"In a way the easiest and laziest way is to write in English."
January 20, 2014 4:08 PM   Subscribe

"I love your work, Jonathan…but in a way you are smeared by English American literature…I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated." In the session on the global novel during the first day of this year's Jaipur Literature Festival, Jonathan Franzen served as a giant piñata, as Xiaolu Guo and Jhumpa Lahiri bemoaned American literary culture and lamented "the lack of energy put into translation in the American market."
posted by RogerB (70 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
“I love your work, Jonathan, but… American literature is massively overrated, and I really hate to read it, and I never read it anyway.”
So, if you never read it...
posted by Redfield at 4:27 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]


Would it be a good idea to talk in this thread about books in translation we really liked, instead of about Jonathan Franzen again? I just read and really enjoyed The Yacoubian Building, written in Arabic by Alaa Al Aswany. Sadly (and helping to make the point referred to in the OP) the last translated books I read before that were in 2010, Fame, a really good German novel by Daniel Kehlman, and The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andric, the best of any of these three. In fact, if you are American, and you want to read something not written in English that's translated, and is good, the Nobel Prize is a pretty reliable guide.

But maybe my favorite book in translation I've read at all lately is Triomf, by Marlene van Niekerk, written in Afrikaans, a messed-up-in-every-way fantasia about South Africa at the end of white rule.
posted by escabeche at 4:33 PM on January 20 [13 favorites]


Whew, it's a good thing that no Americans are going to bother reading an article about "The Global Novel" anyway. They are not being very nice at all in there!
posted by zscore at 4:34 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


"writing is 50 years behind painting" -Brion Gysin, 1959

The american mainstream is still writing novels like it's 1909, and lots more since the advent of the "Creative Writing" MFA professionalized the whole thing. Despite the valiant attempts of experimental writers since, there has not been much mainstream success with less narrative writing since Ulysses. There are some exceptions thankfully.
posted by mr.ersatz at 4:39 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


Works in translation. I just got done with a Murakami binge (Norwegian Wood, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1Q84), a month ago I read Eco's Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and just today I browsed a bit of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake in the original solecistic freelingua (it has yet to be translated to English last I checked).
posted by idiopath at 4:49 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


How is Lahiri not an American writer? Because she writes of the children of immigrants experience? Isn't that a quintessentially American perspective?

I dont't know what to make of the critique that not enough books are translated "by the American publishing industry". Is this even true?

But if we're going to talk about books in translation we really liked, right now I'm most of the way throguh Javier Marias' "Tomorrow in the battle think on me". Its a tremendously affecting book, not so much Spanish or foreign. As an exploration of mortality it gets right into the heart of the most universal of human experience. Marias' books have apparently been translated into more than forty languages, though he was completely off my radar. Hmmmm... maybe there's something to this critique, after all.
posted by bumpkin at 4:54 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah and I forgot to mention 2666, which, OK, obvious choice, but it's an obvious choice because it's just as good as everybody says it is.
posted by escabeche at 4:58 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


I dont't know what to make of the critique that not enough books are translated "by the American publishing industry". Is this even true?

Unfortunately, only about 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation. That is why we have chosen the name Three Percent for this site. And that 3% figure includes all books in translation—in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%. While that figure obviously represents more books than any one person could read in a year, it’s hardly an impressive number.


posted by mr.ersatz

Heh.
posted by ersatz at 5:05 PM on January 20 [6 favorites]


I don't want to talk about Franzen either, but oh boy, it was so satisfying to see a Chinese woman rip into an insular American literary darling without a second thought. It wouldn't have been news in the US unless Franzen's critic was someone with clout (Amy Tan or Ruth Ozeki), at which point the media would've portrayed it into a feud and we'd have to put up with twenty million thinkpieces from the establishment.
posted by peripathetic at 5:13 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]


Well I don't know much about this. All I do know is I once heard an interview with Franzen --I think it was on NPR's "Fresh Air" program-- where he was promoting his latest book (Freedom, I recall) and he was describing some of the characters and the setup for a scene which he then read on air and all I can remember thinking was

"this is the most tedious bullshit"

I find that many of my favorite authors and works are translated and I haven't read a non-genre or classical-literary "American Novel" in years. For me, however, this is mostly about savoring the texture and perspective of narrators who are culturally removed from my own experience.

Also pretentiousness, I admit freely and without regret.
posted by Doleful Creature at 5:24 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


Jhumpa Lahiri's writing epitomizes a certain kind of literary MFA style. She is just as much a part of the American literary establishment as Franzen.

According to my kindle, over the past year I have read three times as many British books as American, and an equal number of Japanese and American books.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:34 PM on January 20 [8 favorites]


Would it be a good idea to talk in this thread about books in translation we really liked, instead of about Jonathan Franzen again?

Can't we do both? Despite not knowing a word of Hungarian, I'm pretty sure Ottilie Mulzet deserves a medal for rendering Seiobo There Below into readable English. And of course the politics of translation are especially thorny with the "minor" languages. I mean, Krasznahorkai is getting pretty famous at this point, even though only a relative handful of readers will ever encounter him in the original.

