Must Read: How English Books in Europe Hurts Local Writers

Tim Parks has a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books about how in some countries in Europe the translation into a foreign language in Europe has is completing with the English originals. He posits that in countries where English is commonly spoken as a second language, that readers are more interested in reading books from English writers, and given a choice between a translation from English and the original they will pick the original. This has lead to the phenomenon where English language authors are considered the best writers. Instead of broadening access to writers, it has had the effect of limiting narrowing access. I don’t think this phenomenon is as pronounced in Spain, but I do marvel at how many English speaking authors make it in to Spanish. On reading through a book of interview I was also amazed that outside of some classic short story authors, most of the influences were Spanish or English language authors only. Fascinating stuff. (Via)

When I asked people to list titles they had recently read, they seemed surprised themselves how prevalently English and American, rather than simply foreign, these novels were. A linguist from Amsterdam University, for example, went away and jotted down the names of all the novelists on his shelves: fifty-eight Anglophone authors (many were Booker and Pulitzer winners), nineteen from eight other countries and twenty Dutch. Until he wrote down this list, he remarked, he had not been aware how far his reading was driven by publicity and availability. Indeed, no one spoke of any method behind his or her choice of novels (as opposed to non-fiction, where people declared very specific and usually local interests).

“I read foreign novels because they’re better,” was a remark I began to expect (surprisingly, a senior member of the Dutch Fund for Literature also said this to me). I asked readers if that could really be the case; why would foreign books be “better” across the board, in what way? As the responses mounted up, a pattern emerged: these people had learned excellent English and with it an interest in Anglo-Saxon culture in their school years. They had come to use their novel-reading (but not other kinds of reading) to reinforce this alternative identity, a sort of parallel or second life that complemented the Dutch reality they lived in and afforded them a certain self esteem as initiates in a wider world.

Apart from the immediate repercussions on the book market, where there is now fierce competition between English and Dutch editions of English language novels, the phenomenon suggests a few things about reading and the modern psyche. There appears to be a tension, or perhaps necessary balance, between evasion and realism in fiction, between a desire to read seriously about real things—to feel I am not wasting my time, but engaging intelligently with the world—and simultaneously a desire to escape the confines of one’s immediate community, move into the territory of the imagination, and perhaps fantasize about far away places.

The Professional Writer and the Birth of the Predictable

Tim Parks has an article in the New York Review of Books about the professional writer and how that has lead to a form of sterility in writing. I think his take has a lot of merit, especially with the institutionalization of writing in the universities. I’ve always been a little suspicious of MFA’s and the like. I mean how many books about writers do we need? It often seems like what half the writers who come from those institutions end up producing anyway. It isn’t a depressing article, just one makes me glad I didn’t try and get an MFA. It all seems like a great ponzi scheme.

At the same time the perceived need for an expensive year-long creative writing course on the part of thousands of would-be writers affords paid employment to those older writers who have trouble making ends meet but are nevertheless determined to keep at it. One of the problems of seeing creative writing as a career is that careers are things you go on with till retirement. The fact that creativity may not be co-extensive with one’s whole working life is not admitted. A disproportionate number of poets teach in these courses.

Creative writing schools are frequently blamed for a growing standardization and flattening in contemporary narrative. This is unfair. It is the anxiety of the writers about being excluded from their chosen career, together with a shared belief that we know what literature is and can learn how to produce it that encourages people to write similar books. Nobody is actually expecting anything very new. Just new versions of the old. Again and again when reading for review, or doing jury service perhaps for a prize, I come across carefully written novels that “do literature” as it is known. Literary fiction has become a genre like any other, with a certain trajectory, a predictable pay off, and a fairly limited and well-charted body of liberal Western wisdom to purvey. Much rarer is the sort of book (one thinks of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, or Peter Stamm’s On a Day Like This, or going back a way, the maverick English writer Henry Green) where the writer appears, amazingly, to be working directly from experience and imagination, drawing on his knowledge of past literature only in so far as it offers tools for having life happen on the page.