Showing posts with label Internet. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Internet. Show all posts

Monday, August 27, 2018

WITMonth Day 27 | More things from other people!

Lots of amazing things still happening around the internet, even as WITMonth begins to wind down:

And of course, as always, there's so much I'm still leaving off. But WITMonth isn't really limited just to August, is it? We'll just keep going into September!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

WITMonth Day 16 | ...languages other than English | Thoughts

One of the common misconceptions during WITMonth is its English-language exclusivity. This is an understandable mistake: Everything on this blog is in English, as are most of the books that I discuss. The statistics I present are all about translations into English, the publishers I promote/discuss/criticize are for the most part working in English, and it's difficult for me to share content from languages that I don't know how to read or understand.

But as I've said before, WITMonth is not actually limited to English. On the contrary, I would very much like to see people having the conversation about publishing, promoting, and supporting women writers in just about every language and country on Earth; I don't think it would be out of place anywhere.

There is a single exception, though, and that's when people use WITMonth to promote books by women written in English and translated into other languages.

This is a bit like the translations versus translators issue (also in the fact that I won't police how people interpret WITMonth, no matter how frustrating I find it). At its base, I'm not against promoting women who write in English. There is a reason the #readwomen movement exists - women writers have notoriously been sidelined by critics, awards, and prestige. This is a phenomenon that crosses borders and languages, apparently.

That being said, women who write in English do not have a problem when it comes to translations. In general, English-language books are among the most translated in the world, even when they don't really deserve it (see this old post). Translations from English dominate SFF and YA book markets almost entirely, and aren't lacking in other genres. And I have seen little evidence to suggest that English-language women writers are translated into other languages less frequently than men; my gut feeling tells me the numbers are about equal, though I obviously cannot commit to this statement without actual data.

There's a reason WITMonth exists. That reason is that hardly any books by women who write in languages other than English get translated into other languages. Evidence suggests that they are also underrepresented in their own literary cultures, often ignored in favor of men writers. The purpose of WITMonth is to promote women writers from exactly those parts of the world that don't typically get attention, whether in English or not. Promoting Margaret Atwood translated into German... just doesn't do that. Yes, Margaret Atwood has faced barriers because she is a woman, but she has never faced barriers for not writing in the marketable, "universal" language of English, or being a woman in a country in which writing is considered immodest, or being a woman in a country that has a small literary tradition that rarely gets attention beyond its borders and only has a few million potential readers, or... the list can go on. It's really not the same thing.

It's true, WITMonth doesn't cover everyone. Nor will it ever be a perfect encapsulation of intersectionality or literature at large; WITMonth excludes many underrepresented women who write in English, after all. It's not meant to be perfect, though. For me, very simply, WITMonth is just about promoting women who write in languages other than English. Giving this attention to women writers who already have a huge movement behind them ends up, in my view, erasing those writers that do need the extra space. Women who write in English have a unique set of opportunities; let's save our August energy for those who don't.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

WITMonth Day 14 | WITMonth lists from other people!

One of the most incredible things about WITMonth has been watching it grow over the years. Today, there is no shortage of excellent writers, translators, publishers, reviewers, critics, etc. engaging with WITMonth, reviewing books by women in translation, and writing about the topic. If in 2014 it was possible to keep track of every. single. post, this simply isn't possible anymore (and for the best reason ever). And just as there's been a huge influx in reviews and thoughtful pieces about women writers in translation, there have also been quite a few stellar recommendation lists out there! So to give you all a bit of a break from my ramblings, I'm going to link out today to a few lists that I've seen around this WITMonth:

I'm missing a lot of excellent lists, but there are still plenty more days this WITMonth to explore them. What lists have you been working off? How have you been finding new books to read this WITMonth?

Friday, August 10, 2018

WITMonth Day 10 | Stats (part 2)

Much as I love the cold, hard data behind the general publishing stats when it comes to women in translation (spoiler alert: I love very little about them), there's only so much that publishing can tell us. True, publishers are a fairly major gatekeeper when it comes to the existence of women in translation (indeed, perhaps the only gatekeeper... and the reason I'll be visiting this topic again later this month), but there are many stages from the moment a book is published to the point at which it reaches the reader.

One of these is literary publications and media. Much as we would love to think that nothing affects our tastes and interests, the fact is that marketing does work. This is certainly true of book marketing, with review outlets, bloggers, and the media at large playing a huge part in how books ultimately become hits or misses. Even among indie presses, the way a book is promoted can heavily shape the way it will be sold/recommended in the future.

And so I decided to again check the status of literary reviews, to see whether the situation has improved for women in translation since 2016 (when I last checked this metric). It's pie chart time!

Journals and review sites were selected partially on the basis of visibility within the literary community and recommendations (not a particularly scientific metric, I know), as well as ease of data collection (i.e. chronological posting, well-labeled reviews). Due to the relative limitations in translation-focused literary reviews, this may lead to certain bias simply because of the smaller range of options. This analysis is not nearly as comprehensive as that of VIDA, but is inspired by their work. All assessments done manually, so of course there is the possibility that I have made some mistake - please let me know if this is the case and I will happily make any corrections!


In 2016, The Guardian presented me with a bit of a conundrum. That was the year of Elena Ferrante, with several articles going back and forth as to her identity (remember that?) and her literary merits, and a time in which Asymptote Journal had a weekly feature in the "Fiction in Translation" tag. Ultimately, I found that of reviews, 22% had been of books by women writers in translation, even as the general Fiction in Translation tag had more features and pieces about women writers (30%). This year, the metric is flipped, with only 22% of the general features, reviews, and so on about women writers in translation, but among reviews alone, that number goes up to 29%. Neither percentage, I should note is particularly good. (I should also point out that I have a very strong suspicion as to why women writers are relatively better represented now in reviews - Nicholas Lezard who used to have a column in The Guardian's book pages no longer writes there, and that column featured perhaps three women over the course of the three two I looked at it...)

The reason I start with The Guardian now (and the reason I started with it in 2016 as well) is because I can think of no other newspaper with such a prominent literary review that easily and clearly labels its forays into translated literature, while also not having a paywall. More than that, The Guardian also prominently features online, is frequently shared, and is regarded quite highly as a general book page. Think of the exposure a book reviewed in the NYT or The Guardian has as compared to a book reviewed in a niche journal - the impact of widespread publicity is huge. That The Guardian is still reviewing and featuring so few women writers in translation in their pages is deeply disappointing.

I next looked at two of the major "niche" literature in translation journals, Words Without Borders (which I had checked in 2016) and World Literature Today. While neither journal has quite the reach of a site like The Guardian, they nonetheless have tremendous influence within certain spheres and represent a lot of the brilliant content related to literature in translation. Here, I was pleasantly surprised by review rates. While Words Without Borders does not publish nearly as many reviews as it does original translations or excerpts, it is still a commanding voice when it comes to literature in translation and perhaps the first resource that most readers think of when seeking voices in translation. That their reviews are solidly split between women and men writers is absolutely thrilling, particularly in light of their mediocre rates in 2016. WWB have long supported the women in translation movement and this support is not simply words, as is evidenced both by the numbers and the improvement over time. They have made an active effort to seek out women writers from all over the world, publish them at equal rate as men writers, and, it would appear, also review them at equal rates. This is wonderful.

World Literature Today, meanwhile, (which has significantly more reviews over the same one-year period) is a more complicated situation. 36% is the frustrating zone of "I see that you're slightly better than average, but is this really all I'll settle for?", where ultimately - this is still not a great rate, but it's just a teensy bit better than the industry standard of 30%. It's where WWB was two years ago. With a stunning 83 reviews over a one-year period (significantly more than any other review outlet I examined), WLT has tremendous potential to shift the focus to a more balanced playing field and give exposure to dozens of women writers in translation. I hope they improve on this matter in the future, following in WWB's footsteps.