But it's amazing how thin on the ground English translations are even for many quite central writers in their national canons. I've been wanting to read Machado de Assis and Pérez Galdós recently, and finding there's really not that big a selection of either one's work available in English. (Melville House, whose blog called Franzen a piñata up above, has one Machado novella in their list.) It really seems difficult to make money translating literature into English as opposed to out, the occasional fad for a writer like Bolaño or Larsson aside.
posted by RogerB at 5:38 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


I don't have strong feelings on this subject, but I read the New Yorker short stories most months (they feature authors from all over the world) and I think the American authors fare pretty well.
posted by gyp casino at 5:42 PM on January 20


One of my great delights, back in the 80s when I was learning French (living in Paris and trying to get it to the 'fluent' level) was discovering a huge new literary world. I didn't like much contemporary French lit, but the French are very strong on translation; it seemed like 25% of the books in the FNAC were Brazilian and Italian and Spanish. I fell in love with Jorge Armado, Borges, Calvino, and a huge range of wonderful magical realists.

And Kundera. And Eco. And, and, and...
posted by jrochest at 5:52 PM on January 20 [11 favorites]


Despite my misgivings regarding the business practices of its parent company, I've been very impressed with the books in translation that Amazon Crossing publishes. I especially liked The Greenhouse.
posted by cali at 6:19 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


Unfortunately, only about 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation...in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%.

What should the number be? Support your choice with reference to cost of acquiring original material and quality translation and potential sales. (And it's not as if the percentage of serious literary titles originally in English is all that high.)

Besides, in these glass half full days of everyman his own publisher, any of the carpers is fully capable of filling the gap, if they feel so inclined. In the process they can either make out like bandits or understand why it is that the American publishing industry is not picking up the perceived slack.

the French are very strong on translation; it seemed like 25% of the books in the FNAC were Brazilian and Italian and Spanish. I fell in love with Jorge Armado, Borges, Calvino, and a huge range of wonderful magical realists.

And Kundera. And Eco. And, and, and...


All authors available in English.

(I did a quick rundown of contemporary narrative fiction on Italian Amazon and sorting by most popular, I'm finding about a third of the Italian authors exist in English translation. And it's not as if the issue is not totally ignored in America. Some of the practical difficulties addressed here.)

Sorry, beginning to rant. I'll shut up now.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:27 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]


The american mainstream is still writing novels like it's 1909

"Naturalism not dead. Letter follows."

Actually, if postmodernism has taught us anything, it's that there's always room for 1909. It's just a shame there's not more room for translations. I'm constantly amazed at how many literatures I will never know.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:28 PM on January 20 [5 favorites]


And Kundera

Didn't he switch over to actually writing in French?
posted by thelonius at 6:38 PM on January 20


But often, IndigoJones, authors are available in French much earlier than they are in English. It's not exactly Great Literature, but Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher series, despite being the topic of two fairly successful computer games, has only been translated very recently. While the five novels were translated into French 2 or 3 years after the originals, only two have been published in English to date, with another one due in 2014.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:51 PM on January 20


Is this where I complain that there is STILL no English language translation of the Crane-Iron Pentology?
posted by kyrademon at 7:00 PM on January 20


I'll just leave this here then.

Also, Franzen in particular.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:16 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]


Haven't read the Franzen book, but the complaints of that Myers fellow ring a little hollow. Vulgar language? Use of brands? They're affectations, and I can see them getting on your nerves, but I don't think they couldn't be made to work. Franzen may not be writing the novels Myers would want to read, but from Myers's review I don't get why that novel isn't good.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:40 PM on January 20


Would it be a good idea to talk in this thread about books in translation we really liked...

The Best Translated Book Award is always a great source of recommendations. I'm currently in the middle of enjoying Mo Yan's Sandalwood Death. It's fantastic--in both senses of the word. Literary yet highly readable.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:14 PM on January 20 [5 favorites]


One day we will run out of Baby Boomers and American culture will stop being quite so stagnant as it's been the last couple of decades as the 50-year stranglehold of Boomers on American artistic outlets (and fashion) finally lets in more than a trickle of not-Boomers.

And if it doesn't, and I'm stuck sipping my space mojito in my ultrapurple jumpsuit while reading YET ANOTHER literary fiction novel about how suburbia is boring and privileged wealthy men have a lot of malaise and feelings and somehow this makes younger women have sex with them, well ... I'm sure I'll come up with SOMEONE to blame. Like probably reanimated zombie Franzen who will still be cranking out novels about the tragic, dystopian world of the college-educated, employed homeowner who suspects he was born slightly too late for the good parts of the 60s and profoundly resents his wife for putting up with him.

And my book club will probably still be making me read his novels.

Um ... possibly this complaint has been festering for a while.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:15 PM on January 20 [31 favorites]




All authors available in English.

