Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Reading the Literary in America

The awarding last week of the best translated book to be published in the United States in the past year raises questions about the change of interest in the U.S. in “pure” cultural products from beyond its boundaries. Two developments in the past few years have made an impact: the first was PEN American Center’s World Voices Festival, which focused several days of attention on writers from around the world, who come to New York to participate in readings, panel discussions and interviews with their American counterparts. Thousands upon thousands of people attend these 60-odd events that take place.

The second is Chad Post’s Three Percent (named after the fraction of literary titles represented by translation, although Chad makes a good case that the number is actually much lower, and closer to about .5%). Chad gathers as many translated titles as he can on his web site and blog to try to get the word out to a broad audience. His recent awarding of a prize for the best translated book takes publicity one step further.

I was involved in a very small dust-up last fall with the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, which took place solely in digital news, after he said that it would be difficult for an American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature since Americans are too isolated and ignorant of world literatures. I don’t have to go into my reasons here for thinking that a stupid statement, but I would like to examine a bit why Americans (in general) do not read translated literary books.

First, let’s admit that Americans don’t read many literary books at all, translated or not. The New York Times bestseller list—the old one, which listed only 10 or 15 books—in the 1960s might have boasted several highly regarded literary authors, which is generally not the case today. Americans for the most part read for entertainment, and sometimes enchantment (to use Nabokov’s descriptor), but rarely for the erotic intensity of wordplay itself. The erotics of reading or, as novelist Christopher Sorrentino once described it to me, the ecstatic of reading, has never been widespread, but it seems to be even less so nowadays, particularly in the adult world. I can’t tell you how many adults I meet nowadays who tell me their favorite book is something I would classify as a young adult novel. The winner of the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature far outsells the Fiction winner. Cormac McCarthy’s “young adult novel”, as one literary blogger described The Road to me, far, far outsold any of his previous novels for adults.

In reading Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity recently, her chapter on the narrative imagination focused for the most part on older novels as helpmeets for the cultivation of humanistic principles (Dickens, Ellison). Yet the novel of abstraction, such as Beckett’s trilogy, and refraction, such as those of Carole Maso or David Markson, finds only a tiny audience. Two million people a year will go to the Museum of Modern Art and view abstraction. Why does text suffer from the burden of verisimilitude?

I went to the New York Comic Convention a couple of weeks ago. I arrived mid-afternoon on Saturday, and had to cajole my way in because it was sold out. Sold out? My daughter, aged seventeen, went with me, dressed as Ragged Robin from Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Lots of other people dressed as their favorite characters. The fantastic is in, especially among younger people who grew up with the fantastic and the commercial. Story is in, simplicity is in (obvious good versus obvious evil, even when the comic book characters are flawed), manic Manicheanism. The novel of meaning is so…yesterday.

The literary community needs more excitement. When was the last time you saw a novelist of the late night shows? Remember when Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Mary McCarthy would appear on The Tonight Show because they were witty and charming and intelligent and outrageous? Who are their counterparts now, and when will they bring us in from the cold? Americans need that in their authors. One part artist, one part philosopher, one part harlequin. Here’s my suggestion: I think Jonathan Franzen should marry Paris Hilton, the way Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe. It doesn’t have to last long, but it would give a few writers the opportunity to appear in photographs like the one with Monroe, Miller, Signoret, and Montand at dinner in the 1950s. Kiran Desai and Brad Pitt. Achy Obejas and Ellen Degeneres. Like Bernard-Henri Levy and Arielle Dombasle. I think I’m onto a new program here, something I could coordinate. I wonder if I can get a grant.

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