Has Politics Neutered the NEA?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

When Big Bird can become a political talking point, is taking a stand just too risky?

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-chief

Earlier this month at the Frankfurt Book Fair the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) and National Endowment for the Arts sponsored ten small US presses to display their wares at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The focus was on translation.

Among the indies presented at the Fair from the U.S. were Archipelago Press, which has published books by authors living in areas as diverse as Palestine and Chukotka, in Russia’s far north. This year Archipelago published Karl Ove Knausgaard’s controversial My Struggle, which won the Brage Award, the Book of the Year Prize in Morgenbladet, the P2 Listeners’ Prize, and the Norwegian Critics’ Prize. Another attendee was Open Letter Books, which brought Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic’s book, Karaoke Culture, to American audiences. This fall they will publish Russian author Mikhail Shishkin’s multiple-award winning Maidenhair. And then there was Ugly Duckling Presse, founded by a collective of poets, which has published Swiss author Robert Walser’s Notes on an Inquiry.

Fewer than 5% of all books published in the United States are works in translation, and an even smaller percentage of these books are works of fiction or poetry. To address this lack of foreign literature in the U.S., the NEA began awarding literary translation fellowships in 1981. Since then, it has been one of the most reliable funding sources for literary translation in the country, awarding fellowships to 302 translators from 72 countries in 62 languages.

Prior to the event, the NEA’s Ira Silverberg, a long-time, well-liked veteran of the US publishing wars, noted: “Being at the Messe this year is about introducing our programs and grantees to institutions around the world who do similar funding — Pro Helvetia, The Polish Book Institute, Norwegian Literature Abroad, etc. — as well as promoting our Translation Fellowship Program. The community of publishers that the NEA supports through its grants are bright lights in an increasingly dull and commercial American publishing world. Highlighting their work at Frankfurt can lead to more great books coming to our shores.”

The cross-fertilization of culture through literary translation is about more than just profit, says Silverberg: “The role of translators and publishers who translate is vital to our nation’s literary health. It is the reason this endeavor feels so alive, so much about the roots of why so many of us work in the field to begin with — to bring new voices to eager audiences.”

It was a bold and much appreciated endeavor, but alas, one that raises an important question: if the NEA can lobby on behalf of small publishers in Frankfurt, why aren’t they raising more of a ruckus for literary life in general at home?

That the NEA is supporting small publishers, especially ones that support translations, is something that should be applauded. But, then again, Amazon does the same (and is greeted, frequently, with cynicism). And it is a rather safe endeavor, as it happend some 4,000 miles away from Washington D.C.

Yes, you might say “pick your battles.” But at the same time the NEA hasn’t shied away from making big statements in the past. The most recent of these was The Big Read. Launched under the tenure of energetic book critic and bookseller David Kipen was, it was a big success. But enthusiasm for it seems to have petered out as the fervor for community wide “group reads” appears to have waned.

Now, with and equally energetic and even more charismatic Silverberg at the helm  — he has been in the post as the literature director at the NEA since December 2011 — the NEA has a real opportunity to grab headlines.

So what’s happening? Yes, the NEA continues to (quietly) give grants to writers and literary organizations around the country. But is there a bigger story to be told about the vitality of literary life in the US — and if so, shouldn’t the NEA be in the lead?

Or is politics the problem? In an era when the funding for Big Bird can become a talking point for the Republican candidate for President, is it simply too chancy for a governmental organization to stick up its head and take a stand?

Or, let’s be honest, are the arts simply such a low priority in Washington that no matter what they do it will be greeted with a wane smile and a glance over the shoulder to see who else might be in the room?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

(Daniel Kalder contributed to this article.)

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.