(I did a quick rundown of contemporary narrative fiction on Italian Amazon and sorting by most popular, I'm finding about a third of the Italian authors exist in English translation. And it's not as if the issue is not totally ignored in America. Some of the practical difficulties addressed here.)


*Sigh*.

Yes, they are all translated into English. Now.

At the time, though, all these authors were, at the time, not available in English translations, but were available in French translations.

It seemed to me that the percentage of translations to books written in French was higher than in an English-language bookstore.

But then, I was in my 20s, so what did I know.
posted by jrochest at 8:21 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


Regarding how many books in translation France publishes...

According to this one source, it's 14% to Germany's 8%. The Economist article keeps America and the U.K. at the much cited 3%, although the website that it cites actually puts it at slightly higher than that.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:29 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


YET ANOTHER literary fiction novel about how suburbia is boring and privileged wealthy men have a lot of malaise and feelings and somehow this makes younger women have sex with them

I always wonder where this comes from. I read plenty of contemporary American "literary" novels. In reverse chronological order, they concerned:

* a sweaty anti-Semitic guy in New Jersey who battles and/or has sex with a crew of bizarre gods who may or may not exist only in his mind;

* a somewhat anhedonic 27-year-old poet who cares more about making funny YouTube videos than writing poems and who likes to put scare quotes around things;

* a messed-up but comic creep who dictates the novel largely in the form of unsolicited forum posts on somebody else's wedding website;

* Japanese women immigrating to America and living through World War II and its aftermath;

* a team of video game designers wrestling with the fast cycle of obsolescence in their industry and the fantasy of mass murder that's at the emotional heart of their game -- also there is skateboarding;

* a woman who attends a school for psychics, may or may not be felled by a mental attack from her mentor, may or may not be on the way to finding out the truth about her vanished mother who may or may not be dead.

My tastes are pretty mainstream. This is where literary or "literary" fiction in America is at these days. I too think it would be awesome to have more access in English to novels from all over the world. But the American novel isn't dead, not even close, and the last time the dominant form was "guys in the suburbs having Feelings" was, what, John Cheever and Richard Yates, whose books, by the way, are fucking amazing and it would be a tragedy to miss out on them because they were about rich guys in the suburbs having feelings. You have to work if you want to read books about that now. I dunno, who, Tom Perrotta? Maybe Franzen himself? Sort of, not really.

Sorry, that's my rant.
posted by escabeche at 9:03 PM on January 20 [10 favorites]


GODDAMMIT I just talked about Franzen in the thread where I suggested we not talk about Franzen.
posted by escabeche at 9:04 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


Hey escabeche, what's the one about the video game developers?
posted by clockzero at 10:19 PM on January 20


I would like to know about this one: * a messed-up but comic creep who dictates the novel largely in the form of unsolicited forum posts on somebody else's wedding website;
posted by spinifex23 at 11:27 PM on January 20


While I am all for having as many different reading choices available as possible (and the glory of the Internet's potential, I feel, is that someday all things will be available for everyone [i.e. me]), decrying an "awful" 3% number seemed a bit odd to me considering the avalanche of English language books published every year. I decided to look at the numbers.

That 3% is including all other languages, presumably, yet only a handful of non-English languages by themselves publish more than 3% of the books in the world -- by my count, only five non-English countries. One could extrapolate from the world's most populous internal, non-English-speaking groups, but in any case, I wonder how that 3% number would be changed if it included only the top languages, like say Chinese, Hindi, Russian, Spanish.

(According to the 3% site, it's really only 0.7% when considering literary fiction -- although that's unclear. Do they mean 0.7% of all books translated to English in the US are literary fiction and poetry from other languages? Or do they mean 0.7% of literary fiction/poetry in the US is translated from other languages? I don't know.)

Looking at the number of books published per year by country, the US in 2011 published nearly 300,000, the UK nearly 150,000, and India (in 2004) nearly 19,000 in English.
                    %       %
                    Top 11  World
 1. USA     292,037 23.60%  13.27%
 2. China   241,986 19.55%  11.00%
 3. UK      149,800 12.10%   6.81%
 4. Russia  116,888  9.44%   5.31%
 5. India    82,537  6.67%   3.75%
 6. Germany  82,048  6.63%   3.73%
 7. Japan    78,349  6.33%   3.56%
 8. Iran     65,000  5.25%   2.95%
 9. Spain    44,000  3.56%   2.00%
10. Turkey   43,100  3.48%   1.96%
11. France   41,902  3.39%   1.90%
===========================================
          1,237,647
That's over 465,000 books from the top 3 English-speaking/publishing nations (not counting Canada, Australia, etc.), or about 21% of the world's books. Of course a not-insignificant number of the US's books will be in Spanish and perhaps French, but we're comparing all of the world's non-English languages.

What percentage of that 292,037 USA books is literary fiction or poetry I can't tell you, but I can't imagine it's that large, especially if you leave aside the classics that are brought out in new editions yet again every year. Anybody have a guess? 5% maybe? 10%? (Don't forget, it wouldn't count genre fiction.)

