Bookish Musings for July 2021

This past month has been a strange one for me (for the rest of the world too, possibly, but I’ll stick to what I know best). It was composed of roughly four quarters/weeks. The first was extremely busy at work with a major event (which went well, but exhausted me). The second was spent recovering from the aforementioned major event, catching up on home life and cautiously venturing forth into the Big City. The third was phenomenally busy but exhilarating with the online British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School, which made me realise how much I enjoy the literary life and wish I could spend all my days on it. And the fourth was going back to work, trying to catch up on everything while suffering one of my huge three-four day migraines.

So overall, it’s been the kind of month where my head felt very ‘ouch’ (both literally and metaphorically) and I struggled to concentrate on any reading or reviewing. I feel very far behind on just about everything. But I do want to recapture some of the sheer glee of the third week of July, when I lived in a literary bubble that consisted not just of myself, but many other people equally passionate about words and cultures, about comma splices and sounds and rhythms. Rather than a lone madness, I had the pleasure and privilege of experiencing a folie à deux – or rather, folie à plusieurs, which is much more fun!

My brain is currently a jumble of ideas and sudden personal insights relating to books, reading, writing and translation, so I thought I’d jot some of them down here, while they are still fresh. Apologies for not having a nicely digested, thoughtful essay, but just random bullet points.

  1. I mentioned that several of the books I read in July were excellent, entertaining holiday reads, but not particularly memorable. However, I feel they deserve more credit than that.
    • The White Shepherd by Annie Dalton is a mix of cosy and serious crime, with older female amateur protagonists, published in 2015, well ahead of the current trend of precisely such crime novels, which seem to be taking the bestseller charts by storm, perhaps in the wake of one written by a likeable male TV celebrity. It’s hard to be ahead of a certain trend, isn’t it? To my mind, this book was better than several others in this subgenre.
    • Caro Ramsay’s The Tears of Angels is a well-written, impactful police procedural and, although I haven’t read others in the series (which made the large cast of characters a bit difficult to place at times), has a great sense of place. However, although there is a lot of talk of #TartanNoir (which this one is not, not exactly), it seems that Scotland is still not perceived as being as atmospheric as Iceland, Sweden or Norway. I’ve seen far too many mediocre ScandiNoir fiction lately, so it feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, rather than focusing on homegrown stuff of equal or mostly higher quality.
    • I’ve grown to like Joanna Cannon on Twitter, but am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any of her books (although I have them all on my Kindle – which usually means: out of sight, out of mind – I am far more likely to grab something off my shelves). I thought her debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was an intriguing mix of humour and grit, mostly seen through the eyes of a child, which is notoriously difficult to do. I thought she was quite clever in giving us the perspective of a child looking back, but also additional adult perspectives, which shows us events and interpretations that a child couldn’t possibly understand. And yet this breaks all the rules of what us wannabe novelists are told to do: don’t have too many points of view, don’t switch too much between timelines so as not to confuse the reader etc. By setting out all these rules, are publishers just setting themselves up for clones of whatever has been successful in the past?
    • There was a period in my late 20s and early 30s when all I read was crime fiction and Sophie Hannah was one of my favourites for the way she managed to write her way out of the most outrageous, impossible premise. Nowadays, I usually prefer crime with a social message, strong characterisation, atmospheric details, but every now and then I crave a thorough page-turner (if it has any of the above additional elements, then all the better) and am willing to suspend some disbelief for a book that will keep me up all night. It’s harder to do this than it looks, and it hurts me to say that Hannah herself seems to have lost this capability in the final stages of the execution. But one writer who seems to have taken over the mantle of this successfully is Catherine Ryan Howard. Her Nothing Man was one of the most appreciated books we ever had at the Virtual Crime Book Club, and I embarked almost immediately upon her lockdown thriller 56 Days, which is coming out imminently (and which fits none of my August reading plans, but rules are made to be broken, right?)

2. The Translation Summer School made me realise how much I belong to this ‘tribe’, i.e. of people who are fond of and curious about other languages and cultures, even if some of them got into translation by accident. To be fair, I think fewer and fewer are getting into literary translation by accident, unless they are particularly well connected, because it is becoming very competitive. Translation courses are becoming the new MFAs – yet I think there are very few translators who can make a living entirely out of their literary translations (hence perhaps the need to teach). In particular, there are still cultural institutions, funding and awarding bodies, publishers who distrust anyone who is not a ‘native English speaker’ for a literary translation, as if the (sometimes, not always) superior command and understanding of nuances in the source language is not as important as fluency in the target language. But many of us ‘immigrants’ or ‘non-natives’ have grown up with the English language, which has become a victim perhaps of its own imperial and corporate success. Given the recent brouhaha about accents on TV in the Olympic coverage, the myth of ‘proper English’ is still alive and well, although there has never been one unitary, commonly defined and monitored English language (unlike the Académie Française – which, incidentally, is looking increasingly out of touch, conservative and ridiculous), but many Englishes.

In addition to ‘who gets to translate’, there is also the issue of ‘what gets translated’. There is still far too much stereotyping of what the ‘the literature of a particular culture’ should look like, or what writing style will appeal to English language readers. There is far too much emphasis on what will sell among the big publishers, and it is left up to the small independent publishers, the ones who can least afford the risk of low sales, to educate readers and try to broaden their taste (or cater to a more diverse group of readers).

