The excitement over blogs is officially over ladies and gentleman. They are no longer new or sexy to the book industry. I just snuck out of a panel called, oddly, “Blog 2.0”. The idea, I suppose, was to suggest that we are beyond the initial enthusiasm for blogs in the publishing world, but the atmosphere was remedial (and uncomfortably warm, but that might just be the bookish corduroy blazer I’m wearing.) The panel included blog and new media heavyweights like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette, Kos of Daily Kos, and Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace, but they were plodding the same old ground: Use blogs to promote books; blogs aren’t scary, they’re a part of the media landscape; blogging is so easy, anyone can do it. Though the “2.0” moniker suggested new insights in the merging of new media and publishing, the panel was decidedly “1.0”, and the audience in the half-filled room wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. Still, some of the comments made were worth sharing. Michael Cader suggested that blogs promote “individual voices over institutional voices,” whether the blog lives at Blogspot or the New York Times. Kos decried the notion that books by bloggers have anything more than a tenuous connection to the blog medium. Blogs are not meant to be books, but blogs are a great way to find new voices with built-in audiences. All in all, though, there wasn’t a sense that any new ground is being broken in the marriage of publishing and blogging.
Last night I went to a reading given by Douglas Coupland during which he read passages from his new novel, Eleanor Rigby, and also previewed a lengthy passage from a work-in-progress. Flying on codeine (Coupland, not me), he shot off on various random tangents that, in the end, were twice as entertaining as the readings themselves.Instructed in piano at a young age, Coupland recently decided to give himself a refresher so that he could impress and astound his family with a note-perfect rendition of that Charlie Brown Christmas Piano Thing (which probably has a simpler title than that). Unfortunately the task proved to be more physically traumatic than expected and his left hand went into painful spasms. Hence the codeine, which incidentally Coupland now swears by and highly recommends for recreational use.I should mention up front that I’m not actually an ardent Coupland reader. In fact, I’ve only read one of his novels (Miss Wyoming). I recall enjoying it thoroughly, but I must also confess that I don’t remember a thing about it. Other than the pleasurable experience of reading it. Otherwise, sorry – complete mental block. However I will say that he’s a tremendously engaging speaker – quick-witted, completely engaged with his audience, and with a dry, understated, almost deadpan delivery.Eleanor Rigby is indeed the story of one of the lonely people – Liz Dunn. Coupland spoke of the manner in which he describes his characters and his settings. How, in some works, he deliberately avoids over-describing things, leaving the reader to project his own image of a certain protagonist, or of a certain room. Other times, as Liz Dunn herself states, there should be no confusion as to the detail. So, here, the facts are laid out: her age, her overweight awkwardness. These details are necessary in setting the character. They affect her frame of mind. They affect her loneliness.As for Coupland’s work-in-progress, it will be a sequel to Microserfs entitled jPod. Allusions to the ubiquitous iPod aside, jPod is actually the name of a corner of an office housing 6 employees whose last names begin with a J. Coupland says that this novel will essentially be about “corporate intrusion into private memory.” Heady stuff. But the passage he read came off a bit light-weight and a bit forced. It was a scene in which the 6 employees discuss McDonald’s, and in particular Ronald McDonald, and in particular Ronald McDonald’s sex-life. They decide that they should each compose and read to the group a “love letter” to Ronald. Then we hear the letters, and they were amusing to a point, and I suppose they do reveal a bit about the individual characters, and the passage seemed to go off well with the audience. But the whole thing came off a bit jokey. And once the whole unusual premise was set, even a bit obvious.His random tangents, however, were truly memorable, as much for their delivery as for their content. How, for instance he suffers from what he calls “executive dysfunction” rendering him inexplicably yet completely incapable of performing such simple tasks as opening an envelope. Until, that is, a doctor-friend suggested doing these impossible tasks at half-speed. Which apparently works. And also how he and his 78-year old father, with whom he has nothing in common, have recently and surprisingly bonded over their mutual affinity for a reality show called The Swan.Whether or not I pick up the new or the next Douglas Coupland book remains a bit of a question mark. What is certain is that if he does another reading in town, codeine or no codeine, I’ll be there. And I’ll be the one listening intently for the random tangents.
In a South Texas parlor room, 10 men eagerly hold shots of bourbon in their hands. The television isn’t on, there are no fantasy football reports in sight, and no fraternity pledges cower in the corner. Together they raise their glasses and down the whiskey in one go.
“Alright,” one says, “who has something to say about Rich Dad, Poor Dad?”
This is the Oil Barons Society, an exclusive, men-only book club in San Antonio. The discussion that follows is lively and cuts across political leanings. The leader of the discussion, Scott Gillette, is a management analyst who favors an entrepreneurial reading of the book, but three of the members are government employees who argue that the author profits from the desire for financial security without providing any effective tools to achieve it. Typical for most book clubs, the discussion eventually gets derailed as people speak longer than their allotted turn and quibble over small differences. But most of the members, or Barons as they’re called, leave enlightened and surprised by the discussion, and they’re ready to do it again.
