NYT: Americans yawn at foreign fiction

Another reason to study a foreign language: Stephen Kinzer, writing in today’s New York Times, discusses America’s current apathy for works of foreign literature.

Writers, publishers and cultural critics have long lamented the difficulty of interesting American readers in translated literature, and now some say the market for these books is smaller than it has been in generations.

Readers in other developed countries still have appetites for translated literature. German publishers, for example, bought translation rights to 3,782 American books in 2002, while American publishers bought rights for only 150 German books.

Kinzer cites several reasons for the growing trend–among them, he mentions the concentration of ownership in publishing, which has resulted in a growing obsession with profits and best-sellers, at the expense of new or innovative writers and foreign authors. He also mentions that some publishers have no editors on staff who read foreign languages. I also thought this comment was telling:

“A lot of foreign literature doesn’t work in the American context because it’s less action-oriented than what we’re used to, more philosophical and reflective,” said Laurie Brown, senior vice president for marketing and sales at Harcourt Trade Publishers. “As with foreign films, literature in translation often has a different pace, a different style, and it can take some getting used to. The reader needs to see subtleties and get into the mood or frame of mind to step into a different place. Americans tend to want more immediate gratification. We’re into accessible information. We often look for the story, rather than the story within the story. We’d rather read lines than read between the lines.”

I’ve noticed this when watching European films. They’re usually paced differently than American movies and they generally tend to be driven by character rather than plot. But instead of viewing that as a turnoff, I normally enjoy shifting my brain into another mode of viewing and thinking.

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One thought on “NYT: Americans yawn at foreign fiction

  1. Yes and no… I’m currently working with someone’s writing (contemporary, front-line, hyper-textual, foreign yet hardly self-contained) which can cast a bit of that new light on the above. If interested to learn more about it, feel free to e-mail me at smi@rbcmail.ru

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