Read Any Foreign Lit Lately?

I don't know about you, but I was really struck by the news last week that Harcourt/Houghton has decided to stop acquiring works until further notice. What does that mean? That this giant of quality publishing will not longer be sniffing out worthy manuscripts? That it will now ignore an in-box that may contain a work of world literature that could change the way you and I think?

Nobel Prize winner for literature Gunter Grass. (Fritz Reiss/AP)

Harcourt has always been a front-runner in apprising American readers of excellence in world letters. (Full disclosure: Many, many years ago, I was an editor there.) Harcourt, after all, has published a preponderance of Nobel Prize-winners in recent years. We wouldn't know Gunter Grass, Octavio Paz, Jose Saramago, Wyslava Szymborska, Umberto Eco, Amos Oz, etc., etc., if it weren't for a very perspicacious editor in Harcourt's ranks, Drenka Willen. And Houghton, in turn, over the years has published Winston Churchill, Edna O'Brien, Salman Rushdie and Peter Ho Davies, to name a very few.

So what happens when a mighty conduit of great international literature turns a deaf ear?

It got me to thinking about what's on the other side of that equation. What Europeans read by Americans.

Surprise: They often read John Grisham, Jane Smiley. Thomas Friedman, Jeffrey Sachs.

Just last week, Britain's The Guardian featured our very own Malcolm Gladwell's latest book Outliers. And on the British fiction bestseller lists are James Patterson (Cross Country) and Maeve Binchy (Heart and Soul). Spain is reading YA American phenom Stephenie Meyer (Breaking Dawn). The Spanish are also reading Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture. In Germany, at the top of the charts are Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife, about a zoo in Warsaw, and Pat Buchanan's book Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War.

So you see. They read what we write. You could argue that what's shown up on their lists lately by Americans is fairly predictable and not all that deep. On the other hand, it's clear they know more about American writers than we know about Europeans. They're well aware of Philip Roth, John Updike, Hanif Kureishi, John Irving, Toni Morrison, Stephen King.

You could dismiss this and say it's quintessential proof of American "soft power," what Harvard Kennedy School professor Joseph S. Nye Jr. argues is our best hope of winning the world's favor -- a cultural offensive more influential than military might.

Or you might just say: We don't listen.

Tell me what you think.

-- Marie Arana

By Marie Arana |  December 1, 2008; 7:01 AM ET Marie Arana
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A publishing system without input? The world of books does seem more "curiouser and curiouser" as we feel our way in the new century.

Re: Harcourt/Houghton, Charles A. Madison in his 1966 "Book Publishing in America" told of H.O. Houghton already rich and well up in his years still spending full days at his office. Asked why, he barked: "To say NO!" I'm sure the old lion would be surprised at the extremes his "no" has now been taken.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | December 1, 2008 11:31 AM

We listen... to what the rest of the world listens to: US. If Albania was the world superpower, we would be reading more of their books. And we would be wondering why they don't read more of ours; is it because they are too isolated, too insular, too ignorant?

Anyway, I think HH's move has more to do with the economic times than with American listening habits. I have been reading a lot of foreign literature lately... but old stuff, nothing new that I can remember at least regarding fiction. There is a lot to listen to and authors don't have to be alive to be listened to. (Besides, yearly awards like the Nobel will likely miss many of the authors who generations from now will be considered great, authors who really had something to say... just as they always have.)

Posted by: prokaryote | December 1, 2008 7:53 PM

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