Another view of ‘truly audacious’ novels

Earlier this week I read in The Kenyon Review Online Scott Esposito’s review of “Blinding” by Mircea Cărtărescu.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Increasingly, the truly audacious novels published in English are not originally written in this language, but are translated into it. Consider the projects that have appeared here in just the past five years: the My Struggle sextet by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, thousands of pages in length and regularly compared to classics of Modernist literature. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, an epic of language, geography, politics, and horror. Parallel Stories by Peter Nádas, over a decade in the making and an attempt to sum up all of postwar Eastern Europe. Mathias Énard’s single-sentence, 500-page novel Zone, telling the 2,000-year history of the Mediterranean. The baroque disasters brought to us by Laszlo Krasznahorkai . . .[author’s ellipses]

Scott and I have worked together. I’ve written for his journal The Quarterly Conversation several times and we’ve served as fiction judges together for the Best Translated Book Award.

When I read the paragraph above, I liked the strong focus on translated fiction, and wanted to nod in agreement with the hopeful implication (with that first word “increasingly”) that more and more people are reading great novels written by people all over the world. But I stopped when I got to the end of the first paragraph because the five names listed as examples of “truly audacious” writers are all men.

The piece doesn’t say that women aren‘t doing audacious work. It just doesn’t mention any women in its bold, opening statement about the importance of world literature.

I, too, have a stake as a writer, editor, and critic in promoting world literature and works in translation. But I don’t agree at all with the implication that meaningful, innovative work is only being done by men who write big books in other languages. (I tweeted as much after I read the review.)

By not mentioning any female writers in this opening statement, this rallying cry challenging the dominance of English-language fiction, while it’s something I would love to cheer, it unfortunately once again sets the tone that writing being done by women is not audacious enough, it’s off-the-radar and so unimportant that not even a single female author deserves to be mentioned in the same review as these guys.

Scott’s stature as a critic and The Kenyon Review‘s stature as a literary journal give these male-centric views a lot of weight. And on Twitter people have been tweeting links to the review quite a bit, at least in my circle of folks interested in world literature and translation. Some people seem very happy to tweet that opening line only. It’s very quotable, and well-written, and kind of exciting to see published.

In my opinion though, I want more attention to be paid to equality as we promote world literature. I want balance and fairness. It’s simply not enough to celebrate world literature and translated novels–it has to go beyond the big names of male authors who are easier to talk about, whom critics are more comfortable name-dropping because the whole business (publishers, festivals, media, and so on) generally favors the notion that male genius is inherently more valuable to literature. Maybe this is the danger of lists in general, especially in reviews. They short-change far too many authors, in this case women and any innovative, experimental writers in English whose work deserves to be translated and read in other languages.

“The list goes on,” Scott writes. And yes, the temptation in these types of situations is typically to respond with a new list, to sing out the names of books I admire by women, to counter the telling silence on the subject in this review.

But doing that would only reinforce the idea that lists are the answer and comparison is necessary. I imagine that it was the same for other people who read this review as it was for me: many names of female writers leaped to mind, writers who are not only doing audacious work, but whose challenges in the face of sexism make their successes seem all the more audacious for having survived tests of humiliation, and outright violence and hatred.

And in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say I took greater interest in this piece in particular because I have reviews of books by women forthcoming from The Kenyon Review Online.