A New Ol’ Girls Club

The blogger Biblibio posted a call to arms in this December 9th post Where In the World Are Women Writers?  and the follow-up Women in translation – responses.  After informally crunching the numbers he/she came to the conclusion that less than 30% of the literature translated into English is written by women.  After reviewing my reading history I came up with results that were startlingly similar.   Leading to the obvious question:  What the hell is going on?!

I can’t speak for the publishing world as a whole, but I can unequivocally state that I do not seek out male over female authors.  Keeping that in mind I went back and tried to determine how the books I read this last year first came to my attention.  The result was a mixed bag of publishers, podcasters, book critics, bloggers, booksellers and Goodreads.  In other words, useless.

But, just when I was getting my indignation on in defense of the feminine gender, it was brought to my attention by a recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 Open Book Podcast that the majority of literary prizes in English for 2012-2013 were won by women authors.  Alice Monro (Nobel), Hilary Mantel (too many to list), Lydia Davis (Man Booker International), Eleanor Catton (Man Booker), Angela Jackson (Edinburgh Festival First Book)… you can see the entire list on the Open Book website.  In fact, women have made a strong showing overall on the long and short lists of all the major English language literary prizes this past year.

Obviously, this doesn’t in any way refute or reverse Biblibio’s findings.  Yet it does reinforce my belief that this disparity is not happening intentionally.  Publishers care about selling books and publishing good literature (hopefully not in that order).  It’s doubtful that they have any investment (emotional or otherwise) in an author’s gender.  My hope is that what we are dealing with is residual gender bias from the 20th century… a habit easily kicked if readers are willing to make the effort.  And more importantly, if those of us who review are willing to get the word out.  Because if they sell publishers will take notice.

Case in point:  who knew that the Scandinavians were so into crime (or, let’s face it, could name the 3 Scandinavian countries off the top of their head?) before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

Now, I realize that in some circles “quotas” is a dirty word.  But they have frequently been proven effective.  So I propose this informal challenge to fellow readers, bloggers and reviewers:  in 2014 challenge yourself to read a set number of books in translation written by women – and then review them.  The review part is key.  Whether on a blog, as a contributor to a traditional media outlet or on Goodreads it’s important to give these authors a little marketing nudge.

Hmmm… this could merit a hashtag.  Something I’m terrible at.  Anyone?

This year my personal goal is to read and review 52 books – one per week.  Half by women.  I intend to alternate – every book by a male author will be followed by a female author, and vice versa.  With a modicum of planning this shouldn’t be difficult to implement.

Until I started actively seeking books in translation I had no idea of the incredible literature from around the world I’d been missing out on.  Now I look at my bookshelves and see authors whose names, three years ago,  I didn’t know.  I can’t wait to see who gets added in the year ahead.

Translation Prizes – The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

I always try to post updates on the more interesting literary awards – all the Man (International, Booker & Asian) Literary Prizes, the Nobel Prize for Literature, etc.  But, as wonderful as those longlists tend to be, they seldom inspire the absolute, all-consuming, bank account-deflating, oh-my-god-where-am-I-going-to-put-more-books-I-don’t-care book lust as the lists I’m here to talk about today:  The Best Translated Book Award and The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Obviously, these are the books I enjoy reading – translations, international authors, and authors whose work you tend not to find on the B&N feature table.  The one downside has been that, as a rule, I’ve been painfully ignorant of the books, authors and translators that have been nominated in past years.  This year is different.  I can actually intelligently give my opinion on some of these novels and authors!

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) is a UK based prize, but even when the books aren’t available in paper format in the U.S. I’ve been able to find them digitally.  It tends, in my opinion, to contain titles that are popular with general readers vs. the Best Translated Book Award which is, also in my opinion, heavily weighed towards the more esoteric books released that year by independant & small presses.   I’ve only read two (and bought five) of the books on the 2012 IFFP longlist, so where I could find them I’ve linked to other bloggers’ reviews.

  • Gerbrand Bakker: The Detour (David Colmer; Dutch), and published by Harvill Secker – review from ANZ Lit Lovers blog
  • Chris Barnard: Bundu (Michiel Heyns; Afrikaans), Alma Books
  • Laurent Binet: HHhH (Sam Taylor; French), Harvill Secker – review from BookSexy Review
  • Dasa Drndic: Trieste (Ellen Elias-Bursac; Croatian), MacLehose Press – review from Winstonsdad’s Blog
  • Pawel Huelle: Cold Sea Stories (Antonia Lloyd-Jones; Polish), Comma Press – review from Tony’s Reading List Blog
  • Pia Juul: The Murder of Halland (Martin Aitken; Danish), Peirene Press – review from Winstonsdad’s Blog
  • Ismail Kadare: The Fall of the Stone City (John Hodgson; Albanian), Canongate
  • Khaled Khalifa: In Praise of Hatred (Leri Price; Arabic), Doubleday – review from Arabic Literature Blog
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Death in the Family (Don Bartlett; Norwegian), Harvill Secker – review by The Mookse and the Gripes Blog
  • Laszlo Krasznahorkai: Satantango (George Szirtes; Hungarian), Tuskar Rock/New Directions in the U.S. – review by Three Percent Blog
  • Alain Mabanckou: Black Bazaar (Sarah Ardizzone; French), Serpent’s Tail – review by Africa is a Country blog
  • Diego Marani: The Last of the Vostyachs (Judith Landry; Italian), Dedalus
  • Andrés Neuman, Traveller of the Century (Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia; Spanish), Pushkin Press – review by Charles Lambert Blog
  • Orhan Pamuk: Silent House (Robert Finn; Turkish), Faber /Knopf in the U.S. – review by The Literary Outpost Blog
  • Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Sound of Things Falling (Anne McLean; Spanish), Bloomsbury
  • Enrique Vila-Matas: Dublinesque (Rosalind Harvey & Anne McLean; Spanish), Harvill Secker – review by Asylum Blog

Of the two I’ve read: Laurent Binet’s HHhH is the more controversial book.  Readers and critics either love it or absolutely hate it.  I loved it and personally felt that James Wood’s negative review in the New Yorker – which, let’s face it, shaped a lot of readers opinions going in – spent more time on Wood’s problems with the author than it did on critiquing the actual book. It will probably make the shortlist, but I doubt it will win.

This is Alain Mabanckou’s second time being nominated – and I’m just finishing up Black Bazaar.  I really enjoy Mabanckou’s books (and love saying his name out loud):  they’re funny and smart.  Because he’s been shortlisted once before I’m fairly certain he’ll make the shortlist again.   Still, Black Bazaar is still a dark horse to win – if only because it’s lighthearted in comparison with past winners.

Of the books I haven’t read, Ismail Kadare is a favorite author.  Unfortunately, The Fall of the Stone City is not available digitally in the states.  And Bundu by Chris Barnard is definitely a book I’d be interested in.  The plot involves drought refugees at a Mozambique aid station who hatch a desperate plan.  I’m hoping to read it before the final winner is announced.

Have you read or reviewed any of the longlisted books?  Share you thoughts and predictions in the comments!

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