On American Fiction Sucking

Some reasonable commentary in the responses to this post. By way of clarification, I don’t think Lennon meant (I certainly didn’t) that there are no good books being published in the U.S. right now. My point was that, if I decide to try out a completely unknown new author, I’m much more likely to find something that feels above-average with the translated stuff than with the U.S. stuff.

Obviously part of that is the fact that translated literature is much, much more curated, but people tend to undercut the importance of this. Finding a compelling new voice from a foreign language is a damn hard thing. There’s the fact that you’re not surrounded my media and agents from that culture like you are in the U.S. There’s the language barrier. There’s the simple distance involved, the larger amount of time and resources necessary for correspondence, etc. There’s the need to find someone who can translate it well, who really understands the source text. And people also need to take into account that pretty much all of the translation presses are almost universally, constantly on the brink of insolvency because they tend to publish things that are truly strange and challenging.

The state of affairs in U.S. publishing is different. There are a lot more presses that tend to do some good stuff but mix than in with a lot of books that are mediocre and aimed at a very different demographic than what someone like Lennon wants to read. You can debate the reasons why that is, but the fact remains that it’s harder to find something that you don’t feel “meh” about.

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“you’re presumably being offered in translation only the best or the most noteworty books being published in those countries. Most of their dross remains untranslated.”

I hear this argument all the time but don’t quite understand it. If I believed the “American publishing system” was failing to bring authors I might like to my attention (which I do), why would I believe it’s any more competent in bringing foreign authors I might like to my attention? Foreign books being “much more curated” notwithstanding, if the same people are doing the curating, it’s just going to reproduce the same results. I get that we in America are only exposed to the “prize-winning” books of foreign languages, but why is the same group of people who are generally so bad at bestowing prizes, at separating the best from the dross, when the books are in English (cough*Franzen*cough), suddenly endowed with unerring ability to separate the best from the dross when it comes to books in other languages? Answer: they’re not.

Ezra, most translated fiction in the United States comes from small often non-profit presses that, generally, are not run by the same people or by the same principles, who publish the majority of American fiction.

The American authors published by, say, New Directions or Dalkey Archive, have more in common with the authors working in languages other than English that those presses publish than they have with most of the American authors that more commercial US presses publish.

To me, it seems more a matter of target markets.

Almost all the marketing dollars in the US are aimed at the middle — middle-aged, middle-class, middle-educated, and mostly women. They don’t even try to target me.

But if you’ve got a book in translation by an author outside the US, you’re more likely to target someone like me. Someone outside the mainstream with diverse interests beyond the border. Someone who speaks other languages besides English, who has practiced other religions besides Protestantism, with relatives and in-laws who aren’t American.

So of course I’m going to find a higher caliber of writer in translation. That’s who I hear about and listen to — the US market is mostly just noise, meant for someone else, not me.

Scott: The very fact that, as you correctly note, translated fiction is more highly curated only further explains why the translations we receive seem superior. If only domestic fiction were this thoroughly curated, we presumably wouldn’t get so much crap. It’s certainly possible that those doing “curation” of translation are more competent at the job than those responsible for it(supposedly) in the U.S.

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