The next tier was popular online reviews, sites clearly associated with literature in translation that also publish reviews, again ones that I had looked at in 2016. Here, neither result is particularly thrilling. Three Percent is the blog-arm of publisher Open Letter (and where I get all the amazing raw data for my publishing stat posts!), which itself publishes a fair amount of women in translation (but has never reached 50% in a single year I've counted, always clocking in somewhere between 30-40%). The dissonance between a blog praised for its role in the women in translation movement (by virtue of their database, and I'll admit that having gender added has made my life significantly easier than back in 2013 when I went through title by title and added author genders myself!) and a 17% rate of review of books by women writers in translation is jarring, and it should be, especially since that number reflects a significant drop from 2016's 31%. It indicates an additional gender bias beyond the publishing imbalance, one that I do not think reflects well on any publication or review.

And then again, we have a flip: Asymptote, which had a 22% rate in 2016, has now moderately improved that rate to 29%. Neither rate is particularly good, of course, and again there's this significant conceptual gap between how Asymptote present themselves in terms of the women in translation project and how they actually review books.

Finally, I took to Twitter to ask for recommendations of literary journals that review international titles. I ultimately chose three journals for my assessment (again, mostly based on scope, comfort, and accessibility): Latin American Literature Today, Literary Review, and Reading in Translation. None of the three presented with particularly thrilling rates of review, again serving as a disappointing reminder that the bias against women writers in translation (or women writers in languages other than English, more accurately) is pervasive and widespread. It's not a few bad apples; the entire orchard is tilted.

I won't pretend that I'm not largely disappointed by rates that I see. Words Without Borders is a thrilling exception, but it should not be an exception. Having parity is not an unreasonable demand, nor is expecting literary journals to more carefully curate which books they promote. Considering the degree of unknown books I encountered in the last three entries (particularly the Literary Review, which included a lot of nonfiction) and how dominated literature in translation is by independent presses, this is not simply the fault of pushy marketing executives at corporate publishers. Every review we write is a choice of a single book out of hundreds published each year, and journals may choose whether they review significantly more works by men writers than by women. It may not be easy, but one simply has to look at WWB to see how it's done - no fuss, no issue, no grandstanding. Just interesting, thoughtful, and insightful reviews of books by women writers at equal rates as men writers. It's that easy.

Raw data

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Exclusion is a choice | Bias in "Best of" lists

Several days ago, Catherine Taylor published an interesting review of Boyd Tonkin's 100 Best Novels in Translation, pointing out and critiquing the fact that in a list spanning the years 1600-2000, Tonkin had included only 14 novels by women writers in translation. Then, a few days later, Sawad Hussain tweeted Tonkin's defense of this imbalance: "One of the hot topics was the eye-watering lack female authors in the '100 Best Novels in #Translation' . Boyd said that we had to take into consideration the centuries of systematic exclusion of women from the institution of publishing, leaving him with not much to choose from.. He said that he would have had to skew the project to the 2nd half of the 20th century in order to get a good amount of female authors in translation to choose from."

Hussain continued by asking: "But my question is, even if, women in translation have been marginalized, doesn't that mean the books that DID [...] make it through, have probably been interrogated to a FAR high degree than any male authored novel at that time, and so, the work is maybe...possibly...more than likely...of a higher calibre and should have been considered? #womenintranslation @translatewomen"

Tonkin's response - and Hussain's dismantling of it - both seem fairly reasonable. Tonkin acknowledges that women writers have long been marginalized and removed from the canon; this in itself seems like progress. But as Hussain points out, it is very easy to poke holes in this argument. Women have long been marginalized, it's true, but their novels have thus had to pass significantly more stringent tests in order to be considered canon-worthy.

Tonkin's second argument - that he would have had to prioritize the second half of the 20th century in order to achieve a more gender-balanced list - also fails to pass muster. Since, as we all know, women did not simply begin writing after 1950 but rather have been writing fascinating, important, and worthy novels since literally the beginning of the novel-writing tradition itself (hello The Tale of Genji),  it seems rather unlikely that Tonkin would really have had to skew the list any more than I imagine it already is. Moreover, Tonkin even displays bias in drawing the definitions of his list - why, indeed, should the novel be judged only from the 17th century, when the first novel (written shockingly enough by a woman... in translation!) was written in the 11th? And given how biased translations are in general in terms of actually rediscovering lost classics, wouldn't he have been better off giving more weight to the brilliant women of the 20th century that he ultimately passed over for no apparent reason?

Here's that blunt truth: Exclusion is a choice. I'm not saying that it's easy to make a list of 100 Best Novels in Translation with 50% women writers and have it fully align with the standard canon, because it isn't. In fact, it's impossible, because the canon is inherently exclusionary. But when crafting a new canon, isn't the whole point to be introducing and promoting new and diverse works? If in creating a new list of titles in translation, you fail to give space to exactly the writers that would be surprising and exciting for a diverse readership, what exactly are you achieving?

Tonkin claims that he couldn't include more women into his list because of existing bias. He's right that bias has long existed and has shaped the canon extensively, but he is absolutely wrong to have let that guide his own choices without more serious criticism or active effort. His response to criticism further demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of why the canon is so problematic, so entrenched, and so ultimately pointless, and why attempts like his to "redraw" it end up so disappointing. As noble as his recognition of the problem is, it's simply not enough. We can do better.

I suppose we'll just have to make our own list.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

WITMonth Day 26 - More places on the internet

August is starting to wind down, the air is cooling, the mosquitoes are receding, and it's time to see what else has been happening throughout the month (see previous post here):

And as always... #WITMonth on Twitter is active as ever, join us as we wrap up the month!

Monday, August 17, 2015

WITMonth Day 17 - Elsewhere online...

That's right, another lazy blog post, this time directing you to other blogs and sites that have been churning out excellent WITMonth posts right, left and center, or roundups, or lists, or... honestly whatever is currently on my radar. This doesn't begin to cover everything, though! Check out the Twitter tag for a more complete picture of the fun we're having.

First, BookRiot have a great post up with a bunch of WITMonth recommendations. Happy Women in Translation Month, indeed! Very excited to see such a major blog getting involved. There's also For Books' Sake, which have a whole page dedicated to their women in translation posts... well worth checking out.

Like last year, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger have both been knocking it out of the ballpark with a jaw-dropping and frankly inspiring number of reviews and books read. Another scale entirely. Hats off does not even begin to cover it. If you're looking for a place to start with diverse WITMonth recommendations, the Tonys have you covered.

Publishers have also been getting involved! Shoutout to Europa Editions for their series to introduce readers to their women writers in translation, as well as to Two Lines Press who are encouraging readers to share photos of their WITMonth reads. Love seeing more publisher involvement this year, but there's of course room for more! Publishers who haven't caught on yet... you've still got just a little under two weeks to go, that's plenty of time to surprise us all.

And of course... a lot of excellent people on Twitter are engaging in discussions and posting reviews, but alas I cannot link to everything. So check out the tag, find the reviews and recommendations and stories that interest you and... get reading!

Friday, August 8, 2014

WITMonth Day 8 - Discourse and quotas | Scattered thoughts

Some of you - whether because of direct messages or in light of my slight Twitter baffle-storm - will already know that last week I received a fairly not-positive comment on my essay about women in literature. One of my policies on this blog is to approve any comment that is not outright spam. This means that sometimes hurtful (or indeed hateful) comments may make their way through. Luckily, the book blogging community is a generally positive one and I have rarely if ever been left comments that were offensive in any way. Until last week.

