Make Reading Great Again: a New Year’s resolution for the outward-looking

So I think I managed to make it through 2016 without mentioning the Brexit result. Sorry, but the time has come. I won’t labour the point: more or less the whole of UK publishing thinks Brexit is a terrible idea that will have an overwhelmingly negative impact on our industry. The Independent Publishers’ Guild conducts an annual survey of its members. At their autumn conference in September, I saw the results in stark, PowerPoint form: not only was Brexit their number one business concern, but the 180 member publishers who participated were asked to name the government policy that would best help independents to succeed. After VAT and tax breaks for small businesses, the most popular answer was ‘not doing Brexit’.

It really is that simple, and we felt it in October at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest annual gathering of publishers. There was speculation that European publishers might simply stop bothering with the London Book Fair, the second-largest convention, once it becomes more difficult and expensive for them to travel to London and to do business with British publishers. Liz Thomson of The Bookseller predicted that US publishers will take advantage of the suddenly unattractive prospect of dealing with UK rights agents, and “seek to control world English-language rights”. Already at this Fair, the Brits were desperately trying to close deals in dollars, while everyone else chased after the sterling. How embarrassing.

Once we got home and changed up our Euros for a pitiful sum of Great British quid, the impact of our weak currency position lingered. For example, at a small independent, it’s been enough to bar us from using an EU-based printer whose rates looked doable before 23 June.

On the other side of the Irish Sea, things aren’t looking much better. As Tony Canavan, editor of Books Ireland, put it at the Fair:

Our … publishing output is almost entirely in English, meaning that Britain is the only other viable export market in Europe. Irish publishers, from Belfast to Cork, operate in an all-island market which will bring serious challenges if Northern Ireland … [leaves] the EU. And how easy will it be to export books to Britain if post-Brexit tariffs are imposed or the pound sterling falls in value?

… for many media organisations, from Sky to the Sunday Times [and for the Booksellers Association], the Republic of Ireland is just a region of the United Kingdom.  … How will these companies and organisations cope if one branch remains in the EU operating under different laws and regulations?

There’s only one possible conclusion you can draw from the Brexit conversation in publishing: it places barriers between publishers and readers. The biggest and most immediately obvious  of these challenges is our lost membership of one of the world’s most important bodies for granting arts funds. Without grants from Brussels and other EU-based institutions, translating a book into English is virtually beyond the means of small independents (who, more willing to take risks and embrace unknown authors, have always led the way in translated publishing). I’ve personally felt the frustration of having a foreign publisher or agent approach you with an exciting title, but having to decline because no help is available to get the book translated.

I’d say this matters for two reasons. Firstly, for our reading – it might have ‘Great’ in the name, but this country is pretty small. How sure are we that all of the best writers and thinkers are stuffed between its shores? If you’re interested in a damn good read, then you should be angry about the financial constraints stopping publishers from bringing you the best books they discover. All right, the English-speaking world is larger than most lingustic pools. But did you know that great American novelists Cormac McCarthy, Douglas Kennedy and James Salter were all best-selling names in French translation before anyone in the UK – or indeed, the US – had heard of them?

Secondly, and on a related note, it matters for our culture and our view of the world. The UK (or 51% of it) has voted to turn inward, and has decided that we are stronger alone. If Brexit not only cuts us off from full European trade, security, diplomacy and the rest, but also from European literature, how will we ever overcome that mindset? I am by no means a literature snob, but I don’t think it’s a great surprise that Donald Trump “doesn’t read”. Limited experiences produce narrow perspectives.

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Unless he wrote it, of course.

What can we do about this? Take back control. By reading. Though many people don’t think of publishing as a particularly corporate industry – and, yes, most of its relatively penniless employees probably couldn’t hack it as hedge fund managers or consultants – if there’s one thing UK publishing is, it’s market-driven. Hence the five billion colouring books, Fifty Shades of Grey rip-offs and guides to hygge that have walked off the shelves in the past few years. I’ve mostly talked about the effects of Brexit on small publishers with limited funds, but even those with the spending power don’t use it on translated books, on the basis that there’s not much appetite for foreign-language authors in this country.

The current pitiful figure (1.5% of the UK books market is translated fiction) is not entirely our fault, unless you count colonialism. If they want to read anything written beyond their own borders, Italians don’t have much choice about reading in translation (19.7% of their market); we have a whole world of authors writing in an original we can understand, from Canada to Nigeria to India.* This means there’s less pressure on publishers to seek out translations – and less ability among them, too. Unlike the rest of the world’s publishers, there’s little need for editorial staff in UK houses to speak foreign languages. Dependent on freelance reader’s reports and unable to evaluate the entire manuscript for themselves, British publishers are far more reluctant to take the risk, when they feel there’s a smaller market out there anyway.

