Friday, 11 April 2014

I Found Inspiration at the London Book Fair

It's counterintuitive, the title of this post. Book fairs are places where publishers go to monetize things. And London is a place where money goes to multiply itself. But at the risk of sounding twee - although I don't care much if I do - I found there were people and projects on the margins that inspired me.

I'd been doing a short publishing-related job that made me unhappy, for various reasons, and I was feeling cynical about the book world, not least because no publisher has had the guts to go for either of the two books I love most in the world right now. And there were moments, I have to admit, that made me despair, like when an Anglophone publisher raved about a German book I think is ridiculous or another publisher was a wet blanket about a German book I really admire, or rights sellers with fabulous books on their lists were exhausted by editors fending them off. Or there was the overheard snippet of a panel when the Daily Mail books editor said something along the lines of "our readers love anything to do with World War II". Or the fact that you couldn't swing a cat without hitting apparently nice people who just happen to work for Amazon. Or all those people who blanked me.

So under normal circumstances, I would probably fly back from the London book fair deeply mired in gloom. But actually I was in the kind of affectionate and forgiving mood that prompted me to be especially kind to the woman on her first ever shift at the airport food outlet, who took ten minutes to scan my bottle of Coke. Shall I get round to telling you why that was?

It was because of the Literary Translation Centre. I think it was bigger this year, although there were no free sandwiches but that's OK. It was a wonderful place to bump into friends and colleagues and gossip and talk shop. And it also had a programme of events that was remarkably well put-together. The panels were cleverly composed of people from across the various spectrums - spectra? - so from commercial publishers to shoestring enterprises, from super-experienced translators to just-starting-outers, from newspaper literary editors to feminist poets. There were four events that have left a lasting impression. The first was the first panel of the fair, Meet the Publishers, which feels like a long time ago now but made me think, hey, there are publishers and editors who really want to do translations and are as passionate about this stuff as the rest of us are. Isn't that great? Then there was one about co-translating books, which suddenly made a whole lot of sense to me. Then there was one about translators as agents, which sent out mixed messages. In a nutshell, we learned that editors in houses with even the slightest whiff of commercialism to them will probably not take a translator's advice on fantastic and amazing books they ought to buy, which rather confirms my depressing experiences. On the other hand, people in the more experimental enterprises would prefer recommendations from translators to recommendations from foreign publishers. And if you're good friends with a publisher that helps too. I am not, although I did have a rather dangerous close encounter on the escalators up and down from the International Rights Centre, but that story has been told with much hyperbole elsewhere.

But the number-one inspiring hour at the London Book Fair was Where Are the Women in Translation?  As the chair Sophie Mayer commented, they were pretty much assembled in the Literary Translation Centre at that very moment. The space was packed to the gills with interested women. There is, of course, no shortage of female translators, but as Alison Anderson pointed out last year in Words Without Borders, the Anglophone world falls short when it comes to publishing translated books by women. Anderson was on the panel along with the writer Krys Lee and Jane Bradley of For Books' Sake (would it be lowering the tone here to note that she and Rosie Goldsmith share this year's prize for best book fair outfit?). So there was some talk about what the problem is and what causes it, and some about what we can do about it. What I got out of it was: if women – despite writing more titles, selling more copies and reading more books – get less review coverage and award glory all around the world, then it is up to us to do several things.

Firstly, we can pitch books by women to publishers, who may be less aware of them because of the above problem (although if I put my cynical hat back on for a moment, it's probably not worth doing so with commercial publishing houses). Secondly, we can draw attention to the books by women that do get translated, and I shall try to bear that in mind here. And thirdly, we can praise publishers who are doing it right, like Peirene and Other Press. Well done! (By "we" I mean anyone who cares about the issue, really, and despite the gender breakdown of the event's audience I don't think that's only women.)

What I would like to see is a literary award especially for women in translation. I don't know how to make that happen - and I'm aware that it potentially falls into the tabloids' "black lesbian in a wheelchair" category - but I think if such a thing did exist, it would be good for all of us. It could be coupled with a best practice prize for publishers who showcase diversity, or something along those lines.    

In the meantime, I'm infused with enthusiasm by all the people tweeting on #readwomen2014 and #womenintranslation. And everyone was excited to learn that the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, never won by a woman ever, has a fifty-fifty shortlist.

Here's the thing: commercial publishing is not the kind of place I really want to hang out, but its existence provides the centre to my periphery, if you see what I mean. If there was no London Book Fair there would be no Literary Translation Centre, and if there were no misery memoirs or whatever is selling like hotcakes right now, it would be harder for us to get our hands on Inka Parei's books, for example (assuming we continue to live in a capitalist world). And the margins are the places where the people gather who are motivated by passion and excellence, and those are the people and the projects that inspire me. Thank you.   


Anonymous said...

You rock. I love reading your work and your blog

kjd said...

How nice. I shall just assume you're a real person and not some kind of feelgood-bot.

Karen Margolis said...

I'm a real person and I loved reading this & feel specially inspired by your report on the women in publishing event. Thanks!

kjd said...

Thank you, Karen!

Anonymous said...

While I wholeheartedly agree with the whole post and your sentiments, I found the throwaway use of the phrase "black lesbian in a wheelchair" very jarring. Black lesbians in wheelchairs are out there, they are real people and they have their own stories too.

kjd said...

Apologies. That was meant to be shorthand for the tabloid rage against intersectional issues. Obviously only I got the joke.

Helen MacCormac said...

Thanks for this one, Katy!