The only thing more rare than a Three Percent post praising—or at least, gently supporting—NPR is one heaping accolades on a publisher’s website. But, well, this is proof that anything is possible.
NPR, the World’s Greatest Source of Middle-minded Hem-Haw Opinions, is actually doing something bad-ass this year—foregoing year-end book lists:
You love lists. We love lists. Everyone loves lists. And in the past five years, NPR has brought you more than 80 year-end book lists — the best book club books, the best cookbooks, the best gift books, the best guilty pleasures. We listed. You clicked. Everyone was happy.
But as the holidays loomed this year, we were all suffering from a little list fatigue, and we started imagining new ways to approach our year-end best books coverage. And though
Buzzfeedthe Internet may be determined to prove otherwise, we wholeheartedly believe that human beings are capable of absorbing new information in formats that are 1) not sequentially ordered and 2) wait … dammit! and 3) never mind.
Double props for the Buzzfeed insult! Because fuck Buzzfeed. And seriously, they have ruined the idea of lists for everyone.
Instead of NPR’s typical year-end lists, they’ve come up with this discovery tool, which lists a couple hundred books that can be sub-divided into a number of categories. But unlike the normal list, books show up under more than one rubric creating a site that is “more Venn diagram-y than list-y — a site that could help you seek out the best biographies that were also love stories, or the best mysteries that were also set in the past.”
Triple props for invoking Venn diagrams.
I have to admit, this momentary respect I’m feeling for NPR is making me uncomfortable. And maybe a bit mentally aroused.
Thankfully, their selections are pretty much run-of-the-mill. Sure, Ogawa’s Revenge is included along with the new Daniel Alarcon, but Eggers’s The Circle? And that Kite Runner dude’s new book? BORING.
Well, at least we now know that you can take the list out of the Middle Mind, but not the Middle Mind out of the
list Venn diagram. Or whatever.
This review actually appeared online a couple months ago, but National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward’s piece on Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring made it onto “All Things Considered” last night.
I personally think Death in Spring is one of the most unique, and interesting books that we’ve published, and it’s fantastic that this is getting such great publicity. This is available at better bookstores everywhere, and through our website.
Additionally, this is part of our First 25, a collection of the first 25 titles we published, available for
$200 $175. (Just enter “FIRST25” at checkout to receive the $25 discount.)
And to whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from Death in Spring:
I removed my clothes and dropped them at the foot of the hackberry tree, beside the madman’s rock. Before entering the river, I stopped to observe the color left behind by the sky. The sun-dappled light was different now that spring had arrived, reborn after living beneath the earth and within branches. I lowered myself gently into the water, hardly daring to breathe, always with the fear that, as I entered the water world, the air—finally emptied of my nuisance—would begin to rage and be transformed into wind that blew furiously, like the winter wind that nearly carried away houses, trees, and people. I had sought the broadest part of the river, the farthest from the village, a place where no one ever came. I didn’t want to be seen. The water flowed, sure of itself, confident with the weight that descended from mountains, snow and fountains escaping the shadows through holes in rocks. All the waters joined together for the delirium of joining and flowed endlessly, the land on both sides. As soon as I had passed the stables and the horse enclosure, I realized I was being followed by a bee, as well as by the stench of manure and the honey scent of wisteria that was beginning to blossom. The water was cold as I cut through it with my arms and kicked it with my feet; I stopped from time to time to drink some. The sun, filled with the desire to fly, was rising on the other side of Pedres Altes, streaking the white winter water. To trick the bee that was following me, I ducked under the water so it would lose me and not know what to do. I knew about
the obstinate, seven-year-old bees that possessed a sense of understanding. It was turbid under the water, like a glass cloud that reminded me of the glass balls in the courtyards beneath the strong wisteria vines, the wisteria that over the years upwrenched houses.