The Oil Baron Society was founded three years ago by Matthew Shaddock and Tanner Neidhart, a school teacher and a lawyer, respectively. “I found it weird that in today’s society,” Shaddock explains, “an all-girls activity was okay, even seen as positive — think of the Girls Night Out. I figured men should be just as free to do the same thing, celebrate manhood and be manly. I figured that a guys’ book club would be a good excuse to get together, drink some beers, and talk intelligently.”
Neidhart came up with the name and they soon adopted a tongue-in-cheek correspondence with the language of Gilded Age Texas, smacking of top hats and monocles.
“As usual, discussion was lively,” the November meeting minutes record. “Topics covered included the American military, our involvement in overseas conflicts, military culture, and the writer’s political slant. Baron Peterson’s absence due to military deployment in the Afghanistan theatre was duly noted and oft-mentioned.”
A random sampling of their titles by mostly male authors includes The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden, and Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.
Driving the club is not just a celebration of masculinity but a search for it. According to John Peterson, the doctor currently posted in Afghanistan: The Oil Barons “is a big idea that struggles with something that any young man in his twenties and thirties deals with. What makes a man? What kind of man do I want to be?”
San Antonio does offer intellectual stimulation and isn’t a cultural desert. The city boasts a world class art museum and celebrated cuisine, where it’s common to awake with a breakfast taco and nibble on Asian fusion for lunch. But men tend to congregate around sports and not books, and life after college anywhere can be devoid of intellectual discussion.
“Seven of the 13 friends I contacted about the idea met and formed the Oil Barons Society at my house in January 2009,” Shaddock says. “The other six wrote back things like ‘book clubs are lame’ and ‘have fun reading the Oprah books.’”
There is no stereotypical Baron. Their professions vary significantly: a real property title searcher, a home renovator, two prosecutors in the district attorney’s office, two Air Force doctors, a management consultant, two high school teachers, and an employment lawyer. They are overwhelmingly professionals but not all of them follow sports, and as brainy as their jobs may sound, several members didn’t read regularly before they joined the club. “Before I joined I didn’t do a whole lot of reading,” jokes Ashley Penix. “In fact, hardly any at all. I like to say, ‘I don’t always read books, but when I do, it’s for the Oil Barons Society. Stay knowledgeable, my friends.’”
The Barons have few rules other than opening the evening with a shot of whiskey, which helps enliven the discussion. This absence of strictures explains why their most strained period happened when they sought to define who, exactly, they were by drawing up a Constitution. Last year, they rented a house in the hill country outside San Antonio and began to hash out the text, but the debate became so heated that three Barons stormed out and drove back to the city. “We found out later that this was much like the actual signing of the Constitution,” one Baron explained. “Sure it was dumb to get upset over, but I think all of us carry a true ownership in the prosperity of the Barons.”
Several of the members already have young children or are expecting children in the near future, making this “the biggest challenge,” according to Alan Petner, as people find it more difficult to accommodate the meetings. The Oil Barons may be a manly take on the Girls Night Out, but the search for companionship will naturally be replaced by the duties of fatherhood.
Another challenge is that the membership is composed of various backgrounds, but the group has struggled to lure other ethnicities. Shaddock teaches history in a local high school with a mostly Latino student body and coaches its soccer team. “It’s not completely lost on our members,” he says. “We’ve definitely talked about it frequently in the past, whining that we’re all WASPs or white Catholics. But we are diverse in many ways. We have top one-percenters, Barons whose parents were blue collar, and Barons from outside of Texas.” The one Latino Baron left the club because of personal commitments.
Recently, the Oil Barons Society has evolved into something more than a book club, now having incorporated activities that complement the readings. “We read Friday Night Lights and went to a high school football game,” explains Scott Gillette, “and we read The Gun by C.J. Chivers and went to the gun range.” These are not necessarily exotic activities in Texas, but not every Baron likes to shoot guns or watch football games.
The Barons have started inviting the featured authors to attend meetings or to join by phone, so far without success. They are also considering dues payments so that they can rent a special Baron Cave, and have any number of other creative ideas, as may be expected from 20- and 30-somethings with ambition.
For now, the culmination of the regular Baron meetings is the annual Baron Ball, held in the former castle of a cattle king that was recently refurbished. The Barons proudly display the year’s book list under their official crest, serve up brisket and chili, and play multiple rounds of beer pong — partners and friends included — and it’s hard not to feel that something different is happening in Texas.
“When I joined it was just a ‘book club’ and sounded like fun and general camaraderie,” says Ashley Penix. “It then turned into something more special, and took on a life of its own. It’s nice being part of something that is unique.”
