Small World Literature

November 23, 2016 – 10:31 pm

Domenico Remps, "Cabinet of Curiosities" (1690s)

This is a small story about world literature.

In high school I was a bookish kid in a town with no bookstore. When I went to college the library immediately became the center of my life; I spent most of my undergraduate years reading my way through the social sciences. It was only in my final, empty semester that I began to flip through literary magazines, though I did not at that time foster any literary ambitions. I was working as a library assistant, and the periodicals room was one of the few places where I could divert myself with something that looked like honest work. Of the magazines on the racks, I was particularly impressed by Chicago Review, which published a mix of translations and dense, confident-sounding criticism. The people publishing the magazine seemed to know about a world that I didn't, not merely the literary world of a big city (as imagined by an undergraduate in a small college town), but a multinational, polyglot world that seemed impossibly far away.

Three years later I was Chicago Review's fiction editor, a job for which I had very meager qualifications: I was a sociology graduate student with one semester of freshman English, 200 words of published fiction, and no experience as a critic. I was, however, enthusiastic about literature and quick to hand out rejection slips. Perhaps most important, I wanted the job; so far as I know, nobody else was interested. In my first official act as editor, I asked New Directions Publishers to let me publish an excerpt of their forthcoming Victor Pelevin novella, The Hall of Singing Caryatids. I did not expect much to come of this request—I could offer them no money and a very limited circulation. A day or two later they sent me the complete manuscript and told me, not unkindly, to do the excerpting myself. I made my selection while riding the bus, the only time I had to spare. Opinion on Pelevin varies, but it is certain that he is one of Russia's more distinguished living novelists, and the oddsmakers sometimes give him an outside shot at the Nobel Prize. It was humbling to be handed his work and told to carve it up as I saw fit. It also struck me as more than a little ridiculous: this was work for people who knew what they were doing and had the time to do the thing well, not me.

This feeling has recurred every time I have selected fiction for Chicago Review. We publish translations in every issue, many of them from living authors of extraordinary distinction. I still feel unequal to the responsibility of handling (and judging) their work. But I now know that there is probably not a better qualified or less distracted person eager to take my place. The world's literature is translated, published, and read by the people who can be bothered to take an interest in it, and all the evidence suggests that not very many people do take an interest.


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