The houses in the village were all rose-colored. We painted them every spring and maybe for that reason the light was different. It captured the pink from the houses, the same way it took on the color of leaves and sun by the river. Shut inside in winter, we made paintbrushes from horsetails with handles of wood and wire, and when we had finished them, we put them away in the shed in the Plaça and waited for good weather. Then all of us, men and boys, would go to the cave on Maraldina in search of the red powder we needed for the pink paint . . . When we returned to the village, we would mix the red powder with water to make pink paint that winter would erase. In spring—bees buzzing about, blooming wisteria hanging from houses—we painted. And suddenly the light was different. [. . .]
I decided to stroll through the soft grass, up the incline; at the end of the slope the tree nursery appeared from behind some shrubs. The seedlings had tender trunks and no leaves; but all of them would carry death inside them when they were transplanted in the forest and grew tall. I walked among them, and they looked like objects you only see when asleep. I stopped at the entrance to the forest, at the divide between sun and shadow. I had seen the cloud of butterflies earlier. The trees in the forest were very tall, full of leaves—five-point leaves—and, just as the blacksmith had often told me, a plaque and a ring were attached to the foot of each tree. There were thousands of butterflies, all white. They fluttered around anxiously; many of them looked like half-opened flowers, the white slightly streaked with green. The ground was carpeted with old, dry leaves and a rotten odor rose from beneath them . . . I lay down under a tree and watched the cloud of butterflies bubble among the leaves. I looked at them through a web of leaf nerves until I was tired, and as soon as I let it fall, I heard footsteps. [. . .]
The steps stopped. Everything was quiet. As I strained to listen, I thought I could hear someone breathing. I felt a weight in the middle of my chest from listening and thinking I heard something: the same ill feeling as when they locked me in the cupboard for hours, the village deserted, and I would wait. This was the same. Nothing had changed: the leaves were the same, and the trees and butterflies, and the sense that time inside the shadow was dead. But everything had changed. [. . .]
The man who was approaching carried an axe on his shoulder and a pitchfork in his hand. He was naked from the waist up, his forehead smashed in. His face had been disfigured by the rushing river, and he was unable to close his eyes because the skin on his forehead was poorly attached. His red, shrunken skin was pulled tight, always leaving a slit in his eyes. He had patches of black hair on his chest, his was body sunburned. [. . .]
With his axe he began making a cross on a tree trunk; he had marked it with a stone, top to bottom and side to side. He worked mechanically, and after a while he dropped to his knees and began to cry. I held my breath. Still crying, he stood up, spit in his hands, and rubbed them together. The bee buzzed in and out of the flower. As the axe cut the trunk, you could see the line begin to emerge . . . The tree was as wide and as tall as a man, and I noticed the seedcase inside. It looked slightly green in the green light of the forest, the same color as the tree trunks in the nursery. The man poked the seedcase with the pitchfork, first on one side, then the other, until it fell to the ground. Smoke rose from the gap left in the tree. The man put down the pitchfork, wiped the sweat from his neck and rolled the seedcase to the foot of another tree . . . Then he sat on the ground and looked in the direction of the setting sun, at the butterflies.
Many of the leaves on the low branches were partially eaten away, others merely pierced by little holes. The caterpillars never stopped chewing, as they prepared to become butterflies. The man looked up with eyes he could not completely close. The air became wind. The man turned around, picked up the iron plaque, and looked at it as if he had never seen it before. He rubbed a finger over it, following the letters, one by one, until finally he stood up, seized the pitchfork and axe and headed toward the entrance to the forest, the axe on his shoulder flashing from time to time between the low-lying leaves. He came back empty-handed; and as if everything were going to begin again, the bee returned and entered the flower and the man approached his tree. He was weeping. He entered the tree backwards. . . . I was frightened. Frightened about the resin bubbling all alone, the ceiling of light hidden by leaves, and so many white wings flapping. I left, slowly at first, backing away, then I started to run, as if pursued by the man, the pitchfork, and the axe. I stopped by the edge of the river and covered my ears with my open hands so I wouldn’t hear the quiet. I crossed the river again. On the other side I left behind the odor of caterpillar-gorged leaves and encountered the fragrance of wisteria and the stench of manure. Death in spring. I threw myself on the ground, on top of the pebbles, my heart drained of blood, my hands icy. I was fourteen years old, and the man who had entered the tree to die was my father.