The problem with Matthew Lane's comment is not that he (I'm assuming he?) disagrees with me. I've been having an enlightening, ongoing discussion with Richard about various aspects of that post (and others on my definition of the canon), where we tend to disagree on a lot. But our "arguments" are of the kind where we make our claims, try to back them up, and learn from each other. It's exactly the sort of discussion I had hoped to foster on the blog. The problem with Lane's comment isn't even that he's rude (which he most definitely is). I'm not going to lie - I was hurt by some of the remarks about my writing, particularly regarding a piece I worked very hard on. But I'm also not going to pretend like it's the main problem with an extremely problematic comment. No, the problem with Lane's comment is how very, very wrong he is.

There is no "perceived lack of women writers", there is a distinct lack of women writers (I encourage Lane to read my previous posts in the Women in Translation series). Furthermore, the conclusion from the articles Lane himself quotes is the exact opposite of what he claims: Julie Crisp writes explicitly that the conclusion from the bad submission rates by women should be that something needs to be done about women's submission rates. To say that "fewer women are interested in writing" is hilariously backwards, and simply wrong.

But I want to focus on one particularly point that Lane insists on, which is so, so oblivious that it actually deserves its own half-post rant.

And that is, most firmly: I do not believe in quotas. I say it explicitly in the piece, and then I get told: "let's be honest here, that's EXACTLY what you're pushing for". No, it's not. If anyone wants to hear what it's like to push for quotas, check out the London Book Fair panel on Women in Translation. Actually, check it out regardless - it's brilliant.

But I, writer of this blog Biblibio, do not support quotas as a solution to the problem of women in translation. Here's why:

  1. Quotas create the impression that something undeserving is getting attention, over a more superior work. This is the exact opposite of what we're trying to prove. Narratives are important.
  2. It incites people like Matthew Lane who think that there is legitimacy to the argument that men are being oppressed by feminism. Which is of course ridiculous, but goodness, why would we make our lives more difficult?
  3. The most important first step is to increase awareness of the problem, not to isolate it.
So far, increased awareness of the problem has led to Women in Translation month - it's a self-imposed awareness, more than a quota (one that is, I believe, working quite well). And this is what frustrates me. Readers being aware of their reading is not the same as imposing quotas. Readers coming at their options and saying, "I want more of this" is not the same as saying, "I HAVE to have only this". I think the same is generally true of publishers. The response so far from everyone participating in WITMonth has been absolutely phenomenal in my opinion - we are showcasing many brilliant women writers, some famous and others significantly less so. No matter your position on how else to fix the problem of women in translation, I think we can all agree that what's happening here is a good thing.

You can call this increased awareness "quotas", but it really isn't. It's a request for readers to recognize their various personal biases, and try to overcome them. Try to move beyond bad marketing. Participate in this dialogue. Think about what you read, think about what you don't read, and try to understand external forces in play.

And seriously, if you're going to criticize me about the topic, at least give your criticism some foundation...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Women in Literature | An essay

Over the years I've been involved in literary review, I've said and written many different things about women writers, and particularly in recent months about women writers in translation. I've discussed possible differences in men and women's writing, a young adult literary culture that courts young women so passionately it alienates young men, VIDA statistics about women reviewers, writers espousing clearly sexist beliefs, gendered marketing, and most recently the striking gap between men and women writers when it comes to literary translations into English. There are still essentially 3 books by men for every single book by a woman in translation. My thoughts and ideas have evolved with time, often momentarily contradicting each other and occasionally living in an outrightly discordant land. The matter of gender - and gender equality - in literature has fascinated me for years, but never has it been more important to me than now. Nor, I think, more important for the broader literary community.

But numbers alone do not indicate why this is a problem, nor do they reconcile the seeming contradictions between my own arguments against the imbalance, and any reasoning for fighting. Simply put: why does it matter? What difference does it make if - as I claim - there is no tangible distinction between men and women writers?

A brief history of literary suppression

One of the books recommended to me when I began the Women in Translation project was Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, which I think ought to be required reading for anyone interested in literary gender dynamics, feminism, or literature in general. Russ's premise for the book is that as long as there have been women writers - and she makes a point of emphasizing that as long as there has been literature, there have been women writers - there has been a male-dominated literary culture that has attempted to discredit their works. Her examples are largely Anglo-American and mostly post-18th century, yet they paint a fascinating portrait of a broader culture. Sadly, despite having been written in the 1970s, Russ's academic take-down is still depressingly relevant today. While women writers are now taught in schools and university courses, you will still find that they are taught significantly less, and that the group of women writers who have been accepted into the "canon" is very sharply focused on a handful of Anglo-American women. You'll also still find professors who disparage women's writing, and refuse to teach their works (or works by writers of color).

Russ's arguments hinge on two key points:
  1. Women write.
  2. The initial response by the literary elite will always be an attempt to discredit that woman's writing.
I do Russ a great disservice by whittling her points down to these two generalizations. Russ goes into greater detail about the methods by which academics long attempted to dismiss women writers, whether because of genre, relationships with other men, outright falsehoods (did you all know that Charlotte Brontë wrote only one book? Villette and others clearly don't exist), and a pervasive self-fulfilling prophecy about what qualifies as literature.

Do men and women really write differently?

One of our great claims in the fight against literary sexism is that there is no difference between the writing of a man and the writing of a woman. I have even gone so far as to sarcastically suggest that perhaps "men's upper body strength makes them better suited to describing dew drops on a leaf". On the other hand, we argue that women need to be better represented, because they provide us with dimensions that are otherwise unavailable.

Reconciling these two seemingly contradictory claims is surprisingly easy, and apparently critical in this discussion when responding to angry cries about imposed equality.

On the surface, on a purely technical level, when it comes down to letters and words: men and women write the same. There is no difference between when a man writes the sentence "and he slowly lifted his head to behold the sky" versus when a woman writes "and his eyes rose upwards, beholding the sky". Readers cannot actually recognize the gender of an author based on excerpts, and writing as a concept has no gender bias.

But writing as a construct does.

Let me be clear: there are differences between men and women, but these differences are not neatly divided, nor are they explicitly defined. It's much more accurate to look at a spectrum, in which almost everyone crosses the so-called gender lines. This is true of literature as well, in as much as there are certain "traits" that are more commonly interesting and relevant to women, while other fields are more traditionally associated with men, yet neither of these is ever actually exclusive. I'll also point out that while I am writing about gender as something strictly binary, I understand that many do not define themselves in this way.

Today, marketing for traditionally male genres (such as a sci-fi) is occasionally done with an eye for male readers (occasionally), yet it is understood and accepted (and expected) that women will move beyond the marketing to pick up the books. Meanwhile, women writers are ghettoized in their "own" genre ("Women's fiction"). Women are expected to read broadly, by both men and women writers (if they don't, they are haughtily called misandrists), while men can easily read only books by white men (and just be called: sticking to the "canon"). This odd dynamic is important for several reasons which will be discussed a bit later.

These are ultimately marketing choices, but we cannot separate marketing from the larger culture surrounding it. We do not live and do not read within a vacuum. A culture that largely supports men while finding women to be "the exception" will not suddenly embrace books by women. To deny the background sexism that fills our culture and our world is to simply close one's eyes. All of the sexism that we see in literature exists in exactly the same format in film, television, business, science, and just about every other aspect of our society. This means that a great part of the difference between men and women's writing is entirely in how we package our books and ideas. To rephrase the most common and sharply on-point example of this: When a woman writes about the family and home life, she is writing niche. When a man writes about family, it's universal. Another fine example: Women write romances, men write dramas.

Yet we are still left wondering - what is the real difference? Is it all constructed, all society-based, all in our heads? The answer is unequivocally no. If it were the case, there really would be no difference if men were writing or women were writing. The fact that we care, the fact that we fight for this, the fact that we demand this equality is a strong indicator that some distinction exists.

That distinction is different experiences.

