This morning, the Daily Beast ran a piece by Bill Morris entitled Why Americans Don’t Read Foreign Fiction. It starts with Morris admitting his ignorance of Patrick Modiano’s work prior to his winning the Nobel Prize, then goes into a reading of Modiano’s Suspected Sentences, before veering into the speculative rabbit hole of why more books aren’t translated, and why a lot of these books are hard to sell.
In 2003, Stephen Kinzer wrote a story for the New York Times entitled Why Americans Yawn at Foreign Fiction. It starts by discussing how very few people in America had heard of Imre Kertesz before he won the Nobel Prize. As with Morris’s article above, it goes on to point out a few of the more successful translations of recent times (Kinzer points to Boris Akunin, whereas Morris lists a number, including Roberto Bolaño and Stieg Larsson), then discusses all the reasons why more translations aren’t published in America.
I refere to Kinzer’s article a lot, generally using it as a baseline to show how far coverage of translations by the mainstream media has come with regard to writing about international literature. There’s no way anyone would use the word “yawn” nowadays!
It’s fascinating to me that these two articles came out 12 years apart, but hit on a lot of the same problems. We’ve come a long way, yet many of the same problems are still there, permanently ingrained in the publishing-reading ecosystem.
Looking at these two pieces side-by-side is pretty interesting though . . .
So the question becomes: are so few translated books available because American readers don’t read them, or do American readers read so little foreign fiction and poetry because so little of it is available in translation? Or is it a bit of both? [. . .]
There is no shortage of theories. Americans are physically isolated and culturally insulated, goes one. But if so, why do they devour such contemporary or recently deceased foreign writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Michel Houellebecq, Roberto Bolaño, Stieg Larsson, Milan Kundera, Haruki Murakami, Knausgaard, Carlos Ruis Záfon and Per Petterson? Sometimes, if you publish it, the readers will come.
‘‘We were seen as a leading university press for literature in translation, but we’ve decided to make it a smaller part of our program because it just is not viable,’‘ said Donna Shear, director of Northwestern University Press. ‘‘It’s expensive, and the sales aren’t there. This is definitely a trend in the university press world.’‘
This trend has spread from university presses to publishing in general. Writers, publishers and cultural critics have long lamented the difficulty of interesting American readers in translated literature, and now some say the market for these books is smaller than it has been in generations.
Now that’s a contrast I can really get behind. In 2003, Donna Shear was still at Northwestern University Press (she later left for University of Nebraska) and was cutting back on the number of translations NUP was doing. At the time, the Writings from an Unbound Europe series, which includes works from Bohumil Hrabal, Jaan Kross, Georgi Gospodinov, David Albahari, and many more of the best writers of Eastern Europe, was probably the premiere series of translations out there. This series was officially ended in 2012. In 2013, Northwestern published one book in translation, and they did exactly one in 2014 as well.
By contrast, Morris is able to point to a number of international writers who widely known in America, including a number—Záfon, Petterson, Knausaard, Bolaño, Larsson—whose success came after the 2003 Kinzer piece.
“It’s not that Americans don’t want foreign fiction,” Gurewich [Judith, publisher of Other Press] insists. “But they’re intimidated. This is the difficulty. How does one cross that bridge?” [. . .]
“America is a puzzle of very complicated groups,” Gurewich says. “Readers are receptive if it lands in their hands. What is the secret to putting books in their hands? How do you find people who want to find out how other people think?” [. . .]
“There may be an increasing acceptance of translation now,” Glusman [John, editor in chief at W.W. Norton] says, laughing at the memory of that rejection letter [a rejection of and I.B. Singer novel], “but there has always been resistance to it. There’s an initial resistance to foreign writers because many are unknown to American readers.”
He adds, “I think there are cycles of awareness, just as there are fashions in other businesses. Once publishers see an unusual success with a certain kind of book, people jump on the bandwagon. This happened with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, with Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and with Harry Potter. People tried to jump in and replicate it. That’s not easy to do.”
(Something about Glusman’s statement bugs me, but I’m not sure how to put my finger on it . . . Is he really saying that publishing international literature is a trend? And dude, get some fucking contemporary references. All three of the books/series he references are decades old.
Also, this is a perfect moment to mention Ann Morgan’s The World Between Two Covers about her quest to read a book in translation from every country in the world.)
In interviews publishers cited many reasons for their increasing reluctance to bring out books by non-American writers. Several said a decisive factor was the concentration of ownership in the book industry, which is dominated by a few conglomerates. That has produced an intensifying fixation on profit. As publishers focus on blockbusters, they steadily lose interest in little-known authors from other countries.
Some publishers said that they had no staff editors who read foreign languages and that they hesitated to rely on the advice of outsiders about which foreign books might capture the imagination of Americans. Others mentioned the high cost of translation, the local references in many non-American books and the different approach to writing that many foreign authors take.
“A lot of foreign literature doesn’t work in the American context because it’s less action-oriented than what we’re used to, more philosophical and reflective,’‘ said Laurie Brown, senior vice president for marketing and sales at Harcourt Trade Publishers. ‘‘As with foreign films, literature in translation often has a different pace, a different style, and it can take some getting used to. The reader needs to see subtleties and get into the mood or frame of mind to step into a different place. Americans tend to want more immediate gratification. We’re into accessible information. We often look for the story, rather than the story within the story. We’d rather read lines than read between the lines.”