E.J. and Nate have censored this post for reasons that are probably obvious.
I swore to myself that I would never write about Amazon, pricing, price checking, and the suckery of NPR ever again, but
then of course, NPR has to go and run this insipidly stupid piece about a “predatory” Amazon. I’m half-tempted to go back to my normal argument that of course they’re predatory, in much the same way all corporations are predatory and take advantage of the system as it exists and tax loopholes and economies of scale and all of that shit. Bottomline: corporations only exist to make money, not to make the world a better place. Does that disturb me? Hell yes it does. I’m a pretty anti-corporate person, but trying to change the nature of Amazon by complaining that what they’re doing is unfair seems similar to trying to convince people to read translations because it will “make the world a better place.” Not to go all 2002 on this subject, but this is a time when the phrase “don’t hate the playa, hate the game” is pretty fitting. But I don’t want to talk about Amazon in this post . . . Instead I want to talk about how NPR sucks and is helping make this conversation about Amazon and other corporations really stupid and middlebrow and unproductive. Let’s start with a little thing called timing. Aside from the bit about Nancy Pearl’s new book series (which no publisher would touch until Amazon decides to publish it at which point everything is EVIL), everything in this article is at least a month old. The Price Check App? We burned that bridge long ago. And then there’s those pesky little things we call “facts.” This article, which is as typically lazy as all NPR journalism is, implies that the Price Check App applied to books, which is PATENTLY NOT TRUE. But why bother researching things when you can just throw shit at a wall and create a “controversy” by just riding whatever opinions get you the most hits. But the thing I really want to get at is how this article actually impairs any sort of intellectual discussion about the corporation vs. culture situation. Check this quote from O’Reilly’s publisher, Joe Wikert:
“The word ‘predator’ is pretty strong, and I don’t use it loosely,” he says, “but . . . I could have sworn we had laws against predatory pricing. I just don’t understand why that’s not an issue — because that’s got to be hurting other device makers out there in trying to capture this market.” Now what should follow this quote? If NPR had any journalistic balls, they would do a bit of research into anti-trust laws, and explain whether Amazon is violating something or not. If not, the discussion could be about whether anti-trust laws need to be updated, or why they’ve been corroded over the past half-century and what that’s resulted int. THAT would be an interesting article, and a fucking useful one. Does NPR go in that direction?
But Wikert is also well aware that Amazon has made life very convenient for consumers. GAAAAGGH! This is not journalism, this is explaining that we need air to breathe. Well done, NPR. Glad no one broke a sweat on that. One last example of the illogical crap that is this article. Dennis Loy Johnson (an amazing publisher and the face of the War Against Amazon), talks about an app he wants to create to promote independent bookstores:
Melville Publishing is trying to develop a number of products to help booksellers. One of them is the “shelf talker,” a digital display that helps customers browse through print books in a brick-and-mortar store but buy e-books from that store’s website instead of Amazon. Naturally, because everyone at NPR is so tuned in, they realized immediately that when you buy an ebook from an independent bookstore, it’s actually being supplied by GOOGLE, another corporation that is EVIL and should be investigated and could be violating anti-trust laws. Did they ask Dennis whether he’s uncomfortable favoring one corporate behemoth over another?
But such devices might be too little, too late. Johnson would prefer to see Amazon investigated for antitrust violations, but he doesn’t expect that will happen anytime soon. Why not? Tell me why no one will investigate them if they’re obviously breaking laws. THAT IS WHAT WE ALL WANT TO KNOW. Explain something useful to me, NPR. Please. Go out and dig around. Learn things. Pass along that knowledge. Just once, NPR, just once. God damn it.