So if 5-10% is accurateish, say 10-20,000 literary fiction and poetry books published in the US in a year. That is a vanishingly small market as it is, so to complain that all other languages (again, we don't have the numbers for, say, the percentages of e.g. Chinese and Spanish) don't have adequate representation on the American literary scene is making something of a tempest/teapot situation. And the teapot is very, very small.

According to Ask a Literary Agent,
Most debut literary story collections net approximately 2,000 hardcover copies. Most literary first novels net between 3,000 and 7,000 hardcover copies. Most commercial first novels net between 5,000 and 10,000 hardcover copies.
So a given new English-language book's run is going to be miniscule. The market is small for literary fiction, unfortunately. Given that, I can understand why publishers might shy away from publishing a vast majority of translated literary books from smaller countries, given the sales risk and costs involved.

Again, I don't bemoan the championing of other literary fiction being translated into English. Please give me all your books! I can only hope that the Internet fulfills its destiny of providing readers like myself an infinite cornucopia of books outside the whims of the US publishing world.

----

I wish I could get access to this UNESCO book production statistics study. Doesn't it seem like UN publications should be free?

It could be worse -- we could still be in 1907 when 9,260 books were published in the US. Hard to imagine.

posted by Celsius1414 at 12:09 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


yeah, escabeche what were those, they all pretty much sounded great.

I recently read Solaris (by S. Lem) and I couldn't get around the translation. I mean, as I was reading it I was thinking, this book has to be much better than this translation. You just feel that it's about 40 times better than what you're reading - that the translator was thinking about lunch and didn't want to put out the effort to figure out what the hell. So I've ordered it in French, 'cause I understand that's a pretty good translation, and then I'm gonna try and read it in German.

Similar but different, I picked up some copy of 20,000 leagues under the Sea to read to my kids and it was completely unreadable. Just, fucking gobbledygook. So I poked around a bit and found the 'US Naval Institute version which is fucking amazing. Seriously. It puts back all the great - cause it is a fucking great book. It's about science; I was reading it totally wrapt. The kids were a little less affected, but then, you know, they're young still.

And then I also read (last year, mind) Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlman, which I thought was a crazy cool book - at least Gauss and Humboldt were very intense characters and I was happy to read about them. The book was a little loose but I didn't mind: turns out (having talked about it with a couple German speakers) the translation is 'better' than the original. Smoothes over some of the rough spots and makes the whole hang together a little bit better.

Lastly, that Franzen was not litterally treated like a pinata was a huge let down.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:11 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


And my book club will probably still be making me read his novels.

Well, there you go. Book clubs are for boring people who don't have enough faith in their own ability to read worthwhile books.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:17 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


Similar but different, I picked up some copy of 20,000 leagues under the Sea to read to my kids and it was completely unreadable. Just, fucking gobbledygook. So I poked around a bit and found the 'US Naval Institute version which is fucking amazing.

Yes, Verne's work has almost from the start been badly served with translations, which is why all the available public domain versions are so godawful.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:18 AM on January 21


I recently read Solaris (by S. Lem) and I couldn't get around the translation. I mean, as I was reading it I was thinking, this book has to be much better than this translation.

Forgot this.

The original English edition of Solaris was actually translated from the French translation of the original Polish, which wasn't going to do wonders for staying true to Lem's vision. And since every edition since has been based on that original translation (until very recently), so no wonder it sucked. There is an ebook version (ISBN 978-1-937624-66-8) which is supposedly much improved, with a new translated authorised by Lem's estate.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:25 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


So the panel consisted of Xiaolu Guo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Frazen and Jim Crace: British, American, American, British. Yay!
posted by alasdair at 12:49 AM on January 21


Well, there you go. Book clubs are for boring people who don't have enough faith in their own ability to read worthwhile books.

Now, now book clubs are for helping you read Proust all the way through.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:41 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Would it be a good idea to talk in this thread about books in translation we really liked, instead of about Jonathan Franzen again?

You know, I came across this Greek gent by the name of Homer recently. He wrote a story called the Iliad. Now, I don't speak much Greek, but this other English gent by the name of Pope did a fine translation which I've been reading through recently. I'm rather surprised this book hasn't won any sort of prize yet, like the Pulitzer or something...
posted by SollosQ at 1:51 AM on January 21


"I love your work, Jonathan…but in a way you are smeared by English American literature…I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated." In the session on the global novel during the first day of this year's Jaipur Literature Festival, Jonathan Franzen served as a giant piñata

That's right. When you go to Jaipur, you writers better go hard. This is our house!
posted by hal_c_on at 2:37 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


I just read and really enjoyed The Yacoubian Building, written in Arabic by Alaa Al Aswany.

Hmmm. I'll read that, and you can read his 'Chicago'.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:40 AM on January 21


I was submitting to lit mags recently and one had in advisory in capital letters that was something like:

WE ARE NOT INTERESTED IN STORIES ABOUT WRITERS

Which, I dunno, I read as a commentary of the institutionalization of the MFA, or something
posted by angrycat at 3:07 AM on January 21 [7 favorites]


Book clubs are for boring people who don't have enough faith in their own ability to read worthwhile books.

