18 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although not as long as “last week’s post,” I would recommend downloading the PDF version. Besides, it just looks prettier in that format.

Although the main point of this post is pretty general and obvious—the rich get richer by already being rich—it was inspired by some publishing-specific, inside baseball type stuff, so I think it’s probably best to start by explaining how we (Open Letter) input all the information about our forthcoming books.

Every six months, I have to create “Advance Information” entries for each one of our titles in Helix, the operating system that Consortium currently uses1 to keep track of info—metadata, sales, inventory, etc.—for all the titles that they distribute. Like most publishers, I have a love-hate relationship with this process. On the one hand, it’s the first opportunity to start building out information for your forthcoming titles—which can be really exciting. I’ve spent the past week reading (or rereading) the books that we’re coming out with between September 2017 and March 2018 and have worked myself into a frenzy to share these books with reps, booksellers, and readers.

We have six books coming out during those months, and aside from a new Bae Suah and a collection of poems from Per Aage Brandt, the other four have never been translated into English. One of these authors is Madame Nielsen, whose first novel was recommended to me by the Icelandic author Sjón: “The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen is my literary discovery of the year.” In all seriousness, I believe this book could be our first ever bestseller. It is both that good, that short (just over 100 pages), and that accessible (it’s a love story with a lot of tension and tragedy).2

So there are aspects to filling out these entries that make me really excited. In two weeks, I’ll be pitching all these books to the core staff at Consortium, who will give me some pointers for jacket copy, blurbs, promotional ideas, etc., based on what’s worked in the past for books like this. Their advice is invaluable, as is the process of taking five minutes to try and reign in the abounding enthusiasm for a book (“Holy Shit! The way the melancholy that runs throughout the book is so charming, as it spirals forward and backward in time, touching upon all these various lives, but all told by a ‘boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it’ with a sort of writerly grace that I haven’t experienced in ages, especially in a translation so evocative and!!!) and hone it into something that others can latch onto, that they can process, that makes sense—that experience is also invaluable.

The part that sucks is actually entering all of the information. There are fields upon fields begging for metadata. Price, page count, carton quantity, four BISAC codes,3 shelving category, contributor bio, contributor role, contributor place of residence, promotional plans, selling and marketing points, and so on and forth.

Then there are the descriptive fields: key notes, which is a twenty-word “one-sentence summary crafted to grab the buyer’s attention,” and the description, which is limited to sixty words. Sixty! I can’t describe my mood in sixty words, much less a piece of literature. But again, as frustrating as this is—in part because I, and probably most of us, finish it last minute—it’s a great exercise in boiling things down to their core.4

All of that is fine—and not at all what I want to talk about. The main point is that, for every title we ever publish, we create these records that have a dual function: 1) to log all the important data about our books (price, ISBN, title, contributors) into Consortium’s database, and 2) to provide sales reps with some guidance for talking about these books to bookstores.

One of the toughest things to explain to my publishing students is why bookstore buyers bring certain titles into their stores. It’s easy enough to grasp that a store can’t carry everything, but the mechanisms behind their decision making can seem bafflingly opaque.

Over-simplifying here, but a successful bookstore tends to do a couple things really well: create a brand for itself by stocking a particular range of books (which oftentimes helps tie it to its community and make it something unique when compared to a “general” chain store), and stock books that will turnover fast enough that the store can generate enough revenue to stay in business. As much as one would like to stock only the books that they like, there is a need to have the books in stock that customers will come looking for. These don’t necessarily have to be the poppiest of the crap titles (Twilight, etc.), but the books that have the right amount of marketing push and publicity buzz to enter into the consciousness of a significant number of general book buyers.

For example, you need to have enough copies of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead before it’s reviewed on NPR and New York Times and becomes a finalist (or winner) for basically every single book award possible.

There are two things related to this that anyone outside of the book industry might not realize: 1) if a customer comes looking for a book and you don’t have it, you lose the sale, period, and 2) you have to order your initial stock on these titles 4-8 months before publication date. Granted, you can always order more copies from the wholesalers, but the numbers work out a lot better for the store if you order the right number up front.5

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Let me go back to an idea from last week’s essay to help bring this forward. From that piece:

To know which books will do well enough, to cover the titles that people will definitely be talking about (thus perceived as “important”), to stock the titles that are most likely to sell—the closer these things are to certain, the more stable and profitable the industry is. Hits can come out of nowhere and far exceed sales expectations, but it’s best if that happens in a context in which you already control the baseline for as close to 100% of the products you’re putting into the market as possible.

To reiterate and clarify: Publishers, booksellers, critics, authors never know for certain which books will be hits. But there are titles that we can know—with a high degree of certainty—will sell a particular amount. Because of x, y, and z (review coverage, past sales, author profile, book topic), there is a range that publishers can rely upon. A particular book might sell 300,000 copies, but will likely sell 30-50,000, and will only in the most catastrophic of circumstances, sell a mere 5,000. Being able to project this—the stable books, with decent upside and high floors—is the key to being a successful large(ish) publisher.

Bookstores play a dual role in this: to stay alive, they need to make a significant portion of their revenue from these “solid” books, and also, the more they stock these books, the more likely they are to hit the upper level of the predicted range.

Sure, there are all sorts of unpredictable and unexplored (at least for now, until future essays) mechanisms for why a book goes from selling 30,000 copies to 300,000 copies, but still, if I owned a bookstore, I would want the majority of my inventory to consist of titles that are almost guaranteed to sell 30,000 across the country, saving a small portion of my space (maybe 15-20%?) for the strange indie books that would differentiate my store from Barnes & Noble, yet would probably sell 3,000 copies across the country. To make this as specific as possible, for every eight copies of The Underground Railroad that I stock, I’d stock two titles from Open Letter/Deep Vellum/Dalkey Archive/Archipelago (sans Knausgaard)/NYRB/etc.

If I were a bookstore, I’d want in on stocking the titles that will make up 80% of the revenues for publishers and other bookstores. I want to be the norm, for the most part, and variate on the fringes.

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Which brings us to comparative titles. Comp titles. And a caveat.

With every entry that I create for our forthcoming books, I have to enter five (or more) “comp titles.” As the people at Consortium have explained (over and over and over and again), comp titles are books similar in format (paperback original vs hardcover), publisher (indie vs big five), marketing budget (again, indie vs big five), author brand (six previously published novels vs some dude from the Faroe Islands), and publishing proximity (all comp titles have to have been published in the last five years).

This probably seems weird to anyone outside of the publishing industry, so it might make sense to go over what doesn’t make a good comp title: book that is similar in theme or setting to a book published ten years ago, a book similar in theme or setting to a book by a best-selling author, book similar in style and character to one by a publisher significantly like you.

As I’ve been told over and again, comp titles are for bookstores to know how many copies to order upfront, based on three-month sales of books similar—in publisher, publicity access, marketing budgets, overall prominence—to those of Open Letter.

One the first6 level, I totally get this. Comp titles are signals to bookstores of which titles are in that group almost guaranteed to do really well (30,000 sales or whatever), with huge upsides. They want to know what books they can get a couple copies of and restock whenever.7 If you haven’t been reading the footnotes, you might want to go do that now.