OK, I got my heart rate back under control, but
then came across this piece about Kodak’s bankruptcy and how Rochester “hasn’t lost its sparkle,” and which may well be the most insincere article I’ve ever read. Thanks to Kodak’s inability to adapt to the world around it, Rochester is getting a ton of attention these days, with most pieces being of the “what will Rochester do without Kodak?” variety. Despite the fact that Kodak’s decline took place many years ago, and this bankruptcy just a formality, questioning Rochester’s future is a valid enough approach to the story. The problem I’ve had with all of these articles is that they address absolutely none of the actual problems present in Rochester, instead covering up everything with pollyannaish statements about how everything here “sparkles.” Seriously, Rochester (especially at and around the universities) is a very decent place to live, but the weird segregated nature of the city, the terrible impact of the soulless suburbs, the incredibly high teen pregnancy rate (one of the highest in the country), the laughably bad urban planning, the mismanagement of almost all beautification projects, the fast ferry failure, and the implosion of the city school district are REAL ISSUES. But rather than even mention that Rochester faces a plethora of challenges and has to be very ingenious to save itself from becoming yet another mid-sized American city whose main export is crippling depression, lets just reiterate that we love our hometown because it is wondrous good and filled with unicorns!
Every time I turn around it seems like there’s a new building in the medical center. There are gleaming spaces full of people in lab coats and blinking racks of computers. From new medicines, to computer chips — it feels like it’s all being invented here. People walk together with their heads down in deep discussion and you can just sense them going places no one has ever gone before. What does this even mean? The U of R Medical Center is stunningly impressive, but I’m pretty sure they don’t make computer chips there. (I know, I know, but this article is intentionally misleading in those juxtaposed sentences, which is exactly why it makes me furious.) So for anyone struggling to survive in a former blue-collar town, they should look ahead to the future with stars in their eyes because people in lab coats walk around talking about “deep” subjects?!?? Are you even serious? NPR has gone from being the alternative to the crap that is Fox News and CNN and MSNBC to being a voice of middlebrow authority that is absolutely unquestioned by most left-leaning thinkers. Which is a terrible mistake to make, and will only drive the conversation about important issues into a more banal and misguided place.
That is all.
Over at NPR, Jesmyn Ward has a really nice write-up of Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring:
When a friend gave me Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, he told me it would blow my mind. Ten pages in, I doubted his claim.
The book begins when the narrator, a 14-year-old boy from a small mountain village, slips into a cold, sometimes savage river to escape a bee. His swim is interspersed with descriptions of his isolated community, with its pink painted homes and wisteria vines that “over the years, upwrenched houses.”
Rodoreda’s prose, even in translation, is bold and beautiful, but structured into short chapters and flashbacks. The effect is impressionistic, truncated and frustrating. I couldn’t orient myself in the narrative.
And then I surrendered.
Sure, I’m 125% biased, but Death in Spring is damn amazing. Rodoreda is one of the greats of the twentieth century. This novel, Time of the Doves, her Selected Fiction are all incredible.
But I’m going to digress for a moment and hate all over the NPR commenters on this post.
When this first went up, three separate people wrote in to complain that there was no “SPOILER ALERT”:
It would be really good if you posted a SPOILER ALERT. I unwittingly read something about the novel that probably should have been read only in the novel. I continued to read, thinking that would be the last spoiler, but it wasn’t. I only got past learning that his father was killed in a very unusual way when it appeared I was going to get more details from the book. I doubt you can do a rewrite but can you post a spoiler alert~? :o] Thanks~!
OK, so now, there is a “SPOILER ALERT” warning at the top of the page, but seriously, WTF? Some readers can be so god damn annoying. Yeah, the narrator’s dad dies, “in a very unusual way.” On page 15. And even if you only read books for the simple plot points (hey—you should check out this John Locke guy, he’s probably right up your alley), then wouldn’t it really be spoiled if you knew the unusual way in which he was killed? Whatever. These people piss me off.
