Monday, August 8, 2022

WITMonth Day 8 | High versus low versus none

I've written about similar topics before, but it came up again earlier this week (as of scheduling this post in early July), and I find myself thinking about how limited the scope is for women writers in translation. How despite women writers existing in languages across the world, writing across all genres and literary styles, their works as translated (particularly into English, but not just) are often limited.

The highbrow/lowbrow debate is one that has existed for generations upon generations, and frankly it's one that no longer interests me. There is value in different forms and expressions of art, period. And there is value in different ways of experiencing said art, which may often come out in how "accessible" a work is and how it is meant to evoke a particular response in the reader. That's all there is to it. Every iteration of this same argument is only ever a rehashing of existing claims - for and against - that often deliberately ignore the value in the other school of thought. Yawn.

That being said, I feel that this is a conversation that still needs to be had within the context of WIT. The odd imbalance between high- and lowbrow literature in the translation world in general is worthy of its own discussion, but this is a WITMonth post, and so I'll focus on the unique state of WIT in this instance. Namely: WIT is extremely biased towards fiction (particularly contemporary fiction), with a smattering of poetry, nonfiction, and children's literature (and at most a handful of plays). This is in contrast to the general, English-language industry consensus by which fiction makes up a small fraction of annual releases. Now, obviously, the world of literature in translation is infinitely smaller than that of the wider English-language market, and indeed any language-specific market on its own. There are many books published per year that are unlikely to get translated, whether in the form of extremely specific academic nonfiction works, self-help books, cookbooks, self-published treatises, and so on. Moreover, I would expect a similar trend for books by men writers in translation, though perhaps somewhat mitigated by the fact that nonfiction in translation is overwhelmingly more likely to be by men, presumably narrowing the gap somewhat. (Because my data collection focuses on women wrtiers, I can't say for certain regarding men. Maybe someday!)

So let's focus for now on those WIT, whose works are overwhelmingly fiction, majority contemporary, and still overwhelmingly European (I will elaborate on the latter point in greater detail later in the month). Many of these works are what would be considered "literary" - fiction with a particular tenor and tone, often published by particular types of independent presses. Only a couple dozen are hardcore "genre" works - fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, or romance - and even among these, there is often a softening of the genre's hard edges to make the book appear more accessible. (A personal note: I often override publisher definitions when it comes to books with "fantasy elements" that are nonetheless marketed as general fiction, especially when the description makes clear that it is, quite simply, a fantasy novel. Sorry, publishers!) Even more than genre literature, though, I am continuously baffled and stunned by the lack of children's literature by women writers in translation. How? Why?

And this leads me back to the topic of this post. In a nutshell: While that obnoxious debate takes place about whether it is anti-intellectual to reject highbrow books or snobbish to reject the lowbrow, women writers in translation aren't even being given a choice in the matter. While lowbrow books in English are frequently translated (and indeed, popular, widely-appreciated art from the Anglo world is a cultural staple worldwide, from literature to music through to film), there is no such equivalent space for women writers in translation. More than that, there isn't really space for the highbrow either; while it's not as if men in translation have tons of nonfiction coming out every month, women's nonfiction is just a blip on the radar, and rarely from a strictly academic bent (half of the women's nonfiction I've logged for the "WITMonth 2022 reading list" as of writing this post is in the form of memoirs, which fill a very different niche within the world of nonfiction).

The point of WITMonth is to highlight women writers from around the world. From my end, it's also an opportunity to reckon with the imbalances that also exist among the books that are translated. Particularly now, on year 9 of WITMonth and as many more publishers have gotten a lot better at publishing women writers, I find myself more frustrated by how limiting the range of books that get translated seems to be. When new readers want to take part in WITMonth and ask for "genre" type books, it's a struggle to recommend them. Want to get your 10-year old in on the action? Not all that many choices. Someone wants science nonfiction or books on history? Yeah, good luck with that.

It helps no one, to have a limited scope of books available, whether from a linguistic perspective, a cultural one, or stylistic. And WITMonth can't be limited like this, it just can't. I've said it before and I'll say it again - we shouldn't have go through all this effort, just to create other imbalances and biases in our reading. The world is rich with women writers from all walks of life, writing in all sorts of languages, telling all sorts of stories, and presenting them for all sorts of different audiences. These categories overlap and intersect in ways that are pivotal for our... existence as a culture, honestly. Even when engaging with "comfort", template-style stories, we still seek out the particular, unique twist that a new writer might bring an old story. We should continue striving toward a world in which we can actually get all of those stories.

1 comment:

  1. I so agree with you! I just read an unusual genre novel from Ukraine that I'll be talking about soon, but it's also a literary/mystery kind of story so not full on genre, either. I do read a LOT of literary fiction in English as well as translation, but see the same lack of variety in translated work that you point out.


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