Theoretically, except for Amazon, all bookstores are limited in the number of titles that they can carry. And the more titles you can carry that will sell 80+ units, the way better. (See footnotes, but if you buy right on a popular book, or over, that’s for the best, even at the expense of shelf space.) The best option is to buy “slightly” under on books that are “Solid Titles,” and buy way under on “Indie Books” that might break out. In terms of numbers AND common sense, this feels right: if you have a solid bet, go for it, buy a bunch, and then buy as many titles as possible that might take off, but probably won’t. I feel like this is a legal betting strategy.

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What I’ve been told time and again about Comp Titles is that these are used by booksellers to help them decide how many copies of a book to order up front. They look at how similar (or “comparable”) titles sold over the first few months, and then place their bets. Given all that’s come above, that totally makes sense. You want to buy right on the books that will do the best for you, because maximizing turnover of stock bought with the highest discount, is the most efficient pathway to profit.

But what makes for a good comp title?

Here’s what most people assume: A good comp title is a book similar in plot, or setting. (Like comparing a mystery set in Morocco to another Moroccan mystery.) A book with the same tone (comic, suspenseful, etc.), or general appeal (“family sagas about Italians are hot right now!”). The assumption is that books should be compared to books that have a similar aesthetic, since readers tend to look for titles that are in line with what they already like. (“I just finished Ferrante—what do you have that’s just like that?”) So a store would be well served to operate under a “If you liked X, you’ll love Y” sort of methodology.

All of that is completely wrong.

Relying on Consortium’s expertise in this (which has been backed up by various sales reps), what makes a good comp title is a title with more paratextual similarities related much more closely to the publisher’s position in the marketplace than the book itself.

What makes a good comp title? A title that is published by the same publisher or publisher of a similar size and situation. A title with the same sort of marketing budget and initial print run. Titles from authors at a similar point in their career, or that have other structural similarities. And all comp titles have to have been published within the last three years.

All of this makes good sense—especially from a buyer’s perspective. They don’t want every tiny new indie press comparing their 700-page “postmodern masterpiece” to Infinite Jest, since there’s a one in one trillion chance that this book will sell one one hundredth as well as IJ. When it comes to books that aren’t necessarily likely to sell 30,000 copies total, stores are deciding whether they should initially buy 3 copies for their shelves or 1. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, the store will order 7 for a display. To show buyers comparisons to books that sold 50+ copies in their first couple months is in no way helpful, when the book they’re considering is very unlikely to sell more than 5.

But there is something within these parameters that constantly nags at me . . . In this system, the quality and nature of the books themselves have been eliminated, and your chances of getting significant pre-sales depends on the pre-existing size of your publishing house, and how much money you have.

For example, we published Bae Suah’s A Greater Music last year, a book that has some general similarities to The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Preference for one book or the other put aside, it would seem to make sense—on the surface—to use The Vegertarian as a comp title. After all, Han Kang and Bae Suah are two of the hottest authors coming out of South Korea, and are more or less equals in that country. People who read and loved The Vegetarian would presumably be interested in reading another female writer from South Korea—especially one translated by the same translator. (Who, it’s worth noting, was responsible for promoting and getting both of these authors published in English translation.)

But that’s totally wrong. On the one hand, the odds of any book selling as well as The Vegetarian (even pre-Man Booker) is highly unlikely, so the numbers you get from looking at past sales are pretty garbage. And, more importantly, Crown has money and power, whereas Open Letter is run on a fraying shoestring of grants, kindness, and self-sacrifice. I wouldn’t be surprised if Crown spent more on marketing The Vegetarian than Open Letter spent total in the last six months.

If Crown were to have done A Greater Music, they could definitely have used The Vegetarian as a comp title—and bookstore buyers would’ve taken the numbers seriously. They wouldn’t have ordered quite as many copies as what they sold of Han Kang’s novel, but they would’ve bought in at a far higher rate than they did for us. (Throwing out bullshit numbers here, but it’s not unreasonable to assume an average store would’ve ordered 12-15 copies of A Greater Music from Crown, versus 1 or 2 from Open Letter.)

In short, if you’re of a certain size, you can compare your books to books that came from publishers of a similar size which, in almost all instances, sold much better than books from smaller publishers (like Open Letter). As a result, your books take up more space in bookstores, are more frequently displayed, and end up selling better.8

As helpful as the comp title process might be for buyers, reps, and the like, its very structure reinforces the core inequality of the publishing business: the haves get to take up more space and sell more books, the have-nots have to get really lucky and work outside of the system to get a book to take off. And for smaller presses, it makes it almost impossible to get through to buyers about the quality of your book. Unless they read a title and fall in love with it, all the signals in place telling them what to buy, what to pay attention to, are pointed away from the indie press book toward titles from the most successful. All of which reinforces the idea that there is no meritocracy at work here. The best books very rarely rise to the top; a mediocre book with more resources behind it will always beat the “better” book from a smaller press.

The quality of the book itself—this cherished object, this artistic enterprise that editors, booksellers, and the like tend to fetishize—is less important than the business structure surrounding that salable object.

1 Consortium was recently purchased by Ingram, so starting in April we’ll be using something called “TitleSource.” (Everything at Ingram ends in “source” for some unknown reason. Like LightningSource. Not sure what this is about, but it’s pretty essentialist and pervasive.)

More importantly, every distributor uses a different one of these management systems, but in the end, they’re all basically the same: a database to store metadata about titles and track the movements of all units into the warehouse, out to stores, back to the warehouse. So what follows in the piece above is not Consortium-centric.

2 It’s also written in an inimitable style, which, in today’s book world, is probably a strike against it. But that’s a topic for next week’s essay.

3 Basically the codes that help categorize books. For example, “Fiction, Literary.” Or “History, Latin America, General.” You can see the whole list here. Even a cursory glance will show that this list is both incomplete and gated in funny ways.

4 CoreSource perhaps? Sorry. So sorry.

5 Here’s a mathematical model for you that should help to make this clear: Let’s assume that over the course of a month, you end up selling 80 copies of The Underground Railroad (retail price: $27). This is obviously contingent on the size of the store, but let’s just see what happens under three different scenarios: you order too few, you order the right amount, you order too many.

Couple more premises: 1) you get a 47% discount from the publisher, 40% from the wholesaler, 2) you get free freight from both, 3) it costs $50 to return excess stock—no matter the amount, and 4) 75% of people who would buy from your store decide not to, if you’re currently out of stock.

Scenario A: You initially order 32 copies of the book from the publisher. You sell all 32 copies ($27*32*.47=$406.08), but have 48 customers who come in to buy the book when you’re out of stock, only 12 of which end up buying the book from you ($27*12*.4=$129.60). (These copies you order from the wholesaler because it’s faster and more efficient.) You don’t return any copies, so you make $535.68 on this title.

Scenario B: You somehow order exactly 80 copies right off the bat and sell all 80 ($27*80*.47=$1,015.20). You make almost twice as much as you did by under-ordering—$1,015.20.

Scenario C: You buy hard, because fucking Whitehead, you know? So you get 120 and sell 80 ($27*80*.47=$1,015.20) and return 40 (-$25). That’s not bad; you made $965.20.

Scenario D: What happens if you buy hard on a dud? What if you only sold 20 of the 120 you bought? Then you make $286.20 on the sales ($27*20*.47), but lose $50 (or more?) on returning the extra 100. So you end with $236.20. That’s a better per copy revenue ratio (barely) than scenario A ($236.20/20=$11.81 vs $535.68/48=$11.16).