And I know that’s wrong, and I should feel guilty about it, but they reduce books to the most basic of components and try and strangle actual conversation about literature because if you happen to mention anything, you’ve “ruined the surprise.” GAARRRRGGGGHHHH!
Yesterday, Jim Kates (former American Literary Translators Association president, and director of Zephyr Press) was on the NPR show “Here & Now” to talk about Bringing the World’s Literature to an American Audience.
Super-awesome that he namechecks us, but what’s really interesting is his list of recommendations:
Moscow Noir, (stories) edited by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen (Russian)
The Rest is Jungle: Short Stories from Uruguay, by Mario Benedetti, translated by Harry Morales (Spanish)
Desolation of the Chimera, by Luis Cerneda, translated by Stephen Kessler (Spanish)
Forest of Eyes: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako, translated by Jeffrey Angles (Japanese)
69, by MLB [Milosz Biedrzycki] translated by Frank L. Vigoda (Polish)
Flash Cards, by Yu Jian, translated by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett (Chinese)
To the End of the Land, by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen (Hebrew)
Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky (German)
In the United States of Africa, Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated by David and Nicole Ball (French) (This is the second reference to Waberi on Three Percent in as many days . . .)
Agaat, by Marlene van Niekerk, translated by Michiel Heyns (Afrikaans)
And remember, you can listen to the complete conversation here.
Over the break, while I was drinking mimosas and staying as far away from work-related email as possible, NPR did a story on literature in translation, namely, Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote and Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary. Before getting all screedy, here’s a bit of the piece that I liked:
Grossman says she had a lot of fear when she began translating Don Quixote. She spent two weeks on the first sentence alone, because she felt everything else would fall into place if she could only do justice to Cervantes’ opening line.
The key to unlocking what the author intended, says Grossman, can always be found in the text itself.
“The text brings you in,” she explains. “I think one of the things that happens when you read carefully is that you feel as if you are looking at the world through the eyes of someone else.”
Not sure that I completely agree with this, mainly because I don’t believe in “definitive” anything, but it is interesting:
After finishing her first draft, Davis takes a look at the work of other translators, and develops a kind of partnership with them as well. “I would begin to feel that we were a group sitting in the room together wrestling with the same problems,” she says.
Davis says reading many variations on a single phrase gives her an even better understanding of how complex the process of translation is.
“I sense how hard we’ve all worked,” she says. “It’s not easy. Even a not-so-good translation is not easy to produce. Somehow, I think we maybe should have been all together . . . doing it together, and somehow achieved the final definitive translation.”
OK, now on to the fun part . . .
Not to get all up in NPR’s grill, because, yes, any article on translation is better than no article on translation, but I have a few issues with this piece:
1) The Title. “When Done Right, Little Gets Lost in Translation” implies, to me, that the majority of translations are somehow flawed, and by extension, only the few, perfect ones, which only “lose a little” of the original are worth reading. I call bullshit on this. First off, I’d love for Lynn Neary to write out some specific examples of what was “lost” in a particular translation. Yes, I know this is a cliche made all the more popular by
Bill Murray Scarlett Johansson, and I know she probably didn’t really mean to imply anything by this, but still. (How about nixing “lost in translation” from all article titles for all of 2011? That’s a resolution I can get behind.) As Michael Emmerich has pointed out, any translation is basically pure gain, since you go from not having anything, to being able to read, enjoy, discuss, dislike, argue about, a work that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
2) Neverending coverage of the classics. It’s great that people are talking about Don Quixote and Flaubert, but I’m personally totally over these pieces on retranslations of the classics. Just reinforces my prejudiced belief that the mainstream media only really wants to write about translations that they’ve read in previous versions. Which is sweet. But doesn’t necessarily encourage the growth of a culture that appreciates literary translation of contemporary authors. And because I’m irrational like this, I blame Oprah for choosing P&V’s retranslation of Anna Karenina for kickstarting this bias.
NPR is going all nationalist and public and polling their listeners on what they’d like to hear in terms of book reviews and book coverage:
What makes a book review worth reading? What type of books should NPR cover more? What do we write about too much? Who are you people, and what do you want?
