Confessions of a Silent Genre
The reader’s report is the most silent of literary genres, its existence publicly acknowledged only in attacks or parodies. In Umberto Eco’s Misreadings, spectacularly obtuse flunkies advise publishers to reject the Divine Comedy and The Trial. (“Why is the protagonist on trial?” the report queries in exasperation, adding that if this and other issues could be clarified, the novel might eventually become publishable.) Few if any real reader’s reports are ever published; they’re written for an extremely limited audience: the editors and publishers who will decide whether to bring out the book in question. Hence the hostility the reader’s report inevitably generates. The lowly minion who authors it can do something no after-the-fact reviewer, however powerful and unkind, can accomplish: stop the book from being published in the first place.
Reader, I confess: For more than a decade, I’ve been writing reader’s reports. I evaluate books written in or translated into French or Spanish for editors who, for the most part, can’t read those languages. Writing the reports is a time-consuming, often frustrating, and always financially unprofitable pastime, and there can’t be many of us willing to do it; sometimes two or three different publishers in sequence will, unbeknownst to each other, send me the same book to evaluate. I often wonder—particularly when a deadline is looming—why I do reader’s reports at all.
Certainly there is pleasure akin to idly spinning the radio dial; the books I receive offer random, occasionally enlightening glimpses into the international literary marketplace, and there’s always the chance of stumbling across something really good I would never otherwise have read. But there’s more to it than that.
There is, for example, the fact that only two real tests of a book’s merit exist: time and translation. Both tests are essentially collective and impersonal, and neither is ever definitive—none of us knows which twentieth-century books the twenty-second century will value most. Nor can either one help in making the old-fashioned distinction between high culture and low—Ulysses versus Winnie the Pooh. Nevertheless, the reader’s report offers an opportunity to put a given book to the more immediate of these tests—that of translation. Will this piece of writing retain meaning and interest for a different set of readers in a different linguistic context? As a translator by profession, I find this question one of the most interesting that can be asked of a book, and I’m always eager for an opportunity to try to answer it.
Coming up with an answer is often tough, and would be even if the question had to be decided on literary merit alone. But alas, literary merit usually ends up being a minor component of a decision that is also inescapably political, and, most of all, economic. For of course what most editors really want to know is whether the book will sell in the U.S. marketplace.
Sometimes the question is easy, though; so easy that I wonder what mindless domino effect has sent a book into my hands. There were, for example, the memoirs of a Madrid cleaning lady, an immensely popular book in Spain which had catapulted its author into minor celebrity. I was startled that any agent would have submitted such a book to a U.S. publisher: It was full of references to Spanish TV shows and their stars, soccer players and teams, Madrid neighborhoods and local trends that were bound to baffle rather than amuse even the small subset of U.S. readers who are fans of the films of Almodóvar. But then—it took me a while to realize—any number of books filled with local references to our own culture have been successful in translation around the world. The Nanny Diaries, to pick an example at random, has already been translated into four languages. Ours is an export culture, which means that a significant group of readers in Madrid, Tokyo, Bombay, and just about everywhere else are, after a lifetime of watching our TV shows and movies and reading our novels, either well acquainted with or very curious about our celebrities, domestic habits, and in-jokes. The agent who was shopping around the Madrid cleaning lady’s book had just forgotten, momentarily, that it doesn’t go both ways.
“Why,” a German writer complained at a conference last year, “will people all over the world read about divorce in New Jersey, while almost no one in the English-speaking world seems to have the faintest interest in reading about divorce in Bonn or Haifa or Seville?” Several writers of English have proposed a facile, triumphalist answer to this question, happily attributing the global dominance of the English language to their own prowess––which is a bit like murdering your competitors to achieve a monopoly and then gloating over the vast superiority of your product. The advantage of writing in English is obvious: Empires come and go, but the sun never sets on the English language. Access to English is access to power; it speaks louder than any other language in the world, and its juggernaut position as global lingua franca is further consolidated each day. At the same time, harder writers of other languages find it harder and harder to break in. The English book market is the world’s largest and most transnational, but the elite group of writers across the globe who can feel sure that their books will be translated into English could all fit around a medium-sized conference table (and a very interesting meeting it would be).