Photo credit: Mathew Shaddock. Oil Barons Society crest designed by Evan Long.
Recently, I watched an Iranian, an Italo-Palestinian, and an American Jew take the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, backed by a string quartet. There’s a punch line in there somewhere. (A reporter for the Village Voice quipped, “Even Rush Limbaugh couldn’t make up a funnier parody of what Upper East Side Manhattanites do on a Tuesday night.”) “Exit Strategies” was one of the first events of this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and its participants, Marjane Satrapi, Rula Jabreal, and Tony Kushner, would repeatedly and somewhat apologetically call it an “experiment.” The Kronos Quartet — never a group to back down from an experiment — was meant to play pretty much nonstop, as the writers spoke with (or over) them. Kushner had the most success, reading a poem about grief and working with the cadences of the music. Satrapi talked about the moment the world’s view of Iran shifted from princes and flying carpets to riots and religious extremists; she was improvising warmly but apprehensively, which left her occasionally shouting past the quartet. But Jabreal barely acknowledged the musicians at all, determined to deliver a cavalcade of political talking points: the wars, corruption in Washington, the health-care crisis, and the Republican primary field, all dredged up for a clearly liberal audience that probably never wanted to hear about Michele Bachmann again.
It was a strange night. The Village Voice reporter likened the Kronos Quartet to the band on the sinking Titanic, but it wasn’t as bad as all that — and he admitted as much, too. It was definitely an experiment, interesting at times, nerve-wracking at others, but the thing that struck me was the conversational clash that followed, like when Jabreal asked Satrapi what she thought the 2012 election looked like outside the United States, as the quartet plowed on in the background, and a clearly frustrated Satrapi said that she was elated by the music — and really wasn’t interested in talking about Mitt Romney. The declaration earned her the biggest applause of the night.
They both had fair points: the event was ostensibly about music; the program didn’t promise a dissection of American politics. But it was an opportunity for two Middle Eastern women to talk about their vantages from abroad, specifically from such cosseted places as Iran and Palestine — views that are a fair bit harder to find than most in the American literary landscape. This was the seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival, which brings together writers from around the world to, according to this year’s introduction, “celebrate the power of the written word in action.” It purports the values of PEN itself, whose charter states that: “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.”
PEN World Voices is one of the foremost international literary events in New York City, a place that, as the center of American publishing and home to a basically alarming number of writers, looks inward — celebrates the local, perhaps — more often than not. I’m as guilty as any of literary jingoism: I attend maybe one reading per week in Brooklyn or Manhattan, and it may be partly my own fault, but the writers I encounter nearly always hail from the Anglophone world, whether they’re native-born or have emigrated here or to the UK. Most of the authors I read fall into the same category. The topics I’m interested in, the regions in which I’d like to see a story set — all of these fall within the confines of English-speaking lands. And I think this is probably a personal failing. Maybe I don’t need to know how Mitt Romney comes off in Iran. But so little writing from the vast majority of the world penetrates the American literary scene, and my own personal literary scene. It’s an age-old complaint, but things don’t really seem to be changing. You can seek out literature from just about anywhere — and now it’s easier than any previous point in history — but it’s a hell of a lot harder to bring it into the conversation.
There’s that famous and damning statistic: translated works make up just three percent of the American book market (and, in contrast, sixty percent of all the translated literature in the world comes from English). The University of Rochester, who named their translated literature site, Three Percent, after the fact, suggests that when narrowed down to literary fiction and poetry, the number drops to a paltry 0.7 percent. There contemporary notable exceptions, from genre (Stieg Larsson and the European crime-novelist wave that has sprung up in his stead) to mega-bestsellers (Paulo Coelho, Umberto Eco) to the literary masters (Gabriel García Márquez, Orhan Pamuk, José Saramago, and a handful of others) that have become permanent fixtures in our canon. And of course there are the hippest of the modern-day literary heavyweights, Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño. But the majority of translated literature remains largely obscure, lauded in niches within the publishing and reading worlds but failing to impact the broader public.
The translation question is an old and thorny one. Foreign books, anecdotal wisdom suggests, are a big gamble: “There’s a general perception in the trade that these books can be difficult to sell,” one publisher told the Guardian. “As long as that persists it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Reading in translation is often a tricky prospect: the conflict between readability and remaining faithful to the original language lies at the heart of the ethics of translation. Look at the line-by-line differences between Murakami’s translators, Jay Rubin, Alfred Birnbaum, and Phillip Gabriel. Some passages are wildly different, clunky with too-literal translations, or, on the other end of the spectrum, full of Western idioms and surprisingly liberal interpretations of Murakami’s words. It leaves the reader in translation feeling a little distrustful, and inadequate. I can’t imagine learning Japanese — I only got past high-school level French!