Men and women experience the world differently, socially and biologically. Our hormones ultimately determine our emotions, our reactions, our behaviors, and our experiences. To take the most glaringly obvious example, childbirth is an entirely different experience for men than it is for women. These are experiences that shape people, and all of that influences writing. Literature is, after all, deeply personal. The differences between men and women are enough to explain why a balance is needed between the two.

What then is literature?

We have concluded that there are certain differences between men and women, and also that there are bigger issues with our culture surrounding those issues. Some of it has to do with dismissing women's experiences as trivial (for example women writing about raising children is pedantic, or women writing about sexual violence is feminist-niche), but much of it has to do with a long, long history of, as Russ puts it, "suppressing" women's writing. A more accurate description would be, I think, "dismissing" women's writing.

As established earlier, women have always written literature. The very first novel was written by a woman - and a Japanese woman at that. Women have always had important roles in history and culture, yet when looking over lists of "classics" - lists which serve as the basis for many peoples' reading choices - you see that women writers have only recently begun making their way onto these lists, and in my experience rarely comprise of more than 25% (and that 25% is only achieved if nearly every single one of Jane Austen's novels are included...). Furthermore, while you'll see plenty of non-Anglo-American men on these lists (Tolstoy, Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Dumas, Goethe, I can go on...), you will rarely if ever see women in translation (particularly on Anglo-American lists).

These lists reflect what the literary perception of the "canon" is at this time. This is because the concept of the canon is entirely subjective - fluid, changing and terribly defined. Some lists include Emile Zola and George Eliot, others include Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, others have already opened their gates to J. K. Rowling and Halldor Laxness. The lists are eclectic, often entirely dependent on the country of origin and ultimately do little more than shed light on, again, what we perceive is the canon.

And right now, we perceive that canon as almost exclusively male. We perceive literature through the filter of male experiences and through centuries of defining art in the context of men. We can't ignore that, we can't disconnect that, and we can't pretend like it doesn't affect us. As a result, women have been systematically weeded out of our literary history (Marguerite de Navarre, Murasaki Shikibu, Grazia Deledda, Juana Inés de la Cruz, to name but a few).

When I was fourteen, I decided that I needed to read more "classics", to start reading like a grown-up. It didn't seem strange to me that I preferred for people to see that I was reading War and Peace as opposed to Sense and Sensibility, nor did it strike me as odd that I automatically rated those typical canon classics as more "serious" than those few books written by women that had been lucky enough to get published under the moniker of "classic".

It has taken me many years to reach this point where I can recognize how the canon has shaped my reading. It has taught me that certain experiences are worth more than others. It has taught me that there is an "objective" metric of literature, and how to define good books according to it. It has taught me which books are serious and which frivolous (this largely supported by literary journals, reviews, reviewers and publisher attitudes).

So it is no surprise that the year is 2014, and I am only just realizing that I have been letting other people determine for me what is a good book.

Bring on the pitchforks: Philip Roth is not a good author, but Hilary Mantel is. Javier Marías's The Infatuations is a pleasant enough book, but Yoko Ogawa's Revenge is simply stunning. Young-Ha Kim got all the attention at the London Book Fair, but Sun-mi Hwang blows him out of the water without a backwards glance. Everyone has by now heard of Knausgård, but who knows of his talented compatriot Merethe Lindstrøm? We know Roberto Bolaño, but what of Carla Guelfenbein?

Responses, denial, and why it's important

The above will have rankled some of you. Some will argue that the male writers I have listed here are actually some of the very best, and others will argue that the women here are clearly subpar. These are discussions we will always have and should have. Swap out each of the women's names with those of other men, and we'd have the exact same argument. It's one based on literary tastes and styles and personal opinions. This is great; this is what literary criticism is all about.

But I chose women for a reason. That's because as much as many people would like to close their eyes and plug their ears, there is a clear, glaring problem in publishing right now. And that problem is not the lack of women writers in translation (though that is without a doubt a problem). No.

The problem is the flat-out denial from most publishers. Denial, mixed with sexism, and a hefty dose of elitism.

In today's internet connected age, I can - in 140 characters - link to a review of a book I read, share it with the publisher, and within minutes have it shared to all of their followers. This happens. Constantly. But in today's internet connected age, I can get only one publisher to respond to my queries about the lack of women writers in translation, and that response is condescending, rude and sexist to its core.

So pay close attention, because these are the publisher responses I've gotten to this project:
  1. Nothing
  2. Sexist rant
  3. Nothing
  4. Nothing
  5. Nothing
I have been dismissed for writing under a pen name, dismissed for being a feminist, dismissed for focusing on women's writing, accused of wanting to impose quotas, haughtily informed that this publisher is aware of their abysmal track record when it comes to publishing women writers, and finally told, and I quote directly (though obviously somewhat out of context): "The press has a particular aesthetic that determines what gets published, and that aesthetic may in fact be practiced by more men than women." And all this in the single email response that a publisher deigned to send me.

At this point, I will praise the wonderful response from And Other Stories. After my tweet to them about the project, they acknowledged their gender imbalance in translation and have made real efforts to improve their catalog. This is the sort of publisher response we deserve.

No more

So this is where we stand. Armed with the understanding that a problem exists and ready (I hope) to do something about it, the inevitable question remains: What can we do?

We do this. We discuss.

We do not boycott these small, independent publishers because of their imbalance, but we make our voices heard. We do not point fingers (even when we'd like to), but we hope that by discussing the problems, they might understand them as well. We do not scream, but we shout. We do not kick, but we fight.

We do not impose, but we ask. We do not demand, but we challenge.

We do not pretend like this issue is black and white, or like it is the only battle. We do not act as though it's the simplest matter in the world, or that the solution we think is obvious will work for everyone. We do not belittle, we do not simplify, we do not dismiss. But we say, "No more."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Where is literary criticism? Everywhere.

Some of you may know my dislike for inflammatory "death of" statements - I have little patience for authors (usually old men) who declare that the age of literature is over, and bemoan the loss of our literary culture. Statements like those drip with disdain for younger readers, as well as an outright snobbishness in regards to the definition of literature. In general, I take great issue with any critic, writer, reader, reviewer etc making grand claims about the state of literature today, mostly because those statements are usually stereotyped-based, wrong, and ultimately counterproductive.

It was, then, with some disappointment that I read Mark Thwaite's post on the Guardian book blog a couple weeks ago. Thwaite - who I used to follow as a blogger back in my early days - laments the loss of "literary blogs", writing:
Many great blogs focus on genre fiction: the love of vampire epics or raunchy romances, SF or historical fiction. My focus was on "serious literature" – the scare quotes are in place because what is contested as such was also part of the reason to get involved in the fun and the fray of blogging. My hope at the time was that countless blogs would emerge that would prove an untested thesis to which I'd long cleaved: that the attempt by the mainstream media to contain the intelligence of the average reader by trivialising their seriousness could be resisted, and that blogging would prove that readers had far more sophisticated tastes than the broadsheets presume.
Thwaite pins some of the blame on Twitter as the source for the loss of intelligent, longform literary criticism. But of course, his entire premise is built on a shaky definition of literary (and an even shakier definition of longform), and a healthy dose of elitism. Thwaite is trying to present literary criticism as a field with a clear definition - the blogs/journals he links to are certainly heavy-hitters, but they are absolutely not the only ones. What became of literary blogging? Well, it's here. It's always been here. And it doesn't necessarily have to be about your so-called literary fiction, and it doesn't have to be characterized by dense articles.

Which leads me to Kelly Jensen's recent post at Stacked Books. Jensen's post looks more specifically at young adult literature than anything else, but the question posed is much the same: where are the critical reviewers? It's a question that's interesting in the context of young adult literature, largely because that field has distanced itself from the rest of literature (young adult is now viewed - bafflingly - as a genre, and not simply as a designation), and also because much of the nature of young adult book blogging has been in response to critics like Thwaite - young, untethered and populist.