The reader’s report struggles to swim against this current but also has to take it into account. It’s a bit like being an admissions officer at the world’s most selective institution: Even the Nobel Prize for Literature is no guarantee you’ll get in. The bar has to be set terribly high because every translation into English that fails to sell makes its publisher that much less likely to do another one. Worse, the power of a reader’s report is almost entirely negative. Barbara Epler of New Directions famously decided to publish the great W. G. Sebald on the strength of a negative reader’s report, but in general a bad report guarantees that a book won’t be published. A good report, however, is likely to be ignored. Worst of all, even when a good report does lead to publication—and the publisher finds a translator who’s up to the task—the translated book will probably be left to its own devices in the marketplace, with little or no publicity, and will therefore ultimately be deemed a failure. All of which leaves those of us who write reader’s reports in a rather ambiguous position.
One of the most enthusiastic reader’s reports I ever wrote—for a novel called Paradise of the Blind, written in Vietnamese by Duong Thu Huong––was dismissed out of hand by the head of the prestigious publishing house I evaluated it for: No matter what I said about it, the novel was “too minor” for his house. The book was picked up by another company and has sold 20,000 copies in English. A later work by Ms. Duong was nominated for the Dublin IMPAC award as one of the best novels published in English in 1996. Now that’s a reason to write reader’s reports: the private satisfaction of seeing your opinion confirmed. But it’s not usually that simple.
Last year I evaluated a recent European novel, a sprawling, multigenerational family saga that had a curiously American flavor. It was set in a brand-new housing development near the sea, where the central characters had moved into adjacent houses to shuck off their past lives and reinvent themselves. An American naval base stood nearby, and the novel concluded with an image of Thanksgiving turkeys wrapped in colored cellophane, on sale at the local market. The author took care to include an American suitor, a Navy captain, flawlessly fit, trim, and white-toothed, but not the least bit sexy, whose advances are soon rejected. It’s a well-plotted novel, with some memorable characters and situations, but I thought it was far too long. I also worried that the social hierarchies around which it revolves––a sequence of complicated relationships between household servants and their employers––play out in ways that American readers of this type of fiction are unlikely to find as satisfactory or as moving as European readers had. I recommended against it.
Not long after, I was having lunch with an old friend, a European academic who mentioned that he, too, happened to have written a report on the same book. Living on a diet of literary theory and the latest postmodern metafictions, my professor friend had been impressed by the novel’s daring embrace of realism and thoroughly enjoyed the unusual experience of reading a straightforward narrative with clearly defined characters and a plot full of suspense and drama. He was annoyed at me for not having backed the novel. I tried to explain my misgivings about the differences between American and European social hierarchies. “Then Americans should read it so they can understand European society!” he snapped. On that point, at least, we were in agreement.
In the end, that same book was sent to me by three different publishers. I imagined and pitied the poor agent, doggedly sending it back out after each new rejection, not knowing that my report had already shot it down. Then I found myself sitting in that agent’s office. I was the one who’d brought up the difficulty of getting foreign books published in English. “Yes!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been submitting this wonderful novel everywhere”—he named the title—“and no one will do it!” My heart sank. He spoke of the book with admiration, convinced that an American audience would take it to heart.
I remained silent, hoping that my deeply sympathetic expression was showing no sign of strain. I made no mention of the fact that it was my report which has, for the moment, kept the book off the Barnes & Noble shelves. And I also hoped that he was right and I was wrong, that he will persevere and find the right publisher for the book, and that American readers will buy it in droves, immerse themselves in its multigenerational sprawl, and find its social hierarchies intriguing rather than mystifying or objectionable. I hoped all those things, and said not a word.