and yet.

There’s a dark possibility at play here . . . I don’t want to even type it up, but it is probably the simplest explanation: sales of translations aren’t good enough to sustain this level of publication. It doesn’t take that many failures to put the smaller presses out of business or convince the biggest ones that there’s no need to continue with this money-losing enterprise. Instead of being a subsection of publishing with linear growth, maybe translation publishing is more cyclical . . . After hitting a peak in 2016 (653 titles), the industry will contract, and in a handful of years, when we’re back to a handful of presses doing the vast majority of translations, we’ll crank up the grant rhetoric about how isolated American readers are and everything will start over again. Translations will be “cool,” everyone will start doing them, we’ll break the 2016 mark, etc. Or I’m 100% wrong. Hopefully that.



Abrupt Mutations by Enrique Luis Revol, translated from the Spanish by Priscilla Hunter (Dalkey Archive Press)

I would love to read this book and write about it for my weekly column, but what are the odds that this book actually comes out this month? Maybe 25%?

This probably isn’t something the average reader notices, but over the past few years, Dalkey’s catalog has come to resemble the annual Williams-Sonoma holiday catalog—a bunch of cool looking shit that you’ll never actually own.

Let me put this in perspective: I spent an hour today correcting the pub dates for their books in the database. By “correcting,” I mean changing listings for books that were supposed to come out in 2017, but are now scheduled for November of this year. Like Warning to the Crocodiles by one of my all time favorite authors, Antonio Lobo Antunes. Not even exaggerating when I say I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for two-and-a-half years. The translator, Rhett McNeil, talked to me about it back when MLA was in Austin in 2016 and, unless I’m totally mistaken, the book’s publication was imminent at that point. And although the Dalkey website lists a May 2017 pub date, Ingram lists a December 2018 release date, and Amazon comes up with “Your search ‘9781943150137’ did not match any products.” By the time this is finally published, I’ll probably have given up on reading.

Although it doesn’t explain everything, Dalkey’s delays (similar to those for Hispabooks, which is still in business, question mark?) do screw with the data quite a bit. When the Translation Database went from my computer to Publisher Weekly’s website, we had data on 37 titles that Dalkey “published” in 2017. There were even more titles announced, but those were shifted to 2018 before exporting all this data. That’s now slipped to 32, not a huge difference, but way down from the 42 titles they published in 2016. I don’t know how they manage to do so many books to begin with, but for the sake of my interest in reading so many of them, I really wish more of them came out on time.

But the bigger point: The numbers cited mid-year might be inflated due to small presses announcing books that are then delayed. And delayed. And delayed.



The Right Intention by Andrés Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Transit Books)

Going back to data for a minute: Spanish was the most translated language this month. With five titles. (In February 2017, French had 7 titles, and Spanish 6. How are there only 3 French books this month? Weird.) What’s more interesting is that there are 3 Norwegian books (including two titles in Jens Bjorneboe’s “History of Bestiality” trilogy . . . which . . . I’ll just leave that there like that) and 1 Latvian book! Go Latvia! I assume that 30 Questions People Don’t Ask by Inga Gaile, translated by Ieva Lešinska is part of the build-up to being guest of honor at the London Book Fair. Definitely.

(Kaija—worried that I was making fun of Latvia while writing this—just informed me that there are “something like forty” Latvian books coming out from UK presses across 2017 and 2018, since that’s where the government has been putting its efforts and money. So far, this poetry collection is the only one scheduled to come out in the U.S. This ties into something I want to write at some point in time about how most publishers of translations in the U.S. are buying rights from the UK and not originating the translation. Open Letter’s never done that [okay maybe once], because we’re JOB CREATORS.)

This past week, I used Such Small Hands by Barba in my World Lit & Translation class and my students had the opportunity to talk with Lisa Dillman, who is definitely one of the best Spanish translators working today. During our conversation, I told her about my probable misreading of part of this novel. For those who read it, you may remember that in the middle, Marina tells the girls at the orphanage about how she’s been to Disneyland in Paris, how she’s already seen all the movies that they watch on their weekly movie nights, etc. When I first read this, I assumed that she was lying—like my kids would, like most kids would—as a way of getting back at them for making her an outsider. Lisa said that no one had ever mentioned a reading like this before—because why would they? this is crazy talk—but that it might well tie into the earlier bit in which Marina is given the doll and claims that the doll is the “only one who doesn’t lie” . . . Sometimes I feel like I’m totally stoned while I’m reading.



Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by [Not Listed on Grove Website] (Black Cat)

The translator is Brian FitzGibbon. See, Grove, that wasn’t so bad!

Also, AmazonCrossing was the first to publish Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. They did The Greenhouse back in 2011. It’s definitely worth checking out. Iceland rules.

I kind of want to leave things there, but this was the placeholder I was using in my mind to try and talk about how incredibly odd Memphis was during ABA Winter Institute—an annual convention for booksellers. I’ve never been in a city that felt more vacant. One night we went to Beale Street, the street for music and bar hopping. Structurally, it looks like 6th St (?) in Austin, with police cars at both ends so that no one can drive there and everyone can drink booze in the streets.

Except that it was totally empty. Like, literally empty.

Over the course of the four days I was there, I think I saw 14 people who weren’t associated with Winter Institute out in the wild. One was a “security guy” who doubled as a PR man for downtown Memphis. He accosted me and Will Vanderhyden as we were walking down the street one day.

“Y’all got any questions about downtown?”

“Where are all the people?”

“Here in Memphis, we’ve got four Fortune 500 companies, but they’re all located about 40 minutes away the suburbs and downtown is being revitalized and during the months of April through September it’s a totally different place.”

“Cool. Makes sense. Thanks.”

“Do you know what Highway 40 doesn’t pass through here?”

“. . .”

“The state wanted it to. But Memphis folk? We stand up for ourselves. We said NO HIGHWAY THROUGH OUR PARK. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and Memphians won.”

“Where are we?”

“Downtown Memphis! Where the people are all friendly and there’s a massive Pyramid that houses the world’s largest Bass Pro Shop! You HAVE to check it out! Ain’t nothing else like it.”



Season of the Shadow by Léonora Miano, translated from the French by Gila Walker (Seagull Books)

Shit! I forgot to include my original Grove joke . . . Right before Will and I encountered Mr. Memphis, we were at a food truck square for lunch. Eight food trucks, six Memphians. Good ratio! As we were eating, Morgan Entrekin, current publisher of Grove, came wandering up and said, “Where is everyone?” I’ve never seen anyone look so befuddled and out-of-sorts.

It was so weird! A bunch of us went walking to a nearby restaurant during rush hour, and strolled across major streets without even bothering to look both ways. Memphis rush hour in February is like something from the Walking Dead. We saw maybe four cars and a homeless guy picking Other Press tote bags out of the trash. (True story! He even got a bunch of books with the tote! Which he’ll never read but which may make a good paper-quilt . . . ) Everyone who was at Winter Institute will back me up on this. It’s entirely plausible that Memphis was just a simulacrum and we were all in some hidden basement in Amazon having memories implanted into our minds.



Empty Set by Veroónica Gerber Bicecci, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)

Two things about Winter Institute and money:

1. Winter Institute is absolutely, without question, the best event in the country for publishers to meet with booksellers and get them to get behind their books. (Handselling to the Handsellers would be a great band name for a terrible bookstore band.) Winter Institute can make a book. But to get in the door, publishers have to put up at least $6,000. That’s maybe reasonable? If you’re New Directions, NYRB, Europa, Coffee House, Graywolf, Melville House, etc., not to mention the Penguin Random Houses and Hachettes of the world.

(They pay far more than $6,000 in order to lock down their control on the bookshelves of America. I love how PRH pays lip service to independent booksellers at events like this, wining and dining them, and, taking them by bus to a remote dinner party so that the booksellers can’t leave. On the surface, this seems totally cool. Why shouldn’t PRH buy the booksellers some fancy whiskey? Because of my paranoid tendencies, insecure depression, or game theory ideas, I see a bit of a darker lining in this. PRH is like Post Cereal—they’re as concerned with limiting competition as they are with producing great product. If you can keep booksellers locked in, paying attention to you and all your books, you can make sure that 75% of all inventory is from your company. That’s super valuable simply because it decreases the odds that a customer will end up buying a book from one of your competitors. Post produces dozens of cereals a year that don’t sell for shit, but take up the space that a better cereal from some dirty hippie indie manufacturer [like this Sea Stars cereal from Love Grown that we bought at a Whole Foods once, and which looks and tastes exactly like regular sugary rice-puff cereal, but once my kids saw the words “lentils” and “beans” on the box they for real started to cry and refused to eat any] would otherwise occupy. This is why there are 49 Starbucks on every corner. And I’m sure that the higher-ups at commercial book publishers know this strategy and how much this sort of market penetration is worth.)