Did one of these people eat your baby or something? Seems like a pretty harmless way to share some things you enjoyed reading with others. Perhaps they aren't professional littérateurs with PhDs. Is it bad that they choose to spend a certain amount of their probably sparse leisure time reading and discussing what they read, rather than, say, watching television or playing Bach's violin partitas while dancing cotillions on rollerskates? Is it bad that these people manifest a possibly naïve desire to educate themselves in a sphere that may mostly fall outside their experience?

The amount of sneering that goes on in here is sometimes frankly astonishing, and more than a little unpleasant.
posted by Wolof at 3:17 AM on January 21 [21 favorites]


I would like to know about this one: * a messed-up but comic creep who dictates the novel largely in the form of unsolicited forum posts on somebody else's wedding website;

I think that's Travis Nichols' The More You Ignore Me. jokeefe posted about it last May. I had forgotten about it, but really want to read it too.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:39 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


WE ARE NOT INTERESTED IN STORIES ABOUT WRITERS

A lot of aspirants do not have anything to say beyond "LOOK, I'M A WRITER"
posted by thelonius at 3:53 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


If I'm not mistaken, the book about video game developers is You by Austin Grossman.
posted by daikaisho at 4:27 AM on January 21


Um ... possibly this complaint has been festering for a while.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:15 PM on January 20 [11 favorites +] [!]


Why the heck would you put up with it? Write! Make art that unlocks the boomer stranglehold! Stop reading/buying/consuming the things you so despise.

There's a world of reading to do, it's an embarrassment of riches, we are so lucky, global or local, English or translation, I really don't see how it's the fault of boring writers (or an entire generation) if your book club is too provincial to make choices you find more satisfying.

Also, I'll get the boomers together, see if we can die off faster for ya.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:28 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Hey, just avoid anyone who won a literary award between the years of 1995 and 2001, and American literature looks pretty good.

As for translation, I'm a little dubious of the value of a wider swath of translation. Are we really missing out on top-flight authors writing originally in French or Chinese or what have you, or are we "missing out" on tons of pulp?
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:41 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Are we really missing out on top-flight authors writing originally in French [...]

As someone who recently finished her Masters degree in comparative literature in France, my reply would be a resounding yes. There are so many incredible contemporary French-language authors with diverse backgrounds, it's nigh impossible to keep up. The key is in French, which does not necessarily equate to from France. French is spoken in several countries around the world, African countries included, as well as Caribbean and South Pacific. There is even a strong tradition of non-native French authors writing in French. The Wikipedia article Francophone literature gives a decent overview and has a wealth of links to more.

And yes, there is indeed a lot of translated work here. Literature has always been an integral facet of "French culture". (Quotes because here "French" applies mainly to the country "France", with "culture" included in the quotes because it's self-referential, as in, your general random French person, all classes considered, will consider Franco-French literature as part and parcel of their cultural identity to an extent we don't generally see in the States. Generally.)
posted by fraula at 5:09 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


alasdair: "So the panel consisted of Xiaolu Guo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Frazen and Jim Crace: British, American, American, British. Yay!"

Yes but funny names so, other!
posted by chavenet at 5:15 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


"Naturalism not dead. Letter follows."

Ha, this cheered me up immensely. I'll spread the news!
posted by thelonius at 5:26 AM on January 21


The two that people guessed are correct! Here's the list, same order:

The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner: not everybody is going to like this but I was competely bowled over

Taipei: again, very polarizing, some people think the book is a stupid prank of some kind but I really admired it, among the most read and discussed novels last year among self-identified "literary people"

The More You Ignore Me by Travis Nichols

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

You by Austin Grossman

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits
posted by escabeche at 5:28 AM on January 21 [10 favorites]


Thanks for the post, RogerB! When reports first started appearing about what Jhumpa Lahiri and Xiaolu Guo had said, they got passed around my Nordic literary circles. For what it's worth, of the six writers on stage (Lahiri, Guo, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, Chandrahas Choudhury and Maaza Mengiste) Lahiri is by far the best known and most respected among people I know in the Nordic countries. I know many Nordic authors who think very highly of her (as do I, of the few short stories of hers that I've read). So to have her criticize American literature was very newsworthy.

Personally I think that she undervalues slightly the amount of good translation that is available in English. Many smaller American publishers exist that are dedicated to literature in translation, (e.g. Dalkey Archive, Open Letter Books, Archipelago Books) as well as many who publish both English-language and translated works in large amounts (e.g. New Directions, Melville House, New York Review of Books). If you go looking it's easy to find more good material than it is possible to read in your lifetime.