Main point: Getting it right is how to maximize your income. Know which books are going to sell, get enough to cover demand, but not too too much. (Especially if you multiply these numbers out across 100 or so titles a year.) But how to judge which books and how many copies? Those are the questions.

6 “CoreSource”?

7 I think the crucial point is that bookstores maximize profit by stocking titles that have a large turnover rate. You have to figure out what that rate is for your store (maybe you sell 20 copies of The Underground Railroad every month, and five copies of War, So Much War; whereas a different store does 100 of the former and .25 [one every four months] of the latter), and adjust to that. But the more information you have when you place your initial order—the more likely a title is to sell 20+ copies—the better off you are.

8 Another idea to explore in a future post, but I doubt anyone would question the fact that the more copies of a book on display in a store, the more likely it is to sell. These are the books you notice, that bounce off the periphery of your awareness over and over, and which a lot of people end up buying. Especially in comparison to the single copy of A Greater Music hidden back in the fiction shelves . . .

18 January 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Joining the Gutekunst Prize in calls for applications this season are both the Banff International Literary Translation Centre residency, and the Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival (ITEF) fellowship.

About Banff:

Inspired by the network of international literary translation centres in Europe, the Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC) is the only one of its kind in North America. Since the inaugural program in 2003, BILTC has hosted translators from approximately 30 countries translating work involving more than 40 languages.

This program offers working and professional literary translators a period of uninterrupted work on a current The Banff International Literary Translation Centre hosts one translation student from each of the founding countries—Canada, Mexico, and the United States—and 15 literary translators, either from the Americas translating literature from anywhere in the world, or translators from anywhere in the world translating literature from the Americas.

More information on the call for Banff applications can be found here.

About the ITEF:

ITEF-Istanbul Tanpınar Literature Festival aims to increase the visibility of Turkish literature abroad, to promote Turkish literature worldwide and to enrich the literary scene in Turkey by extending horizons and creating new dialogues. With these aims in mind, the festival established the ITEF Fellowship Program in 2011.

ITEF is a unique meeting point in Istanbul for writers, publishers, agents, translators, journalists, literary fund managers, festival coordinators and all of those passionate about world literature. The program allows a limited number of literary professionals from around the world to meet with Turkish counterparts in their field, to share best practice and ideas and spark new projects and literary exchanges.

You can read an article about the ITEF experience by literary agent Nazli Gürkaş here, and take a look at the ITEF fellowship application here.

18 January 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Last week, it was announced that applications had opened for the 2017 Gutekunst Prize for emerging literary translators who translate from German to English. It’s open to all translators under the age of 35 who, at the time the prize is awarded, have not yet published, are under contract for, a book-length translation.

From the Goethe Institute’s information page on the prize:

In 2010, the Goethe-Institut New York received a generous donation in memory of Frederick and Grace Gutekunst with which we have established the Gutekunst Prize for Emerging Translators. From Frederick Gutekunst’s love of the German language evolved the idea of creating a prize to identify outstanding young translators of German literature into English and assist them in establishing contact with the translation and publishing communities.

The winner of the Gutekunst Prize will be invited to an award ceremony to take place at the Goethe-Institut New York. The $2,500 prize will be awarded at this time and the winner will have the opportunity to present his or her translation.

The winning translation will be published on the website of the Goethe-Institut and, following agreement with the German publisher of the work, be used as a sample translation in negotiations with US publishers, to be conducted by the German Book Office.

More information on the prize, the process, and how to test your German-translation skills is available on the Gutekunst Prize page.

17 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, the entire Open Letter crew (Chad, Nate, Kaija) got together to talk about some of the music they listened to over the past year. (That and Bud Light ads.)

You can listen to all the songs featured on this podcast on this Spotify playlist:



Also, just a reminder, since we changed our podcast feed, you may need to unsubscribe and resubscribe to the correct feed in iTunes.

Or, you can just put this feed link into whichever is your podcast app of choice:
http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss

As always, feel free to send any and all comments or questions to: threepercentpodcast@gmail.com.

And if you like the podcast, tell a friend and rate us or leave a review on iTunes!



10 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Given the insane length of this post, I would recommend downloading the PDF version. Besides, it’s easier to read the footnotes that way. Some of which are pretty fun, I think.

Much in the same way it’s impossible for me to choose a single part of Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading that I like the best, I can’t quite settle on what it is about Moretti and his approach to literary studies that gets me jazzed. He’s iconoclastic and disruptive (his initial paper on “distant reading” was intended to jar the comparative literature department at Columbia out of its rut and resulted in a number of aggressive critiques), he’s obsessed with data and quantitative analyses that are less about close reading and interpretation and more about asking larger questions that can be backed by data (which has a sort of kinship with baseball sabermetrics), and his writing is almost anti-academic in the way it conveys a sense of wonder and exploration. I’ve never met the man, but his writing is stimulating, fun, and varied.

Hitting a number of different topics, the ten essays in this collection touch upon, in no particular order: data analysis of the length, type, and structure of titles for novels in the eighteenth century; the spread of Hollywood movies; evolutionary theory as applied to the literary marketplace; a geography of literary history; the vast structural differences in the European and Chinese novelistic form, which developed in parallel; and how the tracing of a single textual element (clues) through the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his rivals can explain why Sherlock Holmes survived and 99.5% of the other books published at that time have been eliminated in the “slaughterhouse of literature.”

For me, personally, I haven’t had this much fun reading a critical work of literary scholarship in ages. Maybe ever. And to go back to that sabermetric thing, the way Moretti’s mind works throughout this collection reminds me of the great baseball stats books—the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, obviously, and Baseball Between the Numbers—tend to function: they ask large questions rooted in comparison and evaluation, then turn to the analysis of large data sets (or large swaths of history) to deduce facts and frameworks about individual works or groups of works. Admittedly, I don’t read a ton of contemporary literary criticism, but this seems a long way away from the traditional analysis of meaning found in most monographs and is based in the practice of “close reading.” (Selected at random: Melville’s Vision of America, Moby-Dick and Calvinism, Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Moby-Dick, Moby-Dick a Hindu Avatar, or, simply, Meaning of Moby-Dick.) In the words of Moretti, “We do not need more interpretations [. . .] not because they have nothing to say, but because, by and large, they have already said what they had to. A lot of good work has been done on the relation between meaning and meaning; far too little on meaning and forces.”

If I had to point to one bit of Moretti’s book that captured my critical imagination though, it has to be the part about reader selection and market magnification. This comes up in two separate essays (“The Slaughterhouse of Literature” and “The End of the Beginning”), both related to an experimental data-centric analysis of Sherlock Holmes stories and other detective stories of the time.

In one of Moretti’s graduate seminars, he and his class chose a single “unit of analysis”—in this case, clues—to focus on while reading mystery stories, and saw how those played out in all the texts at hand. So, rather than doing a “close reading” of a ton of different mystery stories of the late 1800s, they read these pieces searching just for the presence or absence of clues. (Like looking through baseball stats for players with high strike-out to home-run ratios, and ignoring the rest of the data.) This lead to a tree-like diagram in which some stories showed the presence of clues, whereas others of the time did not. The stories with clues were then subdivided into ones with clues that were “necessary,” which were further subdivided into stories with “visible” and then “decodable” clues. Of all the twenty-one stories they looked at (twelve of which were Holmes stories), only four ended up with clues that were “necessary,” “visible,” and “decodable”—and all four were written by Doyle. (Worth noting that eight of his twelve stories didn’t meet this categorization. Moretti posits that this might be due to Doyle’s focus not on the mechanism that made his best stories—like “The Red-Headed League”—work so well, but on his desire to build up Holmes as an almost mythological detective. If all the clues were decodable and visible to the reader, just how good of a detective is this Sherlock?)