On a more cheery note, the Summer School made me realise how much I enjoy theatre and all the people who work in it (I was in the Multingual Theatre Translation stream and our tutor was the very thoughtful, encouraging and thoroughly engaging William Gregory). I was very active in theatre groups throughout school and university, and there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing a coherent, beautiful whole emerge from a group effort, something that is so much better than the work of any individual, and that depends on each person performing at their best. The work of a translator is often very solitary, but this collaborative effort that is inevitable in theatre translation is something that appeals hugely to me, and I will try to keep it in my life somehow, if I can afford it. At the very least, my eight fellow theatre group participants and I are planning to keep in touch and meet up occasionally to continue sharing our play translations.

3. The joys and woes of indie publishing

In my upbeat moments, I tell myself that Corylus Books is doing great work, taking on lesser-known languages and the kinds of quirky, genre-busting works that I like to read myself and that many of my (online or not) friends tell me they too like to read. However, the sales figures tell another story. Although each one of our books thus far has received excellent reviews, it appears that English language readers are not ready for Balkan Noir, nor for crime fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the subgenres of police procedural or psychological thriller or spy thriller etc.

I don’t want to rubbish the crime fiction genre, which I truly love, and where so much great writing and experimentation is taking place. But I have to admit it is discouraging to see some of the very average and ‘samey’ offerings that are being churned out by the big publishers month after month, and which end up ranking very highly on the sales charts. Yes, maybe that is the sort of book that the wider public prefer, but I think it’s at least 50% due to the money they can afford to splurge on advertising and promotion, the connections they have to journalists and other media people, to festival organisers and celebrity endorsements etc. There is no point in being snobbish and saying that we are not influenced by the buzz: probably around 80% of readers are. It works, and that is why they do it. And if it doesn’t work for three out of ten titles, they can afford to swallow the losses, or the Amazon spokes in their wheels.

Last but not least, there is one aspect of being a small indie publisher that I hadn’t realised before (and probably should have). Namely, that if you are not a purveyor of literary fiction in translation, you are unlikely to have much chance of winning translation and publication grants from the source countries, or literary awards which can then increase sales and visibility (both are usually given to ‘works of literary merit’, which crime fiction is still not considered to be generally).

I’ve been in this position before, starting my own company, and know it can take a couple of years to find success. But at least back then, I was only tightening my own belt, while this time there are many other people that we are letting down if we don’t achieve at least a modest success. Ah well, we chose this path ourselves, so mustn’t grumble, as they say. We’ll find ways to access funding, pay our translators properly, market and distribute our books and promote our authors in innovative ways, overcoming the double barriers of Covid and Brexit.

Oh, and Happy National Day, Switzerland, miss you lots! Hop Suisse!

Who Has the Larger Audience?

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Courtesy of louisemore.wordpress.com

A couple of days ago my husband and I were having a ding-dong – I mean a civilised debate of course – about which writers have a larger audience worldwide: English-speaking ones or those from other countries?

I was arguing that American crime writers, for instance (talking about a genre that I know a little about), have a large audience back home, plus they can be easily exported to the UK, Australia, Canada and so on.  Additionally, European publishers and readers are much more likely to translate American crime fiction, while US publishers and audiences are more reluctant to try translations.  For instance, looking at bestseller lists for crime and thrillers across Europe, I find similar stats for the Top 20 at any given time. In France only a quarter are by French authors, about half are by English-speaking (largely US) authors, and another quarter by other Europeans.  In Germany, slightly more German authors (about a third), but again half are translations from English and slightly fewer translations from other languages than in France (predominantly Scandinavian). Italy, by way of contrast, numbers about one-third European translations in their Top 20, plus one-third Italian, one-third Anglo.

What is the picture in the US, meanwhile? Well, things have moved on, apparently, from the notorious 3% problem, i.e. that only 3% of all publications in the US are translations.  It seems that nowadays, out of approximately 15,800 new titles being published each year, 300 or so are translations. Which brings the percentage total up to 5.2%, yippee! Of course, I am not comparing like with like, as this is translation across all genres, rather than just for crime fiction. Every crime author hopes to crack the US market though, that’s when you know you’ve hit the jackpot!

Certainly in the UK, there has been a boom in translated crime fiction, particularly of the Scandinavian persuasion, since 2005 or thereabouts.  So much so, that it sometimes feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, as for every outstanding author like Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell or Karin Fossum, there seem to be some real duds being foisted onto the British public as well.  However, if I conduct there too my admittedly unscientific sampling of bestselling paperback crime titles at any given point in time, what do I find? 1 or 2 out of 20 are translations (sure enough, Scandinavian): everything else is English – and by that I mean about 60% American.

translationglobeMy husband dared to suggest that the quality of the writing might have something to do with it.  You know what you get with an American thriller, it’s pretty standard, just like a Hollywood blockbuster.  That sounds to me like consistency rather than quality, but I suppose some readers are less willing to experiment. They prefer the tried and tested.  Clearly, though, the marketing, translation rights teams and PR all work better state-side – they probably have much bigger teams to handle it all.

‘But,’ argues my numerate and oh-so-scientific husband, ‘The European publishing market overall is bigger. See here, I googled it and European publishing houses report 22 billion euros revenue, while the US is only 15 billion $.’

I think that may have something to do with book pricing, so I’m not even going to go there.  But the point is that Europe of course is a much more segmented market, so you need to be translated into several languages to make a killing there.  And the final clincher is: Europeans get translated by other Europeans (and a teensy bit in the US), while Americans travel everywhere. Cultural imperialism is still alive and well.

Without forcing you to take sides in this conjugal dispute, what are your thoughts on this topic?  Do you think readers in other countries are more open to trying something new, unfamiliar? Do you think the slick Anglo-Saxon model of crime fiction is taking over the entire world? What are some of your favourite recent discoveries in translated fiction, anything that surprised you?