Three Things I’d Love to See #2.2


[Part Two]

What a piece of work is mainstream book publishing in New York! Yesterday’s column looked at how remote and exclusive it’s become, how isolated from the rest of the country. The National Book Awards fiasco was cited as a humorous example, but two other influences (see below) demonstrate how serious the stakes have become.

Philip Roth Makes a Demand

I admit another side of me is saying about the National Book Awards debacle, So they had a little party (all right, a big party) — you don’t have to make a federal case out of it. Life in book publishing is not easy, and these people work hard to survive, so give ’em a break. It was just one night.

Right. It’s what that one night represents that we should look at – indeed what Philip Roth has been railing against with his Nathan Zuckerman novels for years. That same Page Six mentality that turns the arts into a gossip machine has moved the focus of publishing away from books that are literature and put the spotlight on the authors who create literature. Roth doesn’t mean we’re honoring authors more than books – quite the contrary. He means we’re exploiting famous authors by writing biographies that deliciously and salaciously accent their hidden pasts, their secret inspirations, their dark side. It’s more lucrative to do that, he says, than to publish serious literary works.

In Roth’s latest novel, “Exit Ghost,” he especially indicts “cultural journalism” as presented and practiced by the New York Times.

“Cultural journalism is tabloid gossip disguised as an interest in ‘the arts,’ ” a character protests in a letter to the Times, “and everything that it touches is contracted into what it is not. Who is the celebrity, what is the price, what is the scandal? What transgression has the writer committed, and not against the exigencies of literary aesthetics but against his or her daughter, son, mother, father, spouse, lover, friend, publisher, or pet?”

If you don’t believe mainstream publishers would rather dish the author than sell the book, Zuckerman steps up to supply two examples. First there was “dubious scholarly speculation” about Nathaniel Hawthorne having an incestuous relationship with his sister. It’s nothing but a rumor, mind you, but it persists. And what if it were fact – would it inform or hinder our appreciation and understanding of Hawthorne’s books? Well, what would that matter if your intention is never to read Hawthorne but to sell the heck out of a biography that scandalizes. Why, you might even get a blurb from Anna Wintour. That great Hawthorne scholar.

Then, too, look at Ernest Hemingway, says Roth’s letter-writer. Hemingway’s memory was maligned when a modern-day “cultural journalist” interviewed people in Michigan and their descendants “who are said to have been models for the characters” in Hemingway’s early stories. When they told the journalist they felt “badly served by Ernest Hemingway,” their feelings were “taken more seriously than the fiction because they’re easier for your cultural journalist to talk about than the fiction.”

The NBA organizers bought into that same gossip-mill approach. Did the world hear about the literary wonders of the NBA winners or about the names of the quasi-famous who attended? The organizers could not see the problem because they’re trapped inside the mainstream.

(And of course Philip Roth loves to have his fun with us, having spent his career constructing his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman and then taunting “cultural journalists” and publishers for asking, gosh, is Zuckerman really Philip Roth disguised? Just by pondering the question, we reveal ourselves to be more interested in gossipy facts about the author than in the fiction he creates. Too bad the colossal ego in all Roth books has its own obvious needs, but we won’t go into that now.)

What to do about this? Here are a few suggestions.

Rebuild from the Bottom Up

When the Nobel Prize judge Horace Engdahl said that American writers and publishers were too insular, a lot of literary folk accused Engdahl and the Nobel Committee of being anti-American, thus launching an embarrassing pissing match that got us nowhere.

One unassailable lesson got lost in the shuffle: American writers and the mainstream publishing community “don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. When publishers refuse to enter the world’s literary conversation, their “ignorance is restraining.”

Whaaaa? (as the Latin lover in Astaire/Rogers movies and “The Drowsy Chaperone” says so noisily and comically when he pretends to be taken by surprise.) Americans don’t publish many works in translation?

Not by a long shot. The steady decrease of translated books coming out of mainstream publishing is a national crisis,the literature director of the National Endowment of the Arts told the New York Times. Salman Rushdie looked at the number in 2004 (874 translated books out of 185,000 total) and called it shocking.”

Moreover, it’s been proven that the only way writers of other countries can become known in the world is to be translated into English. So when mainstream publishers in New York avoid publishing works in translation, “we are the clogged artery,” says the chair of PEN’s translation committee – “[we] prevent authors from reaching readers anywhere outside their own country.”

It’s true that translated books used to be harder to sell. But today, thanks to the Internet, English-reading book buyers who love translated works are easier to identify and target. One feels that mainstream publishers would like to stick their toe in international waters, but according to the New York Times, they simply have “no staff editors who read foreign languages,” so they have “hesitated to rely on the advice of outsiders.”

Well, surely that can be rectified.

Wouldn’t any publisher consider it a plus if a prospective assistant editor came to the job interview with a reading fluency in at least one foreign language? During college the candidate could have studied the classics in that language, traveled in that country and read all the promising modern authors. If hired, the new editorial assistant could comb through the foreign country’s publishing lists, acquire advance copies, investigate the U.S. market for prospective works in translation and write up Readers Reports that would be reviewed by a senior editor. This would be good training for the editorial assistant and it would sure breathe new life into an industry struggling to match the literary demands of the world.

Hire enough of these editors, nurture sales reps and marketing executives with similar expertise, and maybe the house will not only look worldwide for authors to translate but learn how to market them to Americans who are hungry for foreign writers. If you think these readers are too small in number to make publishing works in translation profitable, remember the audience for books by Middle East authors was zilch before 9/11 and has grown fantastically since. If that’s too tidy an example, I remember a lone paperback editor who started a reading craze in the 1970s by publishing Latin American authors aside from Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

And wouldn’t it be great if mainstream houses required prospective editorial and marketing assistants to have worked in bookstores outside (far outside) New York, maybe during summers and holidays while in college, and to have carved out an area of literary interest for which they can demonstrate real expertise?

Bringing in new influences from the ground up is not only a way to open the horizons of mainstream publishers. It’s a way to turn our attention back to the work we all want to do, and that is to attend the publication of books we believe in, from the most literary to the most commercial. It’s a way to fight captivity by corporate pressures and faraway owners. It’s a way to establish our own literary standards and strive to live up to them no matter where the house is located or who/what controls it.

Once again if I’m in the dark and this is already happening, I’d love to hear about it. Maybe Manhattan will freeze over before mainstream book publishers ever set foot off the island. But breaking out of literary prison can take many forms, some barely visible right now, and can only spread like the “good viruses” of our new Internet Age. Thoughts welcomed (you can send anonymously, too) at