That’s interesting in itself, and Moretti develops this idea as a possible explanation for why Holmes stories survived instead of any of the alternatives. Even if readers—or Doyle himself—couldn’t explain why they were drawn to these sorts of stories, this crucial formal unit (“clues”) worked in their readerly brains and lead them to prefer these sorts of stories. Market forces lead to more Holmes-esque writing, Doyle’s books stay in print, and decades later, academics cotton on and Sherlock Holmes stories are ratified as the paragon of a certain type of detective literature.

All that’s fascinating and makes me want to draw all sorts of trees and charts in my world lit class, but here are few paragraphs from Distant Reading that I want to mention before trying to develop my own argument. The first is a quote Moretti uses from an article by the economists Arthur De Vany and W. David Walls on an economic model for the film industry:

Film audiences make hits or flops . . . not by revealing preferences they already have, but by discovering what they like. When they see a movie they like, they make a discovery and they tell their friends about it; reviewers do this too. This information is transmitted to other consumers and demand develops dynamically over time as the audience sequentially discovers and reveals its demand . . . A hit is generated by an information cascade . . . A flop is an information bandwagon too; in this case the cascade kills the film.

In other words, word-of-mouth generates hits, creates buzz or an “information cascade” that develops almost exponentially. This likely sounds familiar to anyone involved in book publishing. What I’m most interested in here—and want to apply to the current book market—are two processes that Moretti teases out: acceleration and selection. Moretti here:

As more readers select Conan Doyle over L. T. Meade and Grant Allen, more readers are likely to select Conan Doyle again in the future, until he ends up occupying 80, 90, 99.9 per cent of the market for nineteenth-century detective fiction.

And, Moretti again:

A few sellers for the entire market; just like Holmes for the mystery niche. But it’s important to disentangle the two discrete processes that converge onto this single outcome: the process that centres on readers, and on their selection of Doyle’s formal solution over those of his rivals; and the other one, in which the market amplifies that initial selection over and over again. Readers and markets, in other words, are both causal agents, but in different ways: in the sense that readers select, and then markets magnify.

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This is where I want to turn from Moretti to the current literary marketplace, especially as it relates to translations and the creation of buzz and acceleration. My working observation (I hesitate to use the word hypothesis given the paucity of data that I have at hand) is that the acceleration of two related phenomenon—media and the ability to comment on media—has resulted in a situation in which the processes of “reader selection” and “market magnification” have become divorced from one another and are now essentially reversed.

In a million ways, this is an impossible topic to talk about and analyze. The word-of-mouth buzz that leads to market magnification is generated from a number of different sources (booksellers, professors, friends, celebrities, tastemakers) and is notoriously hard to pin down and run experiments on. So, to make this as concrete as possible, I’m going to focus on my favorite hobby-horse of hate: anticipatory lists.

I have a corollary idea that (hopefully) justifies yet another post about lists.1 Over the past decade, the number of works of international fiction and poetry that you could consume as a reader—or, more pertinent to this post, review as a critic—have expanded greatly. In 2008, there were 361 different titles; in 2016, 602. That’s only 241, but how many critics read more than 100 books last year? Fifty? One hundred?

And that 100 books is taking into account all the possible books, of which, works of original English-language fiction and poetry take precedent to a degree that so far exceeds the number of works in translation published on an annual basis that a critic reading a work in translation is almost the same as random.2 Which ones do they choose to read? Why?

Historically, advance review trade magazines—Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal, among others—provided a sort of roadmap of what to pay attention to and what could be ignored. An average issue provides an overview of 60-70 titles, a handful of which are “starred,” a similar handful of which are works in translation.3

It would be interesting to track this: How many “major” reviews do “starred” titles get versus those that are simply reviewed in a trade magazine, versus those unreviewed? How do sales compare across these categories? These are ideas I’m totally marking for future posts . . .

But more to the point, I’m not sure if trade magazines are the major gatekeepers critics pay attention to anymore.

This is the most easily criticized statement in my post so far, so have at it, knowing that I’ve anticipated all of your immediate objections and still decided to put this out there.4 The majority of book criticism being written today is operating in one of two spheres: the personal-professional blog (everything from Flavorwire to Quarterly Conversation to Words Without Borders to Asymptote to Tony’s Reading List to Complete Review to Arabic Literature (in English)) or the professional-legacy arena (which includes online journals like Salon or Slate which pay their writers, to Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, L.A. Times, NY Times, The Nation, and other entities that are more obviously corporate and concerned with revenue flows, be it from subscriptions or paid advertisements). Both of these spheres live or die by the page view/like/retweet. Thanks to this moment of quantifiable late-capitalism, basically everyone has to justify themselves by generating clicks. Granted, the local blogger who “does it for fun” can engage with books (or, more likely, social politics) in a way that pays no mind to the number of visitors their piece draws in, but: that doesn’t mean anything, since criticism with no stakes is hardly criticism; and also, everyone writes out of self-interest and a desire for “enough” people to read and respect them.

The point being: Everything is based in shares/retweets/pageviews. Quantifiable results. This is an age of measurables. So how should a critic meter out the 100 books they read in a given year?

There are no stats on this (yet), so let me speculate irresponsibly: In that position, I would read 50 books by pre-ordained “literary” writers (let’s pretend for a hot second that I’m a critic of literature generally), so, in 2017, I’d read the new Roxane Gay, Paul Auster, Rachel Cusk, Ali Smith, George Saunders, J. M. Coetzee, Viet Thanh Nguyen, etc., etc., etc., books, along with the two dozen titles that are hyped at BookExpo America, at the American Library Association Summer Conference, at ABA’s Winter Institute, and so on and forth.5 Let’s pretend that takes up seventy of the hundred titles I’ll read in any given year. Twenty of the remaining are books that catch my eye for one reason or another—I met the author, the publicist convinced me to take a chance, it’s a book I think I can make my brand on. The last ten—translations.

That was all an epically long route to trying to demonstrate how “lists” function. There are a dozen websites (re: tastemakers) out there who do “best of XXXX month” lists capable of guiding my reading to the ten most viable works of translated literature.6 None of the sites I have in mind (such as Flavorwire, Buzzfeed, The Millions, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the latter two of which are discussed below) are nearly influential enough7 to causally determine which books get covered, but the slightest bit of research points to a significant overlap between books included on these lists and books that receive reviews in more mainstream, traditional (re: more widely read) outlets.

In March 2016, Flavorwire and the BBC highlighted seventeen different books to read that month. (Two titles appeared on both lists: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and Margaret the First.) Of these books, fifteen were reviewed by the New York Times, and the two that weren’t (Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America and Blackass were reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle and NPR respectively. It’s not like they went unnoticed.) Out of the 10,000 or so trade titles published that month (using Bowker data for fiction, science, biographies, sociology, poetry, history, philosophy, etc.), these two sites chose seventeen books, and had an almost one to one correspondence with which titles our country’s most influential newspaper chose to review. It would be more interesting—and illuminating—to look at sales data for these various titles and see how that correlates with being included on lists and/or reviewed in the New York Times, but I don’t personally have access to that data.

