Friday, July 2, 2010

How to Find an Author

Translation: like my publisher, I’m in it for the benjamins. But purely mercenary reasons aside, I should say one of the greatest rewards is stumbling across “new” authors. There’s an innocence, yet also a covetousness, to such occasions: you’re in love, you’re making a discovery that only a minority of English-speakers can share, and in staking out ground with your flag, you’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg—probably the larger part of an entire oeuvre still lies submerged in another language. It’s possessive in the best sense, like when, as a kid, you couldn’t wait to race to the library and check out all a given author’s books because you’d just devoured the last one. But of course, if you love an author, you also want to share him or her with the world.

How do I find the authors likely to interest me? Well, how do you decide what book to read next? The time-honored ways apply: critical histories, serendipitous bookstore finds, tips from trusted friends. I look up interviews with authors I like, then look up the authors they mention as friends, influences, heroes, contemporaries. Really, one read leads to another: epigraphs, quotations, allusions, blurbs, these all whet hungry curiosity with the breadcrumbs of further names or titles to investigate. One of the best things about reading foreign fiction is encountering the strange. Read a lot. Be willing to be surprised.

Because of the relatively small amount of work translated into English (as opposed to the amount translated from it), any authors you find are likely to be “new” only to English speakers, though sometimes they can be young or budding talents even in their home country. (This, like sales figures or an established reputation, can in fact be a selling point to US publishers.) We may feel we live in an international age, but c’mon: roaming charges, DVD regions, voltage variations, and a thousand other details of daily life make the experience of being in any one country quite different from being in another. The truth is, unless you can afford to spend your days following another country’s literary news, the best you can get from abroad is a very filtered view. What’s it filtered by? Professors, pundits, experts, scholars, reporters, reviewers, various government-funded initiatives for international cultural dissemination, authors, translators—think about all the usual people telling you who to read; think about how much you do or don’t ignore them; imagine that number doubled—the US plus another country’s literary establishment—then imagine the intermittent signal from one to the other further staticked by rumor, speculation, misperception, mistranslation, partiality, and gossip. How do we ever manage to get the skinny on another country?

This may sound exceedingly cynical, but what I’m saying is: make up your own mind. Find something you love and champion it. Only you can make it the next big thing. Often there’s a lot of competition among translators for a few big names that not only make it over, but make a splash. Toussaint. Houellebecq. Bernard Henri-Lévy. Don’t be satisfied with what people tell you is big abroad. The people over there think something if not totally different, then definitely more varied. As Americans, we have a certain conception of France, and naturally, we often look to confirm that conception. Publishers who like French stuff are looking the next book that’s somehow quintessentially French. But humans are great rationalizers, and everything that makes it big as French somehow gets added to the general conception of “Frenchness,” even if only as “something not formerly thought of as French.” So much of taste is decided around a dinner table, anyway: an editor goes to Paris, dines with his or her friends, comes back with recommendations. Why shouldn’t your dinner table be a source of informed opinion, provided that you’ve done your research and can eloquently advocate your tastes? Translation is your chance to revamp national reputations—to renovate a cliché. Up till recently, there was no such subgenre as “Scandinavian crime.”

I for one would love to expand the notion of Frenchness to include fabulism, not generally something we’ve looked to France for since, oh, maybe Jules Verne. As a genre, the Francophone fantastic is something of a lost continent for American readers today; the last communiqués from its shores to reach our own date back to the Decadents, or the Surrealists at best. Internationally, its centrality to French letters has been overshadowed by more prominent movements. Existentialism, Oulipo, the nouveau roman, structuralism: thanks in part to their successful exportation, these are the must-sees on any tour of postwar French literature, yet in the 20th century, a tradition born of the transition from Romantic to Modern also thrived, and evolved to address contemporary concerns. French Decadents were reflected in the dark mirror of their British brethren and in our own American “weird tale,” homegrown name for a somber hybrid of fantasy and horror. But it’s clear the contemporary fantastic, which remains virtually unknown outside France, has much to offer similar Anglophone developments, from the metafictionalists of the 1960s, who playfully appropriated fantastical content, to the contemporary New Weird and New Wave Fabulists. Publications like Fairy Tale Review, or such recent volumes as the Library of America’s two-volume American Fantastic Tales bear witness not only to resurgent interest in the genre but its legitimization as literature.

A bit of advice for budding translators: international rights are a tricky business, and more than one translator has gotten burned by issues of permission. There have even been stories of fickle or unscrupulous authors retracting rights or pitting two translators against each other. Before you dive into the work, do your homework. Who owns the rights: the publisher, the author, or the author’s estate? The older a work is, the harder it may be to track down the rights. Contact the rights department for the publisher in question, and wait patiently for your email to be dug out of spam by an intern. Chances are, answering your query will not be a priority, unless you are coming with a publication contract or some other offer of money (sadly, publications in literary magazines may not always cut it). Then, stand by your author. The translator is writer, critic, and representative. In a way, I was Châteaureynaud’s US agent for a while, when I was trying to build a presence for him with publications in literary magazines. It may not pay much, but it’s gratifying, and a good way, down the line, to make a case for your author to a publisher. So what if your author isn’t even well-known in his or her homeland? The ironies and vagaries of international publishing are such that making it into English could, conversely, make your author big back home.

It’s been a pleasure and a privilege blogging this week at Well-Read Donkey. I am grateful and honored Aggie asked me to drop by, and I hope it’s been as fun for you as it has for me. To paraphrase Beyoncé: if you like it, then you should put a comment on it.


P.S. If you’re reading A Life on Paper, why not drop by the terrific blog Largehearted Boy for a peek at the soundtrack the author and I have devised for the book? Then stick around for other awesome soundtracks writers have concocted for their creations.

Also, if you’re into supporting excellent writing, I’m in the Clarion Write-a-Thon this summer.You may have heard of the Clarion writing workshop, which has been running for 42 years and has turned out many bestselling and award-winning writers, often in the speculative vein. Funding has been cut for the program this year, and so Clarion has responded by running a "Write-a-Thon" to ensure that the workshop can continue. Sponsor me, and all proceeds go to keeping Clarion alive. What this entails is making a small PayPal donation via my profile page, which can be found here. Even a $5 donation helps Clarion tremendously. Sponsors also have the option of joining the Write-a-Thon forums, tracking my progress, and cheering me on during this six-week event.

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