Here's what I think is important to take away from both pieces: fine criticism is not easily defined. Jensen looks at specific blogs and specific blog-traits as one she prefers, but what's important to note is that Thwaite in all likelihood wouldn't ever call those blogs "literary". Jensen defines criticism in a way that is much more in line with my own opinions:
Some of the best critical reviews are entirely positive, but what separates them from a lot of other reviews is they offer a huge slice of the person behind the review. They're often more personal than a personal blog post because they let in opportunities for vulnerability that the reviewer doesn't always know they're opening up: their biases, their preferences, their world views, their passions. These reviews allow me as a reader to really get inside the book and inside the head of another reader.
This sort of definition means that literary criticism is never defined by genre. It means that it's not defined by age group or designation. Jensen throws out Thwaite's idea of an elite culture by demanding a personal investment - something I wholeheartedly agree with. Reading, after all, is never objective - we take into account every book previously read when starting a new one, and there is no vacuum in which we can separate between our real lives and those we read on the page.

This leads me to what I feel is the answer to both Thwaite and Jensen's questions: critical literary review is still here, it's just less obvious. The book blogging world has grown tremendously over the past few years, spawning subgroups, subniches, and entirely new mediums (BookTube, anyone?). Today, finding blogs is largely dependent on which community you belong to. While there is significant overlap (thanks, I have to admit, to sites like BookRiot, which blend together many different groups), most bloggers still seem to identify as something - "literary", historical fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, young adult, etc. These niches make it easier to find a group of people with similar tastes and interests, but significantly harder to find anyone else. My own blog is a fairly good example - I have resisted the urge for many years to fit into any niche, and yet circumstances have led me to be a part of the literature-in-translation group. I hardly post about sci-fi and fantasy anymore, even less about young adult literature or plain old fiction. Niches are easier, but they ultimately make the literary community feel... emptier. There are literally thousands of book bloggers currently active today - the problem isn't that these quality critics don't exist, it's that they're hard to find in the maze of the current community.

With so many blogs isolated, it's hard to see that literary criticism really does cross genre borders. It's hard to see that it's a field that's still thriving. Thwaite-style blogging still exists in many corners (many sci-fi blogs have some of the most probing, intelligent reviews I've ever read, while reviewers who delve deeply and personally into the heart of the books they read still exist for Jensen (lots of literature in translation blogs definitely fit this category). Having difficulty in finding these blogs and bloggers is fair enough. Implying that they doesn't exist is problematic. And attempting to lock in the definition of quality criticism - as Thwaite attempts - is simply wrong.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A bullet-point post

I am finding myself with many posts I'd like to write, but no time in which to write them (right now). So instead: a bullet-point update and random issues post.

WITMonth stuff:

  • August is coming! If you haven't already heard (and who are we kidding, if you're reading this post, you've heard...), August is Women in Translation Month here on the blog, on your blog, on your phone, in your favorite reading nook... wherever!
  • One of the ideas we had for WITMonth was guest posts and blog exchanges... Since I'm entirely inexperienced in this "hosting" thing, I'm really not sure if this is going to happen/if there's an interest - I'd love to get feedback from you guys on the matter.
  • I know I keep saying this, but spread the word! I think it'll be really amazing to see a WITMonth that spans the spectrum of the literary community, from lit-in-translation bloggers to YA to mystery to sci-fi... If you know someone who might appreciate just looking into the matter... I give you my blessing to bug them about this.
Other stuff:
  •  I have a lot of thoughts about Ruth Graham's "young adults should only be read by young adults" thing, and after having read many response pieces (most of which, I felt, completely missed the point), I want to respond even more virulently. The original article is so absurd for so many reasons, but so are many responses that claim to "set the record straight". For me, there are so many levels on which I just do not agree with the idea that books ought to be dismissed by who they are written for (or often, who they are marketed for). The age of the protagonist has nothing to do with the age of the reader - goodness, can't adults read To Kill a Mockingbird? Or should children not read books like The Count of Monte Cristo, because all the characters are adults? And what should the elderly do? Obviously reading "middle-aged" books is out, they're 30-40 years removed from that, it's just embarrassing! They can only read books about old people, because that's how literature works. There are so many issues with arguments about age-designations as "genres" that I find myself truly... angry, I suppose. As soon as I have the time, I'd like to carefully explain why I don't think that any of this really matters.
  • I also had a fairly unpleasant response to the "What happened to literary blogging?" piece by Mark Thwaite from a couple weeks ago - like Graham's piece from above, there's a level of utter disconnect. It's a  piece that doesn't both to do its research, and defines a huge field very, very narrowly. Literary blogging is, for Thwaite, his sort of blogging, about the sorts of books that he reads. He describes a yearning for long-form criticism, but his definition of criticism is... bad. Coming from a community where I can pointed to literally hundreds of fantastic literary blogs (in every genre, yes, even in SFF and young adult!), this sort of article comes off as even more pretentious than his actual blog (which I follow) ever did. The whole piece left a very bad taste in my mouth, and I think that it deserves a more careful and explicit response piece.
  • Hebrew Book Week this year resulted in a lot of super amazing things (many related to the Women in Translation project) - I'm not sure I'll have time to get into all of them, but I had some fascinating one-on-one conversations with the heads of four different Israeli publishing houses while browsing for books, and also some really eye-opening discussions with booksellers and translators. Like every year, the experience was truly wonderful. But I think it might have been surpassed this year by the level of discourse and the fact that I actually was able to reach some of the publishers. Plus, they handed out free chocolate slabs. So...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How to spend my upcoming vacation

I need help.

I haven't had much of a proper vacation in a year and a half. Since I started studying in the fall of last year, the stress, schoolwork, tests, work and a general lack of time has had a serious negative impact on my reading. And now, finally, I actually have a vacation. I'm going to the US. Ten days. Ten days to read.

Over the past week, I've made a list of books that I want to read. I looked at year-end lists, books that I've wanted to read for a long time, books that bloggers recently reviewed, and of course my own slightly directed intention to read more women in translation. I started compiling a list of titles to place holds on. And then yesterday I realized that the list had gotten to about 70 books. 70 books in 10 days? Not going to happen. I started trying to cut the list down, but was not entirely successful and am still left with a list that is clearly both too long and too incomplete (there is only a very small amount of non-translated literature; little sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, or kids).

Here's where you come in. I want to know which books out of these books you all think are absolute musts. Which of these 40-odd titles needs to jump up my list? Which of these will make my vacation the most magical? Which will change my thinking? And what's missing? What are the books that haven't even made the "short"list, but obviously belong?

* I've noted which books are also available as eBooks, but to be honest, for longer books I definitely prefer the print version. So they made the cut anyways. For now.