In the end, a list of books to look forward to is no more than a list of books to look forward to, but there is an inherent value to being included on a list. If nothing else, these list-making sites precipitate—and participate in the creation of—the “information cascade” that overwash successful titles.

*


Let’s look at a couple of examples of how these lists treat the books they choose to highlight. First up is Vol. 1 Brooklyn’s recent post on books to read in January 2017:

Han Kang’s first novel to appear in English, The Vegetarian, was one of the most jarring works of fiction we’ve read in a while. Human Acts takes a broader view of humanity, focusing on a host of reactions to the death of a young man in a political action in South Korea. We’re looking forward to experiencing her prose in a new context with this novel.

Two things about this write-up: it posits a pre-selection criteria on Han Kang’s previously published book (“one of the most jarring works of fiction we’ve read in a while) while openly admitting that the list-maker has yet to read the book being put forth as one to read this month (“we’re looking forward to experiencing her prose in a new context with this novel”).

In case you think this is a one-off example of choosing to promote a book before reading it, here are some other lines from this list: “we’re eager to read this,” “we’ve been curious about what’ll come next,” “given the setting and thematic aspects of this book, it may also be a timely read,” “we’re eager to see a new side of his work show up here.”

(As a side-note, I did the exact same thing when I was writing previews for this website. I understand and acknowledge the challenges to featuring only books you’ve read on those sorts of post. This isn’t meant to criticize Vol. 1, but to look at how that particular type of post functions and what it means for book culture and book marketing as a whole.)

The write-ups in the Great First-Half 2017 Book Preview from The Millions are written in such a way to make it at least seem like the list-makers have read these books that they’re including. (Although I highly doubt they’ve read many/any of the titles coming out in June or beyond.) But there’s still a lingering question of why these particular books have been chosen. Have the editors of The Millions read even 5% of the works of fiction coming out between January and June of this year? 1%? .01%? There’s no question that these selections are primarily anticipatory, that they assume these are the books that culture and readers will embrace once they’re available, the books that will be reviewed and bought instead of the titles left off of the list. This happens by necessity, but also raises the question of what elements are at play to make the contributors anticipate these particular books instead of others. (The answer to this is probably pretty obvious, but still, are they looking forward to the “best” books, or the most hyped?)

Again, having a book appear on one of these lists doesn’t cause it to become popular or successful, but given the overlap between a) these lists, b) mainstream reviews, c) bookstore availability, and d) sales (all of which should be investigated more in a different post), it’s very likely that the particular books on these lists will be the ones dominating the cultural conversation. Everything converges to support a very small number of titles, pre-selected from a pool of titles far too large to thoroughly explore and evaluate.

I have suspicions as to why certain titles are pre-chosen to “make it,” along with some understanding of the power dynamics and book market logistics that help these titles become successful, but here’s what I’m more interested in: the way in which book coverage seems to have reversed the “selection” and “market magnification” processes of book promotion. Readers and critics don’t read hundreds of titles and uncover a new form or technique that makes a novel particularly successful and then promote it through the marketplace; instead, the books that will be promoted and disseminated widely are already selected, known to the culture almost as soon as they’re announced8, and only then do critics and readers find reasons why these books are so great. We start from a point of view that these are the “best” books, the ones “worth reading” and then work backward. No one has the time or patience to read all the books coming out in 2017 from contemporary Argentine writers, so we just assume the tastemakers have it right and that the one book included on these lists/reviewed by mainstream media/displayed on a bookstore table must be the best representative of that category of writing. And even if a reader disagrees, how many other Argentine books have they read this year to compare the pre-selected title against? Less than ten, I’m certain.

We live in an age in which it’s not just information that’s accelerated, but the markets themselves. The magnification aspect of the book market—in which sales increase exponentially—is set in place before readers ever even see a particular book. This keeps the messiness of reader responses as far from the market as possible, consolidating power by offering readers a choice that never really was a choice at all. Or at least is very limited and predetermined by the sphere of critics, tastemakers, and promoters, who used to react to the market, instead of driving it. The biggest players in this market gravitate towards this situation, since it’s much safer and more predictable that way. To know which books will do well enough, to cover the titles that people will definitely be talking about (thus perceived as “important”), to stock the titles that are most likely to sell—the closer these things are to certain, the more stable and profitable the industry is. Hits can come out of nowhere and far exceed sales expectations, but it’s best if that happen in a context in which you already control the baseline for as close to 100% of the products you’re putting into the market as possible.

1 I have to point out that this post is not a rant about list as “dumb,” but an analysis of how lists function. Which elevates it. In my eyes, at least.

2 This is a maybe bullshit claim, but here’s my breakdown. On average, over 50,000 works of fiction are published in the U.S.annually. Translations made up 1% of that in 2016. (There were 500 works of fiction published in translation in the U.S. last year.) If I randomly selected novels from my local bookstore—independent or Barnes & Noble—it’s likely that at least 2 in 100 would be translated. Given the plethora of “known” English writers with new books published in a given year—50? 100? 500?—more than 90% of the works read by an average critic will have been originally written in English, leaving what?, 10 books maximum from the rest of the world? Feels like chance to me.

3 I can actually calculate this, and will. Either for this piece, or for a future one, depending on how much time I have in the very near future.

4 Come at me, bro?

5 You’re not a real critic until you review the most reviewed authors.

6 “Viable” as in, I’ll review them and someone will pay me for those clicks.

7 Alexa site popularity rankings are a good enough means for demonstrating the relative influence of the websites I have in mind. First off, the list-making sites, the ones that I think help sort the great unread books and provide a sort of precipitory guidance: Flavorwire is the #15,576 most popular site in the world (not necessarily for their books coverage, but), The Millions is #175,585, Vol 1 Brooklyn #1,979,614, and Lit Hub #43,012. By contrast, the New Yorker is #1,413, New York Times #103 (again, not just books coverage), NPR #662, and Slate #920. None of this is surprising, but it does tie into my core idea: to get more eyeballs, small sites want to anticipate what the significantly more well-read sites will eventually cover. It’s infinitely better to be part of the information cascade that outside of it.

8 Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire is a perfect example of this. The novel is decent enough, but before anyone had even read it, it was guaranteed coverage in every possible outlet simply given the size of its advance. From Ron Charles’s review in the Washington Post: “Having reportedly paid nearly $2 million for the manuscript, Knopf must be praying that City on Fire is worth its weight in Goldfinch. Such irrational exuberance can’t buy a spot on the bestseller list, but it can guarantee coverage. So prepare yourself for what passes for a book publicity juggernaut: Over the next few weeks, you’ll read about this novel everywhere, and you’ll hear the young author interviewed on NPR, and you’ll see pyramids of City on Fire at your local bookstore. And at some point, you’ll wonder, ‘Should I read this novel — or three others?’”