For presses like New Vessel, Open Letter, Transit, Deep Vellum—those indie translation presses that I’m obviously concerned with—this is a fortune to spend on a week-long event. And yet, you have to be there. Which means that we end up with another contradictory situation in the book world: booksellers advocating meritocratic ideas of really handselling what they love, where quality counts, while also inhabiting an economic space that’s very much a pay-to-play situation. Such is baseball, such is life.

If translation presses can’t keep their collective feet in this door, they’ll probably end up doing fewer and fewer translations, or just stopping all together, and instead of the 660ish translations we got in 2016, we’ll get . . . oh.

2. Patrick Walsh of Custom Publishing Partners (hi, Patrick!) got drunk with a bunch of us on the last night. Several people—Nick Buzanski, Javier Ramirez, and Will Vanderhyden—heard him bet me $1,000 that in 2018, Hunter Pence will “have a Hall of Fame season” and bat over .320 for the year. Now, I’m not supporting gambling, but I’m taking that bet ALL DAY E’ER’ DAY. Right now Pence is projected to bat .264. To move from a lifetime batting average of .282 to over .320 basically impossible. Patrick, do you go to Fangraphs at all? I’M GOING TO TAKE YOUR MONEY THIS IS LEGALLY BINDING.



Stone Building and Other Places by Aslı Erdoğan, translated from the Turkish by Sevinç Türkkan (City Lights)

I obnoxiously sent a publisher—who rejected the book I wrote—a text about how he should publish all 64 translation pieces I’m planning on writing this year (52 books and 12 monthly overviews). Taken as a whole, these should be an interesting look at world of publishing AND about a healthy swath of books published during a given year. There’s totally some cutesy title about “52 weeks” or a “year of” reading X while Y that you can build out of this idea.

This is so presumptuous!

To be honest, I only write these to work through my emotions on screen. The joy I get out of writing these posts is so outsized compared to the number of people who actually read them. And that’s fine. TRUST THE PROCESS.

Which is why it’s probably time to talk about the National Book Award for Translation, which was announced earlier this week.

I knew this was coming. And welcomed it! Who doesn’t want more awards for the thing that they’re passionate about? The more the merrier, right? And there’s nothing at all wrong with giving more money to authors and translators. Plus, the attention being paid to the winners of this award far exceeds what a single press can do on its own. Sure, Tom’s said before on the podcast that the only award that shifts significant copies is the Pulitzer, but every translator in the world would be happy to ride an NBA award for the rest of their career.

But then this New York Times story happened, sparking a ton of questions.



The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (FSG)

I know it’s a bad idea, but I can’t resist pointing out a few of the lazy parts of that article that had people across social media platforms up in arms and trying to process what they had read.

While there are a growing number of publishing houses that specialize in publishing works in translation and international literature — including Europa Editions, Archipelago Books, AmazonCrossing and Tilted Axis, which publishes contemporary Asian literature, mainly by women — translated literature still accounts for a tiny percentage of books published in the United States.


What percentage might that be? Maybe three? Three sounds good.

Also (and no slight or insult intended toward Deborah Smith, who is doing great things), the curious inclusion of Titled Axis—a press with, what, six published books under its belt, thus making it one of the biggest players in the translation publishing world?, right up there with Dalkey Archive, New Directions, and FSG?—which is based in the UK and can’t possibly be eligible for the National Book Award. Unless everything is all upside down. Which is totally possible in 2018, I know, I KNOW.

Other literary institutions have also made efforts to highlight works in translation. The PEN America Center has given out a translation prize to highlight international works since the 1960s. In 2015, the Booker Prize Foundation recast its international prize, which was previously open to novelists writing in English, as an award dedicated to fiction in translation.

Oh, yeah, you’re totally right, other organizations have tried to do such a revolutionary thing! Awards like, oh, I don’t know, the Best Translated Book Award, which gives out TWICE as much award money to international authors and translators than the NBA? (But doesn’t really get the same level of respect from the NYT for obvious, yet disheartening, reasons.)

But wait! Before the BTBA, there was the National Translation Award, which is judged by translators and comes with a $5,000 prize as well (split equally between the prose winner and poetry winner, but still) and is probably the most rigorous of the three major prizes for translation in that it compares the original text to the translated book and is focused on the translation itself. But the NTA wasn’t mentioned in any of the original articles about the new NBA. Not to drone on, but this bums me out. Journalists should be able to do some cursory research for these sorts of articles, and people and organizations doing good work should be acknowledged for it, regardless of how hip and/or well-heeled they are.

It’s going to be really interesting to debate the rationale for whatever books win the first few iterations of the NBA for Translation. Sure, as with their other awards, they’ll be honoring the “book,” but which book? The original book? The English version? The version of Out by Natsuo Kirino in which the ending was rewritten to be more appealing to American readers. That book?

This might seem facetious, but these are questions everyone on a translation prize jury struggles with. Are you looking for the best translation, or the book that will appeal to the most people, thus helping translation transcend its trappings? How does that reflect on the art of translation? But do you really want to get mired in nitpicking particular words in given texts? Probably not. There is a balance, and every jury comes to terms with what they’re valuing and figures this out. My utopic vision is that the four major translation prizes: PEN, BTBA, NBA, and NTA each get at one of the myriad reasons that reading translations is enjoyable and beneficial. The awards could complement each other and create a larger set of reasons for why readers should pay attention to books from outside our borders.

Part of this will obviously depend on the construction of the NBA jury. Most of the other NBA awards are judged by five people—a mixture of authors and booksellers. That could be cool for this as well, although I suspect there will also be a translator or two in the mix. (Although a translation award with a jury comprised of people who aren’t translators sounds really intriguing to me right now. In the end, books should be judged by smart readers.) There are some authors who are definitely more well versed in international literature, so this could end up being an opportunity for those in the know to share their expertise. Or for those who usually stay in their reading lane to branch out and learn about what else is out there. All very exciting to think about as we build up to March 7th and the release of the information about how to apply.

I know that in this day and age, trying to have a nuanced take on something is a one-way ticket to Pariahville, but I do want to mention the one single aspect of this that troubles me. It’s a selfish thing, based in my distrust of late-capitalist structures and the obsession with celebrity, but I think it does end up raising a point that will end up distinguishing this award from the (likely) more populist BTBA.

Here are the publishing houses of the past ten NBA winners for fiction, counting backward from 2017: Doubleday, Random House, Penguin Press, Riverhead, Harper, Bloomsbury (Jesmyn Ward, now published by Scribner), McPherson (go small presses! Vintage reissued Jaimy Gordon’s more experimental books, which is a fantastic result of winning this prize), Random House, Modern Library/Random House, and FSG. Naturally.

And here’s a quote from the Associated Press about why the National Book Awards added a longlist:

Entrekin said that some of the recent National Book Award fiction lists, which usually get the most attention, had been “very eccentric” and that allowing critics and booksellers as judges could open up the process. The results, he thinks, will be a “little more mainstream,” and less likely to include “a collection of stories by a university press.”

Oh boy. I remember my heart sinking the first time I read that. This is partially why people outside of the Big Five Presses might be a bit reserved when talking about this new award and its benefits for presses doing translations. Although there are dozens of amazing authors who have won NBAs or at least been finalist, the awards aren’t without their share of controversy over style and experimentation. Remember this?

It’s probably the years of being a bridesmaid and never a bride (or more like an usher and never an attendee?) that dampens my belief that the indie presses—who produce 85%+ of the fiction and poetry translations coming out each year—will be adequately represented on the long and short lists. I’m not sure the world needs another award in which the biggest of the big presses get to pat themselves on the back about a job well done. Not that there aren’t good books from these presses, but it would be super cool if this award ended up elevating some lesser known books, authors, translators, and presses.

The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC)—which has awarded translations, although it doesn’t have a specific translation category—tries to be this. All published books are eligible, and if a NBCC jury member loves a given book (from the largest or tiniest of presses), it has a shot to win. There is no entry fee, so even though the small presses rarely win anything except maybe poetry and criticism, at least you feel like it’s possible.

For better or worse, the NBA is a bit different. From their website:

There is a $135 entry fee for each title submitted.

All publishers submitting books for the National Book Awards must agree to:

Contribute $3,000 toward a promotional campaign if a submitted book becomes a Finalist ($750 for presses with income of under $10 million).

Inform authors of submitted books that, if selected as Finalists, they must be present at the National Book Awards Ceremony and at related events in New York City.