As editors of the Arts section, my colleagues and I tend to think we know the answers to questions like these. But honestly, we’re just guessing, based on a combination of our preconceptions and stuff our spouses, moms and friends tell us (referred to in the news business as “gut instinct”).
So, as we start on a year-long project to expand and improve NPR’s books coverage, we thought we’d look past our own navels and invite some participation from you, our book-loving audience.
Take the online survey, and remember—every time you encourage NPR to review our books, a kitten gets its wings.
Today is a day of gushing posts . . . Up next: NPR’s year-end literary lists. I remember loving these last year, and am a big fan of the holiday lists they’ve posted so far. Even if I’m not planning on reading any of these books, the Indie Booksellers list is pretty cool, and Alan Cheuse has some intriguing recommendations as well.
But the best of the best of lists has to be Jessa Crispin’s write-up on the five best foreign fiction works of 2009.
Season of Ash by Jorge Volpi (translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam): For too long, the word nerd has been misused to describe the videogame-playing and Buffy-obsessed men and women of this world. That’s geek culture. For a proper definition, look no further than Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash, which, in its depth (it spans the years 1929 to 2000), breadth (it crisscrosses from Zaire to Berlin and Pittsburgh to Siberia) and bookish preoccupations (scientific advancements in genetic research, artificial life and biochemistry), is unapologetically nerdy. But it’s quality airplane reading, too.
There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers): Lately, much has been made about the absence in contemporary Russian literature of worthy heirs to the realist masters Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But the rise of the tightly constructed “weird” tales of Petrushevskaya, Victor Pelevin and Tatyana Tolstaya suggests a secure Soviet literary future.
The Armies by Evelio Rosero (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean): Winner of the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, The Armies is a realistic account of Colombia’s civil unrest told in a tense, stripped-down style. It avoids slipping into polemic by keeping at its emotional center an old man interested not in taking sides but just the safe return of his wife.
The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven (translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu): By deciding to mine one character’s psychology so thoroughly, Israeli novelist Gail Hareven risks not only believability but the chance that readers won’t stick around for 300 pages. Noa is a fine companion, however: intelligent, self-aware, charming and darkly witty. That risk earned Hareven Israel’s Sapir Prize and, one hopes, a growing presence in the English-language market.
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer): In its candor about the bitterness that can arise from family obligations and the responsibility of caretaking, The Twin is both touching and surprising. Bakker’s beautiful and uncluttered prose style is almost old-fashioned. A character’s remark about the farm — “It’s here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930” — could refer to the novel itself. Family drama, after all, is timeless.
Not only is this a killer list of books (including some of my personal favorites), but it’s a partial who’s who of top translation publishers with a heavy emphasis on the indie: New Directions, Archipelago, Open Letter, Melville House, and Penguin.
Well done Jessa!
Over the next few days, NPR’s Morning Edition is going to be featuring Chinese writers, as a part of their ‘China at 60’ series that’s looking at the history of the People’s Republic.
The 2004 best-selling book Wolf Totem is said to be second in circulation in China only to Chairman Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. The author, Jiang Rong, 63, is an unusual hero for the country: a child of the revolution who became a democracy activist. His novel is a thinly veiled political fable about freedom.
But this is a novel by the cerebral French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, so nothing much happens at all. And it’s all the more thrilling because of it. There are long philosophical conversations about love and obsession and identity, and characters stare out at the sea for what seems like hours. A woman’s mussed hair says volumes about her inner turmoil, and there is no conclusion to speak of. It’s not a book to rush through. It’s a book to be savored while drinking cognac and smoking pretentious cigarettes. [. . .]
“One’s always more or less looking for something,” Duras writes in Gibraltar, “for something to arise in the world and come toward you.” Whether that’s a lost love or a reason not to go home again, Duras captures the longing that infects her ‘haracters — and all of us from time to time — with elegant prose and a story that will set you blissfully adrift.
