George Henson is a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, a contributing editor for World Literature Today and Asymptote, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.
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During a recent trip to Havana, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Cuban writer Yoss (né José Miguel Sánchez Gómez), whose Super Extra Grande is under consideration for the BTBA 2017, which fiction judge Rachel Cordasco profiled in her September blog post.
I met Yoss by chance as I meandered down the sidewalk that runs along the Coppelia ice-cream park (think Strawberry and Chocolate), opposite the Yara movie house, at L and 23, arguably Havana’s most iconic intersection. I was with Eliezer Jiménez, the owner of Cuba’s most colorful independent bookstores, frequented by every American, Latin American, and European academic worth their salt.
After returning from Havana, it occurred to me to check the number of books on the BTBA list written by Cubans. The magic number turned out to be four: Zoé Valdés’s The Weeping Woman (Arcade), translated by David Frye, who, it so happens, also translated Yoss’s Super Extra Grande (Restless Books), Agustín de Rojas’s The Year 200, translated by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell, also published by Restless Books, and, finally, 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara, the late grandson of Che Guevara-cum-anti-Castro-dissent, translated by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions. [Ed. Note: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa, translated by Nick Caistor, published by Atria, also counts.]
Of the four writers, only Yoss and de Rojas, who died in 2011, wrote their nominated books on the island. My interest, however, is not to engage in a polemic about, much less downplay the importance of, Cuban diasporic writers. My point, I hope, will become clearer as you read.
Valdés, who began her writing career in Cuba, now lives and writes in Paris. Sánchez Guevara’s claim to the laurel “Cuban writer,” however, is much more tenuous. Although born in Cuba, to Che Guevara’s oldest daughter, his father was Mexican Alberto Sánchez, a revolutionary who hijacked a Boeing 727 in Monterrey and forced it to land in Cuba. Raised in Milan, Barcelona, and Mexico City, Sánchez Guevara returned to his native Cuba in 1986 at the age of 12, only to abandon the island nine years later, following the death of his mother. If nothing else, these biographical details remind us that the label “Cuban writer” can be fraught with complexity.
With the exception of Leonardo Padura, and perhaps Wendy Guerra, Yoss is perhaps the writer most well-known outside the island. Like Padura and Guerra, that recognition comes not just from translation but also from having been published abroad. Indeed, one could argue that the fact that their works were published outside the island is responsible for their having been translated.
In fact, of the four novels, only El año 200 was published in Cuba, by Editorial Letras Cubanas, a publishing house located in Old Havana, on Calle Obispo. Founded in 1977, two years after the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, during the years of the so-called restoration, Letras Cubanas, which also published Valdés’s first novel, was charged with publishing works by national authors as a means of incentivizing and promoting Cuban literature. Unfortunately, as Leonardo Padura pointed out in a 2012 address to the Casa de las Américas, being published on the island can be more a curse than a blessing. Please indulge the lengthy quote:
What changed in the territory of creation, and specifically of Cuban literature, was a sum of material and spiritual circumstances that, combined, were able to redefine the situation of the writer living in Cuba and to alter in a rather radical way the content and intentions of his work. Among those elements was the aforementioned paralysis of the country’s publishing industry, which motivated writers to search the world for a literary prize that would save them from poverty and, at the same time, enable them to publish their work without, for the first time in three decades, their editorial intentions being a sin, punishable like all sins. [. . .]
Above all, there is the certainty that Cuban writing is an act or vocation of faith, an almost mystical exercise. In a country in which publication, distribution, commercialization, and promotion of literature functions according to generally extra-artistic and noncommercial circumstances, a search for cultural balance, and even random codes of impossible systemization, the writer’s situation and role become unstable and difficult to maintain. Writers who publish in Cuba receive for their work royalties paid in the increasingly devalued national currency, amounts often paid independent of the quality of the work or its reception by the public. These fees, of course, make the option of writing professionally almost impossible (which, it’s fair to say, is rather common in the rest of the world), often influencing the quality of the work. [. . .]
Nor can one forget that with considerable frequency the Cuban writer who lives and writes in Cuba must also confront a scarce advertising industry, many times due to the very absence of a book market within the country, but also due to the disastrous state of domestic literary criticism and the still-present political suspicion about what a critic can be subjected to if his work does not comply with the precepts of orthodoxy established during those distant times, or with the limits of “correctness” imposed in the 1970s. The sum of these elements has created, against the very validation of the literature that is being written in the country, the feeling that for two generations the island has scarcely produced—or simply has not produced—writers of importance, creating a false image of a vacuum.1
Ironically, it is precisely Padura’s international (read: commercial) success that provided him a platform from which to criticize the state of publishing in Cuba. What’s more, it is precisely the industry that he criticizes that drives Cuban writers to publish their novels off the island, or, in Yoss’s case, to submit their novels to competitions, such as the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) Prize in Science-Fiction, which he subsequently won. The prize not only carried a 6,000 Euro purse but also digital publication, which created, at the very least contributed to, the likelihood that the novel would be translated and, consequently, eligible for consideration for the BTBA.
If we are to believe Padura, and I do, of the four novelists, Yoss and de Rojas traveled the most obstacle-laden path to the BTBA, as much for their genre, science fiction, as for their publishing provenance. That Valdés and Sánchez Guevara published their works for Planeta and Alfaguara respectively made the path much more travelable.
All in all, the four novels seem to have little in common. I will not quote or comment on Super Extra Grande or 33 Revolutions, which have already been featured on this blog. See instead Rachel Cordasco’s and Jennifer Croft’s excellent introductions. This leaves me, instead, to comment briefly on Valdés’s The Weeping Woman and de Rojas’s The Year 200.
