Wednesday, August 13, 2014

WITMonth Day 12 - Are we all reading the same thing? | Thoughts

An interesting idea arose today on Twitter - that many WITMonth participants are actually visiting the same writers again and again. Tony Messenger suggested that this may be as a result of lack of availability, echoing the narrow field from which we can pick and choose our women writers. This is undoubtedly a factor, however I find myself wondering if it's really the main reason. And so: post.

I've discussed in the past the fact that availability will shape what you read and how. Previously, I wrote about how if there's only a certain amount of books published in a field, it's not unreasonable that your reading rate will follow that ratio. This explains why so many readers report 25% women in translation reading rates - it falls very much in line with the general publication stats.

I think the question raised here is of a different sort, however. Given the stats that we have - given a limited number of books by women writers in translation - many readers are finding themselves tackling the same books, often "entirely independently" (that is, not as a result of direct recommendations). I don't think this is entirely due to availability, and I think it tells us a bit more about the state of literature in translation today.

First of all, let's not forget that many of the books we read are as a result of recommendations, direct or otherwise. Certainly I just read Ch'oe Yun because of a positive review, and yes, I bought Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment because I had seen dozens of gushing reviews of her writing (and because of a well-timed bookseller recommendation). Word of mouth is particularly powerful in smaller communities like literature in translation, and it's often hard to escape awareness of specific titles.

But I think there's more. Certain books are pushed more by publishers - these are the books that get sent out to reviewers and ultimately create buzz. Buzz breeds more buzz. Usually. Hopefully. Most of the books that keep cropping up are those ones: well-publicized, respectable buzz, good marketing, etc. And the vast, vast majority of them are recently published.

I emphasize this last point because I think we often forget it. There is a whole huge backlog of women writers in translation that many of us are unfamiliar with - books that have fallen out of fashion, or are out of print, or are in that in-between zone of not-new but not-yet-a-classic. There are hundreds of books like these, and to be honest it's going to be extremely difficult to find them. It's much easier to look in the newspaper (or on blogs), see what they've reviewed recently, and check out the books that look interesting. In this case, I find myself inclined to believe that literal availability isn't actually what's guiding us, rather it's bigger market forces that generally decide how we pick our books.

Thoughts?

12 comments:

  1. I think following a large variety of blogs helps to see a broader list of names, there are blogs also specialized in books that have fallen out of fashion

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    1. Absolutely! Certainly many academics have introduced me to older books I'd never heard of, and many bloggers with unique tastes make their own way. It's hard to keep track of so many blogs, but it's absolutely rewarding.

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  2. Very, very true. It's all about which books our eyes fall on, and those very often are the ones publishers are promoting and bloggers are talking about. Even in English, there are writers who used to be quite famous and have fallen out of fashion -- I'm thinking of Rumer Godden and Mary Renault as two examples. Without someone saying HEY you need to read this, it's very easy to miss something you could love.

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    1. I think it's a general cultural thing - tastes and styles come and go. Sometimes authors who were considered mediocre suddenly have a renaissance, while the "best of the day" writers are left scrambling in the dust. I'd like to see a blogger/literary-historian/better-qualified-person talk about this some, I find it quite interesting.

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  3. I agree that "literal availability" isn't the real problem except maybe for people with financial constraints who are also at the mercy of a crappy bookstore where they live. I disagree that finding out about the backlog of women writers is an "extremely difficult" task. People just need to do a little more legwork rather than waiting for somebody else to do it for them. A related explanation for the popularity of recently published books--i.e. beyond the buzz factor--is that many bloggers seem to seek out these books to the exclusion of older books as a matter of personal preference.

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    1. It's the doing more legwork part that I have a bit of an issue with. Chad Post made the same argument a couple months ago regarding all of literature in translation, basically trying to say that people who claim you can't find these independently published books just aren't looking for them.

      The thing is that I've tried looking for all of these books by women writers in translation. I'm pretty sure I also mentioned this in one of the earlier women-in-translation posts, but one of the first things I did when I started this project was go through the entire backlogs of publishers like Dalkey and New Directions (basically the ones who have been around longer). Finding women was... bleeping difficult. Yes.

      You're saying that people need to do a bit of legwork, and that most would like someone else to do it for them. I generally agree with this (though I disagree that it's a bad thing). Look up at the top of this page, where I'm precisely doing the legwork. I know where to look and I know how to look and yet I am having an incredibly difficult time even finding new books by women. I comb through the classics section at my local bookstore for books by non-Anglo women writers (oh, and re: our discussion of the canon, I have a fabulous photo to show you that I think makes my point for me). I go through the used section book by book to find one single new title by a woman writer in translation. It's gone well beyond difficult now, and is deep into "nearly impossible" regions.

      Yes, there are readers who just stick to the buzz and stick to the popular and stick to what's new. But a lot of us are genuinely struggling to find different titles. My library carries tons of old books, but almost all of the older translations are books by men. I've asked individuals and friends to identify their older titles, and each one can give me one or two titles, rarely more than that. So yes, I would definitely call finding the backlog "extremely difficult". And if you've got better methods, by all means share with us.

      (Also if you have any older titles to recommend for the master list, please please share! In general, I keep having to remind people that they should notify me of missing options...)

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    2. Without meaning to criticize your book searching strategies, I think you may be looking in the wrong places. Naturally, you don't have to agree with me. However, I took you up on your request to share titles for the master list and it wasn't at all difficult for me to come up with a ton of books in translation by supposedly worthy authors except for the time it took me to type the list up. The result? 50 different women in translation authors, over 100 new titles for your list, all translations from Romance languages only. Does that at least give you an idea of why I don't believe finding titles in translation into English is difficult at all? I e-mailed you the list and you can use it or not use it as you see fit.

