Why do books matter?
British novelist, essayist, translator, and critic Parks (Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo, 2013, etc.) considers the current state of writing and reading in short, contemplative literary musings. Organized into four sections—The World Around the Book, The Book in the World, The Writer’s World, and Writing Across Worlds—the essays focus on the challenges writers face in defining their literary boundaries. In the author’s view, creative writing programs teach novelists “how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in their own culture.” This “standardization and flattening” of narrative reflects students’ anxiety about getting published, which in turn often makes literary fiction predictable and unimaginative. Pressure to market books globally has led, the author believes, to “a slow weakening of the sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which writers make their own urgent narrative contributions.” As a teacher and practitioner of translation, Parks devotes many essays to its problems: the struggle to translate unexpected syntax or subtly novel ideas and the relationship between semantic sense and “the acoustic inertia” of a language. Translated texts, he notes, “tend to be cooler, a little less fluid” than their originals. Although translations make up only 3 to 4 percent of novels published in America, English dominates publishing in other countries, leading some European writers to emulate English syntax. Parks refers often to writers he esteems, such as D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Beckett, Peter Stamm, and Henry Green. Jonathan Franzen, who he thinks is overrated, is not among them.
“Do We Need Stories?” “Why Finish Books?” “What’s Wrong with the Nobel?” “Does Money Make Us Write Better?” Readers vexed by such questions will welcome Parks’ thoughtful responses.