Even so, is anyone else thinking “vicious circle”? Of course we don’t read much translated fiction, if you won’t give it to us. And it’s simply false that there’s no market for it – the Man Booker International Prize found this year that, stunningly, translated novels sell better in the UK than English-language originals. Whereas overall fiction sales have fallen since the start of the century, translated fiction sales have almost doubled. In 2016 this super-neglected sector was worth twice its share of the published market in sales – punching doubly above its weight.

The only way to persuade publishers that it’s worth the investment to buy or pay to commission English translations, even in a post-Brexit world, is by continuing to show that we as readers are willing and eager to consume them. But as we know, beyond your regular Murakamis, Larssons and Ferrantes, they’re not always easy to find. So here are a few recommendations.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof – Jiří Weil (Czech,1960)

I chose this book for its title. Set in Nazi-occupied Prague, it starts with brilliant satire – a Czech municipal worker is instructed to remove a statue of the Jewish composer Mendelssohn, but doesn’t know which one he is; he removes the largest-nosed statue, which turns out to be of the ultra-German Wagner… In a cruelly accomplished transformation of tone, the ensuing chain of events and the lives of those caught up in the war slowly turn to tragedy. Weil, himself a Jew, managed to survive the Holocaust by faking his own death and hiding in plain sight in the Czech capital. He naturally wanted to commemorate the terrible events that unfolded there, but like the best Holocaust novels, from If This is a Man to Maus to The Book Thief, humanity is what shines through.Subdued hope is never far behind the misery, and the vivacity of the characters are ultimately more important than their fate. Making you cry and laugh in turn, this is one memorable read.

a-weil

“A brilliant, bitter satire … Unmissable.” – Sunday Times

Decoded – Mai Jia (Chinese, 2002)

Mai Jia is a widely accomplished novelist, hailed (boringly) by the West as a sort of Chinese John Le Carré. Decoded follows the troubles of one exceptionally gifted codebreaker, told more through the lives of others than through his own. An elusive, slippery novel, it feels rather like an encryption, forever just beyond our reach. It is a generations-long family epic, an ‘evidence-based’ thriller, a murder mystery, a portrait of a savant, an exploration of the fine line between genius and madness… Put simply, it is more than the sum of its parts, a compelling exercise in coming at things sideways that powerfully suggests human beings may be too complex to ever truly ‘know’.

a-mai

“a subtle and complex exploration of cryptography, politics, dreams and their significance” – London Review of Books

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Hebrew, 2012)

This debut has elevated Gundar-Goshen to the hallowed ranks of ‘known authors’ in the UK, her newly published second novel worthy of posters in the Underground and the table treatment in bookstores. She fully deserves the recognition. Exploring the intertwined lives of two friends who engage in arranged marriages to help bring Jewish women from war-torn Europe to Palestine, One Night, Markovitch is a story of yearning. It is simultaneously epic, or at least wondrous, and terribly, earthily rooted in everyday life. It is not quite magical realism, but there is a touch of that in its playful treatment of reality. Things are simultaneously true and untrue between two people, it is both meaningful and meaningless that things are a certain way, and “Such things, though, impossible, are quite common.” I’ve rarely read such an insightful depiction of human relations and experience, but there’s nothing clinical about this book. It is deeply sensuous and beautifully poignant, depicting a poetic existence somewhat unlike the lives we live, but viscerally, immediately recognisable: “How many things could a woman not say?”

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“steeped in wit, beauty and drama … an incredibly rich tale of history, love, obsession and new beginnings” – Huffington Post

I’ve spoken before about how reading more diversely takes a conscious effort, because our regular reading is unconsciously skewed. For those who read, perhaps this is a new year’s resolution more achievable than attempts to introduce a whole new activity into your life, whether it’s exercise, diary-keeping or flossing. Instead, just adjust your existing behaviour. Next time you buy a book, seek out a translation. Frankly, no one wants to read about Trump’s America or Brexit Britain anyway. Take yourself to another place entirely, at least in your mind.

*English PEN, among others, has pointed out the huge struggle for authors from Commonwealth countries who write in ‘native’ mother tongues: what do Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Khaled Hosseini all have in common? They all write in English, and they’re all considered modern-day spokesmen of countries of origin where millions of people can’t read their work. If you think it’s hard being published as a Dutch author, try being published as an Indian author writing in Tamil or Gujarati.

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