That said, there are lots of writers who are quickly available to readers of French and German (I'm speaking about translations here, not works originally in those languages) which aren't available in English until much later. To give one example, Tove Jansson's True Deceiver won the Best Translated Book Award in 2011. It was first published in Swedish in 1982. The German translation was published in 1986 and the French translation in 1987. This is a fairly common pattern. Not that there aren't counterexamples (e.g. Haruki Murakami was first translated into English in 1985, but not until 1990 and 1991 into French and German, respectively) but I've come across the other pattern much more often. This quote from the Guardian piece linked by RogerB bears this out: "Statistics from 2007 show that about 2% of books published in the UK and US are translations, as opposed to Germany (13%), France (27%), Spain (28%), Turkey (40%) and Slovenia (70%)."

The majority of fiction I read was by English-language authors but not anymore. There just isn't that much that interests me. I don't really know why, to be honest. The glib part of me wants to say that Franzen nails it in the report on the first day of the Jaipur festival linked by RogerB: "The importance of sitcoms in my generation's development cannot be underestimated." Many times while reading American fiction I've found myself completely lost (and losing interest) in long passages about television shows I know very little about. This isn't new, there's a long bit in Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 about Perry Mason which completely took me out of book and led me to avoid reading Pynchon (though I just bought Bleeding Edge on the recommendation of the Three Percent Podcast). This tendency in American fiction completely loses me. I'm not talking about all American things, for instance I've very much enjoyed reading about baseball from a young age, even though I never saw a game until I was in my twenties. But fiction which requires me to have a working knowledge of American television shows of the 60s, 70s and 80s will be nearly impenetrable to me.

All that said, some of the writers who've mattered most to me, who've had the greatest influence on me, have been American writers (Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. LeGuin, Paul Auster, William Gibson, Samuel R. Delany and Joan Didion). Though the list of writers from other countries and other languages would be longer. And on a more general note, it's fun to read translations. The structures of English language fiction are fairly unique, and it's fun to read literature which is built up in completely different ways.

Actually, that reminds me... a friend of mine who's also a novelist recently read James Wood's How Fiction Works. Apparently, nowhere in the book does Wood discuss structure as part of how fiction works. That's so very bizarre in the context of non-English language literature. In the literary traditions of other languages, structure is what defines various types of fiction. For instance, as far as I can tell, in English language fiction, novellas are simply stories that are longer than short stories, but shorter than novels (e.g. the Hugo and Nebula awards define novellas as "works of fiction of between 17,500 and 40,000 words." In Europe, novellas are a very specific genre, not constrained by length, but as prose narratives that focus on the events leading up to, and repercussions of, one single event. So yes, it's fun to experience fiction that emerges out of a completely different tradition.

Oh, and James Wood also got a kicking at this Jaipur festival. Again, from that report on the first day linked by RogerB:
Mr. Hensher objected to speaking of a priestly caste of critics, whose task was to pronounce on books from high. But he couldn't resist singling out one high priest for, well, criticism: the New Yorker critic James Wood. He's been wrong about every book he's ever written about, according to Mr. Hensher.

Mr. Bhabha felt it necessary to point out that Mr. Wood is a colleague of his at Harvard.

That didn't stop Mr. Hensher. He warned that the panel would be there all night if they wanted to hear his full dissection of "the self-proclaimed critic" Mr. Wood, whom Mr. Hensher said he knew at Cambridge, "when he still had all his hair." (He's used this particular swipe before.)

Mr. Jensen interjected that "I don’t always agree with James Wood, but I love to disagree with him."
I pretty much always disagree with James Wood, but whenever I'm ready to get too annoyed at him, I remember that he was on the Booker Prize judging panel that gave the award to James Kelman's brilliant How Late It Was, How Late, which is one of my favorite novels.

posted by Kattullus at 6:06 AM on January 21 [10 favorites]


I haven't seen this mentioned in the OP or the comments yet, but an important context to these worries about the supposed dominance of American writing, I think, is the announcement last year that the next Booker Prize is going to be opened to Americans. There was and still is a lot of doomsaying although I think there's also reason to think that the most likely outcome will be a number of Americans showing up on the long list and even the short list but the prize itself, not so much.
posted by chinston at 6:44 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


but this other English gent by the name of Pope did a fine translation

"Very pretty, Mr. Pope, but it's not Homer."

Which opens the entire can of worms of what makes a good translation, never mind what makes for material worth translating. France may translate more books into French, but the top three sellers on Amazon France last year were various shades of gray. I don't know if that reflects worse on America or France.

At the time

I'm afraid your memory is playing you false. If you're talking the 1980's (I base this on your given age), the larger works of Armado, Borges, Calvino, Kundera and Eco were already Englished, or becoming so soon after publication. (William Weaver was doing Eco as early as the 1960s; he got Eco's Name of the Rose out within three years of its Italian edition - not bad, given the size and nature of that book.)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:00 AM on January 21


(Come to that, I would be genuinely interested in your thoughts on how the French and English translations of Amado, Borges etc stack up. French better? English better? If so, why so? What say you?)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:19 AM on January 21


I am always puzzled by the small availability in English of Karl May.
posted by BWA at 7:29 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Of course pulp sells more than literary fiction in France. And yes, all the big silly bestsellers get translated and sell well there: Twilight, 50 Shades, Dan Brown, etc.