Inform authors that the Finalists Reading will be held at The New School on Tuesday, November 13, 2018.

Inform authors that the National Book Awards Ceremony will be held at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, November 14, 2018.

Cover all travel and accommodation costs for Finalists and provide them with a seat at the Awards Ceremony.

Purchase from the National Book Foundation, when appropriate, medallions to be affixed to the covers of Longlist, Finalist, and Winning books. The Foundation also will license the medallion image artwork for reproduction on the covers of Finalist and Winning books.

Yikes! So, when Open Letter submits The Invented Part, which (in my mind) has a legit shot at being a finalist, we’ll pay $135 + $750 + $2000 (travel costs for both the author and the translator, since both are technically finalists) + $1,000 (?—I don’t know what the cost of buying a seat at the NBA ceremony is, but probably not free?) and still have an 80% chance of walking away empty handed? Will being a finalist generate enough sales to offset just these expenses? Not a chance. I totally get why the NBAs have these requirements—both from a money and a publicity perspective—and the translation finalists should be required to be at the ceremony as well. It’s a great honor! But I can also see a situation in which just the possibility of facing these costs would dissuade smaller indie presses from even entering their books. Books that might deserve to win. Books that, by winning, would alter that press’s trajectory by increasing their visibility significantly.

(Can you imagine me at an NBA finalists dinner? Who would ever speak to me? There’s a short unhappy story buried in this vision. I wouldn’t even be able to dress right. My belt would be backward or something.)

Is this NBA for Translation going to be good for the small presses who actually do (read: exist solely because of/for) translations? It’s possible, although unlikely. But maybe! This is all aspirational, and I’m going to aspire The Invented Part right to that stage.

(I would love for AmazonCrossing to pay to submit every single one of their books every single year until they make a shortlist. By sheer numbers it’s bound to happen.)

But to get back to the point, it’s great that the NBA for Translation has finally arrived, but it would’ve been nice if the media acknowledged the other existent prizes that have been doing the work for decades, increasing readership for international literature and generating more respect for the art of translation. A narrative including these precursors that run in parallel would’ve been a better narrative, rather than the implied idea that the NBA created the very idea of awarding such a quirky thing as translation.

5 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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!)

One more:

“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 have to be honest: I had the hardest time paying attention to this book. Because of my insane number of reading obligations (reading for my World Literature & Translation class, for the PEN Center Translation Prize, for the Irish Trip I’m leading for the University of Rochester, for Open Letter’s fall catalog, for this 2018 translation project), I ended up finishing fifteen books in January. Or, depending on what kind of stickler you are, “finished” fifteen books. Two of those—In the Woods by Tana French and Frankenstein in Baghdad I actually listened to on audiobook.

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.

*


Last week, the National Book Foundation announced their relaunch of the National Book Award for Translations. I have a lot of thoughts about this—all of which I’ll save for tomorrow’s February Translation Preview. (Stay tuned! That post is FIRE.) And because there’s not a cultural event out there that sites like LitHub can’t jam a listicle into, they posted this listicle: The Year’s 10 Best Reviewed Books in Translation.

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.

29 January 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On some old episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered, Robin Hilton and Bob Boilen talked about their unique irresistible song elements. Those bits in songs that aren’t the main hook, or even an integral part of the song itself, but, when they appear, automatically make you like a particular song. Like, for me, if there’s clapping hands and screaming in unison, I’m totally in. (See, for example, the ending part of Jeff Rosenstock’s USA. The “Et Tu, USA, Et tu, et tu, USA” bit.)

Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, is a well-informed guide to explaining how our brains process music, anticipating patterns, giving you a chemical rush when you’re right about the next note or phrase, how these patterns replicate and slowly adapt while also crafting and dictating your taste in music.

There’s nothing quite that parallel when it comes to talking about fiction and what tickles your pleasure centers, but there are definitely plot patterns, certain stylistic elements that individuals—and larger groups of readers taken in aggregate—respond to more positively than others. The straightforward, personal-essay nature of “Cat Person,” for instance. But for every style that can be taught, repeated, refined, and praised, there are a bunch of literary elements that do the opposite and totally derail a book.

I don’t think I could possibly create a complete taxonomy of the literary beats that get me excited or turn me off, although I’m sure I could come up with a half-dozen various bits that run throughout the books that I consider to be my favorite. But that’s not very fun! Instead, let’s focus on the negatives. There are two things that—for years—have particularly bugged me about certain narratives: The Ballroom Dancing Problem and the Too Many Coincidences Problem. Both of which are found in Paolo Maurensig’s Theory of Shadows, released earlier this month by FSG and translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel.



Theory of Shadows by Paolo Maurensig, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (FSG)

Before totally crapping on this book, which I’m mostly going to do, although I fully admit the crap I am about to dump is as much about my personal reading habits and likes/dislikes as anything else, I want to say that Anne Milano Appel is a legend and nothing I’m about to write should reflect on the quality of her translation. A quick search of the Translation Database brings up fifteen (fifteen!) translations by Anne to come out in the past decade. That’s an incredible rate, especially when you figure in The Art of Joy (which is something around 7,000 pages long) and three books by Claudio Magris (which are stylistically challenging and long).

In terms of Theory of Shadows, I think the translation is good. It all fit together, the tone and register were consistent, and the use of including some untranslated phrases from Portuguese was a bold and largely successful choice. Translation, good; plot of the book? Not so much.

The Ballroom Dancing Problem. There are a bunch of different names I could choose to try and describe this very particular plotting issue that drives me insane. The Everyone’s a Photographer Issue. The Who Doesn’t Love Journalism? Conundrum. Or, more to the point, We All Know Everything About the History of Chess, Right?

Without even naming a single example, I’m sure that you already have a decent idea of what I’m referring to. Think back to the movies of the 1980s. Movies in which the main protagonist is really into a particular hobby that, in real life, is enjoyed by a pretty limited audience. Ballroom dancing, for example. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with ballroom dancing, but out of the thirty people in the restaurant where I’m writing this, I’ll bet fewer than three have any lasting interest in ballroom dancing. Which is a problem if you’re trying to build a plot around a ballroom dancing competition. What would your character even talk to people about? The only thing that matters is winning the General Pickins Trophy given out every other year to the best ballroom dancing team in this microscopic small town in central Ohio.

So what ends up happening—almost every time—is that the book or movie ends up positing a world in which every damn character is as obsessed with ballroom dancing as the protagonist. No matter who the female lead encounters—the local librarian who is also the unofficial keeper of the town’s history, a fast-food clerk, a drunk on the street, a random high-school student—they all know all about her ballroom dancing ambitions and how hard it’s going to be to overthrow Tiffy and Mark, the arrogant couple who totally crush on the dance floor. (And probably bully ugly kids and are wealthy Young Republicans who think Reagan is “totally rad!” but really just care about winning that General Pickins Trophy because, secretly, almost unwittingly, they know that this is the high point of their lives and that trophy would just be so beautiful on Tiffy’s dresser.)

No one cares about ballroom dancing! Or not enough people for this sort of movie to even sniff believability. If you’re a writer and you’re working on something like this—just quit. Your plot is thin, your book forgettable.

And yet, that’s what happens throughout Theory of Shadows. Granted, it is about real-life, world-champion chess player, Alexander Alekhine, which was what initially drew me to pick this up. Based on Nabokov’s The Defense, I assume that all books about chess are intelligent puzzles filled with intrigue and characters living on the edge of sanity because chess.

That is sort of what we get here. Just to give you a brief synopsis: Theory of Shadows is about the shadowy circumstances surrounding Alekhine’s death. It focuses on the last little bit of his life, when he was living in Estoril, Portugal, preparing for a championship match against Mikhail Botvinnik. A Russian exile, Alekhine collaborated with the Nazis to protect his wife at the time and played as a German representative. He always claimed that his life choices were “all about the chess!” but others weren’t so keen on that, especially given that Alekhine wrote about chess for a German publication and included a bunch of anti-semitic shit. (Or the Nazis added it.) People weren’t so happy with this general situation, so there’s been speculation that Russia wanted to reclaim the World Title (god I wish chess had massive belts for their champions like WWE or boxing) from this dissident collaborationist.

This narrative exists within a frame-tale of the author going to Portugal to write a novel about Alekhine and finally figure out what really happened when Alekhine died. Was it a heart attack? Did he choke on meat? Was he murdered?

All this sounds intriguing enough, right? A shadowy conspiracy in which world politics are played out through the chess world. Unfortunately, and going back to my original critique, the book’s plotting is so tedious and is basically one recap of Alekhine’s Wikipedia page after another.

