PEN World Voices as Change Agent

In Europe by Chad W. Post


By Chad W. Post

It was almost seven years ago when I met then PEN executive director Michael Roberts and translator extraordinaire Esther Allen for drinks at the Washington Square Hotel to talk about this new festival they wanted to launch in support of international literature. The Berlin International Literature Festival was going to be their model . . . they would bring dozens of authors from all over the world to New York for a week of events . . . they would call it the PEN World Voices.

Now that the festival just celebrated its sixth anniversary, this all seems like a natural and obvious idea. The festival has grown rapidly and is now a celebration that is anticipated by many and attended by thousands. But the festival is more important than simply being a great place to launch a work in translation — its history parallels (or maybe even drove) the rise of interest in international literature among publishers, reviewers, and readers. Looking toward the future, the festival’s evolution bodes very well for the increased acceptance of works from beyond our borders.

Here I want to look at its past, present and prospects for an even stronger future.

Past: Awareness Building

Although in retrospect, World Voices seems like a total slam-dunk of an idea, at the time that it launched in 2005, this wasn’t all that certain. A short time before, the New York Times had run an article entitled “Americans Yawn at Foreign Fiction,” and the overall tenor of the book world was that translations didn’t sell, that no one reviewed them, that stores didn’t stock them, that no one really cared.

I don’t think it’s too extreme to claim that PEN changed the very nature of the conversation about literature in translation. Thanks to the inauguration of the festival (and Salman Rushdie’s serving as chairman and official spokesperson), a number of interesting things happened: Bowker sent out a press release including the now infamous statistic that only 3% of all the books published in the U.S. are in translation, the New Yorker launched a “literature in translation” issue, and the press coverage for the festival was overwhelmingly positive. The conversation had shifted from “Who cares?” to “How can we fix this problem?”.

It helped that at almost the same time, Words Without Borders really took off and became one of the most respected sites in the world for translations, the Reading the World program mobilized 100+ independent bookstores to support international literature, and a few universities started looking into the possibility of creating academic translation programs.

Present: International Agencies and Savvy Editors

International cultural agencies were one of the primary reasons for the rapid growth of the festival. Organizations like the French Cultural Services, German Book Office and Ramon Llull Insitut saw PEN World Voices as the perfect opportunity to introduce American readers — and more importantly, American editors — to their writers. They sponsored as many writers as possible to be able to attend the festival and get featured in one-on-one conversations, on panels, and as readers. This exposure for their authors was supplemented by booklets that each agency prepared featuring info and samples of a number of their authors — some who had been published in the U.S., some who hadn’t.

The French created some of the most extensive publications, taking advantage of the fact that publishing folks tend to make up up a large part of the audience at such events. Editors could use this festival to find out about authors they should pay attention to, and marketing folks could use this as a way of getting some much needed respect for their “more difficult” books. PEN World Voices not only changed the terms of the conversation about international literature, it also helped educate publishers and demonstrate that there was an audience for these sorts of books.

I’ve attended the festival five of the six years of its existence, and aside from the random Sunday afternoon event, most every panel discussion or conversation is standing room only. Part of this is due to the smart programming of Esther Allen and now Caro Llewellyn, which tends to rely on pairing a famous American author (Rick Moody, Amanda Vaill, Jonathan Lethem, Toni Morrison) with a less well-known foreign author (Lydie Salvayre, Quim Monzo, Marlene van Niekerk, Naja Marie Aidt). Some people come because they’re interested in learning about international literature, some people come because they love the chance to see their favorite American author. It works because of the cross-exposure.

Future: Across the Country and Online

At first glance, this year’s 2010 PEN World Voices festival was pretty much the same as the past five. Still, there were some slight but significant things that set this year apart and point to some interesting future developments.

First off, this year featured more satellite events than any of the past festivals. There were events in Seattle, San Francisco, Rochester, Washington D.C. — a total of 13 locations across the country. This was also the first year that the festival live-streamed some of the events online. Caro Llewellyn told me in a post-festival interview that this was the way she wanted the event to expand — by reaching more readers across the country, both through physical events, and by disseminating video and audio files via the PEN Web site.

Although I don’t have any official stats to support this, it appeared that there were fewer publishing people at this year’s events. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing . . . It really seemed like the people coming out were “civilians,” that is, people interested in hearing the various authors because they like to read rather than publishing people working the event. If my observation is true, is a very good sign for the overall health of the festival.

What I’d like to see more of — and what I think will happen in the future — is lit bloggers aggregating and drawing more attention the audio and video available for some of the really good events. PEN’s website is LOADED. There’s so much content that it’s almost impossible to navigate. But if Three Percent points out certain events of interest to its readers, Literary Saloon draws attention to a few others, Conversational Reading to the ones that interest it, suddenly thousands more people are aware of these events, are watching, are finding out about international authors, etc.

Looking toward the future, I think the festival has to start catering even more explicitly to general readers. One thing that I think would make a huge difference and really take PEN WV to the proverbial next level is a sort of “salon” or meeting place where books from all the participating authors are available for sale and where attendees can meet up with authors who are simply hanging out . . . I may be romanticizing this all a bit, but the idea of international authors hanging out in a bar chatting with each other, with publishing people, with their fans seems positively awesome. Like the 1920s resurrected, but not burdened by social networks and whatnot.

To help put a special emphasis on readers, next year we’re going to announce the winners of the Best Translated Book Awards during the PEN World Voices Festival. There’s really no better time . . . Not only is there a chance the winner (or at least a few finalists) will be there, but it’s the perfect opportunity to reach the audience most interested in the award. More details on this to come . . .

Evolving from a quixotic idea to an established annual event, the PEN World Voices Festival has played an integral role in changing the perception and appreciation of literature in translation in America. Keep it up!

Chad W. Post is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Open Letter Press at the University of Rochester.

DISCUSS: Is interest in translated and foreign lit growing in the US?

READ: Post’s blog, Three Percent

CONTACT: Chad Post directly

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.