9 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I don’t post on social media all that often—unless I’ve been drinking—but do generally try and share all of the reviews and publicity pieces that come up about Open Letter. And as with anything else, this tends to come in waves, including the onslaught of pieces from the past few days that I’ve been sharing. Here’s a rundown of recent publicity for the press and its authors:



Dubravka Ugresic

Well, first off, the new issue of World Literature Today is dedicated to this Neustadt Laureate, and includes her acceptance speech, Dubravka Ugresic and Contemporary European Literature by Alison Anderson, and a piece I wrote about The American Nobel. And available only through WLT’s digital edition are The Scold’s Bridle by Dubravka, Mothers and Daughters: Generational Conflict and Social Change in the Work of Dubravka Ugrešić by Emily D. Johnson, and Crafting Serious Work Out of Mass Culture: The Early Prose of Dubravka Ugrešić by Dragana Obradović.

Additionally, David Williams—who translated Europe in Sepia and part of Karaoke Culture for Open Letter—wrote a blog post for WLT entitled On the Untranslatability of Translation.

It wasn’t, however, just the money situation that inhibited me from ever introducing myself as a translator. It was equally that I just couldn’t translate to others what it meant to be a translator, let alone how I, a New Zealander with no Yugoslav roots, came to learn the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian and translate the work of Ugrešić, one of the great living European writers. Reduced to its essence, the backstory is both fantastic and prosaic: it involves a restless young man who sought adventures on distant shores, came unstuck in a short and sad marriage, the end of which left the no-longer-so-young man searching for meaning that for a time he found in books. In New Zealand, in particular, translating all this to some dudes standing around a barbeque was pretty painful. Over time, I developed a series of useless analogies. I’d say that a translator is like the cinematographer, the author like the director. Or that the translator is like a sound engineer or producer shaping how an author “sounds.” When the dudes at the barbeque still looked puzzled, I’d just say that a translator is like a better class of wedding singer.

And finally, during the Neustadt Festival, a number of people were interviewed by the radio station KGOU, and these pieces are starting to come out online. The first is actually with me.



Justine by Iben Mondrup, translated from the Danish by Kerri A. Pierce

Complete Review just posted a review of this, giving it a “B.” (Which I’ll totally take from Michael Orthofer. I’m pretty sure he would fail me in any class I took with him.) The review is mostly summary, but does get at some of the aspects of the character and setting that make this book really interesting:

Mondrup captures the pretentious and often obnoxious (especially the professors) art-school-scene creepily well, with more the more old-fashioned grandfather-figure and the ultimately tamer, crowd-pleasing Ane as helpful counterparts to the purely pretentious, or, for example, the philosophical Vita (a fairly successful sculptor). Justine, meanwhile, is marked especially by her uncertainty. There’s a lot of anger there, too, or frustration, and she vents successfully, and even comes up with some interesting ideas, including ultimately resuscitating her lost project, but for the most part, and for most of the novel, she is flailing.

And I mentioned this in the round up of Open Letter 2016 publications, but it’s worth pointing out this Rumpus interview with Iben and Kerri one more time:

Brian S: Iben, I’ve never read de Sade’s Justine, but am I correct in thinking there are some parallels between that and your novel? Or is that coincidence?

Iben Mondrup: If there’s any comparison, it’s all about opposites, the polar opposites of De Sade’s Justine and mine. My Justine is sexual subject, she’s the one who desires, whereas De Sade’s Justine is an object of desire. She (my Justine), is aggressive, she’s going for what she wants as opposed to De Sade’s Justine, who is the target—and eventually the victim—of the desires of the world. She possesses no will.

Kerri Pierce: There’s a funny story, actually, about the graphic on the cover. One of my favorite parts of the book, and one of the editor, Kaija’s, favorite parts as well—which I also think speaks to Justine’s character—is when a one-night stand asks Justine if she’s a lesbian (and his tone is rather dismissive/incredulous) and she responds: “Wolf.”

Brian S: Kerri—I loved that moment in the book. That was brilliant.

Iben Mondrup: Exactly, she sees herself as a predator. A wolf, a lone she-wolf.



Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger

Kim Fay just reviewed this for the Los Angeles Review of Books and digs into one of the most salient and difficult aspects of the book:

There came a point while I was reading Gesell Dome that I cringed whenever new characters were introduced, wondering what horrible things were going to happen to them. But I somehow knew that, even as a reader, I was not allowed to look away. As I grew weary of horror after horror, all I wanted to do was turn my head—but if I did, then I would become complicit.

By using a narrator who is not shocked, who does not look away from anything, Saccomanno shines a gruesome, graphic light on what people are willing to ignore so that their comfort remains intact. He compounds this with a fearlessness when it comes to rationalization. “We’re not Auschwitz,” the narrator declares, and if someone sexually abuses a few kids, “it’s not the same as Bosnia. Give me a break. There’s no comparison.”



Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman

Radiant Terminus comes out on February 7th (although copies will go out to subscribers this week), but in the meantime, you can read an excerpt on EuropeNow. Here’s the opening paragraph from the excerpted section:

The captain was named Umrug. His life had started somewhat chaotically. His father, Choem Mendelssohn, was a bird, and his mother, Bagda Dolomidès, was Ybür.

Also worth noting this comment Brian Evenson made on Facebook when listing his favorite books of the year:

Pleased too that I could write the intro to Antoine Volodine’s exceptionally strong Radiant Terminus, which is out from Open Letter in February. I’ve said before that I think American literature would be much better if more writers were reading Volodine and I still think this: he’s one of my half dozen favorite living writers.

You may also want to check out this “starred” review from Kirkus:

French “post-exoticist” Volodine returns with a dark view of the near future, where science fiction meets a certain kind of horror. [. . .] A landmark of modern dystopianism, portending a time to come that no one would want to live in.



Finally, Rochester’s local alternative paper, City Newspaper ran a piece on Open Letter as a whole, with the amazing headline, “Open Letter Finishes 2016 Strong.” It starts by putting our NEA grant into a local context, then goes on to talk about some recent review coverage and our plans to make 2018—our ten year anniversary—the “Year of Open Letter.”

The last few weeks of December set Open Letter Books up for a great 2017. In mid-December, The National Endowment of the Arts awarded the small literary translation press an Art Works grant of $40,000. This was the largest amount awarded to any Rochester organization this cycle — BOA Editions and George Eastman Museum each received $20,000; the Rochester Fringe Festival received $25,000; and Gateways Music Festival and Geva Theatre Center were each awarded $10,000.

5 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know I’ve mentioned this on the blog (and podcast) a million times, but every spring I teach a class on “World Literature and Translation” that features somewhere between eight and ten recently published translations. Although the individual arrangement of ideas and books shifts every year, the overall structure and goals of the class remain the same: to explore what we mean by calling something a “good translation,” and how to we evaluate works of world literature.

As a mechanism for getting students to participate in class discussions, I force them to act as if they were a jury for a major literary award: the “Best Translation of LTS 206/406 Award,” I guess. This process opens up a wide array of topics, such as how to evaluate books from a literary culture you know nothing about, whether it’s better to focus on the quality of the book itself or the translation, and what politics of award giving should be considered, among many others.

Schedule permitting, I try and spend one class day discussing each title, providing a literary and historical background, discussing how the work is put together, looking for gaps (or the lack of them) between the way the book functions and the presence of the translation, and then follow that up with a Skype conversation with the translator. It’s a really fun class—especially since I tend to include books that I’ve been looking for an excuse to read.