I could pull out some quotes, but this post is already long and I have about fifteen more things I want to stuff in here, so instead, let me just run down a series of plot points that land this book 100% within the realm of Ballroom Dancing movies that I dislike:

1) Alekhine walks into a bar in Portugal, trying to scam a drink. There’s a chess table set up. He goes over, a mysterious guy wants to play him, and, as it turns out, this guy is responsible for arranging his next big world-championship match and sets Alekhine up with some cash and a hotel room. (This is such weak plotting and could be part of my coincidence complaint below.)

2) At the hotel, Alekhine meets multiple people. Every single one, without exception, knows who he is immediately, and constantly recites back to him his entire chess career. This is insane.

3) Early in the book, a random Portuguese reporter—who happens to be really well-versed in the history of chess and Alekhine’s career—interviews him for a women’s magazine, which is really just a way for Maurensig to dump all the information possible about Alekhine’s personal life. And it still basically all relates to chess.

4) Not exactly a different example, but just read this bit of the interview:

“Oh yes, I remember clearly one day when, together with Chess, I managed to cross the Polish border without a passport.” [. . .]

“And who was Chess?”

“He was my beloved Siamese cat. I always took him with me, even to the tournaments. The regulations did not prohibit it, maybe because no one had ever thought it possible that a chess player might bring along his cat. But Chess was a quiet little creature; he strolled among the tables and didn’t bother anyone. When he sensed that I was in trouble, he would leap on my knees and encourage me by purring.”


EYE ROLL.

5) Once Alekhine’s love life has been dropped on the reader, we get Correira, a rich guest at the hotel who recites—again, like a Wikipedia article come to life—Alekhine’s dicey history with the Germans. Because obviously Correira is a huge chess fanatic and knows all the ins-and-outs of Alekhine’s career. Especially about the anti-semitic articles he wrote. This section could be a lot worse than it is, but still, it’s clear that Maurensig needs to convey this bit of information to his readers, so he uses this chess-lover married to a Jewish woman to throw that information out there long paragraph after long paragraph.

These may not seem as egregious as they could, but let me assure you that that’s because I’m kind of holding back. Every character in this book exists in relation to chess and chess history. And because they can’t talk about anything other than that, they’re less than one-dimensional. There just aren’t that many people in the world—even in 1946, or especially in 1946 when there were some rather serious ramifications of the recent World War occupying most everyone’s thoughts—who know that much about chess and who only ever want to talk about chess. Chess is great, but it’s only life-consuming for chess champions—not for the random people they encounter.

Too Many Coincidences. It’s hard to think of a work of fiction that doesn’t have some sort of coincidence driving its primary plot. Something unplanned has to happen to the main character to set everything into motion. I accept that. But there are essential coincidences and deus ex machina sorts of coincidences that are just ridiculous. Purge by Sofi Oksanen is a great example of a book that runs on the most improbable coincidences. Most people are willing to just overlook these—“fiction is where you suspend your disbelief, asshole!”—but when it gets to be too much . . .

Not only does the primary plot of Theory of Shadows function thanks to a string of random coincidences that are improbable to the point of crazy-making, but the frame story . . . oh man, the frame story.

As already mentioned, this opens with “the author” in Estoril, Portugal, in 2012, super disappointed that he was unable to solve the mystery of Alekhine’s death.

But wait! Before we get to the random shit that closes this book, here’s the opening of the second paragraph of this most-singular novel:

It all started with my inveterate passion for chess. I have never played in a qualifying tournament, or achieved standing in the official ranking; indeed, I consider myself an enthusiastic amateur.


GOD DAMN IT. Stop with all the chess! The only thing I think this book is succeeding at is making me hate chess. I read it looking for some sort of politically-driven espionage novel of murder and secrecy, and instead I got chess chess chess chess. And never the actual game! References to it. Talk about it, but nothing specific enough to convince me that Maurensig knows anything at all about the actual game of chess. This is a book about talking about the chess. It’s the worst sort of sports novel, in which none of the characters are fleshed out—not even to the point that you can believe in them as players of the sport/game in question.

I want to move on, so forget about my second point. Basically, at the end of the novel, once Alekhine is dead, once we’ve learned all of his life in the most shoehorned of manners, once all of that, which, who cares, whatever, it’s done, the author reappears, still bummed out, and randomly meets someone who randomly fills in all the necessary details. I’m not kidding about this next quote—these are legitimate bits of this novel:

I was about to leave Portugal at this point, though my search had not produced the desired result. Without a satisfactory conclusion, my novel was doomed to be rewritten from the ground up, or might even end up in the trash. But fortune came to my aid: [. . .] I was approached by a woman who said she was an employee at the Hotel do Parque.


Wait. WAIT. “Approached by a woman” while on a walk along the coast? This is the most transparent deus ex machina moment I’ve ever encountered.

“My name is Violeta da Silva,” she began without preamble. “I heard from a friend who works at a hotel where you are staying that you are interested in talking to someone who knew Dr. Alexandre Alekhine personally.”


NO ONE DOES THIS.

My eyes widened.


Who cares. We’re done here. You all know what happens next: Her father fills in the details and this is a garbage way of moving your plot along. I’m done with this. Let’s have a minute of fun.

*


Clearly I didn’t like this book. Many other people will, and good for them! There are more than enough books out there and to each his own. What this book did do though was get me thinking about sports books.

As I was reading this, I came up with a half-assed theory about sports books (or books about sporting figures) and how their style was dictated by the sport itself. There’s not a chess book out there that isn’t a cerebral puzzle. Baseball books are about America. Upward mobility dominates basketball books. I haven’t read Stephen Florida, but it’s strong. Tennis books are long like Infinite Jest. Books about sports are reflections of those sporting qualities in the sportsmen themselves.

But to check my theory, I asked everyone on Twitter to give me the name of their favorite sports-related book. And man, they totally did! Few surprises, a lot of books that I’ve read, too small a sample to make any definitive statements about. (Probably because I’m blocked/muted by all but like seven people on Twitter.)

Despite all these wonderful suggestions, I just want to point out the greatest sports book of all time: Toss by former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, Boomer Esiason.



Look at that cover! It’s a football because Boomer (definitely his real name) played football! So he wrote about football! Ok, ok. “Wrote.” “About football.”

New York Stars, the rookie quarterback figures the world is his oyster. Reality sets in after meeting his football “family“—the all-too benevolent owner, Papa Goldman; his daughter, the Stars’ Director of Communications, Dominique, who has a certain fondness for quarterbacks; a frustrated head coach; a team full of malcontents and racial tensions; and a very shady Director of Player Personnel.

But all of his concerns become secondary when an ex-Stars quarterback is murdered, and Brody finds himself hustling just to stay alive, while confronting the scars of his own past. With a little luck, smarts, and help from a beautiful aspiring actress, this is one time he can’t drop the ball. Someone seems intent on sabotaging the Stars, and perhaps the future of the entire football league is at stake.


Fuck. And. Yes.

But really, what’s up with that opening sentence? “New York Stars, the rookie quarterback figures the world is his oyster.” I might be a moron, but I don’t think that makes sense? Who cares! SPORTS.

How much do you want to bet that every single person in this book is in love with football and marks time by football match games and victories and Super Bowls and player careers? Any one of you reading this would hate the people in that book—and that book itself—and yet a certain percentage would totally forgive the allegedly horrible plot (I’m never reading this crap, although I sold it at Schuler Books & Music and man, it’s still out there, on the B&N.com) if it was about chess. (Final nail. Sorry, Theory of Shadows, but I did not like you.)

Although, to be fair, Big Booming Boomer has a strong competitor in Derek Jeter. This is a goldmine of jacket copy jokes:



An average kid with an above average talent for predicting baseball pitches tries to help his favorite player out of a slump in this entertaining novel from bestselling authors Tim Green and Derek Jeter.

Jalen DeLuca loves baseball. Unfortunately his dad can’t afford to keep him on the travel team. His dad runs a diner and makes enough to cover the bills, but there isn’t enough to cover any extras. So Jalen decides to take matters into his own hands and he sneaks into the home of the New York Yankee’s star second baseman, James Yager, and steals a couple of balls from his personal batting cage. He knows that if he can sell them, he’ll be able to keep himself on the team.

But like the best-laid plans—or in this case the worst!—Jalen’s scheme goes wrong when Yager catches him. But Jalen has a secret: his baseball genius. He can analyze and predict almost exactly what a pitcher is going to do with his next pitch. He can’t quite explain how he knows, he just knows. And after proving to Yager that he really can do this, using a televised game and predicting pitch after pitch with perfect accuracy, the two agree to a deal. Jalen will help Yager out of his batting slump and Yager won’t press charges.