Absolutely. And in addition to the review, NPR has an excerpt from the book as well.
This piece doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, but it’s nice to see NPR covering the art of literary translation.
Rick Kleffel’s piece begins by pointing out the impossibility of a literal translation, then focuses on three translators: Bea Basso, who points out the difficulty of capturing the culture, dialect of a particular region; Julie Rose, who was the third person to translate Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables; and Burton Raffel, who has translated Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Like I said, nothing new to see here—I expect nothing more from NPR these days—but this story from Raffel is worth the price of admission:
“Rabelais, the author of this very strange book, ends the chapter with a sputtering iteration. I believe it’s something like 43 different words in French for s- – -,” says Raffel. “My problem was finding 43 different words because English is not so plentiful in these things.”
Yesterday, the NPR news program Day to Day talked at some length about “The Best Foreign Books You’ve Never Heard Of”—a discussion spurred, like so many others, by Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio’s recently awarded Nobel Prize for Literature and the general U.S. reaction of “Ba?”
So, Day to Day invited David Kipen—director of Literature and National Reading Initiatives at the National Endowment for the Arts—to discuss the premise:
If most Americans have never heard of this accomplished author of more than 30 novels, essays and story collections, perhaps it’s because there is so little emphasis on international books in the U.S. publishing world.
Kipen offered a list of some international lit starting points (such as Antonio Lobo Antunes and Carlos Fuentes), described the drought of literature in translation in America, and—at about four minutes in—he kindly recommends us (that is: Open Letter, Three Percent, and the University of Rochester) as the place to read and learn more about international literature in translation.
It may be irrational, but this Three Books . . . column about doing the “Grand Tour” of Europe via literature just bugs me. Not the idea that “literature takes you places!” but the fact that the three books featured are Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and A Room with a View.
This is the most “European” you can get? Two American authors and a fairly conventional Brit? Christ. Marc Acito—I’m more than willing to send you personal copies of European fiction if you really want to go on an “adventure.” And to think I was praising NPR’s book coverage not so very long ago . . . Thankfully Jessa Crispin has a review this week of Christopher Priest’s Inverted World to help redeem the section. (A book that sounds fantastic, by the way.)
The other day NPR ran this segment about Wordsmiths in Decatur, Georgia, and the store’s recent decision to ask for donations from customers in order to stay in business.
In its typical middle-of-the-road objective, NPR’s focus is on whether it’s good or bad for people to donate to a for profit business, presenting both “sides” of the issue in a half-ass, intellectually non-stimulating way. Aside from Wordsmiths owner (who has been successful in raising funds from his customers), they also interview an economist who presents the pat, anti-nonprofit viewpoint that if a business can’t break even, it may not deserve support from the public, and then follow up with Mark Sarvas who points out that maybe the rules for donations should be relaxed for literary efforts, since this isn’t exactly a growth, or even financial stable, industry.
It would take weeks of posts to really parse through an issue like this, but because of some activities I’ve been engaged in recently (including a couple I can’t really talk about until later this fall), the publishing/bookselling model and the nonprofit world has been on my mind quite a bit.
First off, to provide a bit of the contextual background that NPR didn’t, there is at least one very successful nonprofit bookstore in the U.S.—Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They became a nonprofit in 1979, and here’s a basic description of their activities:
The center houses a bookstore with over 25,000 small press titles otherwise unavailable in our area. Because we are nonprofit, our inventory decisions aren’t dictated entirely by commercialism. As booksellers and as presenters of art and literature, we want people to know that there is more than what you see at your chain book store, more than you are taught in school, more than what is reviewed in the papers. We hope to act as a catalyst, putting readers together with small press literature. Come browse our selection of poetry, chapbooks, fine print materials, broadsides, and multicultural literature. We think you’ll be impressed!
Our space also includes an art gallery where we present exhibitions, artist talks, readings, experimental films, concerts and writing workshops for adults and children.
