Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Un-American Books

Greetings, manICateers. No doubt there's much been rending of garments and wailing and gnashing of teeth due to my extended absence from the blogosphere, for which I apologize. A combination of a hellacious virus and an equally grueling finals season have kept me away from the blog for a while, but I'm hoping to pick up again over the winter break.

Today's topic comes courtesy of the New York Times, thanks to alert reader (and fellow blogger) Jaxiecracks. The article discusses the crusade of foreign cultural institutes and publishers to get American readers to pick up books from their countries.
Hoping to increase their minuscule share of the American book market — about 3 percent — foreign governments and foundations, especially those on the margins of Europe, are taking matters into their own hands and plunging into the publishing fray in the United States. Increasingly, that campaign is no longer limited to widely spoken languages like French and German. From Romania to Catalonia to Iceland, cultural institutes and agencies are subsidizing publication of books in English, underwriting the training of translators, encouraging their writers to tour in the United States, submitting to American marketing and promotional techniques they may have previously shunned and exploiting existing niches in the publishing industry.

This isn't simply a marketing gimmick, but a cultural diplomacy strategy, one that underscores a major difference between U.S. diplomacy and that of other countries--namely, the U.S. tendency to overlook culture in general. As John Brown argues in "Arts Diplomacy: The Neglected Aspects of Cultural Diplomacy," the United States does not promote its high culture abroad the way other countries do. This could be a result of national psychology--a remnant of puritanical heritage that sees art as an indulgence--but the end result is that USPD tends to emphasize education over culture, which is why the CIA had to conduct covert high culture ops during the Cold War. U.S. pop culture has the strength of the market behind it, but high culture--like foreign literature--lacks that support.

As a recovering English major whose foreign literature collection takes up significantly more than 3 percent of her shelves, I support this push for literature diplomacy. Some things will inevitably be lost in translation, but I think there's a lot more to be found.

1 comment:

  1. Laura -- Glad you're feeling better and that you're back enlightening us via cyberspace! I, as I'm sure among many others, missed your commentaries! Best, John