However, when he begins to suspect that the team’s general manager has his own agenda, Jalen’s going to need his friends and his unusual baseball talent to save not only Yager’s career, but his own good name.

Man, Simon & Schuster is into some shit! “Like the best-laid plans—or in this case the worst!” should be on the back of every damn book. Forget Jeter. He’s just Baseball Tom Brady.

Sports!

22 January 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I came up with my plan of reading (and writing about) a new translation every week, I wanted to try and force myself to read books that I would normally just skip over. There are definitely going to be months filled with books by New Directions, Coffee House, Dalkey Archive, etc., but to write about just those titles would be pretty short-sighted, and would overlook all the university press books, the books from parts of the world that I’m much less familiar with (a.k.a. everything outside of Europe and Latin America), and those “hot” books that people actually read and which brush up against the best-seller lists. Books like The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani.



The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin)

This novel first came to my attention on Twitter when someone (Jeffrey Zuckerman?) was complaining that the translator, Sam Taylor, wasn’t even referenced in this profile that the New Yorker ran. The author of the piece had responded, half-defending herself (she had read the book in French, so the translation sort of slipped her mind), and saying they’d add Sam to the online version. (Spoiler: They haven’t.)

It’s always nice when a publication with a massive readership covers international literature, but the fact that they wrote about Slimani’s novel—winner of the Goncourt, a “#1 International Bestseller,” a book about nannies and mothering fears that probably hit a lot closer to home for the New Yorker’s readership—is in no way surprising. This is a book designed to start conversations and garner praise. Like an Imagine Dragons song, it feels at times as if it was crafted by algorithm, perfectly designed to press all the right buttons in a general reader.

That said, it’s a pretty good book. If you haven’t read the jacket copy (or the aforementioned New Yorker article), this is a novel about a “perfect” nanny who loses her shit and murders the two kids in her care and herself. All of that is explained in the opening pages (“The baby is dead.” is the first line), and then we go back in time to see how the nanny came to work in this household, what sort of anxiety cracks were drawn on her psyche, the increasingly complicated relationship between Louise and her employers, before returning to that first scene in which there is blood, screaming, and dead babies.

I suspect that description is intriguing enough to hook a lot of readers, but “a lot” isn’t necessarily the sort of explosive hit that Penguin is hoping for.

Chanson Douce has been translated into eighteen languages, with seventeen more to come. The title means “sweet song,” which was rendered Lullaby for the British edition. The American one, which comes out in January, will be called The Perfect Nanny. John Siciliano, Slimani’s editor at Penguin, told me, “I didn’t want to call it Lullaby, because that sounds sleepily forgettable, and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership.” He name-checked Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train and said, “We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.”


Although there’s no way to know for sure if a book is going to take off or not, there are certain criteria that give a title a leg up. The Bestseller Code is an attempt to figure out some of the “subtle cues” that make certain books appeal to the masses while leaving others destined for the Great Remainder Pile in the Sky. I haven’t read this book (sounds sort of interesting to me, but only in a Blinkist version), and have no experience working on a best-seller, which is the perfect backdrop for some wild, unlearned speculation about why The Perfect Nanny is going to take off.

1) It’s short and breezy. This book hardly fills its 220 pages. The chapters are short, there are a ton of blank pages, the leading is sizeable, the whole novel is readable in around four hours. This is good! Who wants to read a brick that they’ll have to carry around for weeks and weeks? Something with a lot of words on the page? NERDS. That’s who.

2) The style is from the Hemingway school of writing—short, direct, concise, with little abstraction. People love this shit. For a book to be a best-seller, it has to be an entertainment first. And what’s entertaining to the widest range of readers is a book that is solid, something you can easily envision, with sentences you never get lost in. (Having to reread a sentence or a paragraph would negate the gains found in point number one.) Here’s a totally random example of Slimani’s writing:

The children come out of the water and run, naked, into their mother’s arms. Louise starts cleaning up the bathroom. She wipes the tub with a sponge and Myriam tells her: “Don’t bother, there’s no need. It’s late already. You can go home. You must have had a tough day.” Louise pretends not to hear. Squatting down, she continues scrubbing the edge of the bath and tidying up the toys that the children have tossed around.


The whole novel is unchallenging in that way. It’s the kind of writing that you can sort of relax into, the type of writing that lets you forget that your life is stressful and a struggle. I can see why this appeals to a lot of people—it’s the sort of writing that uncomplicates your consciousness as you read it.

3) Ambiguous character motivations. Although people love prose that’s concrete and unambiguous, they don’t want the characters to be that simple. You’re a fool if you think that this book is going to clearly, in logical, indisputable fashion, explain exactly what went wrong for Louise and what led her to kill Mila and Adam. What would be the fun in that? How can you even have a book-club discussion if you can’t argue about the core part of the book. (“Was she always dangerous and the stress put her over the edge?” “Was it because of her money problems?” “Was she resentful of Myriam and Paul’s success and seeming disinterest in having more kids?” “Did Paul and Myriam force her into this situation?”) If a book doesn’t have that sort of ambiguity at its core, lots of readers will simply forget it.

4) Going one step further, all the main characters should be both inherently sympathetic and, at the same time, somewhat evil. The scene when Paul blows up at Louise about putting makeup on Mila is a good example of this. Paul’s a decent enough guy—contrary to cliche, there’s no sexual tension between him and his perfect nanny—but not always. He loses his temper. He’s not always in tune with his wife. He’s loud when he’s drunk. We don’t always like him. And for most of the book, Louise is incredibly sympathetic, especially as you find out about her estranged daughter’s behavioral issues, the financial disarray her husband left her in when he died (thanks to his kooky belief that the best job in the world was firing off questionable lawsuit after questionable lawsuit), etc., even though, all along, from moment number one, you know that she’s brutally murdered two kids.

5) The fact that Penguin wants this book to be successful. If you throw enough money at it—and stock it in Walmart and Costco and Wegmans—you will be able to sell a boatload of copies. (And you’ll be able to get it into the right hands so that it’s “Named One of 2018’s Most Anticipated Books by NPR’s Weekend Edition, Real Simple, The Millions, The Guardian, Bustle, and Book Riot.) Sure, some books are flops, but when a corporate publisher puts their might behind something like this, a flop means they only sold 25,000 copies instead of 200,000. Sure, this isn’t financially successful for them, but getting that many people to read a given book seems pretty damn good to, I don’t know, 99% of all writers? Success is relative.

6) Also doesn’t hurt that this book is available in 35 languages. On the surface, that wouldn’t really seem to matter that much for readers here in the States, but at the same time, just think about the cumulative marketing efforts (money + manpower) taking place all over the globe for this book. There’s some sort of publishing alchemy that takes place when so many partners around the globe are all focused on the same book.

7) Disagreement about whether the book is good or not. Sure, this seems like a crazy statement, since word-of-mouth is generally predicated on the idea that people who love the book foist it on their friends and family, who also love it, tell their Twitter followers, and so on and forth. But a book that’s universally liked is boring. When The DaVinci Code first broke, I knew just as many people who hate-read it as those who read it because they actually thought it was a fun story. Dissention breeds interest.

But would anyone really dislike The Perfect Nanny? Sure, if you’re a soon-to-be parent, you might be a bit wary about reading a book about dead babies (although people love books with dead babies? because it’s shocking and disturbing?), but this book isn’t really offensive. At worst it’s just a novel. Nothing mindblowing, nothing crappy. Just a book for the sake of book.

At this moment, there are 39 reviews of this on Amazon. Here’s the breakdown by percentage: 5 Stars 23%, 4 Stars 18%, 3 Stars 10%, 2 Stars 28%, and 1 Star 21%. That’s remarkably flat! All combining to give the book a very middling 3 stars.

In the end, this might be a great thing for this book. It’s not hard to envision a narrative about how the book is divisive, that there’s no consensus on this “shocking,” “thrilling” novel that’s become the “most talked about book of 2018.” Cool. But whatever. I want to see what these 1-star reviews are all about!

To be honest, I have not and will not read this book. I am disgusted that anyone would be inspired to profit from the real life murder of two beautiful children.

I wouldn’t read this evil drivel if Shakespeare had come back from the dead to co-author it. Judging from the other reviews, it’s dull and poorly written on top of being evil. It’s popularity in France just makes me think less of the French.


