Literary Events and Mediation of Foreign Culture

I recently attended (or listened to the recording of) two events with foreign authors and was struck by how different those sessions were compared to the ones with English-speaking authors. Of course, it is tricky to compare like with like, since they all had different organisers, but I have noticed this on other occasions and it infuriates me slightly. Let me explain.

The events I attended at the winter editions of the Hay Literary Festival and Cambridge Literary Festivals were with British or American authors, so there was of course no translator, and the interviewer or moderator was either a subject matter expert (Robert Macfarlane interviewing Merlin Sheldrake, for example) or else, even if a celebrity in their own right, very much willing to remain in the shadow and let the limelight shine on their interviewee (Marina Burns with Carmen Maria Machado, and I can’t even remember who was moderating the Sarah Holl/Sarah Moss conversation).

When the guest is a foreign author, even a Nobel Prize-winning one like Olga Tokarczuk, it appears the interviewer has to be very well-known in order to draw in the crowds – in this case, Elif Shafak. It was a good session, immeasurably helped by the presence of interpreter Marta Dziurosz. However, I did feel that some of the parallels drawn between the Ottoman Empire and Poland were stretching things a bit, and that Shafak’s questions were a bit too convoluted for someone not fluent in English to understand and reply to (Tokarczuk could mostly understand the questions in English but replied in Polish). This is not dumbing down: you can ask profound questions while being sensitive to the needs of those who speak English as a second (or third etc.) language and be prepared to reformulate.Nevertheless, this session did go in-depth and actually was focused on the interviewee, so well done London Review Bookshop.

The BBC Radio 3 interview with Romanian author Mircea Cărtărescu was supposedly focused on how his experience of living for many years under Communist rule made it into his fiction. However, because he is a ‘nobody’, i.e. unknown to British audiences, it couldn’t be a straightforward interview, so instead two further panellists were invited. Not professors of history, not translators, not publishers of literature from Eastern Europe or anybody who could have had an informed, deep conversation about this subject. Instead, it was Georgina Harding who visited Romania in 1988 and has written a novel set in Romania in the 1950s, and Philippe Sands who has never visited Romania and only really read Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years and Journals, which he was strongly recommending. And yes, I like Sebastian very much too, but there was far too much discussion of the English panellists’ thoughts and experiences rather than a serious discussion of the novel Nostalgia, which was supposedly what they were there for. Furthermore, Sands continually mispronounced Mircea’s name, even after the moderator pronounced it correctly several times) – you would think that checking with the author himself would have been appropriate if you have him there in person, wouldn’t you?

This constant mediation of anything from another culture, because it might be ‘too difficult’ or ‘foreign’ to British viewers or listeners is quite infantilising, almost offensive, I find. Does everything have to be reduced to the lowest common denominator? Do we really need stackloads of ‘Britishness’ to make the medicine go down? Why do we always end up with ‘celebrities’ presenting programmes rather than the experts (I would even venture to say that celebrities are probably more expensive than experts)? Paul Hollywood eats in Japan? Joanna Lumley and Michael Portillo hop, skip and jump just about everywhere? And even the recent Richard E. Grant journey through Spain, Italy and France via literary works – I enjoyed his enthusiasm, but did the whole experience have to be mediated through quite so many English-language authors writing books set in those regions and visits to British expats? The ‘Between the Covers’ programme moderated by Sara Cox is fun, but does it have to feature quite so many books in half an hour that there are only about 5 minutes left to discuss the actual book?

Call me elitist or living in a bookish bubble, but surely there is a place and an appetite for more in-depth discussion and expert guidance, like Francesco da Mosto’s Venice, or Mary Beard’s Ancient Rome, as well as more ‘mainstream’ TV programmes stuffed to the gills with celebrities opining about everything? I don’t blame the celebrities necessarily – nice money if you can get it, plus the chance to travel to exotic places – although perhaps they should at least attempt to get experts involved (sharing the fee, if necessary). Or are TV producers afraid that our attention spans have shrunk so irredeemably that we cannot concentrate unless there are lots of pretty pictures, dramatic statements and celebrities pretending to be ‘everyman or woman’? Look at the difference between Brian Cox’s first appearance on TV in The Wonders of the Solar System and the recent Wonders of the Universe, or the increasing cosplay of Lucy Worsley’s programmes on history.

That is a much wider topic, so let me return to the interviews with foreign authors. Don’t be lazy, TV and radio producers! Just scratch the surface and there will be lots of experts in academia, translation and publishing who are passionate about spreading the word for a particular culture and literature, and make sure that they do justice to these authors and their work. That is what a genuine building of bridges between cultures is about. Oh, and please ask how to pronounce their names!

