So, what can be done to accomplish the change in priority from “How do we pay for translated fiction?” into “How do we get more people interested in these books?”
First off, there’s the “publishers are sheep” problem. I once saw Scott Moyer (formerly of Random House and Penguin, currently working at the Andrew Wylie Agency) on a panel talking about Shadow of the Wind and how the success of that particular book caused editors to seek out the next Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Is this really what we need? Not that Zafon’s not talented, not that I don’t think people should read his books or books like them, but I’m pretty sure that publishers love imitation more than their audience does. Medium-hopping for a second, how many Lost-esque shows came out after the immediate success of Lost? I think about a billion, none of which are still on the air. Readers like similarities, not necessarily repetition. Publishers like sure things. There may be a problem here.
Not that it’s easy for anyone — psychic or not — to identify what’s going to take off. One of the reasons imitations don’t work is because audiences tend to be fickle. Trends are trends because they aren’t permanent.
But what might be worse from a culture standpoint is if readers do come to believe that all translations are equal.
Let me digress for a minute: I’m not going to go into it too much here, but I do want to say that one of my beliefs is that publishing — or media creation of any sort—is a special sort of industry. Sure, it’s an industry based on profit and loss and catering to needs and purchasing power, but it also has a larger import. What’s published affects culture as a whole. Ideas circulate thanks to books. Visions of the world at large are crafted by what we read and see. So treating publishing as solely a money game is missing the fact that most of this are in this because we know that books have power and that we are hopefully contributing to the greater good via our jobs. Or most probably. Maybe it’s just me and I’m deluded. But still.
A while ago, I came up with the idea of the “one country, one author” problem. For example: people found out about Jose Saramago, fell in love with Blindness, and didn’t bother reading other Portuguese writers because they had already read the best. And Garcia Marquez equals Colombia. Tolstoy was Russia.
OK, that last one is debatable and maybe the whole idea is a pile of crap, but let me tell a little story about what happened to us recently. Open Letter runs a subscription series whereby for $100 you receive 10 books over the next year. After we were featured in the New York Times, hundreds, literally hundreds of people signed up, not really knowing what kind of books they’d be getting, except that they were “translations.” One of the first books sent out to these new subscribers was Ilf & Petrov’s Russian classic The Golden Calf. This book is hysterical, readable, great fun. A couple weeks after sending it out, however, I received a letter in the mail from a new subscriber asking for a full refund, since “nothing I have ever read could prepare me for this. I don’t read a lot of translations and this was nothing like The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”
The Non-Beach Reading Audience
Running parallel to the beach readers is a smaller, yet very devoted, group of literary readers. These are people who get geeked about the Man Booker Longlist. These are people who made David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a New York Times bestseller. Who made Roberto Bolano’s 2666 a bestseller. Who made Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses a bestseller. These are the people who might read Steig Larsson, but may well crave Mathias Enard’s aforementioned Zone. These are readers who have always been around, always been on the fringes supporting the artists. This group is not half a tenth as large as publishers would like, but these are the readers who help mold literary tastes for years well into the future. And for the first time in history, it’s suddenly become much easier to reach and interact with these readers.
Everyone knows we live in a culture of mass markets. At any point in time it seems like everyone is reading the same twelve books. And this is comforting to publishers. If you can produce one of the twelve, you can capitalize on that shit. It’ll be stacked at Barnes & Noble. People will be reading it on the subway. Sure, there are those other readers who aren’t interested in these types of books, but man, they’re much harder to identify and reach. This is true, but for the readership for literature in translation to take off, I think you have to.
This is why publishing houses with strong brands — Archipelago, Europa Editions, New Directions — do better with literature than some of the major commercial houses. They may not have the distributing power, but they draw this other group of readers to them. In some ways, they’re in a better position to successfully publish a “non-commercial” translation than a Random House.
Multiple Approaches to the Readership Issue
I’m not trying to say independents are better publishers, or that we shouldn’t try and publish translated “beach books” in order to increase the audience for literature in translation — just that we need to take a multi-pronged approach to this situation.
On one hand, you have the presses identifying and marketing the hell out of translations that have the potential to become very, very popular. This is what a number of the major houses are really good at. And it makes them money and it helps them believe that there is an audience for these “foreign” books, and it leads them to publish more of these titles. All very positive.
And on the other side, you have the small presses who tend to focus on the books with a more diffuse readership. Books that “aren’t for everyone.” There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people like to rail against the culture-at-large for not appreciating this particular aesthetic. Which is kind of stupid. There is an audience for these books — it’s just up to the publisher (and any other organizations who’d like to help with money, ideas, or manpower) to find creative new ways to connect with these readers. We live in a digital age where social networks rule our time online and we’re more tuned in to one another’s lives than we’ve ever been. Whereas in the past there was that small group of readers who bonded over an obscure Grove publication, nowadays this same handful of readers can broadcast their love to similar groups across the country. And these numbers add up, and the influence these readers have can be monumental.
If different publishers, funders, reader-oriented organizations approach sides of this readership coin in different, yet equally innovative ways, (and yes, I realize that it’s sometimes really hard to distinguish what’s mass and what’s cult), some real change might come about. Hell, maybe a highly literary translation will be the beach book of summer 2011.
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