It’s becoming a tradition of sorts, the Nobel jury gives the Prize to an author virtually unknown in the United States, and newspaper columnists grumble while small and university presses bask in a moment of publishing glory.
Nobody outside a few square miles in New York cares that this year’s Pulitzer or Booker winner was put out by Random House or HarperCollins, but even to the casual observer of the literary scene, there’s something refreshing (and, for some, aggravating) about seeing yet another Nobel winner with only the faintest, most haphazard publishing footprint. The Nobel Prize, probably half the time, shines a huge spotlight some pretty obscure books.
For small and university presses, the Prize is a rare moment of popular notice. Daniel E. Pritchard who works for David R. Godine, Publisher in Boston wrote as much a year ago reacting to J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Nobel win, “Nobel Prizes are usually the playground for big boys. They were noticeably absent from this one, leaving all the fame and street-cred for small independents.” Godine published Le Clézio’s The Prospector.
The University of Nebraska Press also published Le Clézio, with two books in print when the Nobel was announced last year: The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts and Onitsha. According to the press’ publicity manager Cara Pesek, Nebraska sold just “a handful” of copies of both titles in 2007, but “since the prize was announced last year, those two titles have accounted for more than $100,000 in incremental sales.”
The director of University of Nebraska Press, Donna Shear, tempered the excitement somewhat, saying that the Nobel turns a book into “a steady backlist seller” as it finds its way onto University reading lists. But she added that a side-effect of the Nobel jury’s idiosyncrasies is that the Prize becomes “a validation of the efforts of University presses.”
The Euro-centric Nobel also injects some commercial viability into the typically limited world of literature in translation. After winning the Nobel in 2002, Hungarian writer Imre Kertész went from university presses to Knopf and Vintage. Meanwhile, plans are already underway to bring Müller to a wider audience. Shear said Nebraska put in a bid for Müller’s latest, Atemschaukel, recently shortlisted for the German Book Prize, but it’s expected that the book will land with one of the big publishing houses.
We expect our book prizes to confirm that a book or author’s commercial success and positive reviews are well-deserved. Sometimes the Nobel plays this role – a validator of critical opinion – but, for the American audience, it often does something different. And this is where the grumbling comes in. We don’t like to be told that an author we’ve never heard of is one of the greatest ever. But in cases like Müller and Kertész and Le Clézio, the Nobel serves as a reminder that in certain corners of the publishing industry, there are presses shepherding the work of these writers into print and keeping it available until such time as the rest of us are able to take notice.
This guest post comes to us from Daniel E. Pritchard. Daniel works in production, sales, and marketing for David R. Godine, Publisher, in Boston. He has now read The Prospector. He is also a co-founder of The Pen & Anvil Press, The Boston Poetry Union, and writes a regular blog on literature and culture called The Wooden Spoon.”You peaked early,” my girlfriend says. It might be true, sad as that would be. Not to sound too Nick Hornby here, but a certain type of person runs into major achievements like this in their twenties and feels, immediately, that this is as good as it will ever get. I am that kind of person. The path of my career (and temperament) doesn’t seem to be pushing me towards major publishing companies, and Nobel Prizes are usually the playground for big boys. They were noticeably absent from this one, leaving all the fame and street-cred for small independents. It is fair to say that I – like my boss, David Godine – will go the length of my career and have this happen just once. This is that once. I am twenty-five.Let me emphasize that I had nothing to do with acquiring, editing, or producing The Prospector (link to more info on the publisher’s site), the J.M.G. Le Clézio novel brought out in 1993 – when I was twelve – by David R. Godine, Publisher. Of the many books that I had read on the Godine list, The Prospector was not among them. Nonetheless, on the morning we heard, I was absolutely beaming. I called my mother. I called my girlfriend. I called everyone. I gushed to the Falafel King at lunch. Of course, I’m aware that any pride I feel regarding Le Clézio’s Nobel Prize is purely by association: this is very much an Olympic games for literature. He’s one of ours, so we won. In a peculiar, not uncomplicated way.But in thinking about all this between frantic calls to printers and bookstores, there might be a more substantial sense of victory in this year’s Nobel. David Godine took a huge chance on an unknown (in the US) French author, on the basis of a recommendation by Gallimard’s rights manager – one book lover to another