Evil! That’s a pretty intense claim! And “profit from the real life murder of two beautiful children”? I know the book was inspired by a nanny murder that took place in NYC in 2012, but c’mon. Not only is this book wildly different in terms of setting and situation, but Penguin didn’t even use “Ripped from the Headlines” on the cover. Does this reviewer hate all true-crime books as well? What is her motivation here?

Shallow. Not well written. If I knew how shallow the book is I wouldn’t have wasted $10+ to buy it.


That’s what I say about local craft cocktails. “This Sazerac is shallow! If I knew how shallow it would be, I would’ve saved my $10 for some Genny Light!”

Did not like it at all.


Cool. That’s some high quality critical work.

Copied a real life tragedy without the family’s permission. Very disheartening.


Now I’m curious—was there some scandal surrounding this book related to the real-life crime? The only thing I could find in a cursory Google search was this bit from Marie Claire:

The devastating opening scene of the book is strikingly similar to the case of Manhattan nanny Yoselyn Ortega, who murdered two children under her watch—Lucia and Leo Krim—before attempting suicide by stabbing herself in the neck, though Slimani told The Telegraph the plot of Lullaby is entirely fictional.


I must be missing something . . . If this book were about a normal murder (like, a dude killing another dude because dude stuff) and based on an episode of Law & Order, would people be upset? I kind of doubt it?

The characters were never fully developed, and I cannot comprehend how The Nanny was able (allowed) to ingratiate herself so thoroughly
into the lives and home of her employers. And what was the incident(s) that led her to ultimately kill the two children in her care? And on and on,
Not the best book I have read recently.


“Reader”‘s idiosyncratic approach to line breaks worries me.

Before I read a book, I generally check the number of pages. It has been my experience that books with 300 plus pages have better developed characters. I should have applied my quirky rule to this book, a 236 page novel translated into English from a best-selling, award winning French author. [. . .] just as quickly as it began, I found myself at 96% complete not knowing enough about Louise to fathom why she killed the children. In fact, I thought the last few chapters about the police detective and recreation of the crime were just “fill-in” words but perhaps much of the meaning was lost in translation.


There are a few reviews that imply that the translation is to blame for Louise’s motives never becoming completely clear. That clearly makes no sense. The whole point of the book is to raise questions and depict a horrible situation with no clear cause and effect that forces you to sort of examine your own beliefs and ideas. It’s amazing that readers would assume that the French version has some magic paragraph that, when you read it, suddenly illuminates every little mad crevice of Louise’s mind.

The beginning of this book was promising. But as I read on, chapter after chapter, the storyline took on a very dark, depressing, sinister quality. [. . .]
The author takes you down a path of deepening quicksand….and you feel heavier & heavier until you are completely submerged, and leaves you hanging.
Do not reccomend!!!!


Fucccck booooks that are daaark.

If I had only known it was “The French Gone Girl” I wouldn’t have bought it.


Interesting. And probably not a useful comment to most readers?

And, finally, because why not:

bq.SO DISAPPOINTEDMORE LIKE TRASH
CHARACTERS NOT DEVELOPED
TRANSLATIONWANTING
POOR ENDING AND SO ON
SORRY I CHOOSE TO PAY FOR IT.


16 January 18 | Chad W. Post |

As dumb as the content might be, there’s something to be said for hot takes in the sports world. Or maybe not the takes themselves—again, always dumb, always misguided, always loaded with bad suppositions and overly confident writing—but rather the situation in which you get to dissect and dismantle a hot take. It’s enjoyable to read a nonsense article by Bill Simmons (“My theory, trotted out on last Friday’s B.S. Podcast, was that the younger Garoppolo had won over everyone in the locker room — true, by all accounts, by the way — whereas the notoriously team-first Brady promoted himself in 2017 more than ever before.”) or Gregg Easterbrook (“Tuesday Morning Quarterback aficionados know my compromise with my Baptist upbringing is to be pro-topless but anti-gambling—and it’s a certainty, not a maybe, that the Vegas team will change the league’s relationship with sports betting.”) and know that someone at Deadspin will, within a few days if not hours, goof on all the crazy shit these egocentric old white dudes spew forth on a regular basis.

There’s something gratifying to digging in and unpeeling all the logical fallacies and pretzel-twist arguments that people make about sports on the regular. And because sports is both objective and communal in the sense of having actual games that have actual winners and losers, and open to subjective scrutiny about strategies untried, player motivation, and grit, hot takes will never go away. Which is fun! I love me a good hot-takedown.

I often wish that the book world had a few more of these hot take coots. Sure, there are media people offering up crap takes on Twitter all day, every day, but these rarely ascend to the level of verbosity and manic, laser-focused attack that you find on something like Hot Take. Imagine if there was a Tomi Lahren going off about the NY Times Bestseller list, or the new Grove catalog. How fun would that be? And how fun would it be to break apart that person’s blistering attacks? Oh so very.

I should make it clear that I’m really thinking about fiction here. And not just a scathing bad review—that’s fine, that’s something that might divide opinions, but rarely do these have the sort of unhinged quality of a really juicy hot take. The literary world is far too reasonable (which is shocking, when you pause to think about it) to provide a meaningful platform to someone claiming that Stephen King’s latest shouldn’t be sold in Barnes & Noble because he doesn’t stand for the national anthem at Red Sox games. Or whatever. Something impassioned and nonsensical. But worthy of an 8-minute read on Medium. Something capturing the fire of the old Tanizaki vs. Akutagawa debates, but without that degree of learnedness.

Actually, the perfect example is Franzen’s incredibly awful take on Difficult Books. What a bunch of hot garbage! And what a great job Ben Marcus did of taking apart that hot take. More of that, please!

*




In Black and White by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, translated from the Japanese by Phyllis I. Lyons (Columbia University Press)

For a few days, I played with the idea of trying to write a blistering hot take about Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Black and White, but I honestly don’t have the right mix of delusion and talent to make that really work.

But, if I was going to write some half-cocked take, I would probably come out swinging:

In the history of publishing, how many times has the translator’s afterword—yes, the translator’s—been a far superior reading experience to the work of some ordained “master” of literature? Once. One time only. With In Black and White by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki.

Here’s the thing: As respected as Tanizaki might be for his other works, The Makioka Sisters, Some Prefer Nettles, Naomi, etc., this book has been overlooked for the past eighty years for a number of reasons. It was written on deadline for a newspaper, has a plot so thin you can read the jacket copy and skip the rest, and contains some of the most stilted dialogue this side of an episode of Riverdale.

What’s black and white and read all over? Not this book!


Which is totally unfair! In Black and White is a fine book. It’s fine. Sure, the plot is more interesting in summary than in execution, but still.

Actually, let’s start there. I should probably offer a spoiler warning, but to be honest, if you read the description on Columbia’s website, you’ve already seen it all.

In Black and White is the story of the “diabolist” writer Mizuno, who, along with spending time at brothels and drinking too much, is commissioned to write a story for The People magazine. After turning it in late—like any good writer’s writer worth his writerly nature—he realizes that he slipped up and included the actual name of the man who he used as a model for one of his characters on a few occasions. No big deal, right? Well, in this case that’s not so great, since Mizuno has written a story about how a man, much like Mizuno himself, pulls off the perfect murder and kills Cojima/Codama on a moonless night at the end of November. Given that Cojima’s real life situation—where he lives, his profession, his habits, etc.—is so similar to the character who’s murdered, Mizuno is paranoid that not only will Cojima recognize himself in the story, but that someone will acutally murder the real Cojima in the way described in the story, bringing Mizuno under suspicion.

Two interesting things about the rest of the novel: 1) As you would suspect, Cojima is murdered in the exact way depicted in the story and Mizuno, who, thanks to his time cavorting with a prostitute whose name and address he doesn’t know, has no verifiable alibi, and 2) Mizuno (probably) writes a sequel to this story in which someone reads the original story and decides to take revenge on the author by committing the murder as written in order to frame the original writer.

You know what I call a plot like this? Lazy. Self-indulgent. Self-indulgent and lazy. A novel that posits a world in which a fiction writer’s work is so important that a magazine lets its copyeditor rent a room in the writer’s same boarding house so that he can ensure the writer actually finishes his oh, so important pages? FANTASYLAND! Bring on the satyrs, dragons, and Tom Brady Concussion Sauce, because we’ve just left the real world behind!


I have no idea what the writing life was like in Japan in the 1920s, but given that Tanizaki played a big role in it (he’s considered to be one of the best Japanese writers of the past century), I’m pretty sure he knows what he’s talking about.