Winner of Planeta’s Azorín Prize, Valdés’s novel follows the relationship of Picasso and his lover-muse Dora Mara, the subject of many of the Spanish artist’s paintings, including, you guessed it, one titled “The Weeping Woman.”
At first blush, the novels of Elena Poniatowska come to mind, especially Querido Diego and Dos veces única, both of which rescue the memory of two women who were married to and served as muses for Diego Rivera, but with hints to Jackie Collins. Unlike Poniatowska’s novels, The Weeping Woman seems less inclined to rescue Dara Mara than to novelize her. The prose, at times, reads like the light literature of nineteenth-century French feuilletons of writers like Ponson du Terrail:
Yes, it was a young woman, not exactly pretty, but by her shape she was the type of woman the artist might find attractive. Blond, sublime green eyes, shock of straight and slightly flaxen hair, a soft complexion. She wasn’t vulgar, and she knew how to walk—that is, she walked with a sway in her hips, as if she were dancing, undulating with the rhythmic disdain of a mermaid.
As mentioned, The Weeping Woman was translated by David Frye, who also translated Yoss’s Super Extra Grande. As a translator, I cannot imagine shifting between two more radically different genres and registers. Frye does so, however, with aplomb.
Translated by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell, The Year 200 (Restless Books) was originally published in 1990 as El año 200. Known perhaps best for his translation of Andrés Neuman’s The Traveler of the Century, and for working with co-translator Lorenza García, Caistor is one of my favorite Spanish-English translators working today. The following excerpt may give you an idea why:
The Hermitage Walls had vanished behind panels and consoles.
Multicolored dots zigzagged across some of the screens; others were covered with constantly changing figures; still more were dark. Flashing lights, leaping from bulb to bulb, column to column, in an unpredictable pattern.
Although I am not particularly a fan of science fiction, the novel’s quick, unadorned prose succeeded in holding my attention, which says as much for de Rojas’s writing as Caistor and Powell’s translation. That the second science fiction novel in this quartet of Cuban novels, Yoss’s Super Extra Grande, accomplished the same feat suggests that I should rethink my opinion of the genre.
After meeting Yoss in Havana, I continued with Eliezer down Avenida L to his bookshop, where I bought $250 worth of books, the majority written by Cuban writers, published on the island in a book industry imposed by socialism. Each of these books, however, are worth far more than the pennies they originally sold for or the CUC I paid for them. They also share another unfortunate fate: Most, if not all, will never be translated. More unfortunate, perhaps, is the knowledge that de Rojas didn’t live to see his novel translated and nominated for this prize. It is, after all, writers like de Rojas to whom Padura was referring, indeed championing, when he said:
Let’s not forget, as we recall the current situation of the resident Cuban writer and take note of some of his troubles and achievements, the most essential of the elements that define his character and the character of this work. Unlike other countries, where the most prominent or engaged writers tend to have a social or artistic presence thanks to the support of media with the greatest circulation or prestige, the Cuban writer has only his work and an occasional interview as a way of expressing his relationship to the world, to his reality, to his obsessions.
1 My translation of Padura’s address, “Writing in Cuba in the Twenty-first Century,” originally appeared in World Literature Today in May, 2013.
Three Percent is once again looking to expand its team of reviewers! If you’re interested in reviewing for Three Percent, please contact us at: submissions [at] openletterbooks.org.
We’ve put together a quick list of titles we’d like to have reviewed at this time. Reviewers are not strictly limited to the books listed below; if you would like to review something not listed, please include that in your email! Print copies of the books will be sent to selected reviewers. However, we are currently unable to mail print review-copies for Three Percent internationally. In some cases, electronic files may be available.
If you have previous experience (strongly preferred), please send us a link to some of your work!
Agnes by Peter Stamm, tr. from the German by Michael Hofmann, Other Press
At Twilight They Return by Zyranna Zateli, tr. from the Greek by David Connolly, Yale University Press
By the River: Seven Contemporary Chinese Novellas, Charles A. Laughlin, Liu Hongtao, Jonathan Stalling, eds., University of Oklahoma Press
Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge, tr. from the German by Anthea Bell, Graywolf Press
Confessions by Rabee Jaber, tr. from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and Patrick Creagh, New Directions Press
Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović, tr. from the Serbian by Jovanka Kalaba, Dalkey Archive Press
The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard, tr. from the French by Matthew Amos and Fredrik Rönnbäck, Yale University Press
Library of Musical Instruments by Kim Jung-hyuk, tr. from the Korean by Kim Soyoung, Dalkey Archive Press
Luminous Spaces by Olav H. Hauge, tr. from the Norwegian by Olav Grinde, White Pine Press
Melancholy by László F. Földényi, tr. from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, Yale University Press
Moonstone by Sjón, tr. from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Other Island of the Songs by María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira, tr. from the Spanish by William F. Blair with Pablo Rodríguez, Song Bridge Press
Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya, tr. from the Spanish by Lee Klein, New Directions Press
Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson, tr. from the Swedish by Sarah Death, Other Press
You As of Today My Homeland by Tayseer al-Sboul, tr. from the Arabic by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari, Michigan State University Press
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
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .Tweet
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.
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.
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.
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:
As always, feel free to send any and all comments or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you like the podcast, tell a friend and rate us or leave a review on iTunes!
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.
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?’”Tweet
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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!. . .
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. . .