A few years ago, Chapters: A Literary Bookstore in Washington, D.C. decided to become an nonprofit as well, in part by making the store part of a larger 501©3 organization called Wordfest that directed an international poetry festival. For a variety of reasons I don’t even fully know, this relationship didn’t work out, and Chapters was eventually forced to close. The remarkable Terri Merz is still looking for a space to reopen, which will hopefully happen soon, since D.C. needs a great indie store, especially since Olsson’s is struggling.
On the horizon is The Great Lakes Literary Art Center at Shaman Drum Bookshop. Karl Pohrt and I talked briefly about this when I interviewed him a couple weeks back. Karl’s a pretty modest guy, so on his behalf I’ll talk about how amazing this is. Rather than sell his store—which is a fixture of Ann Arbor life, and would probably find a buyer pretty quickly—he’s decided to give it to the community. A pdf of the complete GLLAC Development Plan is available online for anyone to peruse.
One of the things that went unmentioned in the NPR piece (in part because it was outside of the scope, and rather than look at Wordsmiths as an example of a expanding business model of the nonprofit bookstore, they went for the “fair and balanced” is-this-a-good-idea? approach) is what makes a nonprofit bookstore a nonprofit.
Almost everyone knows that most book related business don’t make much money. Sure the big media conglomerates (that are much more than just a publisher) have significant profits, but even then, the margin for a publisher or bookstore is incredibly low compared to other enterprises. As a result, people working in the book trade are usually very underpaid. Which is why it’s tricky to get younger generations to stay in the book business. And why B&N and Borders are filled with “clerks” not “booksellers.” (More on that later or in another post.)
As Richard Nash says, independent booksellers and publishers are just two fuck-ups away from bankruptcy.
But that’s not what makes a store/publisher a nonprofit. A tax-exempt 501©3 organization, can be literary, dedicated to the “advancement of education” or to “eliminating prejudice and discrimination.” Reading the actual description, this seems like a sufficiently broad category, and one that would encompass bookstores that are doing something more than just selling books.
For instance, both Woodland Pattern and Shaman Drum are dedicated to cultivating readers, in part by offering free literary activities, workshops, etc. They are engaging with readers and helping foster a better community through literary works and activities. They’re not just clerking books a la the traditional box store or a supermarket. They are interacting with the public in a different, more meaningful way. And these activities—if they are to have any impact—cost money. And, in my opinion, deserve to be supported through tax breaks, state and federal funding, and donations from individuals.
The current business models we have are totally broken. Distribution is handled by a select few, book coverage (at least print style) is decreasing, very few authors can survive on their writing alone, and people are working in the industry out of love and passion, surviving on small salaries.
Which is why the more I think about it, the more this NPR piece irks me. Granted, they might not find the idea of exploring this nonprofit model as interesting as I do, but the focus they went for is such an odd take that it’s almost ridiculous. And I never like it when economists sugges things about society (such as implicitly favoring the business that can make money instead of the business that enhances cultural life) since I tend to disagree almost 100% of the time with their suggestions.
OK, enough ranting for the moment. Tomorrow (or Friday) I do want to write something more about publishers and booksellers and how they interact (or don’t) with readers, which I think is another important aspect of the wider context for this story.
NPR chimes in on the Reading in America debate with this piece on why women read more than men.
I take it for granted that women do read more than men, but every time I see one of these studies, the numbers still astound me.
When it comes to fiction, the gender gap is at its widest. Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain.
Which is a pretty big gap. And why is there such a gap?
Theories attempting to explain the “fiction gap” abound. Cognitive psychologists have found that women are more empathetic than men, and possess a greater emotional range—traits that make fiction more appealing to them.
Some experts see the genesis of the “fiction gap” in early childhood. At a young age, girls can sit still for much longer periods of time than boys, says Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain.
NPR with the hard-hitting facts . . . or vague opinioned beliefs. Or something. Damn it NPR, why do you always let me down? I think the real problem is we’re all too busy reading these articles—or listening to NPR—to actually read a novel . . .
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In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing.. . .
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