      As far as methods people can use to make finding titles easier, I'd recommend one or more of the following options. Let's say somebody has just discovered Marguerite Duras--a tremendous author in my limited experience reading and reviewing books by her--but isn't sure whether there are any books in translation by her other than the 5 Duras titles currently listed on your Books by Women in Translation chart. Checking Amazon or a similar website will reveal that Duras has well over a dozen titles available in English. You could get similar results from checking a good university library's holdings and possibly a public library system's holding as well. If you don't have access to a good library and don't want to rely on Amazon, you could instead go to www.worldcat.org and do an author search there with the ability to do additional searches by language. Three great options, none of which is complicated at all.

      On the other hand, let's say you're interested in exploring Latin American literature or European literature by women authors but don't know where to start. This is where the legwork comes in. As I've mentioned before, you can get good ideas off course syllabi, grad reading lists, literature history tomes like The Cambridge History of French Literature and the like in addition to checking the backlog of publishers like Dalkey and New Directions. Checking the backlog is a decent enough idea, but it may take some trial and error to discover that the University of Texas Pan American Series and Oxford's Library of Latin America offer options that the Dalkeys and New Directions of the world don't. Ditto for the University of Nebraska Press's European Women Writers catalog. These same strategies, with different resources of course, can be applied to finding books in translation by African writers, Asian writers, etc.; in addition, many blogs specialize in regional literature or special subject matter as others have pointed out. I didn't say, by the way, that wanting somebody else to do the legwork for you is a bad thing. I do think it's kind of lazy, though, if one (not you!) claims to have more than a passing interest in reading books, is frustrated by the apparent lack of choices in a given field or genre, and then just sits back and waits hoping somebody else will do the dirty work for him/her. Researching should be active not passive in my opinion, although I understand that it's always nice if somebody saves you some time along the way. Cheers!

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    3. First off, thanks for the list! Up until now, much of my searching has been through so-called "obvious" channels - Three Percent's yearly list, traditional "best of" lists (in various languages), publisher sites (I've actually gone through all of Dalkey and ND's backlogs, and can tell you how depressingly light on women writers they are) and, well, asking other readers directly (this has been most helpful). The fact that you're aware of all these books is amazing and certainly helpful for future reference (when I do the big list revamp at the end of the month, I'll be adding everything).

      I haven't studied literature and I don't have many literary resources available to me, beyond those more overt online ones. This means that I can find newer authors relatively easily, but I'm still somewhat at a loss to find older ones. Take your example of Duras: I knew of two or three titles, went to Wikipedia to find more, was unable to determine the availability of some of them (through Goodreads/Amazon/possibly I missed a title or two), and wrote the list accordingly.

      The problem isn't finding the books once I know the author. The problem is finding the writers. Things like course syllabuses and academic collections only go so far, and in my experience are very light on women writers. The only literary course I've ever taken in my life was European Romanticism, and the only work we read by a woman (out of many, many pieces, most of them non-English in origin) was Frankenstein. So...

      It may be lazy to bemoan lack of choice, but then I ask: don't we want people to read more? Don't we want more young people to read? There's always someone at the start of their way... why make it harder? Just having this list doesn't absolve the reader of research - with hundreds of titles, you still need to figure out which are the books that will appeal to you!

      Anyways, these are just my silly thoughts. Thanks again for the list, and as always for the interesting comment!

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    4. Belated thanks for your kind reply. One addition to our discussion re: the usefulness of books like The Cambridge History of French Literature (2011) that I mentioned above. Even in "academic collections" that you may find "very light on women writers," you may also find chapters that are tailor-made for the sort of help finding writers that you're looking for. Among the 77 chapters in this book, for example, there are individual studies on "Women authors of the Middle Ages," "Women writers in the sixteenth century," "Seventeenth-century women writers," "Eighteenth-century women writers," "Francophone writing," and "Women writers, artists and filmmakers," all with good leads on the sorts of writers you're looking for although of course it remains to be seen how many of these writers are available in English translation. If books like this aren't available to you, your "finding" process will be a lot tougher for you than it will be for others. If books like this are available to you, though, I'd encourage you to explore them because it will make your research life much, much easier.

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    5. I'll be honest: very little is available to me in Israel. When I'm in the US, however... :-)

      I'm actually taking the idea of collections very much to heart - I just checked out five or so chunkster short story collections from different regions. While each only has a handful of women writers, hopefully these will lead me to find more and more (especially if I actually start reading things like references!). Your advice is definitely on point.

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  4. I think the issue of reading "the same thing" can be applied to all literature. It is easy to go for the book that looks and sounds familiar to us. I personally enjoy searching for books that are unfamiliar to me, reading the book that I know nothing about. Granted, finding women writers in translation takes a little more searching, because there aren't that many of them, but for me, finding that unknown treasure is part of the fun of reading.

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    1. Finding the unknown treasure is definitely one of the bright sides. Of course, one person's unknown treasure is another's familiar classic! I wasn't remotely aware of a lot of brilliant women writers last year, and now constantly throw them at other readers who stare blankly when I say their names. And searching is sometimes fun, but when you know you have a chance of finding something. I spent all of yesterday afternoon combing through a bookstore's used collection, and simply could not find those "buried treasures". Then I went to the library and again... nothing. At a certain point, it becomes somewhat... discouraging. And, as I said above, really difficult. That doesn't mean you give up, but...

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