As I Was Saying . . .

Context N°19

by Anne Burke

Yes, well, where were we?

Mr. Curtis White has the lead article in the new issue of _Harper_’s. While I would agree—who wouldn’t?—with his analysis of corporate America, I feel compelled to question his “solution,” which, in a nutshell, is that we must become “more human.” Given what I have experienced of humans, I fear to think what might happen if we were to become “more” of that. I think that “less human” might be the way to go. And yet and yet. Let us look instead at, not corporate America, but academic America, which, admittedly, is just another version of corporate America. Surely, in those hallowed halls, under the guise of liberal nobility and the fight for justice and equality and freedom and righteousness, Mr. White could find much more corruption and hypocrisy and dehumanization, if only because academics so insistently announce themselves as the alternative to the corrosive that is corporate America!

London Book Fair

Rather dismal this year. Its setting is a new convention hall in a “redeveloped” (that is, “partially developed,” that is, “in the middle of nowhere”) area of London. Standing outside for a quick smoke—sorry, my American zealots, smoking is still allowed in London—and looking both near and far, I imagined that I must have been transported to some such city as Pittsburgh. Or Champaign-Urbana. Or any creaky city of abandoned buildings and a dull, featureless landscape. . . . The Fair itself was equally grim. David Hasselhoff made a grand appearance. Another American export that will only cause Europe to hate us all the more. The London Book Fair is, regrettably, beginning to resemble the Book Expo in America.

Estonian Embassy

Now this was a pleasant evening in London. The Estonian ambassador held a party at the embassy for a poetry reading and to mark Dalkey Archive’s publication of Mati Unt’s novel Things in the Night. He twice quoted from Robert Creeley! Can one imagine ANY American politician who would so quote, or even know Creeley’s poetry? Which reminded me that I once asked a professor at Illinois State University whether she knew Creeley’s work and she said, “Never heard the name.” Onwards to Estonia!

The Deadly Swedes

I met briefly (briefly indeed) with the officials from Sweden who are responsible for promoting Swedish literature abroad. All I can, perhaps should, say is that they seemed a bit “odd.” They appeared to do everything within their power to discourage Dalkey’s Publisher from ever considering a Swedish book for translation. A rather amazing feat since he seems obsessed with doing all these translations. You can reference Publisher’s article here in this issue of CONTEXT to see just how few Swedish works of fiction make their way into the United States. Hats off to the Swedes! . . . I should mention that the Norwegians were just as helpful. They must have observed the Swedes and decided that they wouldn’t be outdone. And these were quickly followed by the Greeks, who for some reason entered into the Scandinavian competition. . . . But I suspect that these comments will be “edited” (i.e., censored) in keeping with Publisher’s mantra: “Be positive! Be positive!”

On the Other Hand

The representatives from Iceland and Caledonia did everything they could to be of help. Of course, the Finns and Estonians stand as the models of how to encourage American publishers to translate works from their countries. Why is it that some countries can figure out how to do this and others seem so determined to be smilingly rude?

Good News

Both John Calder and Barbara Wright are in good health (of sorts) and flourishing (sort of). If one must ask who either of these people is, then one must, de facto, be an academic, demonstrating a complete ignorance of the literature of the past fifty years. I can now imagine the typical academic scurrying to find out who these people could possibly be.

Speaking of Translations

I’ve just read an article—shall we assume that this article was written by an academic?—that claims that a translation is successful if it fulfills the intentions of the translator. Well, this is quite a standard to put forth. This bold statement was in no way qualified. Let me therefore propose—and there is a great deal of evidence to support this—that some translators succeed (and should be applauded for their success) by writing something that is nearly incomprehensible, hiding behind the rhetorical wall of “But this is what the original says!” I would like to push this a step further, though. I intend to do a “bad” translation that completely misrepresents the intention and spirit of the original. This would count as a success, yes? Only in academia can one behave as an imbecile and still be taken seriously. This is no doubt due to college administrators. I realize that I have failed to demonstrate any relation between the two, but thought it was time to say something about the stupidity of college administrators.

The Realist Zealots Once Again

James Wood has another one of those silly articles (in Prospect magazine, London) attacking William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, Gilbert Sorrentino, et al. These articles are now appearing (look back on James Atlas and Jonathan Franzen for examples) almost every two years, a call to arms to fight the threat of the “not-realistic.” Or, as Wood has it: “The major struggle in American fiction today is over the question of realism.” Struggle? Major? And who are the heroes of realism? Richard Yates, Andre Dubus, Richard Ford, and Richard Russo. If Wood so loves this endlessly predictable kind of writing (“the realist writer, that free servant of life . . .”), bless him. He is welcome to it, and why not? He’s free to read and like what he wants. But why this holy war against anything that does not conform to his tastes? The recurring theme in these articles is that, not only are Yates & Co. heroic, not only do they teach us how to live better, not only do they show us what life is all about, not only do they bore us to tears, etc., etc., but that there is something morally wrong about these other kinds of writers (Gaddis, Sorrentino, Gass), that they should be objected to, perhaps banned, right along with anyone who likes to read them. Both the writers and the readers are a danger to us all! Please, James, please go read your Richard Yates and keep quiet for a while. Or if you must talk, at least try to add something new to this weary argument instead of imitating those who have already said the same things.

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