In response to yesterday’s item about some arrogant Swede dismissing American literature, a reader named “Kerstin” commented that it was “a pity that your misdirected patriotism makes it hard to take in [Horace Engdahl's] frankness,” adding, “American insularity in publishing is a tragic fact.” The thing is, we never disagreed with that; it would indeed be very nice if American publishers gave us more world literature in translation, and we applaud those publishers who are challenging conventional marketplace “wisdom” to do so. We still don’t see how that makes American writers inherently worse than their European counterparts.
“An appalling reminder is that France publishes American writers that American publishers find too politically incorrect,” Kerstin continues. “Most recent example is Nick McDowell with his devastating portrait of the young American elite at Harvard Law School (title: Guerre à Harvard or War at Harvard).” We assume Kerstin means Nick McDonell (left), who does in fact have a new book in France that has not been published in America, although our rusty French suggests to us that it’s not set at the law school, just the college, and that it’s really more of a long, long autobiographical essay. We fail to see, however, how something Google’s translator describes as “a striking portrait of a youth nurtured at Fox News and video games that tries to forget the war, at the risk of forgetting itself” could possibly be considered too politically incorrect for an American publisher. More to the point: While we don’t know the status of this particular project (we’re waiting to hear back from his agent), it’s not like Nick McDonell is a literary outsider suffering in obscurity. The man has published two novels with Grove Press, after all. According to Nielsen Bookscan, Twelve sold 34,000 copies in hardcover after its publication in 2002; The Third Brother, published three years later, sold just 2,000 hardcover copies to Bookscan-reporting outlets.
If War at Harvard isn’t going to be published in the United States, there are many possible explanations—somehow we doubt “American publishers can’t handle the truth” is the one that’s applicable.