It is hardly necessary that we remind our American readers that for the free world’s great, lone, staggering superpower these are dark times. For those fortunate enough to sit unscathed above what we are now provisionally terming the “Great Recession,” there is much else to cause distress: an obstructionist, rump Republican party that daily marches ever farther into the terrain of nuttery and extremism; an ever-expanding national debt—cousin to that which the British and Spanish empires ran prior to their collapse—that forces other nations to finance the continuing operation of this one out of their own fear that America is, to steal a phrase, too big to fail; overseas wars in disarray; a good sixth of the nation that lacks medical insurance; numerous states on the verge of bankruptcy; mass unemployment. . . . Not to put too fine a point on it, but we feel that it requires a determined, and perhaps pharmaceutically enhanced optimism not to think that the long-predicted decline of the American behemoth is well underway.
That may be so, and yet, as many were quick to recently point out, when the Nobel prizes were distributed earlier this year the United States cleaned house. We even garnered an eyebrow-raising one for our current president! To put it plainly, we took all but one, and that one was the Nobel for literature, which it seems the Swedes are determined to never lavish on these shores ever again. And so, to be clear: we kicked ass, thank you very much.
With the awarding of these Nobels the ever-shifting winds of journalism took on a new direction. Maybe, the pundits began to murmur, maybe America wasn’t quite so moribund as we had all been led to believe. Maybe, somewhere on the other side of this worldwide economic shitpile, there was still another act for the Yanks. Perhaps.
But what of that one Nobel that prevented a clean sweep for the Americans? It was the literature prize, awarded to German writer Herta Mueller, who was quickly—and predictably—dubbed “Herta Who?” by our adorably provincial literary press. Coming as it did after the almost now obligatory admonition by the Swedish Academy that Americans must read more international authors, it was hard to see it as anything more than yet another chapter in the continually less amusing routine wherein the Swedish Academy awards the prize to an author most Americans have never heard before, which then leads to bitter recriminations in the American press and the obligatory reminder that it’s been X years since Toni Morrison last brought the prize to the United States in 1993, which then leads someone on the European side to snap back about our insularity, etc, etc, etc. (Somewhere in this, the rest of the world asks when the Swedes will remember that there are five other continents out there.)
This year’s petty bout of back-and-forth sniping was, frankly, a lackluster one. No one bothered to lob a good gob of ignorant and insular in anyone’s direction, no one resigned in disgust over pornographic trash literature. No. The strongest rebuke the Swedes got for forgetting the Americans again was a weak, after-the-fact column published by the editors of our nation’s best-known, least-interested-in-world-literature review of books. This befuddling piece that seemed to want to celebrate the grand colonizing effects of American literature said in part that:
It’s also true that there are limitations to how much a reader can appreciate cultural preoccupations that differ too greatly from the reader’s own. Many French readers have a passion for short, self-serious, faux-philosophical novels that stupefy American sensibilities. Many German and Northern European contemporary novels zestfully catalogue bleak, pessimistic realities that strike an American audience as profoundly depressing. Middle Eastern fiction at the current moment lacks a Jane Austen who could win over an American female readership. By the same token, why should anyone be surprised if the Middle East couldn’t care less about the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and its divine secrets; or if the Germans don’t share our obsession with the Vietnam War (just as we tire of their revisitations of World War II); or if the French don’t care for the meditative descriptions in the tomes of American short stories that emerge from M.F.A. programs from Iowa to the Atlantic Ocean. Not every taste travels.
We are of course aware of the fact that The New York Times’ taste for literature tends to travel less than a three-legged dog, and yet we are still flummoxed by this argument for literary isolation. Can The New York Times honestly not be aware that our literature already travels; that it floods the bookstores of foreign nations almost as much as it does our own; that in some cases it is so prevalent that it has begun to warp the language of the country into which it is being imported; that our neighbor to the north, Canada itself, spends heaps of government money to protect its own literary institutions from being overrun by books shooting up from the behemoth below? Are we truly to believe that the Middle East could suddenly compete in English on par with American lit if only Jane Austen sprung up in the middle of Beirut? (And we are still scratching our heads wondering where the Times pulled Jane Austen of all people from.) That anyone, American or not, with slightly more than half a brain gives a damn about the Ya-Ya Sisterhood?
But even more to the point: “It’s also true that there are limitations to how much a reader can appreciate cultural preoccupations that differ too greatly from the reader’s own.” With all due respect we must ask, are you out of your mind? Let us take a moment to get this straight: So we, the isolated, the insular, the great provincial beacon of liberal democracy, we must only read foreign literature that conforms to our pre-existing cultural assumptions? This is the way to show those snobbish Swedes that we can participate in the great global literary conversation just as well as they can? Good God. Let us all spare ourselves the trouble of scouting and translating and publishing and instead just watch EuroTV.
And yet, in the face of such unwitting witlessness we persevere. For those who cling to the foolish and no doubt minority belief that a taste that doesn’t travel is the very reason why we do read literature in translation, we offer quite the bounty this issue. We have gone out big time and canvassed writers, publishers, translators, editors—basically everyone qualified we could find who would listen to us—we have gone out and asked them to tell us what great book has never been published in English. And have they ever answered. This issue, in addition to the armada of reviews, interviews, and critical essays that you have come to expect from this humble publication, we offer you nearly fifty books that we all may be one day privileged enough to read in English.
We also offer you three separate ways to enjoy this feast of international literature: online, right here in the comfy confines of Issue 18; via PDF, which you can download to read and print at your leisure; and, last but most certainly not least, in hard copy! That’s right, for the first time ever you will be able to hold in your eager little hands a pocket-sized book put together by the editors of this fine publication. If is out first tentative step over the threshold from online to print, and we hope that you will help us see to it that it will not be our last.
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