A Contemporary European Fiction Primer

In Feature Articles by Chad W. Post

By Chad W. Post

Referred to as “the start of the most ambitious editorial project in Dalkey Archive’s history,” the Best European Fiction 2010 anthology is an attempt to bring a wide range of project European authors to the attention of English readers. Or, in the words of series editor Bosnian-born American émigré Aleksandar Hemon, “at the heart of this project . . . is a profound, non-negotiable need for communication with the world, wherever it may be. The same need is at the heart of the project of literature.”

Included in the 2010 volume are works from 35 different authors, hailing from 30 different countries from throughout Europe. There are pieces by well-known authors such as Russian author Victor Pelevin and Scottish author Alasdair Gray, as well as pieces by authors who are pretty much unknown in English, such as Inga Ābele from Latvia, or Mathias Ospelt from Liechtenstein.

Beyond the desire to help breakdown the isolationist attitude of American readers and publishers (fewer than 3% of all books published in America are works in translation), there are a couple aesthetic underpinnings to this collection.

In Hemon’s introduction, he makes a grand case for the short story, arguing that it isn’t dying because of “the general vanishing of the printed word, the mass transference of readership to the Web, or the volcanic rise of mindless entertainment as the main form of brain stimulation.” No—the short story as practiced by Joyce, Chekhov, O’Connor, Munro, etc., is the “pinnacle of literary art,” and this collection of short fiction is evidence that the form isn’t merely a “warm-up exercise for writing a novel.”

The collection also includes a preface by Zadie Smith, who tries to find some sort of commonality between the stories that makes them “European”: “It’s more than the obvious matter of foreign names and places. It’s hard not to notice, for example, a strong tendency towards the metafictional. Characters seem aware of their status as characters, stories complain about the direction they’re heading in, and writers make literary characters of themselves—and of other writers and artists.”

All of which makes this an interesting project, and one that’s very typically Dalkey. Started in 1984, Dalkey Archive Press is referred to by its founder, John O’Brien, as a “hopelessly quixotic venture” dedicated to publishing and promoting experimental literature. The Press has a strong background in publishing European fiction, and in fact, nine of their authors are included in this anthology, helping the book to serve not just as an introduction to contemporary European writing, but to Dalkey’s publishing program.

According to associate director Martin Riker, this will be the first volume in an ongoing annual series (hence the blaring quote on the galley about this being “the start” of Dalkey’s most ambitious editorial project), and Aleksandar Hemon will again serve as editor for the 2011 volume. Riker also said that while decisions on which authors will be included is still ongoing, the anthology will be approximately the same size, although they hope to include writers from some countries that didn’t make it into the 2010 version.

About the Author

Chad W. Post

Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to both the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The Believer, Publishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and Quarterly Conversation.