One of the most ludicrous aspects of this minor work is the number of times Mizuno refers to himself—or is referred to—as a “diabolist writer” or someone practicing “diabolism.” These terms are repeated fourteen times within five pages! It’s just like when you repeat a word over and over until it becomes syllables and noise and the meaning dissolves. What does “diabolism” even mean? Is Mizuno worshipping the devil? No, there’s no evidence of that. Sure, he drinks too much and wants to get with prostitutes, but that’s dissolute or or debauched, but diabolic? And again, Tanizaki creates a world in which people gossip openly about this writer’s diabolism. Even the cops! When they bring him into the station, they have a long philosophical conversation with Mizuno about his “diabolism” and the aesthetic principles behind his writing. Sound like any cops you know? Me neither. Here come the satyrs again . . .


OK. I don’t really have a response to that one. The “diabolist” thing got to me a bit as well. It’s funny, in our local translation workshop, every translator tries to avoid repetition like the plague. That’s not always the right approach though, and sometimes using the same word or phrase over and over can accrue meaning (or become incredibly funny), especially if used correctly. So maybe Tanizaki’s endless repetition of “diabolism” isn’t the worst . . . I mean, it’s not as distracting as the stiff dialogue or the strange misogynist stuff.

It would take a whole post to break down all of the odd stuff about women in this book, but here’s one bit of dialogue between Mizuno and the woman he hires to be his mistress for a month (on Tuesdays and Fridays) when they’re having lunch and finalizing their “arrangement”:

“Everyone says that, that my arms are great—”

“They are great! It’s a pleasure just to swing them like this. I’d like to make them into a toy and swing them forever.”

“If you want, make me into a toy.”


Yeah, that’s a bit weird. In a few different ways.

But let me reiterate—my reaction to the actual novel was mostly just a shrug. It was fine. I had no problem at all putting this book down, and a lot of the dialogue—and the ideas expressed within—made me groan, but this wasn’t awful. It just seemed a bit meh, a bit flat, a bit of a toss off . . . until I read the afterword.

Once you slog your way through 200+ pages of this tripe, this, I’ll say it again, self-indulgent book, that even includes a scene in which Mizuno invents a sex tale that he shares with his copyeditor, who he then catches masturbating to his memory of this tale, which, if you follow me here, is just a metaphor for how much jacking off Tanizaki is doing in this book, writing about his own writing and its power, if you get through that, you reach the end of the rainbow and find Phyllis Lyons’s afterword that injects a much needed historical context and sense of balance into this off-kilter text.

This part of the book is brilliant! The reading she offers—involving Tanizaki’s arguments with Akutagawa about “pure art,” “plottedness,” and “stories with no story”—imbues this book with a sense of purpose that it’s otherwise lacking. Even if her reading in which she postulates that the “Shadow Man” and Cojima are both stand-ins for Akutagawa, that Akutagawa traps Tanizaki by killing himself, shows a level of invention and attention to actual plot that that hack Tanizaki, yeah, I said it, hack, could’ve learned from.

Here’s some advice for you, Columbia University Press: Cut the first two hundred and eighteen pages of this book and publish just the afterword. Boom. That’s what I call maximizing profits. Economics 101, Mr. University Man.


Obviously, that’s too far, but I do wish that there was a way to get at least some of this afterword before the book to help guide one’s reading. No disrespect to Tanizaki, but the novel is a bit thin without the historical and personal context. And given that the plot is maybe the least compelling part of this reading experience, it would be useful to have some other tools in your mind before diving in. Reading Lyons’s afterword was the first time I really sat up and engaged with this book.

That said, if you’re a completist and a fan of Tanizaki’s other works, you’ll likely enjoy this quite a bit. And it’s a great example for translators of what you can add to a classic work to help it reach as wide and audience as possible. I know this isn’t going to make any best-seller lists, but if someone were to use Lyons’s afterword as the basis for an article about literary feuds, hot takes, contextual reading, and whatnot, it might really connect with those literary readers out there.

5 January 18 | Chad W. Post |

Now that the Translation Database is over at Publishers Weekly, and in a format that makes it both possible to update in real time1 and much easier to query, I want to use it as the basis of a couple new regular columns here at Three Percent.

First off, I want to get back to running monthly previews of translations. But, unlike all of the other “ten books to read in XXXX” that are out there, I’m not going to pay much attention to the titles themselves, but look into the number side of things—how many books are coming out, from which presses, which languages, etc. What percentage of books are by women? Are there any interesting trends? That sort of thing. Nerdy, but probably with a handful of jokes or sarcastic comments thrown in.

Then, because this tool is not only damn fun to use, but pretty inspiring, I’m going to pick out four or five books from the database each month to read and highlight here on the website. My goal is to read fifty-two new translations over the course of the year (one a week), and, thanks to the Translation Database data, try and push myself into reading things I normally wouldn’t pick up, maybe because of the publisher, or the setting of the book, the fact that it’s poetry, whatever. I’m not 100% sure what form these write-ups will take, although I don’t want them to be book reviews, but something more observational, reactionary, whatever. We’ll see. The first one will come out sometime later this week, or over the weekend.2

For today, I want to kick things off by looking at the books coming out in January 2018 of which . . . well . . . there aren’t as many as expected.

When I initially ran this list (click here for a downloadable Excel sheet)—trying to figure out which new books I should read this month—I was a bit shocked by the paucity of options. In 2017, on average, there were almost 47 different works of fiction and poetry in translation published every month. This year we’re at 30 total titles: 29 works of fiction and 1 poetry collection. (By contrast, January 2017 included 42 works of fiction and 7 poetry collections.) What is happening?

I wish that, like with baseball stats, I could dig into this and come up with some sort of rationale. Although it’s more than possible that this is just an anomaly. That this month’s numbers wouldn’t seem nearly as off if the Dalkey titles scheduled for January hadn’t been delayed to later this spring. And maybe there’s a reason AmazonCrossing is only doing two titles this month instead of the five they did last January. Maybe I missed a trove of books and in a couple months this number will be retroactively noramalized. Given how small our sample size is, a few minor quirks can seem much more dramatic than the reality of the situation. But only 29? That’s still a bit odd and a bit disconcerting.

Not that these numbers mean all that much. This isn’t a Soviet Five-Year Plan of Translation Production. Quantity isn’t related to readership, and neither are related to quality. Bringing out 100 books in January doesn’t mean shit if no one ever reads them. That said, this is something to keep an eye on. Translations have been increasing steadily over the past decade, thanks to a few hits (Bolaño, Ferrante, Knausgaard), a bunch of new players getting in the game (Transit Books, Deep Vellum, Restless Books), and the almost arms-like race between Dalkey Archive and AmazonCrossing to pump out a ton of product. (Although in the former case, I’m not sure these books are ever in actual bookstores, and in the latter, I know that 95%+ of the sales are only of the digital variety.)

OK, after two Cold War references, let’s move on and get into some of the details.



Italy Takes the Month

If you’ve ever read one of my traditional translation database roundups, you’ll know that French, German, and Spanish books always, always, top the list in terms of languages with the most translations. Weirdly, that’s not the case this month. Looking just at fiction (sorry, poetry, you’ll get your own post in the future, this month I’m just focusing on the 29 fiction titles) there are five German books and four French ones (combined that’s 31% of all the new fiction translations this month), but there are only two from Spanish. Meanwhile, there are six Italian books from six different publishers. That’s neat.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to read Paolo Maurensig’s Theory of Shadows, translated by Anne Milano Appel. I don’t tend to read much Italian fiction (in all of 2017 I only read [or rather, re-read] one book translated from the Italian—Six Memos for the Next Millennium), and that doesn’t seem right. Thanks to Europa Editions, I’ve come to associate Italian literature with crime and Ferrante. And although I don’t dislike either of those, I’m more into the Calvinos and Morantes and Moravias . . . but who knows! I need to give more books a chance. That’s one of my 2018 resolutions, I suppose.

Also, FSG passed on Maurensig’s latest novel (which is about a town of writers and a “devil” who arrives and appears to be an editor? I might be misunderstanding something here, but that sounds kind of great), which makes Theory of Shadows even more interesting. But I’ll save that for its actual post.



Remember #WomenInTranslation?

Of the 29 fiction works in translation coming out this month, only four—FOUR—were written by women. Nine of these books were translated by women, though (and two more by male-female co-translators), so that’s something, I suppose.

However, those four titles include a couple potentially huge books. There’s Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions (translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan) coming out from NYRB and, in what is potentially our (collective) first big translation breakthrough of the year, The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (translated from the French by Sam Taylor) coming from Penguin.

I’m going to read The Perfect Nanny next week when it comes out mostly because it was featured in the New Yorker (maybe this will help me get a better read on what it is the New Yorker really likes?) and because it’s 100% not something I would normally pick up. But again, we’ll get there when we get there.