The profit thing is always an issue, always an excuse commercial presses use. Which, not to bang the nail right on the head, or whatever (there’s no way that’s an understood cliche . . . I really need some coffee), is exactly why the National Endowment for the Art, universities, and donors really need to support non-profit presses. These are the outlets that will keep the literary world vibrant and not so focused only on those books that appeal to the widest possible audience. (Smart cosmopolitan readers deserve books too!)
Laurie Brown’s statement is the most annoying thing in either of these articles. (Quick sidenote: this was before Harcourt fired Drenka Willen—and later rehired her after all the living Nobel Prize winners she’d published wrote a scathing letter to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—who was the lifeblood of international literature at Harcourt for decades.) Let me paraphrase here to make it utterly clear how dangerous this point of view really is. And I’ll do so in my written imitation of the most annoying voice I can imagine. Because reading this quote has me scratching out my eyes.
So, like, Americans? They’re really into ACTION. Quick, easy to understand action. These readers who we sell our books to? They can’t read between the lines! They can’t think philosophy! They need immediate gratification and information conveyed in the simplest of ways. That’s just who American readers are (psst . . . they’re dummies!) and so we give the people the want. We couldn’t give two fucks about culture—we just want to make money off the sheep! I mean, readers.
God damn it. I forget how bleak and fucked up things were in 2003. Granted, a lot of things are still the same—presses don’t hire editors who can speak foreign languages, a lot of books don’t make money, 85% of translations come out from small, indie, university, nonprofit presses—but at least we seem to be covering it in a more nuanced way, one in which we can point to notable successes.
So, onward and upward, I guess. At least American just don’t read foreign fiction now, instead of “yawning” at it.
Great news for Open Letter! The Daily Beast just posted a selection of five “Hot Reads” for September: The Spark of Life by Frances Ashcroft (Norton), We Have the War Upon Us by William J. Cooper (Knopf), Sutton: A Novel by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion), Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas (Little, Brown), and The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Open Letter).
Yay for us! And for Benjamin and translator Brian Zumhagen!
Before getting into the piece itself, I just want to say that we’re planning an October reading tour for Benjamin, and he’ll be in New York, Chicago, Buffalo, and Rochester between 10/15 and 10/30. All the details will go up later this week.
Also, if you’re a subscriber your copy of The Canvas is going out tomorrow. When you read the next post, you’ll understand the unfortunate delay in this. And if you’re not a subscriber, SIGN UP NOW and I’ll give you this book for free, in addition to your 5-book or 10-book subscription. (You’ll also be able to sleep better at night knowing that you helped out an ambitious, kind-hearted nonprofit press that’s over-loaded with activities and trying its best to spread the love of international literature.)
Here’s the write-up on The Canvas by The Daily Beast:
It’s rare that a book with an obvious gimmick isn’t, on some level, attempting to compensate for a deficiency that would glare more brightly under standard presentation, but luckily for Benjamin Stein, his new novel is far less experimental than it first appears. The book has two front covers, so that the reader can begin from either starting point and work his way toward the middle, each direction telling the story from the point of view of a different protagonist, First, Amnon Zirchroni, is a psychoanalyst in Zurich. The other, Jan Wechsler, is a publisher in Munich. For both men, their Judaism figures large in their lives, and in fact at the physical middle of the novel features a glossary of Yiddish terms that pervade the book. As the two stories close in on each other, a mystery develops around a potentially fabricated Holocaust memoir that echoes the real-life case of Binjamin Wilkomirski’s book Fragments, published in 1995. Although the bifurcated format is interesting for a minute or two, the best way to approach this book is to read alternating chapters of each character; in other words, like a standard narrative. And, really, there is no need for the distraction: this is a heady, distinctly German book with philosophical inquires on memory, identity, and language itself, and the complex plot should have had the confidence to stand on its own.
This is a great description of the book, and makes me want to reread it immediately. Also, I would recommend reading alternating chapters rather than one narrative than the next, but really, the choice is yours.
Personally though, I don’t think this is as much of a gimmick, as The Daily Beast writer claims it is. Let me explain.
The point of the two-sided, no-front-or-back set up is so that neither narrative—Amnon Zichroni’s nor Jan Wechsler’s—receives an preferential treatment. The core concept of this book is about the faultiness of memory, the malleability of reality, and the process by which we come to believe (or not believe) in something. The way you read this book will alter what you come to think about the main characters—in particular, Minksy, the Wilkomirskyi-esque character.
One idea that I had (thanks to former intern/U of R student Acacia O’Connor) to promote The Canvas was to send manuscript versions of it around to various readers organized in a variety of ways: with Zichroni’s complete narrative followed by Wechsler’s, vice versa, or with alternating chapters beginning with Zichroni, and vice versa. There are multitude ways you could read this book, but just those four would result in varied responses from readers, which is something I find really interesting. And which is why the book is printed like this. It’s not to be gimmicky, but to underscore the fact that neither of these narratives is more privileged than the other. (Which is one reason why this isn’t an ebook—you’d have to list one part before the other, or do something that wouldn’t be completely neutral.)
Anyway, thanks to The Daily Beast for kicking off the mass attention this book is certain to generate. And I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about this book over the next couple months.
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