  1. In Translation: Translators on their work and what it means - Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky (editors)
  2. The King of Trees - Ah Cheng
  3. Half of a Yellow Sun - Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi*
  4. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter - Aira, César 
  5. Swimming to Elba - Avallone, Silvia
  6. The Twin - Bakker, Gerbrand*
  7. Billancourt Tales - Berberova, Nina Nikolaevna
  8. Selections - Nicole Brossard
  9. Vertical Motion - Can Xue
  10. The Luminaries - Catton, Eleanor
  11. Silences, or a Woman's Life - Chaix, Marie
  12. Alphabet - Christensen, Inger
  13. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool - Di Grado, Viola
  14. Visitation - Erpenbeck, Jenny
  15. The Russian Version - Fanailova, Elena
  16. Kamchatka - Figueras, Marcelo
  17. The Blindness of the Heart - Franck, Julia
  18. First Love & Look for my Obituary - Garro, Elena
  19. Everyone Leaves - Guerra, Wendy
  20. Summerhouse, Later - Hermann, Judith
  21. Piano Stories - Hernández, Felisberto
  22. Wake - Hope, Anna (to be released while I'm in the US)
  23. The True Deceiver - Jansson, Tove*
  24. The Shadowed Sun - Jermisin, N. K.*
  25. The Budding Tree - Kitahara, Aiko
  26. The Dispossessed - Le Guin, Ursula K.*
  27. Ancillary Justice - Leckie, Ann*
  28. Koula - Koumantareas, Menes
  29. Shades of Milk and Honey - Kowal, Mary Robinette
  30. Satantango - Krasznahorkai, László 
  31. Children in Reindeer Woods - Ómarsdóttir, Kristin
  32. The Three Fates - Lê, Linda
  33. The Hour of the Star - Lispector, Clarice
  34. I'd Like - Michalopoulou, Amanta
  35. Stone Upon Stone - Myśliwski, Wiesław 
  36. The Armies - Rosero, Evelio
  37. How to Suppress Women's Writing - Russ, Joanna
  38. Tenth of December - Saunders, George*
  39. Everything Happens as it Always Does - Stambolova, Albena
  40. The Goldfinch - Tartt, Donna*
  41. The Bathing Women - Tie, Ning
  42. Realm of the Dead - Uchida, Hyakken
  43. Code Name Verity - Wein, Elizabeth
  44. White Snake and other stories - Yan, Geling
And whatever else you recommend. Have at it, internet. Help me out.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Is American literature overrated?

Last night, Greg of the New Dork Review of Books* tweeted an article in which author Jhumpa Lahiri denounces American literature as being "massively overrated". She points towards abysmally low translation rates into English as compared to those into other languages, using her own experiences with the Italian literary market as a contrast. Greg and I started discussing the use of the word overrated - what it essentially means here, and whether or not Lahiri was oversimplifying.

Lahiri was oversimplifying - period. You can't make a blanket statement about hundreds of thousands of books without oversimplifying. Furthermore, by using the word overrated, she implied that many of the highly regarded novels published in English (her own included, I suppose) are undeserving of any praise. But the essence of her point is spot on, and here's where I find myself ultimately agreeing: Anglo-American literature is rated more frequently and more prominently than almost any other literature in the world. And often, those ratings are not entirely deserved.

Just one example: Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. A distinctly midlevel novel, not a huge bestseller, no lasting impact that I've noticed, not an award winner, no particular innovation (literary or otherwise), the author is not a household name, not really hyped... nor is it exceptionally good (it's alright). Yet this fairly mediocre book got translated into Hebrew. It got translated into French. It got translated into German, and probably a couple other languages as well. This unremarkable book has made its way across the globe. Contrast that with Amir Gutfreund's excellent short story collection The Coastal Mansions**, winner of the 2003 Sapir Award, which has never been translated. Or any of acclaimed, award-winning author Lea Aini's books. Or dozens of other Israeli authors who will never be translated, and thousands upon thousands of authors worldwide whose books will never see light in English. Because, well, hmm.

Here's a fact: Anglo-American literature is given more attention, more airtime, more importance and more respect than equivalent and better literature from across the globe. The NYT Book Review almost exclusively reviews Anglo-American books. The Ha'aretz Book Review, meanwhile, looks at Israeli novels alongside American, English, Italian, French, German, Latin American, Chinese, Swedish, Japanese, and all others every week. Every issue houses books from at least two languages, to say nothing of the countries these books visit. Just as Lahiri sees an Italian literary culture that embraces far more books from across the globe, so too does Israel***. And so do most countries outside of the United States of American and Great Britain.

This too is somewhat oversimplifying matters for a very obvious reason: the U.S. and the U.K. publish significantly more books than Israel could ever hope to. Maybe even more than France, Germany and Latin American as well, though I honestly don't know. This means that it makes a lot of sense for a certain amount of Anglo-centrism, but nowhere near the levels we see today. Not a token title or two out of 100 notable books per year. Not the rare review in the most respected literary journals. Something that respects and acknowledges the excellent literature to be found worldwide.

On the whole, Anglo-American literature is kind of overrated. I won't deny that some of my favorite books have been penned by British or American writers with an Anglocentric mindset, but I can also point to the other favorites which are distinctly not originally in English, or deal with cultures and ideas beyond the standard Anglo norm, and can easily show you how much less press and attention they've gotten. English is and will remain a language with a vibrant and wonderful literary tradition, one that gives us hundreds of truly excellent books every year, but for now it also remains the language that celebrates and touts its own mediocre options over top-notch, truly excellent titles from other languages from all around the world. It's this favoritism, this Anglo-American default that leads to Lahiri generalizing and calling all American fiction "massively overrated" (when that is obviously not true).

So yes: big picture, a lot of American literature is valued more highly than it should be. And while we can choose to view that as some sort of problem, I think we should focus on the flip side - let's get more international literature, more literature in translation. Let's have a broader picture of a bigger world. Let's have the very best literature, period. No matter where it's from.

* Still one of the greatest blog names ever, by the way.
** My rough-and-fairly-literal-and-inaccurate title translation; I hope the book gets a better title if it's ever actually translated.
*** Though to be fair, many of these titles in translation are from English, and indeed a weekly column in Israel's other (more popular) newspaper that aims to showcase "titles from abroad" almost always presents American novels...

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Women in translation | Responses

In the wake of my post from a couple weeks ago about the dismal percentage of women writers who have been translated into English, I cannot in good conscience leave the matter alone. It's not done. My post was meant not to throw the observations to the wind, but to search for answers and make sure that the playing field starts to change.

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who was involved in the conversation: everyone from bloggers, to translators, to publishers play an important role in finding the source of the problem and rectifying it. Without your insights and thoughts, this really would have just floated away, never to be mentioned again. We've already taken the first steps. Now we continue.

Here on the blog and over on Twitter, a few theories arose as to why the stats look the way they do. Tony Malone of Tony's Reading List suggested that perhaps men are perceived as writing better "literature" than women, hinging on the fact that books in translation are often of a more "literary" nature. After a short debate over the use of the word "perceived" (in which I would argue that using such a claim only further implies actual, active sexism...), Tony also rightly pointed out the sad notion that while women will gladly read books by men, men are somewhat less willing to read a book written by a woman, and that perhaps publishers are merely "hedging their bets".

Meanwhile, Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press provided a publisher's view on the matter. She argued that women are simply not writing the type of Literature that Peirene, for example, want to publish, adding that women write more "genre" and less "literary fiction", and that their technique is often "not up to scratch" as compared with men. While I greatly appreciate her perspective on the matter, I'm not sure I agree with it. At all. To start with, I struggle with the definition of "literary fiction" Meike seems to be using, especially the idea that books should not form a type of escape. While we clearly have different ideas on art, its power and what even qualifies, what troubles me more is Meike's perception (again that word!) that women lack the technical talents male writers have.

This is a problematic idea for several reasons. One, there is no logical basis for it. Writing is in no way something biologically influenced - it's not as though because of their better upper body strength, men will obviously be better able to describe dewdrops on a leaf. More than that, however, is the fact that it's an extraordinarily unfair and broad generalization of both men and women's writing styles. I will not pretend to have ever read books with the same type of scouting eye that Meike must, but I have read a lot of books in my short lifetime. Usually, the only differences between writing styles stem from the very type of book itself. Does Hilary Mantel's writing lack technique? Obviously not. Does Marie NDiaye's odd writing sound like a woman or like a writer experimenting with a different style? Definitely the latter. Does Alice Munro's actual writing sound like a woman wrote it? Nope, though the topics may be viewed as more domestic and as such "effeminate" (an assessment I thoroughly disagree with, by the way).

