By Rachel Sugar
“The world may be flat for Thomas Friedman, but it’s a blur for anyone who wanted to read books from around the world in recent years,” says Granta editor (and sometime-Newcity critic) John Freeman. Only three percent of books published annually in the US are works in translation, leaving English-language readers with access to a tiny fraction of world literature. Last fall, though, the Britain-based publication used its “Best of Young Novelists” franchise to attack what Freeman calls this “literary parochialism” head-on: in November, Granta’s “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue became the first-ever foreign-language edition of the magazine, published first in Spanish out of Barcelona under the direction of Granta en espanol co-founders and editors Valerie Miles and Aurelio Major, with an English translation of the issue close behind.
This week, Freeman, Miles and a handful of the Spanish literary lights are making their way cross-country for “Building Bridges: Spanish and English Writers in Conversation,” a literary tour cosponsored by the Spain-USA Foundation and the Embassy of Spain. At the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago, the Granta crew—Freeman and Miles, plus contributors Andres Barba, Javier Montes and Alberto Olmos—will be joined by American novelist and “Best European Fiction” series editor Aleksandar Hemon.
When Freeman calls the lit mag’s annual “Best of Young Novelist” issues “literary crystal balls,” it’s hardly editorial bravado: the list of previous title-holders reads like a who’s who of contemporary letters. Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis were among the 1993 picks; Jonathan Franzen, Lorrie Moore, Edwidge Danticat and Jeffrey Eugenides are all alumni from 1996. If history is any indication, then, this year’s issue, too, is likely to feature works by writers who will come to define their generation—only this time, many of them are reaching Anglophone audiences for the first time.
Because the stories were translated specifically for publication in Granta, the curatorial challenge was double the usual: under the direction of a multilingual panel of judges, they had to select twenty-two Spanish short stories by twenty-two writers, then pair each work with the appropriate translator. Yet the very selection of the stories—which work by any given author would make the issue—depended in part upon their “translatablity.” “I chose a text with simple grammar and colloquial style,” says Olmos of his contribution, “Eva and Diego.” “Some of my books, however, could lose part of their charm once you take it to another language.”
Read together, the stories provide a tour of the contemporary Spanish literary landscape—a landscape that, according to Freeman, is notable for the diversity of its terrain. “The range of styles in the issue in general is what surprised me the most,” he says of putting the issue together. “This isn’t a generation per se, since they are really united simply by a language, and an age bracket.” (All the writers here write in Spanish, all are under 35, and all of them have at least one published book behind them.) Still, there are commonalities. “The Spanish writers are extremely stylish,” says Freeman, and, perhaps true to stereotype, they’re “very unafraid to write about sex—there’s actually more sex in this issue than there is in the ‘Sex’ issue we did…last spring.”
Other distinguishing features of contemporary Spanish letters are less, well, sexy. When I ask Montes to weigh in on how the Spanish-language lit scene differs from its Anglophone counterpart, he cites the varying degree of “professionalization” of the field. “Living out of your writing (and only out of that) seems feasible for more people [in the US] than in the Spanish-speaking publishing world,” he says. But creative writing as an economically sustainable career, Montes argues, is a double-edged sword. “Hearing my Anglo-Saxon writer friends, I seem to realize that the usual writing career is really too efficiency-oriented and too codified by now,” with the craft of tailoring ones’ self to the market eclipsing the “spark of weirdness” that drives us to read in the first place.
The relationship between Spanish and English literary cultures is only part of what will be up for discussion on Thursday. Freeman anticipates the panel will also take on the fundamental differences between the “moods and habits” of languages themselves—and the art of traversing between them. And, he adds, “I suspect that there will be quite a bit of drinking.”
“Building Bridges: Spanish and English Writers in Conversation,” featuring Granta Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists Javier Montes, Alberto Olmos and Andrés Barba, in conversation with Granta editor, John Freeman and American author Aleksandar Hemon, and moderated by Valerie Miles, editor of Duomo ediciones and co-founder of Granta en español takes place May 19, 6pm at the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago, 31 West Ohio, (312)335-1996. Free.