I like posting the books I chose here, partially because I want to show off what titles I’m able to include in this class, but also because these books tend to end up influencing what I write about on the blog during this time. This year, I’m hoping to make that more specific, and write a post a week about the book under discussion. In fact, starting next Tuesday (in an insanely long essay that I’ve already written), I’m going to post about the books that I’ve been reading in preparation for the class. Things like Six Memos for the New Millennium by Italo Calvino, Translating Style by Tim Parks, and Literature Class by Julio Cortazar.

I’ve never conceived of it in this way, but teaching this class creates a sort of feedback loop about how I read. It’s pretty self-indulgent, but I’m curious to see how my thoughts about literature morph as I work my way through these books, reading (or rereading) them with an eye to trying to convey something interesting about them to a group of undergrad students. If I were using books that I’ve read a million times—or better, written articles about—I don’t think this project would be very interesting at all. But given that there’s next to no critical material available about the majority of these books, there’s a sort of precariousness to every class. And for me, personally, I think about books the best when I’m trying to write about them.

Inevitably, I’ll get too busy with garbage work to keep up with this, but for now, I’m going to try. And if you want to play along at home, listed below are all of the works of international fiction we’ll be reading for class.

The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
Rage by Zygmunt Miłoszewski
A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar
Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto
Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
Moonstone by Sjón
Between Dog and Wolf by Sasha Sokolov
The Last Wolf by László Krasznahorkai
Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon
Frontier by Can Xue

If you’re really interested and want to see my syllabus, let me know—happy to email it along!

4 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The only preface I have for this interview Dubravka Ugresic did with Verbivoracious Press is that you really need to read the entire thing, and then you need to buy all of her books.

VP Editors: Can you start by telling me a little about your interest in literary activism, and what revelations sprang from the Kolkata conference you mentioned attending last year?

DU: Literary activism, as I see it, should be a useful corrector of mainstream literary values, a reminder and promoter of unknown literary territories. Literary activism is supposed to usurp our comfortable and rigid mainstream opinions, to shake up our literary tastes and standards, to promote unknown writers and neglected literary territories, to bring fresh knowledge about literature. The role of literary activism is irreplaceable especially today, when one can’t rely on national literary canons (they are predominantly male and operate with the old-fashioned, dusty concepts of national literature). We equally can’t rely on the literary marketplace, because it operates like any other marketplace. When a book becomes a product, we are no longer talking literature, but about sales and trade. [. . .]

VP: In your essay ‘Can a Book Save Our Life?’ (from Europe in Sepia), you ruminate on the quantity, and impermanence, of books being produced today. What is your prognosis for the future of serious writing, and is there any way for us to escape the gross commodification of literature?

DU: I don’t think there is an escape. There will always be various forms of personal, authorial escapes, forms of intellectual gestures; there will also be group initiatives, literary activism, and literary elitism, but as far as publishing and the creative industries are concerned, things will go on and on. [. . .]

VP: What do you think of the likely impacts of technology on the directions which literature can take in terms of form as well as function?

DU: Soon we are all going to write, I’m afraid, and nobody will have time, or need, to read us. We are all going to produce art, but nobody would have time to see it, I’m afraid. The visitors to museums, libraries, and exhibits are going to be school children, no older then 12, because at that age children will aready be producing their first novel, or/and their first piece of art and further on they won’t have any time, or need, for consuming works of art. They will produce their own art using mostly copy-paste techniques. Copy-paste technique will enable the future creators to consume and at the same time produce literature, art, music . .

VP: Do we still have a literature of exhaustion, or is now merely an exhaustion of literature?

DU: I am personally exhusted by literary-market manipulations, e.g. every minute of my reader’s life I am distracted by warnings of a brilliant book that just appeared on the market and I’m missing it.

Now go read the whole thing.

3 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Sure, the start of a new year is a good time to look to the future, make resolutions you’ll definitely break, and all of that, but it’s also a nice moment to reflect on the past twelve months. Rather than include all the things that happened with Open Letter last year—from the success of our 2nd Annual Celebration to our $40,000 NEA grant to the ninth Best Translated Book Awards to the continued growth of the Translation Database—I’m just going to recap our 2016 publications, in no particular order.



One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Klougart’s novel was the first to be included in Writers & Books’ “Read Local” program, featuring great books from local (re: Rochester, NY) publishing houses. She was able to come here as part of a tour that included stops in Chicago, NY, Dallas, Houston, Portland, and San Francisco.

Here’s what Jeremy Garber from Powells had to say about her book:

The uncertainty, instability, doubt, regret, and longing that so often follow a failed relationship are richly and realistically conveyed. Klougart’s narrator’s emotional turmoil (punctuated, staccato) are quite nearly palpable and viscerally received. One of Us Is Sleeping, as much a series of thematically linked poetic offerings as a novel proper, is graceful and unforgettable. As Klougart’s narrator strives for clarity, understanding, and consolation, she’s left, as the rest of us undoubtedly are, to make sense of her own perceptions and boldly reassemble for herself the pieces of her shattered, shattering heart.

Josefine has another work in translation coming out later this year, and just released this amazing object in her home country of Denmark:






Justine by Iben Mondrup, translated from the Danish by Kerri Pierce

Sticking to Denmark, the recently release Justine is the third book in our Danish Women Writers Series. It’s been getting a lot of good attention, and was even selected by The Rumpus for their Book Club. As part of that, they ran an interview with Iben Mondrup and Kerri Pierce:

Brian Spears: Iben, I’ve never read de Sade’s Justine, but am I correct in thinking there are some parallels between that and your novel? Or is that coincidence?

Iben Mondrup: If there’s any comparison, it’s all about opposites, the polar opposites of De Sade’s Justine and mine. My Justine is sexual subject, she’s the one who desires, whereas De Sade’s Justine is an object of desire. She (my Justine), is aggressive, she’s going for what she wants as opposed to De Sade’s Justine, who is the target—and eventually the victim—of the desires of the world. She possesses no will.

Kerri Pierce: There’s a funny story, actually, about the graphic on the cover. One of my favorite parts of the book, and one of the editor, Kaija’s, favorite parts as well—which I also think speaks to Justine’s character—is when a one-night stand asks Justine if she’s a lesbian (and his tone is rather dismissive/incredulous) and she responds: “Wolf.”

Brian S: Kerri—I loved that moment in the book. That was brilliant.

Iben Mondrup: Exactly, she sees herself as a predator. A wolf, a lone she-wolf.



Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson

Chronologically, the second “modern classic” that we brought out this year, this is the one that’s getting the most buzz right now. An epic novel detailing the downfall of a Brazilian family through a series of confessions, letters, diary entries, and the like. Recently, The Onion’s A.V. Club reviewed it, stating:

The social commentary might have been lost on audiences when it debuted, but not his genre bending. Cardoso’s approach is as expansive as the lands on which his charmless bourgeoisie have lived for generations; he was a voracious reader with a preference for Gothic fiction and Russian lit, and those influences are on full display in Chronicle’s framework and themes. From its mysterious opening—which is actually the end of one character’s story—to the exploration of morality, the novel is a near-total manifestation of his talents.



Abahn Sabana David by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Kazim Ali

The other “modern classic” I was alluding to, Abahn Sabana David was one of the few Open Letter titles to make it into the New York Times this year:

In this slim, raw political novel, Abahn the Jew and his double (also Abahn) spend a long night with Sabana and David, who have been sent to guard them by the Communist party boss Gringo. Fragmentary dialogue occurs about gas chambers, “Jew-dogs” and the fact that Gringo is coming by to kill Abahn(s) as a traitor. Gunshots and howling hounds are heard. By the last page, Sabana and David have allied themselves with their captive(s) and claimed the identities of Jews, the “laughter of joy . . . covering their faces.”