The conversation between Ioana Pârvulescu and Tracy Chevalier as part of the Romania Rocks literary festival this year worked somewhat better, because they both write historical fiction and have much in common. You can catch the conversation on YouTube still

30 thoughts on “Literary Events and Mediation of Foreign Culture”

  1. The BBC interview sounds quite unfortunate. I find radio discussions of books on the radio to be lacking, especially when it comes to translated literature. But I have been “venturing out” to more online book events lately, hosted by US indie bookshops and those tend to be quite good. This past weekend there was an event from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, in honour of Seagull Books which will be 40 years old next year. It feature the publisher and one of their translators who has just published her own book of poetry with them. Then she spoke with two French speaking African authors whose recent releases she translated. She read a few poems in the English, the authors then read the French versions. I had no idea what to expect but it turned out to be one of the most interesting literary events I’ve ever seen. When radio or online resources are used well, the pandemic shrinks borders and lets us connect—but I have seen a few duds too!

    1. I just didn’t see the point of the BBC interview, cobbled together without much thought or research or genuine curiosity. I wish they would trust the public more, that they might be ready and willing to discuss things at a deeper level. Not for everyone, but surely there are enough programmes out there that are not for everyone already!

  2. I agree. I don’t watch programmes for which ‘a name’ is the star. There can be a case made if the celebrity is genuinely curious, and anxious to know more and to understand, but that’s not usually the case. Roughghosts seems to have found some interesting events. It looks as if we shall have to use Google to good effect to find them!

    1. I am very grateful that there are more events now that are accessible even if you don’t live nearby, but surely that also makes it easier to access some experts (you don’t have to pay for their travel and accommodation either).

  3. I like what I’ve read of Philippe Sands, but I agree “celebrities” such as him would be well advised to show some humility towards the topics they are asked to talk about, whether or not a foreign guest is involved. Besides, what does Sebastian have to do with how a writer’s “experience of living for many years under Communist rule made it into his fiction”? Did either of the speakers indicate that they had read Cartarescu?
    I so agree about pronunciation – not a difficult thing to do, and shows respect and engagement towards the person, culture, and generally towards difference and complexity. I haven’t got over a presenter on a recent France Culture programme giggle because she couldn’t pronounce Irkutsk (she was discussing, with the author, a book that is set in Irkutsk). She later giggled again because she couldn’t pronounce a German name that was also important for the story. The programme just lasted a few minutes, so the second instance of giggling was the last.

    1. Now that I think about it, I doubt either of the panellists had read any of C’s work. They certainly didn’t ask him any questions about it… It seemed to me more of an opportunity for them to sell their wares, publicise their most recent books, rather than engaging with the guest. But perhaps that was the fault of the programmers, not the guests.

  4. You make very well-taken points here, Marina Sofia. I dislike interviews, too, where the celebrity is the main ‘star,’ rather than the topic or, perhaps even, the author being interviewed. For one thing, it takes away from the depth of the topic (which I find at the very least annoying). For another, that approach doesn’t treat the audience with much respect, and I’ve even seen some that are more ego-stroking than anything else. You also outline some interesting cultural differences in those interviews, too!

    1. That was the expression I was looking for: ‘treat the audience with respect (as well as your guest)’. Give them credit that they want something more than just celebrity gushing. I’m not saying that there isn’t room for celebrity events (I can fangirl with the best of them), but give us a choice to attend other type of events too!

  5. You MUST send your comments straight to the BBC. They are very important and they need to hear them. And tell them who YOU are! LET US KNOW WHAT HAPPENS 😉

    1. I was kind of hoping that the Romanian Cultural Institute might have sent such comments, but they are probably just grateful that MC got a slot on the radio, as it’s so difficult to get one!

    2. It would never have occurred to me to do that, but I’ve just done a quick search about how to do it and sent an edited paragraph or two from this post that referred specifically to that programme. Thank you for providing the impetus!

  6. I completely agree, I think it infantalises and massively underestimates the audience. I’m sure the demand is there, there are so many avid readers and such a dearth of bookish programming, especially regarding translated fiction.

    So as to not be totally grumpy in this comment I’ll mention that I do enjoy The Big Scottish Book Club, and think Damian Barr is an informed and interested interviewer.

  7. This is where programmes like Harriet Gilbert’s long-running ‘A Good Read’ in which three books are picked and discussed by the three participants, and Radio 4 Book Club with nearly half an hour on a single book come into their own. Between the Covers is fun, although Cox annoys me a bit, but at least it’s there!