And perhaps part of the trouble is that translation means more than replacing a word with its foreign equivalent: there’s a broader cultural undercurrent at work when we talk about Americans and international literature, a question of how a book will read on this side of the Atlantic. Take, for example, Tim Parks’ diatribe against Jonathan Franzen and Freedom, from the New York Review of Books about a year ago. He begins with an absurd press release from the American publisher of Thomas Pletzinger, a German novelist: “Pletzinger is German, but you wouldn’t know it from his debut, which is both wise and worldly.” Parks is incredulous:
What a wonderful insight this careless moment of blurb-talk gives us into the contemporary American mindset! We want something worldly, but if it seems too German, or perhaps just too foreign, we become wary. As my mailbag indicates, the literary community is very much an international phenomenon, but not, it would seem, a level playing field. To make it in America Pletzinger must shed his German-ness as if he were an immigrant with an embarrassing accent.
Parks quickly moves on to Franzen, whom he accuses of aggressive, list-heavy American-ness: he takes fault with the European fascination with Freedom, saying that there are no Italian words for half of Franzen’s lists, from foosball table to “mechanized recliner.” The Italian translator chimed in, indignant, in the comments, giving exact translations for foosball and La-Z-Boy and insisting that, despite Parks’ claim, the Italian for “mechanized recliner” is just as ugly as the English. But I think that the broader point still stands. Reading The Corrections last year — that’s a solid decade after everyone else read it, which I quickly learned when I tried to discuss it with people — I couldn’t help but feel like all those cultural references were incredibly dated, a lot of otherwise engaging prose weighed down by Y2K-era jargon. Cultural references are tricky, whether they’re traveling across geographical or temporal borders. But is something substantial lost with their removal?
Three Percent is trying to revive May as “World in Translation Month,” and it’s an obviously laudable goal. But it remains to be seen how they — or anyone — can effectively market an entire world of literature that’s still failed to catch on amongst the majority of the American reading public. I’ve seen the attempts: articles, blogs, word-of-mouth from friends or booksellers, offering up blind recommendations, the author’s name, title, and original language, and I don’t know how to parse it. I’m guilty myself: just the other day, halfway through Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, the first book in translation I’ve read in a long while, I found myself trying to talk about it with a few friends. “He’s Senegalese,” I said. They looked at me expectantly, waiting for something more helpful than nationality. “It’s about colonialism.” They nodded. “It was translated by the woman who did The Little Prince,” I tossed in. “Ah!” one said. A relief: a cultural frame of reference. I give most books a hard sell, but I had so few tools at my disposal, reading a Senegalese book translated from French half a century ago, and fault here lies with me, not with Kane, whose book is extraordinary and subtle and philosophical and unlike anything else I’ve read about the colonial experience, which, coming from a person who essentially majored in postcolonialism, is saying something.
Ambiguous Adventure is part of a Melville House series called the Neversink Library, which “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.” I’m taking that last designation to heart. There’s a danger in become too prescriptive with foreign literature: we should be reading it, that it’s good for us, that it’s our duty as citizens of the world to read books from every corner of it. The Neversink project seems to offer an antidote to that: titles carefully chosen and offered up with the simple explanation that these books are so good they never should have slipped past or from the public consciousness. All good books transcend the place and time in which they were written: the whole point is to write something specific that becomes universal, after all. So perhaps the best way to transcend the barriers of international literature is to no longer market it as such. A good book is a good book. We need to read more in translation — and we simply need to read more. Maybe dropping all of these labels is a good place to start.
Mrs. Millions and I don’t get to the theatre that often, but we went to see a play on Friday that I recommend to anyone in Chicago right now. The play is called “Recent Tragic Events” and it looks at the mundane – in this case a blind date – through the lens of tragedy and shock – this blind date is taking place on September 12, 2001. I recommend the play for three reasons. First, and this is the least of the reasons, I went to high school with the director, Mikhael Tara Garver. She helped start Uma Productions in 2001, and she does a really great job putting on this play. Second, the play was penned by Craig Wright who has written for the HBO show, “Six Feet Under,” and he brings that same sensibility to this play. Mixing death and banality, he is unafraid of both the seriousness and the humor that arise in such situations. Finally, and this is where the literary relevance comes in, I recommend this play because that most prolific of authors, Joyce Carol Oates figures prominently in the production. The play’s main character, Waverly, happens to be Oates’ grand-niece, and at one point all of the Oates books on Waverly’s shelves and stacked on the floor in a pile that reaches several feet high before tipping over. For some reason I always get a kick out of pokes at Oates’ prodigious literary output. But then, Oates herself appears, played by – get this – a sock puppet, and, while I know it sounds ridiculous, it’s somehow perfect hearing this bespectacled sock name drop Salman Rushdie and John Updike. The play runs through next weekend at Chopin Theater. If you’re in Chicago, check it out.