american flag

Is the Assumption of American Literary Provincialism Exaggerated?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

american flagIt is often said of Americans that they don’t read enough foreign books — whether translations from far away China or authors from countries as close as Canada. What’s more, overseas publishers complain frequently the trade is one way: American’s are more than willing to license their books abroad, but are reticent to reciprocate.

Over the years we’ve explored why it is that more translated books aren’t published in the United States. The reasons are vast, ranging from the few American editors who have command of a foreign language to the expectation of modest sales.

The obvious defense against this charge of provincialism is that the United States is a vast country, one where the population draws from and already includes the entirety of world cultures in large numbers. What’s more this population already writes, in English,  more than enough culturally diverse literature in year to cater to the mass market’s demands. (Think of how many books published each year a genre I like to call “the American assimilation narrative” and you’ll see what I mean.)

Once you start to dig, the cliche of the “provincial American” really must be called into question. After all, when one thinks of publishing, one tends to think of “New York publishing.” Alas, a significant amount of translation publishing, one might even say the bulk of it, is driven by smaller publishers scattered across the United States, such as Dalkey Archive in Champaign Urbana or Open Letter Books in Rochester.

And as to the charge that translated literature doesn’t sell, that too seems to be changing. Excepting the obvious (Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo) several publishers, including Melville House and Europa Editions, have found themselves with translated literary titles that have turned into unlikely and resilient bestsellers.

What’s more, monthly, we learn of aggressive and ambitious new start-ups popping up all over the US focusing on translated titles.

And who can forget the shocking fact that Amazon Crossing is now America’s most prolific translation publisher?

All of this a byproduct of the fact that as a result of globalization American corporations, whether they like it or not, are now far more fully engaged with the world.

Certainly American’s don’t read nearly as many foreign titles as do their compatriots in France, Germany, the UK or, say, Canada, nor do they travel nearly as much (for starters, the average American gets far less vacation time than does the typical European and has a far greater distance to travel to cross a border…) But when you take all of the evidence outlined above and couple that with the wide array of American institutions do support foreign writers in large numbers — from the Iowa International Writers Program to the Neustadt International Literature Prize (as discussed in today’s feature story) to the hundreds (and likely even thousands) of American universities that employ foreign-born writers and academics, the situation looks a lot less dire and the charge of provincialism begins to sound increasingly specious.

Anyway, when you’re talking about a country of 300+ million people, isn’t simply unwise to generalize about anything?

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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.