    1. Absolutely agree with this, Annabel. It’s one of the rare instances where backlist is given an outing, one in which publicists will have no involvement. It’s the one programme I remember as having quite an effect on book sales, too, thanks to the enthusiasm of Gilbert and her guests.

  8. Totally agree!!!!! The dumbing down of televison is just dreadful, and now that BBC4 has become an archive channel there will be even less in depth stuff. It’s frankly insulting to guests from other cultures to behave like some of these people do, and I wonder if it derives from modern chat shows where the guests often seem to have to fight to get a word in. As for the mispronunciation – pure laziness and I would expect better from an author like Sands. I must admit that I don’t bother with most of the so-called book shows on mainstream TV because they’re so surface level — if that makes me a book snob I’m sorry, but I can’t bear them!

  9. LOL here in Australia, our book shows on TV are so lame, I won’t even go there.
    For me, festival interviewers must not only have read the book, but must also have some expertise in it, some knowledge about the context of the book. A 2020 (Zoom) example was when, in a worthy attempt to diversify the whiteness of panellists, a festival had a young woman of colour talking to Brit Bennett about The Vanishing Half which as you probably know is about ‘passing’ in America. Not once did this interviewer raise the issue of ‘passing’ happening here in Australia. She was talking to an Australian audience and she had an opportunity to educate her audience and the author about how this was not just something that happened in America, but she didn’t raise anything about this aspect of our Black history.
    (She could also have raised how it happened in South Africa under apartheid, but I find it forgiveable that perhaps she might not have known about that.)
    Having said that, I’ve been a panellist chair, and while it’s true that you get a better discussion if the panellists have read each other’s books, it’s a big ask especially since the pay for these events is for the hour that you’re doing it, not for all the preparation beforehand. The first panel I ever did had four guests, so there were four books I had to read, and not all of them were books I wanted to read. I could tell which of the panellists had read the other books, and who hadn’t.
    It was much better in the following years when I got to choose who we would ask and how many of them there would be… and I loved doing a different festival where I did two sessions ‘in conversation’ with just one author, asking all the questions I’d ever wanted to ask!

    1. I’ve noticed here that in many cases it’s the same people moderating panels in festival after festival, regardless of topic or authors invited. They simply can’t do justice to all of the authors or be equally knowledgeable on all topics. I think it’s more a matter of getting into the festival organisers/media people’s contact list, and then they just keep on inviting the same people…

      1. Here (again with worthy aims) festival organisers seem to choose young authors, who’ve made themselves known through networking. Perhaps it’s to help supplement their incomes and lift their profiles. But it doesn’t always provide a good experience for the audience, I’ve seen some truly terrible Zoom interviews where they’ve swapped incomprehensible millennial in-jokes and half-told anecdotes and done the author no favours at all.

  10. I’ll echo the other recommendations of Harriet Gilbert’s A Good Read, also check out her World Book Club. A CBC radio program that has been running for years and is EXCELLENT is Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers & Company, maybe the most knowledgeable book interviewer in the business. She goes into an interview knowing the writer’s whole body of work. Here’s the link:

    1. Just seconding Jule’s recommendation of the BBC World Book Club. Their discussion of Javier Marias’s A Heart So White is well worth a listen if you fancy giving the programme a try. (It’s also available as a podcast, which is how I came across it in the first place!)

  11. A seriously lively thread was bound to ensue from this very valuable post. You do a clear and bold wading into these waters and I/we applaud you for it! Also on a potentially controversial note, it’s interesting how the celeb blurb on a book can backfire. In the UK, concerning Canongate’s publication of Courttia Newland’s novel A River Called Time, the house must have wanted a big name (in addition to Steve McQueen, and you would think that McQueen alone already ticked that box) so they had of all people Noel Clarke blurb on the cover. Shortly after this blurb-ing Noel Clarke went down in reputational flames and his own TV crime drama was pulled before it finished airing. So much for celebrity praise helping out a work of literature (they could have had the blurb from Salena Godden on the front cover, but noooo). Forgive my tangent, and thank you for speaking truth on this topic!

  12. I so agree. I used to be quite an avid documentary and culture show watcher, but they are so dumbed down now I rarely bother. Science shows teach you more about what can be done with CGI than about science and talking heads seem to have less and less expertise in whatever subject is under discussion. As for mispronouncing names – ugh! It used to be a given that the BBC checked pronunciations so you could depend on them being right – no longer!

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