The genrefication of national literatures

A few weeks ago, the tweet above caught my eye. It made me laugh, but it also captured something that has been playing on my mind in recent months: the tendency of English-language publishers to make national literatures genres in their own right.

The pattern tends to go like this: a writer from a particular nation, such as Japan’s Haruki Murakami, becomes a hit in English; other publishers, keen to capitalise on this success, seek out comparable writers and publish them with strong signposting that their work is like the bestseller (or simply get designers to work in the national flag on the cover, as above!); over time, that style of writing becomes synonymous with literature from its home nation. Books in that particular mould cease to represent one of many varieties of work from the country in question and instead come to exemplify its stories in the minds of anglophone readers. We think we know what characterises Japanese literature, when in fact we know only books similar to those that have proved pleasing to English speakers in the past.

In many ways, this model is unsurprising. Long before Amazon’s ‘Books you may like’ bar, booksellers and publishers favoured a ‘like with like’ approach when it came to convincing readers to try new things. Novels by debut English-language authors have long been published with stickers comparing them to and blurbs from authors of similar works. Haunting the aisles of Brent Cross Shopping Centre’s WHSmith in the 1990s, my pocket money clutched in my sweaty palm, my child self would frequently succumb to the logic that I was likely to like a novel because I had liked something like it before.

When this sales technique is applied too aggressively to translated literature, however, it becomes problematic. Just as labels such as ‘women’s fiction’ can be reductive, so using national affiliations in this way can be harmful. Not only does it run the risk of conflating the popular style of writing with the nation’s literature in the minds of many readers (making Argentinian literature synonymous with the fabulous fevered fantasies of Samantha Schweblin, for example), but it also risks reducing the chances of books that do not conform to the anglophone world’s idea of a nation’s literature finding an audience in the world’s most-published language. This is perhaps particularly the case for countries with relatively few books in translation, whose national reputation may rest on a handful of titles.

Taken to extremes, using nationality as a marketing tool narrows, rather than broadens, readers’ access to the world’s stories. Perhaps most worryingly, it does so almost imperceptibly – flattering readers that they are making adventurous choices, while peddling (often excellent) novels that are in fact broadly similar to what has worked in English before.

Meanwhile, the books that do not reflect these trends remain largely untranslated and invisible to readers who they might, given the chance, really transport.

11 responses

  1. Algoritms unfortunately do exactly the same. For example when listening to a Dutch music artist on Spotify related musicians will all be Dutch, no matter the music style…

  2. That tweet really says it all in a single image, doesn’t it? 🙂 And you’re right, of course. I‘ve heard the same thing from a publishing industry insider, who told me that roughly 95% of literature not written in English (even if highly successful in its domestic market) is never even translated, as it‘s not considered to be „marketable“ in Anglophone countries (chiefly the U.S.). On the other hand, almost anything written in English that is even moderately successful will see a translation into a plethora of other languages …

  3. Excellent points! A reader’s perception could be skewed either way by being led to believe a bunch of books are similar just because they’re originally in the same language. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Good point. This marketing ploy hadn’t occurred to me, but the bottom line is always the money, isn’t it? Publishers are in the game for one reason: to make money.

    • Thanks Alison. Money is certainly a big part of the equation, although I have met many (usually) small publishers who are primarily driven by other things and do their best to keep bringing fresh voices into English. We readers need to do what we can to support them!

  7. I feel your work and observations should be changing more the way we read and view fiction…what we like and what we find to read. You certainly have put a light on what’s available to us now. So thank you for that.

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