Monday, August 18, 2014

In obscurity, butterflies

"Not even the splendor of the Nobel Prize made a lasting difference. My royalty checks fattened surprisingly for one payment period following the prize and then returned to the under-$10 payments they had always been. In Stockholm, I had asked Karl Otto Bonnier about the next Oe book he was planning to publish and was surprised when he told me his company had no further plans for Oe. 'This Nobel excitement is just a blip, it won't last long,' he explained, and he was right."

That is John Nathan, a translator of Kenzaburo Oe's work, writing in Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere about the effect of Oe's Nobel Prize on book sales. Or rather, the lack of effect. This passage came to mind again recently because I've requested one of Oe's books from the library. Not only is it proving scarce and difficult to find, but the librarian who helped me with my request didn't seem to be familiar with Oe.

Writers know how hard it is to find and keep a readership, let alone any sort of longevity, but one would think that at least a Nobel Prize for literature ought to ensure some measure of fame, at least within literary communities. It has only been twenty years since Oe's moment in the Stockholm sun. I suppose this brings home the reality that the audience for literary fiction is small, and in the US, the audience for translated fiction appears to be even smaller.

One could find this disheartening, in a we're-all-destined-for-obscurity sort of way, or strangely heartening, in a well-if-greater-writers-can't-stay-in-th
e-limelight-that-sure-takes-the-pressure-off-me way. On Twitter, Anne Lamott often comments that we and our works will be quickly forgotten. A glance at the bestseller lists of yesteryear shows us that--how few books from even five years ago are still widely read and discussed, let alone twenty years, or fifty.

Most of us will have an indirect effect on the wider world of literature. We will not be read by everyone at once. We will be read by, and perhaps influence in some small way, a few people who will in turn influence other people, and these multiple influences will ripple through the community. We flap our butterfly wings and never know exactly how far the resulting breezes reach.

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