How to help a book travel without making it dull
April 28th, 2010
Five or six centuries ago the authors wrote for a global market in a global language. Gradually they abandoned Latin to continue writing in their own languages for a smaller and more focused readership; the slowly emerging middle classes in different countries.

The last few decades we have seen a new globalization of the world and the word echoing the era of the past where a clerical elite ruled the international arena. In the literary world we see how an increasing amount of books travel across borders with the help of idle authors, skilled translators and astute agents. But how does this effect the literature and the way authors adapt or do not adapt their writing to suit an international readership?

In NYR Tim Sparks recently wrote an article called "The Dull New Global Novel", arguing that the globalization of the novel has its costs: “From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension.”

Sparks argues that this effects the content of the fiction on many levels; the language is kept simple, complicated character names are avoided, some authors will leave out word plays and allusions to their cultural context to ease the work for the translator. Spark’s conclusion is that we risk having more dull novels adapted to the “the least common multiple” of the international reader’s arena.

It is an important debate Tim Sparks raises. For a literary agent trying to help books travel broader and smoother, it is vital to face the challenges of different marketing challenges for a book in different markets – and at the same time take into account that a book is somehow deeply connected to the specific local surroundings of an author. The more local, the more specific, the more original – the more universal it somehow turns out to be, and the less dull.

Next week NORLA (Norwegian Literature Abroad) hosts an international seminar in Oslo gathering authors, publishers and translators to discuss “The national biography in a global world”. How can national icons interest readers outside the country? What are the important criteria’s for making a national biography international?

Perhaps the easiest answer is the obvious one; avoid “the least common multiple”, have trust in the imaginative mind of the far-away reader. Make the book shorter, but don’t make it dull.

Hans Petter