The Other Big Book of the Month?

God, I feel so cheap focusing on multiple “big books” this month. I’m not the only one in the industry who’s been trying to refocus the translation tribe away from solely trying to get more books out into marketplace, but to appreciate (re: read, buy, and sell) the books that are making their way into English. Fifteen years ago, the idea of ramping up the total number of translations to create a critical mass and change the overall public perception was incredibly vital. There was nothing and the books coming out were completely ignored. Now we have 600+ titles coming out a year (not very many, but still!) and they’re still mostly ignored. (Especially if you do books that are smarter than the average NPR podcast. Or if they’re from a small press that isn’t everyone’s darling of the moment. Wait, shit. Just violated 2018 resolution #2: Quit being a cynical dick.)

Still, sales aren’t everything. We all know this. Judging books by that metric is crass and frequently divorces literary quality from the marketing machine. Or from the trendiness of people buying into trends. There’s no value in trying to objectively judge things that are popular though (this is why I’m in a bar, alone, on a Friday night drinking whiskey and writing this damn thing), so why not give Ahmed Saadwi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad a go? So many blurbs! So much advance praise! I can’t even imagine what it’s like launching a book with the power and reputation of a press like Penguin opening doors and backing up your pitches. I would love to experience that one time in my life. (Resolution #3?)

Does this book live up to its International Prize for Arabic Fiction hype? We’ll see. But even if it doesn’t the machine is ON and this is going to sell as many copies this year as all Open Letter titles combined. And that’s not a joke! (It’s a travesty.)



A Classic Author I Want to Read

In addition to Frankenstein in Baghdad, Theory of Shadows, and The Perfect Nanny, the other book that I’m definitely reading this month is In Black and White by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. How shameful is it that I own a half-dozen of his books but have yet to read them? Please don’t “@” me? That’s what the kids say, yes? Since this is maybe the most unusual book of his to start with—not The Makioka Sisters, Naomi, Some Prefer Nettles, or those beautiful New Directions editions of The Maids and Devils in Daylight that came out last year—it seems perfect for me.

Also Rans for My Personal Monthly Picks

There are a few other books from January that I want to mention. But I don’t want to write too much more about books themselves, so if you want more info about these, just click through and read the jacket copy. (And then buy them! Check out The Perfect Nanny and Frankenstein in Baghdad from your local library and give your hard-earned cash to the companies that need it!)



Twist by Harkaitz Cano, translated from the Basque by Amaia Gabantxo (Archipelago Books)

One of the best things about Spain are the cured meats. So good! Take a nice stick of chorizo, add a bottle of tempranillo, and you’ve got an amazing night. Which is why the law preventing visitors from bringing these delicious meats back into the U.S. should go fuck itself into the grave. Yes, you can mail order any and all of this stuff, but if you try and put it in your packed luggage, customs loses their mind.

This is an actual exchange from when Kaija and I returned from the Barcelona editorial trip/book festival and Valencia in September:

“I’m sorry, I don’t know if they told you this or not in Spain, but even though it’s sealed, you can’t bring these sausages into the country without a special document from the actual butcher.”

“But it’s not sausage, it’s chorizo.”

“I don’t care. Whatever it is, it’s not going past this office.” [Goes to throw four Slim-Jim-type sticks and one glorious mini-baguette-sized stick of chorizo into the trash—which is probably filled with other delicious vacuum-sealed things that TSA customs just dumps onto a table in the back room and goes to town on come lunch time.]

“Oh, OK, cool. I’ll just eat them then.”

“What?!”

“That’s cool, right? Instead of you throwing them out can I just eat them all right here—”

“NO. Sir. NO. No you cannot.”

[Half-reaching for the chorizo] “But. Well. Can’t. Just. One?”

[Takes step back away from customs podium, clutching trash bin] “No.”

I’m surprised I haven’t been detained yet.



The Same Night Awaits Us All by Hristo Karastoyanov, translated from the Bulgarian by Izidora Angel (Open Letter)

What is this advertising?



[Insert all the normal jokes about the future and gadgets and being old and technology making it easier every day to control humans . . . I’ll spare you all the same old shit.]

But really, what is this an ad for?

Here’s what the mirror-type floating out of his iPad Kindle Fire says: “Come on. You know I will wipe the floor with — WAIT.” What does that even mean? And that floating girl with the dude growing out of her side? She looks like she would eat your babies. Except, well, her feet are swords? What is going on here? And this kid is way too copacetic for such textual violence. GET OFF THE FLOOR AND GIVE THAT FLOATING GIRL THE BUSINESS.

Does Amazon even bother test marketing shit anymore, or do they just come up with cool sounding names (“it’s not a flood, it’s a ‘Rapids’!”) and turn on the money printing machines?



Sońka by Ignacy Karpowicz, translated from the Polish by Maya Zakrzewska-Pim (Dalkey Archive)

Last October, I had the honor of being invited to the Conrad Festival in Krakow, Poland. It was an incredibly fun—and informative—trip (shout out to Sean Bye of the Polish Cultural Institute), but it did have a downside: Thanks to MLB streaming regulations, I wasn’t able to watch any of the World Series games, although I was allowed to listen to them. (Which, of course, led to never sleeping, which screwed up one entire morning thanks to game two—an EPIC game two, an amazing game two—and left me feeling a bit empty, like my season-long devotion to my favorite sport was all foreplay and no climax.)

Recently, I cancelled our cable and got PS Vue (because I’m like you and don’t think paying for cable makes sense, but I also refuse to live in a world without MLB Network and NFL RedZone, and both are included in PS Vue). And as a result, we can’t stream any local channels. At all. None. We even bought a big-ass, fancy-as-hell $80 indoor antenna, which allows us to pick up “Bounce TV.” Which might have been UPN in the past?) So, in other words, we don’t have access to local channels.

Usually this wouldn’t bother me at all. I spend four hours a night yelling at my kids to stop yelling at each other, so watching live TV is a dream for days of sickness and rest. But, I do love live sports. So all weekend (yes, it’s still Friday in my time, as this is being written, and I’m still at the bar, alone, drinking whiskey), I’ll have to go to various establishments to watch the NFL playoffs. Which, yes, nerds, I know no one cares. Y’all think sports are dumb and books are salvation, and I half-way agree with you.

Being cut off from local channels is super weird though. Especially since residents of SF and Chicago and NYC and wherever people actually live are all allowed to pay the same amount as I do and can actually watch live local broadcasts. Instead, I’m forced to get my local news from something called @ROCBuzz on Twitter. This is a mess.

Beyond the indignity of following fools on Twitter, how screwed up is it that big cities get this benefit when us small-timers, the cities you fly over and spit on, with the idea that anyone living here is too pathetic to deserve normal access to information about local murders, get absolutely nothing. Fuck you, Big Telecom! I shouldn’t have to steal cable to find out what Scotty the Weather Wonder has to say about our four-day forecast before learning from Thad Brown about who killed whom last night. Christ almighty, we’re already forced to read a local paper that fired its art director and hired a “Beer Columnist.” THIS IS NOT A LIE OR AN EXAGGERATION OR A JOKE. (Resolution #4: Quit watching local news.)



Mephisto’s Waltz by Sergio Pitol, translated from the Spanish by George Henson (Deep Vellum)

Forget resolutions, I have a new life goal. Before I die (which hopefully isn’t soon), I want to spend one summer in St. Louis, working part-time at Left Bank Books and attending every single Cardinals home game. The other day I finally admitted to myself that this might be my entire bucket list, and it made me cry. It’s not a huge dream, nor is it insanely out of reach, but that’s what I want before I die. One year. Eighty-one games. A full investment in an activity that gives me so much joy. And I would write a blog or book about it. I already write a secret newsletter about baseball sabermetrics and the Cardinals and the dumbness of fandom. If I had a summer to do only this I would be the happiest man ever.



Elven Winter by Bernhard Hennen, translated from the German by Edwin Miles (AmazonCrossing)

When is Game of Thrones coming back?

Just kidding. I’ve already reserved a seat at my favorite bar so that I can catch every episode of The Four. That looks like reality-television-music-programming gold. The “All about That Bass” lady is on there! And the Fergie! How can this not be must-see-TV?

Resolution #5: Quit everything.

1 Thanks to everyone who submitted their titles using the handy form. I’m still working my way through all of these—there were even more than I expected!—but should have all of them added, updated, or deleted (remember: available in America, first time ever to be translated, etc.) by the end of next week.

2 I have a few other ideas for new Three Percent content for 2018, but I’ll save that for a future post.

....
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