It would require a lot more resources than we have to do a survey that really showed, say, how much literary fiction is translated into French vs. into English. But the general trend for all books, and a lot of anecdotal evidence, point out to a bigger share for France.

In general, anyone who becomes a really "big name" worldwide will get translated into English fairly fast, hence your Eco, Borges, Kundera, etc. But plenty of good authors, who have standing in their country, won't get translated until much later, if at all, while they'll be available in German or French.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:45 AM on January 21


There's all manner of slow-paced, meandering navel-gazing going on out there in foreign languages that Americans are not being shown.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:59 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


I recently read Streetwise after loving its prequel, For Bread Alone, and the difference in translation is staggering. For Bread Alone was surreal and compulsive reading; Streetwise plopped the same author back down to earth and made him plod.

I haven't watched the Jaipur clip yet, but from the attached articles it sounded like Guo and Lahiri's complaints were less about pinata-ing Franzen and more about how reliable money and readership for 'literary' novels is corralled in a specific, book-clubby area of English language writing at the expense (viability?) of non-English authors and other modes of storytelling. Something Franzen probably agrees with -- see the quote on unlearning "show vs. tell." and his anxiety about the homogenization of global culture (which anxiety was apparently "yammered" - thanks mhpbooks.com).

Guo's pull quote aside, it sounds like they were bemoaning the options available for non-English writers more than they were decrying the merit of what sells in English, or of Franzen in particular.
posted by postcommunism at 8:25 AM on January 21


MartinWisse: "Well, there you go. Book clubs are for boring people who don't have enough faith in their own ability to read worthwhile books."

thinkpiece: "Why the heck would you put up with it? ... if your book club is too provincial to make choices you find more satisfying."

Geeeeez, you do a little kicking around of Franzen and suddenly you're a boring lazy person with provincial friends!

The women in my book club and I have been BFFs for 8 years now. We have driven each other to the hospital to have babies, left work midday for each others' emergencies, caravaned to distant cities for family funerals, passed around baby gear so much nobody can remember who originally bought it. Yes, some of them have execrable taste in books. But, look, I didn't join a book club in the first place to read books I know I like. I joined it to read books that were strange to me, and to talk about them with people, and I have been introduced to books that I really enjoyed that I never would have picked up on my own, and also to books that deserve to be thrown across the room with great force despite their critical raves. And I don't STAY in the book club because of the books, I stay because these are my best friends, who are fascinating and accomplished women in their own rights.

I'm totally puzzled by your comment, though, Martin. Is University for boring people who don't have enough faith in their own ability to learn worthwhile things on their own? Like why does engaging in an activity suddenly become boring and worthy of mocking when you engage in it communally? I don't get it. "You want to read books and talk about them with others? You are boring people with terrible taste and should fell bad about yourselves for pretending to engage in an intellectual life."

But I don't know, maybe this "well, you're dull provincial suburban moms sipping chardonnay" attitude is part of the problem with American publishing.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:52 AM on January 21 [11 favorites]


What should the number be? Support your choice with reference to cost of acquiring original material and quality translation and potential sales. (And it's not as if the percentage of serious literary titles originally in English is all that high.)

It's not as if potential sales are immutable. Brave New World sold a few thousand copies, but publishing it was the right decision. There is a real cost to translating fewer books: in variety, availability of books, their cultural impact and their effect on writers who don't have the chance to interact with them etc. I don't think it's about monetary cost either: literature in English seems to crowd out other traditions to the extent that, in my experience, it's not uncommon to chat with bookish people, Oxbridge graduates and writers, who are well versed in minor writers who have written in English, but haven't read Balzac, Stendhal, Dante or Cervantes (and I mean that in a broader sense).

Translation has a cost (note that rights can be quite cheap), but publishers also have to support books they believe in. I don't have data right now on whether sales of foreign books are lower in the US, but the promotion and fostering of books is part of the job of a publisher. European countries are quite successful at it and even though the source language of significant % of translated books is English, it is not the only one. The bottom line is important, but if publishing were all about profit, there are industries with higher returns.
posted by ersatz at 10:19 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


For reference, these are the statistics for the 2012 French market All fiction (novels) amounts for 26% of the 2012 revenue. Translated material amounts for 17.3% of all titles released in 2012 (all genres included, not just fiction).

