How US Books Circle the World
Nonfiction leads in global publishing, since fiction - like food - often has a national flavor
NEW YORK — CERTAIN authors travel well across national borders. United States writers Stephen King and Jean M. Auel are international publishing industries in and of themselves. They occupy high rungs on the bestseller lists in multiple countries. Alvin Toffler's books go around the world. The Italian Umberto Ecco is one of the few non-American authors in the same class as King and Auel. But there is no simple way to describe the influence on popular culture of individual books sold internationally. The challenge is being able to say how a book, after it has taken on a life of its own in its own land, shares that life with readers in another land.
In global publishing, nonfiction clearly predominates. Transnational publishing is easiest in nonfiction, where nuance and tone - all the squirm and subtlety of literature - are absent, says Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's Magazine and host of the weekly PBS TV book-discussion show, ``Bookmark.''
When it comes to the export of ideas, says Mary Warner Marien, who teaches fine arts at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., ``Nonfiction is like technology, it can be used anywhere.'' Fiction, on the other hand, travels like food, ``not very well - people prefer their own fiction the way they prefer local dishes,'' she says.
And what cross-cultural traveling there is tends to be one way - with point of origin the US.
Katerina Czarnecki, vice president and director of international rights sales in New York City for the British publisher Macmillan, echoes Ms. Marien. American publishers excel in printing readable books and manuals on complex and technically demanding subjects, she says.
The management manual with its rational development of marketing strategies; the detailed but lucid instructions in a how-to, general-interest gardening or auto-maintenance manual; the palatable rendition of mathematical logic in user-friendly computer manuals: Each is part of an American publishing epistemology that simplifies complex issues without overly distorting them, Ms. Czarnecki says.
With 19 years in the international book business, Czarnecki gives the example of how a book about marketing by a professor from Harvard University's Business School is different from that of a German professor at a leading German university. The Harvard professor automatically assumes a businessperson as part of the intended audience. In Germany, the target audience is another professor.
There is no mass market of American proportions for the German-authored book, while there is one for the American book, she says. The result: American business practices travel to Germany in a way that German practices don't travel back.
Juan Garcia, publisher of Eradnos Press in Boston, knows all too well the one-way direction of much international publishing. He recently bought the rights to a German novel that sold more than a million copies in Germany. He will publish 2,000 copies of its English-language translation in the US. The German publisher is speechless at the small production run, Mr. Garcia says.
The one-way direction of popular culture should surprise no one, says Camille Paglia, author of the iconoclastic cultural critique, ``Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson'' (Yale University Press). She praises the advent of the brassy, coarse-sounding American celebrity biography and says it is the ``only'' US export where popular culture expresses itself in print. (Kitty Kelley's biography of Nancy Reagan translates as easily as the successfully exported TV series ``Dall as,'' she says.) The genre will spread to other countries ``since our pop culture is powerful and is conquering the world,'' she says.
THERE could be an even more obvious reason for the one-way book publishing traffic, says Boston publisher David R. Godine. The English language is so widespread it is the equivalent of a worldwide tongue, he says. ``It doesn't mean that what is being written in America is any better than in France or Germany. But you have a cachet, a leg up,'' he says, because it is in English. ``American marketing techniques are [also] a good reason why American-authored books sell so well,'' says Craig Lowder, directo r of public relations at Reader's Digest, a Pleasantville, N.Y.-company that will sell 43 million books this year in more than 21 countries.
Cultural critics like Ms. Paglia speak of book-writing as essentially a ``reactionary event.'' Reading occurs at an implacable pace compared with broadcast and film. Therefore, at least in comparison with movies, TV, and fashion, works of fiction that successfully travel across cultures do so in deeper, more lasting channels, Mr. Lapham says.
One way to consider how literature, rather than nonfiction or general-interest books, affects popular culture is to ask the question of their influence historically, Lapham says. It may be necessary to look at a contemporary author the way we now look at Joseph Conrad. Conrad could hardly speak English, albeit he wrote it exquisitely. But he was two generations ahead of European thought in his sensibilities, and so his influence was delayed, Lapham says.
For this reason, it is important to seek out avant-garde writers, who call no country home but know that publishing in English is where they can reach the widest audience, Lapham says. ``The interesting writing is at the edges of culture,'' he says. Rushdie, Naipaul, Walcott, Peruvian poets, Czech 'emigr'es, whoever - these are people asking and seeking new definitions for the age-old question, ``Who am I?'' he says.
Where do such writers belong? Certainly not at the centers of publishing - New York, London, Paris, Lapham says. ``They are at the margins, where one culture washes up against another.'' These authors bring tremendous energy to their writing, he says, and it is this energy that can trace the influence of changing or re-emerging values that may eventually shift mores and values in the public at large.