The one panel from Monday that hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage online is the Editors Buzz Panel. Consisting of French, German, and American editors (and Scott Moyers from Wylie—lot more below), this panel was an opportunity to highlight some really interesting forthcoming books.
Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens talked about Marie Darrieussecq’s latest book (which is the subject of a fascinating controversy); Jenna Johnson from Harcourt talked about I Have the Right to Destroy Myself and Michael Zollner from Tropen Verlag presented a book called What We Talk about When We Talk about Doping.
All the presentations were great, but what most got me going was Scott Moyers opening comments about fiction in translation. As someone who worked at Random House, Penguin, and now Wylie, he’s come into contact with a lot of big international authors. And I’m sure he’s a nice guy. But the things he said at the panel were a perfect example of how commercial publishing treats “international fiction” as a pure commodity and basically undercut a lot of the good interactions that happened earlier in the days.
First off, he started talking about W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, and that although Sebald had been “getting his name out there a bit,” this was an opportunity for Random House to put the “stamp of authority” on Sebald as a great European writers. Which is pretty inaccurate. New Directions (and Harvill in the UK) had been publishing Sebald for years and had already cultivated a huge reputation for him. Sebald was by no means unknown when Random House wrested the rights to Austerlitz away from New Directions in what seemed to be a pretty savage business move better suited to Wall Street than literary publishing. But RH saw an opportunity—not to promote Sebald, but to capitalize on him.
The next book he mentioned was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Which is a book with some merit, but not really the “great Barcelona novel” that it was portrayed as. But that’s an aesthetic debate, and it may be because I can name more than a dozen Spanish/Catalan writers that I have a slightly different perspective on where this fits in the Spanish literary tradition than Scott does.
What bugged me though was his insistence that, like with Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, The Shadow of the Wind sent publishers rushing to find other Spanish novelists writing just like him. Even if true, that precisely describes one of the things wrong with American publishing. This sort of pigeonholing, this looking to replicate what “worked” leads to the publication of a lot of pale imitations that are generally uninteresting and create the viewpoint that all fiction from country X is all the same.
All of these events—like everything the French American Foundation, the French Cultural Services, and the German Book Office do—were designed to promote a widening appreciation of literature from other cultures. But this perspective that Scott presented—which actually is pretty dominant in the marketplace—represents the exact opposite. Instead of appreciating art from other cultures, these publishers treat these books as commodities. The Shadow of the Wind is great because it sold well, not necessarily because it’s a great book.
There’s nothing wrong with for profit companies running their business in profitable ways, but in my opinion, expressing such a condescending, somewhat ignorant viewpoint at such a panel designed to celebrate cultural exchanges made Americans look crass and culturally naive.
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .
You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .
The narrative history of. . .
Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .
I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .
Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist. . .
On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were. . .
In a story of two emotionally distant people, Japanese author Takashi Hiraide expertly evokes powerful feelings of love, loss, and friendship in his novel The Guest Cat. The life of the unnamed narrator and his wife, both writers, is calm. . .