(language, titles, percentage of all translated titles):
English    6.653  58,8%
Japanese   1.191  10,5%
German       754   6,7%
Italian      554   4,9%
Spanish      403   3,6%
Nordic lang. 242   2,1%
Russian      117   1,0%
Dutch        102   0,9%
Arabic        91   0,8%
Korean        87   0,8%
Top 10 of 2012 best sellers (title, units sold, translation underlined in their original titles):
1  L'appel de l'ange                                     496,900
2  Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann 479,300 
3  50 Shades of Grey                                     415,900
4  La vérité sur l'affaire Harry Quebert                 363,200
5  7 ans après...                                        352,400
6  Si c'était à refaire                                  344,200
7  L'étrange voyage de monsieur daldry                   329,700
8  La liste de mes envies                                301,300
9  Caught                                                276,000
10 Nutella : le petit livre - Les 30 recettes culte      259,500
More at: Chiffres-clés du secteur du livre 2011-2012 (in French)

IndigoJones: Amazon.fr book sales aren't representative of the French market. Yet!

Celcius1414: Some figures include re-editions (i.e. the US), whereas others don't, this look like comparing apples and oranges.
posted by surrendering monkey at 12:06 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


But I don't know, maybe this "well, you're dull provincial suburban moms sipping chardonnay" attitude is part of the problem with American publishing.

I have no idea where you live, what you drink or read, I actually find all of that utterly irrelevant, you just implied that you were forced to read boring old white guys in your book club, unremittingly, and that boomers ("Boomers") were responsible. I'm suggesting you and your pals have a choice. More like, zillions.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:47 PM on January 21


Although it isn't too germane to the topic of this post -- unless the reason many are pissed at Franzen is for not making his prose demanding, I suppose -- there is a review of Frost's 'The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents' over at Open Letters that I found interesting.

Snip: "On the whole, 'The Problem With Pleasure' makes a convincing case that modernism was, at least in part, a response to the rise of mass entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a kind of entertainment that seemed to many modern writers to offer only 'cheap' pleasures."
posted by mr. digits at 2:32 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's interesting. On the other hand, a lot of the European avant garde was very self consciously trying to make art that was more popular, populist even, than the high art of the 19th Century.
posted by Kattullus at 2:54 PM on January 21


Are you thinking naturalists along the lines of Zola and Manet, or do you have others in mind? Outside of the aforementioned I'm pretty ignorant on the topic but am interested in learning more.
posted by mr. digits at 3:02 PM on January 21


No, some of the weirdest literature of the early 20th Century, things like zaum, were attempts to create a literature of the people. Of course, a lot of the things that seem perfectly normal to us now, came out of the same impulse, such as the typographical playfulness that's now standard in graphic design of all kinds. Lots of other things we take for granted in modern art and literature comes from these experiments. Soviet film makers developed montage techniques as a dialectic art to get the public to think in Marxist ways.

This wasn't the case only with Russian art and literature, a lot of the art and literary movements of the 1920s were trying to find new ways to reach the masses. Dada and Surrealism, for instance, were attempts at that. Surrealism, especially, was wildly successful, though its influence on English-language fiction has been limited, but in France the Surrealists basically fused with the mainstream, and influenced literature all across the continent.
posted by Kattullus at 3:47 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]


It's hard to understand for us, because there's always been mass entertainment during our lives, but I'm always wary of theses that have people reacting to its rise. Paper and printing became cheaper and cheaper as time went by, but already in the late 18th century Radcliffe could make significant amounts from the sales of her books. By Zola's time, one could become rich from the mass sales of novels. However, most best sellers weren't seen much better by the literary elite than the Twilights or even Stephen Kings of today, and most have been forgotten. To be a player in the avant-garde game, you have to differentiate yourself from two groups: the conventional academists who are perpetuating the art as it was one or two generations ago, but who aren't necessarily targeting a wide audience, and the commercial authors, who are mostly in it for the money and will use every cheap trick in the book (e.g. Dumas's ghostwriters). I think breaking from previous convention was at least as much on the mind of the modernists as avoiding cheap commercial tricks.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:00 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


The latest post from Three Percent is germane to this discussion. Three Percent keep a database of translations of works that have never before been translated into English. Excerpt:
In 2008, we identified 360 translations in total (278 works of fiction, 82 poetry).

2009 was almost identical: 362 total translations (290 fiction, 72 poetry).

2010 was a step backwards, with only 344 translations (266 fiction, 78 poetry).

Everything got back on track in 2011 with 374 total translations coming out (304 fiction, 70 poetry).

2012 was another increase, and was the first time the total broke into the 400s. Specifically, 456 translations came out (386 fiction, 70 poetry).

And now, we’re up to 517 (427 fiction, 90 poetry). That’s a 50% increase from 2010, or, in actual terms, 173 more translations came out in 2013 than in 2010. Seems unbelievable . . .

Someone asked me about this increase the other day, and from looking at the list of publishers, it looks like two things are contributing to this increase: publishers who have traditionally published literature in translation are now doing a couple more books every year, and there are far more publishers publishing books in translation than there were just a few years ago. (In 2010, 139 publishers did at least one translation. That number jumped to 187 in 2013.)
That makes me happy to hear.
posted by Kattullus at 4:46 AM on January 25


Where's The Rage? - "Kamila Shamsie and Pankaj Mishra discuss the absence of political anger in Western literature and why we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn writers like Mo Yan."

MFA vs. NYC - "There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 1,269!"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:57 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


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