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An American and a Vegetable Walk into a Bookstore

Posted by Thomas Riggs in Bookselling books world literature on November 4, 2009

Living in France, I hear a lot about how Americans are . . . from a French perspective. In general, despite reports to the contrary, Americans seem to be well enough liked, with some exceptions, at least in the south. The election of Obama has helped the reputation of the United States. There also seems to be a deep-seated love here for Starsky and Hutch.

Curiously “Starsky et Hutch” speak French.

But there remain some common complaints. Americans are loud. They’re overweight. They don’t care about other countries and couldn’t find France on a map. Recently on a plane I was sitting next to a Romanian woman who now lives in Chicago. She told me she had watched an American television quiz show, and the host asked the question, What’s Romania? The contestant, the Romanian woman assured me, guessed it was a type of lettuce.

As a person fond of both Europe and the United States, I just smiled. Not long ago someone here in France asked me if Chicago was a neighborhood of New York.

What does this have to do with literature? One of my favorite blogs is Three Percent, devoted to modern and contemporary international literature. It’s so called because only 3 percent of all books published in the United States are translations. According to Three Percent, among books of literary fiction and poetry, the figure is only 0.7 percent (in 2008 the most commonly translated language in this category was French, with 16 percent of the total, but that added up to only 59 books).

I’m afraid, at least in literature, the stereotype of Americans is true. We all spend time in the produce section, but few of us ever buy a Romanian book.

      

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