banking on a “no marketing” zone. He printed 6,000 copies of that first hardcover edition (“I must have been on drugs,” David told a Publishers Weekly reporter last week) because he thought it was a good book. The book was well-reviewed and sold well enough, and was the first in a list dedicated to works of literature appearing in English, in the US, for the first time, called “Verba Mundi.” It’s a good thing.We had 420 copies in stock from that original printing of The Prospector, fifteen years ago, on Thursday, and were taking back orders by Friday morning: vindication by sales. Godine is one of four publishers in the US, I hear, to carry Le Clézio’s work, along with the University of Chicago, University of Nebraska, and another small trade press whose name escapes me [ed note: Curbstone Press]. It’s a banner moment for independent publishing. I can’t speak for the other houses, but at Godine, Le Clézio’s appearance in English is based entirely on the personal taste of David Godine, who still acquires our titles and who has picked up the work of important, unheralded authors such as Georges Perec and José Donoso since then.For what it’s worth, I think that this year’s Nobel highlights a great and unfortunate weakness of American publishing. Not the charge that we don’t keep track of every author in every language in Europe, which is a Herculean task, perhaps impossible. Rather, that introducing and supporting the work of authors from around the world as part and parcel to being a publisher is an idea that seems to be fading. One expects not that all the work of Europe (and elsewhere, ahem) is published in English, but that American publishers get behind some author who, to their tastes, is great; is capital-G great. That they take a significant chance. Translation isn’t a nice thing you do if you can spare it, which is the way most publishers regard it; translation is essential. If evangelizing new, unheard-of authors isn’t integral to the reason a person goes into publishing, then why? It’s not for the fame, fortune, or the stylish tweed jackets. I have at least one of those, and I’m still pretty miserable.You have to want this one moment, when you feel sure you’ve won something good for the culture, that you’ve introduced something new and important to the world. Even if it only lasts a day or an hour before, you know, reality sets in. Thursday morning. Three people in the office. The New Yorker is on the phone: tell us about this author.Bonus Links: Le Clézio Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, The Prizewinners: International Edition
After all the talk that America is a literary backwater, it’s not terribly surprising that the Nobel Prize went to an international writer. Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio is not a very well known name. In fact, he only has a few of books translated into English that are in print.Wandering Star “tells two discrete stories of two young girls, one Jewish and one Palestinian, who meet once briefly by chance. Their stories are connected by substance, rather than plot. Each is a wandering star in search of a homeland-Esther escaping the Nazi holocaust, and Nejma, who experiences the horrors of life in the camps.” The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts is a collection of stories. “Set largely in locations near the French Riviera, these eleven short stories depict the harsh realities of life for the less-privileged inhabitants of this very privileged region.” The Prospector (link to more info on the publisher’s site): “Haunting and lyrical, this Bildungsroman of the narrator’s search for the lost treasure of the Corsair is near-mythic but has realistic details that bolster its plausibility. Set in early 20th-century Mauritius, the story follows the life of a young man who, after the death of his father, tries to restore his family’s fortunes by tracking down some buried gold.” And The Mexican Dream: Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations, which Booklist described as a “brilliantly conceived analysis of Mexican civilization as a series of ‘dreams’ that come into conflict is breathtakingly well written, sweeping us away with the intensity and lapidary shimmer of its prose.”Judging by the very low (as of this writing) Amazon rankings, Le Clezio hasn’t had much of a readership in the US, but this will likely change as publishers rush to get more of his books into print. Books and writers and Wikipedia offer up longer bios of Le Clezio.Update: Another that’s been translated and is in print is Onitsha: “Onitsha tells the story of Fintan, a youth who travels to Africa in 1948 with his Italian mother to join the English father he has never met. Fintan is initially enchanted by the exotic world he discovers in Onitsha, a bustling city prominently situated on the eastern bank of the Niger River. But gradually he comes to recognize the intolerance and brutality of the colonial system. His youthful point of view provides the novel with a notably direct, horrified perspective on racism and colonialism.”Update 2: The Lit Saloon rounds up excerpts from decades of reviews of Le Clezio’s work. Decidedly mixed.