In both Meike and Tony's comments, a certain subtext appears - that women are not writing the type of Literary and Important and Quality books that these publishers are seeking. I take particular offence at this. Besides the fact that I don't believe it (basing myself mostly off of Hebrew, where women are just as likely to produce quality Literature as men, yet significantly less likely to get translated - as we saw, no Israeli women were translated in 2013), I think it shows a greater problem with literary elitism. I don't want to get into that argument today, but if this remains the last hurdle to cross before women are properly represented in literature in translation, I will happily tear it down.

Michelle Bailat-Jones (of pieces fame) linked to a brilliant article which I wish I could have seen before writing my own paltry post: Alison Anderson's Words Without Borders article which is exactly about this lack of women in translation. Yet this article raises a point I failed to mention in my own post - the strikingly low percentage of women to be recognized by the various translations awards (to be discussed more in the next follow-up post).

Michelle and T. Olmstead (of BookSexy Review) went on to discuss what might be the source of the imbalance. Michelle pointed out that most of the books she had received in 2012 for review from publishers (unsolicited or pitched) were written by men, while she had been forced to specifically request books written by women. 2013 might emerge with better statistics (indeed, Michelle felt confident that it would), but based on the broader numbers, I am somehow skeptical that it will be a perfect split at the end. Based on other comments I've seen and my own observations of the literature-in-translation blogosphere, publishers sending more books by male authors might just be a trend. More statistics are needed before we can really point fingers - I would greatly appreciate more insight from other bloggers and reviewers who receive books for review directly from publishers.

The next stage comes in several parts, asking help from across the board. But we'll be looking at that in the next follow-up post, hopefully in the coming weeks. Brace yourselves: we've got a long way to go.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Where in the world are women writers?

A realization: most of the books in translation I've read this year have been written by men. A quick run through my reading list confirmed this suspicion: 21 written by men, 7 written by women.

This is a shockingly disproportionate number (especially since my overall male to female writer ratio is a perfect 50:50). I considered that it might just be my own personal reading tastes or biases, so I decided to run through Three Percent's list of titles in translation for 2013. The list is a bit outdated, but the results are strikingly similar to what I found in my own reading. Based on my rough calculation*, women writers contribute less than 30% of the literature that is translated into English.

The top three languages from which books were translated in 2013 are French, Spanish and German. Out of 59 books translated from French, 17 were written by women. Out of 41 books translated from Spanish, 7 were written by women**. Out of 35 books translated from German, 12 were written by women. Even here we see statistics that heavily favor male writers. Meanwhile, my (very brief) survey of French and German bestseller lists seemed to show a fairly balanced playing field - certainly there wasn't as wide a gap as what I found in the translations.

Closer to home for me, the four books that were translated from Hebrew were all written by men, despite the fact that I can firmly attest that Israeli literature tends to be very balanced in terms of men-women writers. The fact of the matter is that nobody has yet translated one of 2011's most highly regarded Israeli novels Rose of Lebanon, nor any of Gail Hareven's other novels (despite the fact that her one translated title won the Best Translated Book Award!), nor dozens of other highly respected novels and bestsellers written by Israeli women. And this is clearly something that is happening across the board, across the world.

What does this mean? For starters, it doesn't seem as though the source of the problem is in various countries around the world. Rather, it seems that the problem lies in the process of translation. It isn't that women aren't writing books, or that they aren't getting published in their own countries***. The problem is on the English-speaking world's receiving end. With us.

These are only preliminary findings. Without more information about Spanish, French, German and any other language bestsellers and without more understanding about the selection process for translation, there is little more to be said. Only this: readers of literature in translation, take note. If we were looking at a ratio of 40% to 60%, I would be able to accept it as a minor bias. But we're not talking about a small preference for male writers. We're talking about a preference for men that is over 70%... and that is a problem.

So readers: share your own stats. Let's find out where the problem starts - whether I'm missing something in France and Germany and Latin America, or whether something is getting stuck in the publisher's offices in the Anglo publishing world. Let's be aware that this problem even exists. Maybe then we can start to fix it.

* My calculation was generally based on first names (easily recognizable male-female names like Paul or Charlotte didn't get double-checked, names I was uncertain about I attempted to track down)
** One of these happens to be one of my favorite books of the year
*** Though I'm certain that this is the case for certain countries in which women do not have much freedom, it does not appear to be true for the major sources of literature in translation, nor would it make much sense given which countries we're talking about...

Monday, October 28, 2013

Defining "average"

If there's one thing I don't shy away from, it's my belief in the negative review. I strongly believe that negative reviews are pivotal for criticism, and that without them we would never be able to do the proper filtering of "good" versus "bad". This is nothing new. But something that ties into this is the less-obvious realms of everything in between amazing and terrible. We get a lot in the murky regions of the ordinary, the passe, the mediocre, the average and the moderately good. Or, at least, we should.

For me, years and years of a critique-minded approach to art has "tainted" me. I can no longer read books, watch movies, listen to music, watch shows, eat food, or take in any sort of art without approaching it from a very specific, critical perspective. This has taken some of the joy out of my art appreciation, no doubt, but it also means that when I find something that moves me... it really moves me. My average is a solid five out of ten, and though I once bemoaned the fact that not all of the books I was reading were amazing, I've grown to appreciate the fact that though I could select only books that will most likely be amazing, I'd be missing out on a lot of the in between gray. And I think we learn most about literature in that unclear region where we try to distinguish between books of worth, books we like, and books that other people will like.

The truth is, I'm not sure I really believe that everything can be good. What does it mean if your average is an eight? If something you call "good" isn't worth recommending? When I see a 4.5/5 rating from a reviewer who never gives anything below a 3.5, it's not the same as seeing a 4.5 from someone who frequently gives ratings under 2. Sure, this ties into a lot of the inconsistencies with star ratings (even across similar platforms!), but there's also a clear matter of trust here. It's hard to trust someone who consistently glosses over their own quiet dislike of something without at the very least addressing it.

This isn't a real post. It shouldn't be viewed as one. This is a mishmash of thoughts on a subject that has been bothering me for over five years. I'm curious to know what others think about this and where their "average" falls, if it even exists.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Twitter, author interactions and other thoughts

One of the reasons I joined Twitter a couple months ago was to breach what I felt was an uncomfortable divide between myself and the greater literary world. Does this sound pretentious? Stupid? It's probably a bit of both. For so long, I had seen bloggers shifting towards Twitter for their quicker thoughts and opinions, for wit and for a much simpler blogger-publisher connection. And blogger-author bonds, for those who read a lot of books by living, English-speaking authors. To put it simply: I wanted in.

Whether or not my attempt to enter the Twitterverse has been successful is up to debate; what isn't is my new awareness for aspects of the literary world that I never even imagined. Bloggers give each other advice, talk directly to publishers, authors, bookstores... it's rather incredible*. There's an entire community of book lovers who live only on Twitter, just like those who live on Youtube, or Tumblr, or even here in what I think of as "book blogging central".

This is a long and hesitant opening to what is a rather difficult post to write. Because a few hours ago, I witnessed a fairly painful, intense argument between many different book bloggers I follow. I don't particularly feel like linking to it, but the argument (in Hebrew I would say "ספק דיון, ספק ויכוח", essentially meaning not really a discussion, implying an argument...) covered topics ranging from authors involvement on blogs to the definition of bullying and... more.

I mostly want to talk about the first point. Like I said earlier, part of the reason I started using Twitter in the first place was to be a bit closer to authors and publishers. When I write a review of a book, I don't assume the author or the editor or the publisher are actually reading my review**. I write reviews for two purposes: firstly, to share my thoughts on a book with other readers, and secondly for myself - I enjoy the process of approaching a book from different angles, whether analytically, critically, emotionally or anything else.