How to understand this text, available for the first time in English, in Kazim Ali’s translation?



A Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

At the start of 2016, I predicted this would be our huge breakout hit of the year. I was obviously wrong about that—at least according to sales, sheer number of reviews, random mentions on Internet lists—but I still stand by this novel as one of the best we’ve published. And after her next two translations come out—including The Owls’ Absence, which we’re doing next fall—I think readers will start to cotton on.

Of the reviews this did receive (so far), there are a number of really thoughtful, intelligent piece, such as this one from Tony’s Reading List:

With Bae Suah living in Germany, it’s tempting to see parallels with her own life here, but A Greater Music is much more than a simple confessional piece. The shorter pieces that have appeared in English have been marked by beautiful writing, punctuated by spiky, aggressive outbursts against the strictures of modern society. Here, these themes and styles are extended over a much larger canvas; it’s a fairly slow tale, at least initially, and the story is given space to breathe before coming to life in the second half.



Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger

The first novel to be translated into English from the two-time winner of the Dashiell Hammett Prize, it just got a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Gesell Dome is a bizarro Robert Altman film in book form: hundreds of characters and storylines that paint a portrait of a community, but with events far stranger than anything Altman created.
If the novel has a central character, it’s the Villa, which, like other cities in Argentina, accepted Nazi war criminals as residents after World War II. Now it is home to more than 50,000 people, many of whom drive around in 4×4s and harbor prejudices against “half-breeds” and other foreigners.

These residents give Dante [local journalist] many stories to cover, including the scandal that opens the novel: Eleven kindergartners referred to as los abusaditos are abused at Nuestra Señoradel Mar, a religious school “where the snobs send their progeny.” Parents are rightfully horrified, but other residents don’t want the media to cover the story for fear of the effect the news will have on tourism.



Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Party Headquarters is the sixth book we’ve published from Bulgaria. To put this in context, all other publishers did a combined total of seven over the past nine years. Here’s what “The Literary Review”: had to say about it:

Clocking in at only 121 pages, Georgi Tenev’s taut novel Party Headquarters is at once a tragedy, a comedy, a love story and thriller, with echoes of A Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, it tells the story of a man tasked with visiting his father-in-law, a former Communist party boss. The father-in-law then sends him on a mission to bring back a suitcase containing a million Euros suspected to be pilfered from the coffers of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The whole story is set against the backdrop of the meltdown of Chernobyl, and if the basic plot seems like the kind of high-octane premise that Hollywood would deliver, that makes sense: Tenev also writes for film and TV.



The Brother by Rein Raud, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen

Sticking with our shorter books from 2016, I’ll turn to Estonia and Rein Raud, whose Brother got an “A-” from Michael Orthofer:

The Brother doesn’t exactly ride into town on a white horse, and he isn’t simply all swagger, but the resemblance to the Sergio Leone-spaghetti Westerns (especially the ones with Clint Eastwood) that author Raud admits inspired him is striking. The story is almost all atmosphere and style (showing also Raud’s other big inspiration, the writing of Mr. Gwyn (etc.)-author Alessandro Baricco), and one can almost hear the (Western movie score) background music.

The relatively short chapters — each at most a few pages — are rich but stark, the essentials — of mood and incident — sketched but not belabored. Much is masterfully understated, but the full ramifications easily expand off the page for the reader. The book is short, and quite event-filled, but there’s an agreeable languor to it all too; nothing is rushed.



Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by J. T. Mahany

Volodine has been gaining steam over the past few months, and the combination of this piece from The Nation with the forthcoming release of Radiant Terminus may finally push him over the edge. (I just received a wonderful email from Unabridged Books in Chicago about Volodine that really cheered my bitter soul.) As evident his New Inquiry piece (currently unavailable?), Volodine’s world is complex and greatly rewarding. It can also be a bit daunting to enter, but of the three titles Open Letter has done/will do, I think Bardo is the best place to start. From Ben Ehrenreich:

This year, Open Letter published Bardo or Not Bardo (2004) in a translation by J.T. Mahany, who also translated Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11. It goes without saying that it is a very odd book. [. . .] But Bardo or Not Bardo has its rewards. For all its darkness, it is extremely and blessedly silly. [. . .] Yes, it’s all very strange, but in Volodine’s world, that hardly counts as a complaint.



The Clouds by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Hilary Vaughn Dobel

This is our fifth Saer book—with more in the works—and was included on NPR’s list of Five of the Year’s Best Books in Translation:

This imaginative novel traces the journey of Dr. Real and his mentor as they work treating patients at an insane asylum in Argentina. Saer’s prose, while often likened to Proust, carries a beautiful quality that is also uniquely his. Page after page, The Clouds is a poem to be savored.
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Overall, that’s a solid list. I hope you found a few books from us that you read and enjoyed last year. And stay tuned—2017 includes some insanely good titles, starting with books from Antoine Volodine, Can Xue, Rodrigo Fresan, Iceland’s James Joyce, and more . . .

20 December 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Caroline Casey from Coffee House Press joined Chad and Tom on this podcast to talk about 2016 movies, TV shows, and podcasts. Before they got into a long discussion about the royal family, Luke Cage, Crimetown, Midnight Special, and more, they touched on a number of things that are both intriguing and a little bit batshit.

Here’s the full rundown of this week’s episode:

- Sylvester Stallone to head the NEA?

- John O’Brien: “The National Endowment to the Arts in the United States has consistently demonstrated either an indifference to or a hostility towards translations, though it bristles with indignation when this is brought to their attention. A number of years ago I would be told what objections some panel members had to our applications, and in almost all cases the objections centered on panelists not seeing how translations benefited the public and further objected to American money going to writers who weren’t American.”

- Andrew Wylie: “Many agencies only think about money. But we only look at the quality of the writing. We train people in the agency to forget about money. It’s not of interest whether we think a book will sell thousands of copies. Pay attention to the quality of the work. If the writing is unusual, appealing, and drives you a little crazy, then that’s someone that we want to represent.”

- Little Boxes

- The best commercial ever.

This episode’s music is Run to Your Mama by Goat.

Also, just a reminder, since we changed our podcast feed, you may need to unsubscribe and resubscribe to the correct feed in iTunes at that link, or right here:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/three-percent-podcast/id434696686

Or, you can just put this feed link into whichever is your podcast app of choice:
http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss

As always, feel free to send any and all comments or questions to: threepercentpodcast@gmail.com.

And if you like the podcast, tell a friend and rate us or leave a review on iTunes!



Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages
Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .

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The Subsidiary
The Subsidiary by Matías Celedón
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .

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Thus Bad Begins
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías
Reviewed by Kristel Thornell

Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .

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Death by Water
Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe
Reviewed by Will Eells

Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .

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Twenty-One Cardinals
Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier
Reviewed by Natalya Tausanovitch

Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .

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One of Us Is Sleeping
One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart
Reviewed by Jeremy Garber

We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .

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Bye Bye Blondie
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .

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La Superba
La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Reviewed by Anna Alden

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .

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Intervenir/Intervene
Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes; Rodrigo Flores Sánchez
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .

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All Days Are Night
All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .

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