Improved U.S.-China (Lit) Relations

Scholars at three universities—Iowa State University, Arizona State University, and Sichuan University in China—recently launched Project Yao, a database of American literature translated into Chinese. ASU English professor Joe Lockard explains the appeal of the idea:

“Why, for example, are there so many translations of Longfellow’s ‘Song of Hiawatha’ into Chinese? Since 1930 there have been five Hiawatha translations. What do such translations inform us about the global representation of native peoples in the United States?

“Have there been more recent translations of the work of Native American authors into Chinese? Is the translation economy shifting to acknowledge ethnic self-representation? These are the sorts of questions that one can begin to address by using the Project Yao database.”

The database only includes works of American literature published before 1920, so it’s no guide for what contemporary American writers are being read in China. And the database only covers translations published in China from 1999 on, so it’s not yet a very panoramic snapshot of how the country’s changing political climate affected what got translated. But it’s a fascinating start, and if nothing else shows how the hunger for the likes of Jack London and Theodore Dreiser remains undiminished. (Surprisingly, only one work of Mark Twain‘s appears in the database, and even then it’s just a short story.)

According to a 2007 interview with Ha Jin in Guernica, American writers apparently fell in and out of favor rapidly. So when a work by Ernest Hemingway became available, he took advantage of it:

When I was an undergrad in my junior year suddenly American literature became very popular. But at the time many of the books were not available. One book, The Old Man and the Sea, because it was a short book and was written in clear, very lucid, English, had a bilingual edition made just for the English students in China, so a lot of people knew that book. As a result, Chinese readers talked about Hemingway. In that story there’s a fight between a man and a shark. You can conquer but not defeat a man. We were taught a lot of Marxist morals. But this kind of Hemingway American mentality, at least as expressed in that small novel, was fresh to the young people at the time, so we all somehow believed in it. But when I was working on The Bridegroom, I was much older by then, I really wanted to give some comic touches instead of tragic. That’s why I made the narrator unable to remember Hemingway’s name.

Roundup: Spell It Out

Motoko Rich‘s fine story about the differences in reading habits between generations comes with a great Web-only sidebar pointing to supporting documents, surveys, studies, tests, and more. Among the fun stuff is the site for UDL Editions, an effort by a nonprofit to produce Web-only versions of classics that are interactive. Their online books have clickable words that point to an illustrated glossary unique to the book; see, for instance, the UDL version of Jack London‘s The Call of the Wild. The “Stop and Think!” prompts aren’t particularly noxious or preachy, and they can be scaled by reading level; I would’ve been thrilled to have access to something like this growing up.

Sharon Olds made a vow to Satan when she was in her early 20s and now she’s a famous poet.

George Pelecanos: “I can honestly say you’ll never read a straight mystery from me again.”

Kent Haruf‘s papers have been acquired (PDF) by Southern California’s Huntington Library. In relation to the news, he talks to the Pasadena Star-News about his slow, often frustrating climb as a writer:

You have to have a lot of patience and a lot of belief in yourself. I was 40 before I published anything and I had been writing hard for about 15 years before then. I had gone to the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa and studied writing formally, but it took me a long time before I had gotten good enough to have written something that people would want to buy. I taught graduate students in MFA programs and they were talented people. What happens to most people is that it’s too difficult to make a go of it and most people quit. Then they find out that the things that they do is perhaps not as satisfying, but maybe a little more easier.

So, in my estimation, you have to stay with it despite everything. You have to find some way to believe in yourself in some profound way that’s unshakable. I see it as a small flame that I have to attend to everyday. If I don’t do that, it’s in danger of going out.

Roundup: To Build a Fire

Kevin J. Hayes is back with another question. Last time he was looking for tips on travel writers (glad I could be somewhat useful); this time he’s hunting for authors who’ve mastered multiple genres: “Take Henry James for instance,” he writes. “Best known as a novelist, James was also a fine travel writer and memoirist. I can justify discussing James in two or three different places, but I do not have room to discuss every genre of every author. So, here are my questions. Which American authors excelled in more than one literary genre? Where should I discuss them? Are they important enough to deserve discussion in more than one chapter? Boy, that’s a loaded question. Here’s a more fundamental one: what constitutes literary importance?”

Hell if I’m going to address that last question before breakfast. But a few names that immediately spring to mind: John Updike (see John Gross‘ excellent piece in the new NYRB on his most recent nonfiction collection); Mark Twain; Paul Theroux; Maxine Hong Kingston; Paul Auster (stretching here, but I do admire his memoir, Hand to Mouth). There has to be more. Maybe Walter Mosley gets credit for at least attempting his recent literary-erotic works?

How about Jack London, allegedly the most-read author in the world? Today marks the first day of the Geneva’s international book fair, and among the displays is Francis Lacassin’s 52-volume set of London’s works, translated into French.

An AP story explains just how lucrative the life of the much-hyped short story writer can be: According to the piece, Donald Ray Pollock‘s new collection, Knockemstiff, has sold all of 3,000 copies. It’s early yet, but that’s still short of the 27,000 hardbacks that were run off. So how do you avoid the remainder bin?

The Plot Against America

Socialist journal the Monthly Review has a lengthy appreciation of Jack London’s 1908 novel, The Iron Heel, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. No, I hadn’t heard of it either. But if you’re a socialist journal, a dystopian novel about creeping American imperialism is something to celebrate:

One hundred years after its initial publication, London’s political ideas and cultural insights seem remarkably contemporary. Indeed, in The Iron Heel, he describes a sinister conspiracy, by an oligarchy, to quash freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, imprison its outspoken opponents and critics, control news and information, install a professional army of paid mercenaries, create a secret police force, and wage global warfare for economic hegemony. There’s also guerrilla warfare, furious acts of wanton terrorism, and cold-blooded terrorists—a world roiling in violence that might be taken for the world of the twenty-first century.

If the essay’s author, Jonah Raskin, works a little too hard to find connections between the novel and the present day, the piece does successfully suggest that every generation gets the American authoritarian-rule fantasy it deserves, and 1905 was an interesting time to tinker with writing one:

To write The Iron Heel he drew on his own direct observations of the chaos in San Francisco that followed in the wake of the earthquake and conflagration, and also on the information that he absorbed from far-off Russia from friends and from newspapers about the repression of the 1905 revolution. He drew, too, on his close study of contemporary U.S. society: the spying on, and the intimidation of, labor leaders by the Pinkerton Detective Agency employed by mine owners and governors alike; the arrest and persecution of labor leaders, like William (Big Bill) Haywood, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (the radical trade union activists better known as the “Wobblies”) who went on trial in 1906, in what was regarded, at the time, as the pivotal political courtroom battle of the era.