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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The American Republic of Letters, Part Two

Politics and power have always played a role in literary reading. Who reads what and why is not always based on taste, as it has for the most part been in our bourgie era. In various times and epochs it has also been influenced by education, political censorship, sexism, money, marketing, religion, ambition, and technological advances. The medieval Catholic Church was one of the most obvious lords of literature, both restricting and preserving great books. Its influence into the Spanish Inquisitional era is very well documented in Irving Leonard’s Books of the Brave (out of print, I believe), where the Spanish administration in Madrid and Seville could control every book sent to its colonies, until it exported printing presses, and lost control both of ideas and then the colonial states themselves. Contrast that with the privately run English colonies, where control was exercised by local ministers, if at all.

Our own era is witnessing a vast shift in power and influence in literary reading, and though we have often bantered and argued about who influences our reading habits and why, certainly those we considered primary influencers are trying desperately to “re-tool” in order to retain their influence as it slowly slips away.

For about two decades we have watched enrollment in college English courses deteriorate and the number of English majors decline (viz., Andrew Delbanco’s article The Decline and Fall of Literature in “The New York Review of Books”, November 14, 1999), done-in by a variety of forces, including a willful need for obscurantism and even irrelevance; the number of independent booksellers decrease by two-thirds, picked off one-by-one first by superstores and then by the internet; and newspaper book reviews have all but disappeared, killed by the interplay of digitization and cultural anarchy (the idealistic kind, not the chaotic kind).

Without flogging the trope that “as moveable type, blah, blah, blah”, the advent of digitization is changing the power structure of who reads what, in many, many ways, including everything from creation to consumption, and the new “players” include the great digitizing companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, eInk, and a host of bit players who create apps, blogs, and other things that appeal to recently created patterns of consumption. But they are not the only power players. Corporate copyright fiefdoms are in the midst of creating the Celestial Jukebox. If libraries of the future have no right to lend information, the copyright-holders—often large corporate entities—will control what we read, and even re-read. Of course, the opposite may happen, and anarchy-oriented organizations may figure out a way to yippify the literary universe. Small presses linger on the margins, wondering if the new structure will bring them more influence. In any case, the old power structure is changing, and the American Republic of Letters is in the process of creating a new booky politic.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Flat Screen Novels

Today’s introduction of the second wave of the Kindle brings to mind certain aspects of reading on a screen versus reading on a traditional book.

According to Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, the physical layout of the book as we know it supposedly evolved around the time of Julius Caesar. In fact, Manguel attributes the folded nature of the book to Caesar himself, who found it difficult to carried rolled scrolls on his person as he was riding into battle with the Gauls. The opening of The Gallic Wars, Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (All Gaul is divided into three parts) gave rise to the folding of a large page, or printer’s sheet, into four parts (which resulted in the quarto), eight parts (the ubiquitous octavo), and the mostly outmoded twelve parts (the duodecimo). This lasted about 2,000 years, until Sony and Amazon, “taking a page” out of Caesar’s book (where will that expression go, I wonder), decided that the most comfortable way to read would be on a tablet, as the middle-easterners did before the scroll, a single, smooth, untextured screen, a rectangle of limited size. (By the way, I’m kidding about Gaul being divided into three parts as having given Caesar the idea for the book).

One difference between the screen and the printed book is that the former has no depth while the latter has the illusion of depth. When you read an e-book, you read from edge to edge. When you read a printed book, you read from the edge to the interior, and then the interior to the edge, again and again and again, a metaphor of immersion (unlike edge to edge reading). And this is the case whether you read left to right or right to left (or even up and down, as do the Chinese, since the sequence of columns moves to the interior). The “frame of reference” becomes the center. The physical act focuses the reading experience.

Another difference is the lack of uniqueness for the book as an object. Even though you may be reading a Stephen King novel along with a million other people, the object in your hand is a unique item. Sure, your own Kindle is unique, but the cover to the book never changes, and again flattens the reading experience from a unique physical experience with unique content to the same physical experience with unique content.

Is this bad? Only to those of us who grew up with the metaphor of depth and immersion. I find it interesting that, as cinema explores the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional screen and virtual realities re-define artificial “reality”, the e-book is providing the means to move in the opposite direction, away from representation. It’s also interesting that, even though King today promoted the Kindle at the Amazon press conference, I believe that his story-based work will actually be less successful as a reading experience (aesthetically) in e-book format, simply because it is figurative and the e-book is not.

From time to time, I read books on my iTouch, and I find it most successful as an experience when I read material written for the screen, not things written for the printed book. Several posts back I suggested that Amazon give 100 Kindles to writers around the country and see what they come up with when they approach writing for the screen, writers of all different stripes, from Bruce Sterling to Nora Roberts to Mark Danielewski. Then we might see reading on the Kindle as a new aesthetic experience. Right now it's just a convenience.