But here's the catch: I don't object to authors reading my reviews. And I definitely don't mind if they want to talk to me about my thoughts. I know that authors have been trained to avoid responding to negative reviews (and let's be honest, most of my reviews are not exactly glowing), but I have no problem with an author politely engaging me in a debate. I probably won't change my opinion on the book, though it will certainly change my approach. Vaddey Ratner probably wouldn't like my reviews of In the Shadow of the Banyan. But if she wanted to tell me why she chose to avoid subtlety and why she opted for certain tropes I felt were cliches, I would listen. I would probably also gain something from it.

I understand that some readers want a bit of distance between themselves and authors. It's not easy to have that "face-to-face" interaction. I understand getting frustrated by authors who leave defensive comments on reviews. Not everyone wants to deal with it, and I'm not sure they have to. I honestly don't know. But I definitely think that authors have the right to respond (politely), and I feel like it might be a bit of a double standard to invite certain authors for interviews and allow them that personal interaction, but then avoid interaction with authors who maybe aren't as thrilled with your appraisal. But... it depends. And not wanting it and expressing that feeling, while maybe not something I personally agree with, isn't bullying. So there's also that.

I don't really know how to summarize these thoughts. I know pockets of arguments like this often crop up online and will probably continue to exist until long after I've quit this corner of the internet***. I can only hope for calmer discourse in the future, and maybe this is the advantage of old-school blogging - we have to pause and take the time to really think about what we're writing... and even then, we may not have all the answers.

* The other day I tweeted a recommendation for the next Goodreads app update. I received a response. Whether or not they actually take my advice to heart, someone noticed.
** This is in large part because I have a generally under-the-radar blog, which can be both a blessing and a... something boring and unnoticed.
*** Not something I'm planning on doing any time soon. I know, I know, so disappointing...

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Reading on time

I don't plan my reading. I don't have books I "bump up the TBR". I don't look at my books and say which is going to be read when. It doesn't work for me, I never do it, and I can never stick to my plan. Readalong? Nope. Book club? Not going to happen. Even just saying, "The next book I read will be..." just ends up getting tossed in the corner by the time I come to choose a book.

Which is why I inevitably never end up reading the books that I technically should be reading. Say I check a book out from the library. I have a limited period to read it. One would expect that I would prioritize that book... but I don't. Or a recently released book. I should review it around the same time as everyone else. Instead, I usually end up reading it four years later, after the hype, the hype backlash and the re-hype have all faded away. And by then, nobody is really supposed to care anymore.

There's this concept in the literary world (and particularly the book blogging world) that books need to be read "on time". For official review outlets like the NYTBR, it makes sense that they would review only new books - that's part of their job description. But for so many book bloggers to focus so pointedly on having reviews of new books hot off the presses - coupled with the review outlet mentality, it seems to encourage our general collective amnesia. Books published only two years ago feel old. What would it look like if I suddenly posted a review of The Casual Vacancy, which still sits unopened on my shelf? Or if I read and enjoyed The Savage Detectives? I've seen so many bloggers post these funny disclaimers of "yes, I know everyone and their mother has already read this..." before posts about slightly older books, but is it really a problem? Do we all need to read the same books at the same time?

I understand wanting to feel a sense of belonging. Reading books together and at the same time provides a nicely structured sense of community, and is a great outlet for literary discourse. But I feel like we've taken it a bit too far. We don't need to wait fifty or a hundred years to explore the backlogs. Books published fifteen or ten or even five years ago may still be incredible and relevant today. We don't need rules about how to read - when and why and what. Flexibility is important. Time and space are important.

So I'll continue reading books on my own time. I'm willing to wait a bit. And if everyone has already read the book - all the better. Now we can talk about it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday links

  • A great post about the impact of eReading on one's reading habits - for me, eReading will never be able to fully replace print (for practical reasons, among which is the fact that my eReader doesn't support Hebrew), but generally speaking, Greg is spot on. Not only has the eLibrary (in part because of its limited scope...) introduced me to books I might otherwise not have read, I've also started reading books concurrently, leading to, yes, more books read.

  • Israel is the guest of honor at this year's Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL), with plans for several very popular Israeli writers to be stopping by - it sounds like a trip to Hebrew Book Week, except with all the good authors there at the same time, and with a lot, lot, lot more people attending.

  • The stats on U.S. children's books reveal that most main characters are white, despite clearly changing demographics. One theory seems to be "diversity doesn't sell", but... I'm not buying it. This is something that needs to change.

  • The short lists are out for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards, and as always I'm just thrilled that this award exists, if only to remind people that sci-fi and fantasy are not, have never been, and should never be an exclusively Anglo affair.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

How our experiences influence our reading

I want to link to Ria's excellent post over at Bibliotropic not only because it's brilliant, but also because it's something that I've thought about a lot over the past few years. Ria wonders about whether we as readers can ever "read in a vacuum" or somehow read objectively, without prior experiences influencing the new stories we consume.
[...]I look back at some of my early reviews and wonder just what I was thinking. Some books I read and rated 3 years ago may now not pass muster if I read them for the first time today, because my experience has grown, my literary world expanded, and my opinions refined and honed beyond what they were in the past. [...] It’s a rare person, I think, who doesn’t look back on their past critiques and wonder what they might think now. Would they rate something higher or lower? Would they even bother to read that book now, if now was the first time they came across it?
I've written before about how I don't think that reviews are fixed walls, and that opinions can't change. As I mentioned in that post, I think that it's perfectly normal and understandable and legitimate to feel one thing immediately after finishing a book, and then realizing three months later that actually, no, your opinion is completely changed. Time does strange things to our perceptions of art and literature; it can certainly alter our overall opinions. There are books that I only moderately disliked when I read them, but years have turned me bitter and fiercely against them. Or books that I wasn't particularly impressed with that have slowly grown on me. Or books that I loved once when I was a certain type of reader, but years of experience (or changing tastes) means that I can no longer revisit the book without a sour taste.

This is exactly the not-vacuum that Ria is talking about. Everything influences us in some form. Ria specifically mentions the familiar "I've read it before" sentiment we bibliophiles encounter when reading a book that might have been good had it not been the twentieth book of its kind we'd read in a short while. But I think there's another, broader option. The fact is, I've found that as a book reviewer - by the sheer number and breadth of books I've read - I have inevitably changed my perceptions of literature. I can no longer read without the critical lenses on. Even when I read a book and might enjoy it on the simplest level, I can't help but pulling it apart on a deeper one. This has extended to music, to film, to television... everything.

A bookseller at this year's Hebrew Book Week made a recommendation for me based on the titles in my hand. "You've got strange choices there," she told me. "Really different books. Let me find you something else that's a bit... different." And she was right. The books I had chosen came from many different countries, represented many different styles, and had a distinctly "different" flavor from the majority of so-called mainstream literature. Years and years of reading have made me less inclined towards books whose plots I can easily pull apart, or books with cardboard cut-out characters, or books that fail to do anything new with age-old ideas. Innovation - even when I don't necessarily like it - is more important to me now than the internal elements that I once valued in books. My experiences have changed how I read - no vacuum.

It doesn't mean I can't read those old books again. It doesn't mean I can't occasionally read something predictable and still find it brilliant because of its writing or its characterization. It doesn't mean that just because there's a similar plot point to another novel I'd previously enjoyed, there is no value to the new book. It doesn't mean that I can't recognize innovation even in straight-forward contemporary novels that seem to break no boundaries. It just means that I as a reader am constantly - at every given moment - influenced by the books I've read before. Whether it's an outright comparison to a previously read book or a more general shift in my reading tastes, there is not a single moment that I can truly disconnect my individual reading experience from the hundreds of others I've had in my lifetime. I might be losing something small in terms of "spoiling" the experience and not coming "clean", but I am gaining something back as well. And it's kind of beautiful.