Try this simple test: how many of the following novels have you read?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz
Ravel, Jean Echenoz, trans. from the French by Linda Coverdale
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
The Archivist's Story, Travis Holland
The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles, Roy Jacobsen, trans. from the Norwegian by Don Shaw and Don Bartlett
The Indian Clerk, David Leavitt
Animal's People, Indra Sinha
Man Gone Down, Michael Thomas
Don't feel bad if you've only read a couple or even heard of only a couple. They're the short-list candidates for the 2009 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the winner of which is to be announced Thursday. The IMPAC Dublin is one of the most prestigious—and certainly, with a bounty of 100,000 euros, one of the most remunerative—prizes any novelist can win. The prize puts a premium on globalism. Contestants are nominated by libraries around the world, and novels are nominated two years after publication so that translators have time to render them into English. Among the past winners are Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses), Colm Toíbin (The Master), Edward P. Jones (The Known World) and Orhan Pamuk (My Name Is Red). Winners have come from Ireland, the United States, Norway, Turkey, Germany, Canada and France. So the chances that you've read all these books, or even heard of some of them, are slim. Literarily speaking, the global village is a pretty darn big village.
It would be the height of parochialism to argue that this is anything but a good thing for literature. Prizes don't always sell books, but they never hurt, and the more exposure books from far-flung places can get, the better. At the same time, any idea of a canon—a body of work read and assimilated by a large number of informed readers—more or less goes out the window. No one is on the same page these days.
OK, that's not quite true. A glance at global bestseller lists turns up several familiar names: Ken Follett is a best-seller in the Czech Republic, Jodi Picoult in the United Kingdom, Stieg Larsson in Spain, Brazil and France (along with Michael Connelly and Hugh Laurie!). Dan Brown's and Stephenie Meyer's books are bestsellers everywhere. But most of the lists from, say, Italy or Germany or Chile contain books by authors most American readers have never read or heard much about. (Books in translation amount to about 3 percent of books published in this country each year.) The result is that everyone knows the Stephen Kings and J. K. Rowlings, but very few readers can keep up with the serious literature being published around the globe.
This is where the Dublin IMPAC prize does readers and authors a true service, by promoting writers we might otherwise never have encountered. I don't see how any serious reader could have missed the Pulitzer-winning Junot Díaz (a Dominican-born writer who immigrated to the United States as a child and writes in English), but it would have been lamentably easy to overlook the work of Roy Jacobson or Indra Sinha or Jean Echenoz, or even Michael Thomas, an American author. The Dublin IMPAC shortlist is a marvelous education in global writing, going back to its first prize in 1996, which went to the Australian David Malouf's Remembering Babylon.
The problem, and it is a severe problem, is that the list is not even the tip of an iceberg; it's more like a sign that says iceberg here! Each of us can read only so much, and while it's a wonderful thing to be introduced to literature from around the world, at some point, you want to yell uncle. The number of new fiction titles published in this country each year currently hovers around 50,000. We are drowning in books, and no one can hope to keep up. Author Bruce Sterling recently published "18 Challenges in Contemporary Literature" on his Wired blog, Beyond the Beyond, and No. 8 on his list was, "Long tail balkanizes audiences, disrupts means of canon-building and fragments literary reputation." By that he means, I think, that companies like Amazon can service niche markets, improving the chances of little-known authors, for example, but not breaking those authors out to a broad audience. So even authors who get published aren't reaching a lot of readers. And the readers they reach are quite often in separate camps that don't speak to one another. Tower of Babel, anyone?
Again, the Dublin IMPAC prize puts a dent in our ignorance, but it's only a dent. The real problem—too many books and not enough information about them—hasn't gone away, and it gets worse all the time. For every Steig Larsson or Per Petterson, there are dozens of worthy authors who don't get any attention. In this respect, these authors are like writers published by a vanity press: they have the satisfaction of being in print, but that's about it. They don't attract readers because readers can't find them in the crowd.
A few publishers see the problem, but not many—even in the face of layoffs and employee buyouts, they're promising not to cut the lists of books they publish. In other words, they're avoiding doing the one thing that might have improved business, and that might have made the reading world a little less cluttered for readers.