Blockbusterization of literature, or some more thoughts about SEELANGS email

Bernard Kreise, one of the greatest, if not the greatest French translator of Russian literature, told me that about 80% of all books being published in France, are translations of English-speaking, mainly American authors. Which means that all literature by local French authors and all translations from all other languages represent these residual 20%. 

What I found even more difficult to process, is a piece of statistics I found a couple of years ago on a site of some American publishing house. It said that from all titles published during that year in the US, — which was an impressive amount of 180.000+ titles, — only about 800 were foreign adult literature in translation.

I haven’t studied this topic and can’t confirm whether the figures are true. On the other hand, I don’t see any reason for this publishing house to lie on its own pretty public website.

So I believed it. And I was stunned.

And although now, with almost 300.000 ‘new titles and editions’ a year in USA, number of all foreign books in translation (where ‘all’ means not only adult literature, but every possible kind of published book) has reached 3% of all ‘new titles and editions’, — I’m still stunned. 

I simply cannot imagine that the American reader deliberately chooses such a degree of cultural isolation and is so fanatically focused on domestic literature only. That doesn’t exist as it goes against the human nature. Every one of us in every single aspect of his / her life seeks diversity. That’s what makes our live so colorful and enchanting.

Then how can I place these ridiculous and absurd 800 (then) and 3% (now) translations a year?

Are the US publishers to blame? Are they being too cautious? Are they going for cheaper publications, as a translated book costs more that a regular one? Do they see their domestic readers as a bunch of morons, only capable to consume the literary equivalent of “Transformers”? Or rather as a bunch of cultural lazybones, grabbing exclusively for familiar and habitual, “as seen on TV”, “recommended by Oprah”, etc? 

I don’t know. But somehow I believe this latter is the reason. 

Yes, translated books are considerably more expensive than native ones, whose real cost is approx. 15% of its store price.

And yes, it’s way more difficult to sell a new name, an unknown writer, and not only in the US but everywhere in the world.

These are the major cons in the times of the blockbusterization of literature, i.e. in our modern times.

But consider this. 

Vladimir Nabokov, one of all times brightest authors, was a Russian and therefore also Eastern European writer. A great author even before ‘Lolita’, Nabokov was pretty much unknown. He called his fame in those times: ‘broadly known in small circles’.

All American publishers approached by Nabokov, refused to publish ‘Lolita’.

Then ‘Lolita’ was published in France, got surrounded by a considerable scandal with a number of court injunctions against the book, became infamous and eventually famous, — and only after that published in the US.

If you remove this scandal around ‘Lolita’, the wide world would probably never know this Russian writer, the embodiment of the so-called ‘difficult’, ‘elite’ literature, which is simply good literature. The only literature the reader deserves, no matter where it comes from — West or East, North or South.

And although I understand the reason of publishing houses becoming merely commercial enterprises, run by managers and chasing blockbusters to the prejudice of any artistic values, it could mean that a new Nabokov would never be discovered and published.

Read more about scrittore russo Aleksandr Skorobogatov

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