April 2006

Sanford May

big in japan

Our Own Worst Enemies

A couple years into following Japanese literature with an eye out for this column, I haven’t noticed much change in the West’s adoption rate for Japanese books. Movies, yes. Japanese horror films, or J-horror, was, briefly, all the rage and still remains important to that industry. And the Japanese still drive much of the video games industry, although games operations have widely spread across the first-world globe. Even quirky, unusual Japanese games, like Katamari Damacy, that shouldn’t have realized much market outside the home islands have broken into the consciousness of Western gamers. But books, not so much.

I recently exchanged a short correspondence with a student of books, a writer and literature major at a good, well-known university. We both agreed that books will remain cultural touchstones in developed societies despite a quarter century’s hoopla about the death of books in some form or another. But we lamented that books, and moreover, reading, aren’t what they once were. People used to talk about books; books were celebrated topics of great import. Indeed the recent Capote biographical film reminds me of a time, in which I scant participated, when writers had great cachet and influence. They were big people doing smart things. These things mattered to people. I should say that when I say “people” I mean people, everyday people, not four-eyed divan dwellers like me, our walls lined with sagging shelves of books and our minds composed largely of snippets of what other people have written about things. But these regular Joes don’t bother to read anymore. They may possess the technical skills but they’ve lost the will.

Really I don’t blame them. Our days are overfilled with work or family, or some combination of the two, or in just getting along. A thousand things compete for our few recreation hours and they all seem so immediate and accessible, easier on the eyes than books, and in most cases a whole lot prettier. You can today switch on 24 hours of digital cable news for the fast illusion that you’re actually enhancing your knowledge of our world. Making matters much worse, there is no extensive campaign to popularize anew and beautify books. Well, there’s one, but if you know anything about writers and books, and you take all this seriously, you laugh at that one. I’m talking of course about Oprah Winfrey and her television book club. Really, what a joke. Who is this woman to tell us what to read? And who is her viewing audience to pretend to understand what they’re reading? But I don’t see anyone else with her kind of media clout bothering to do much of anything passionate about books.

I think for the most part we like it that way, like laughing at Oprah and her dull-eyed nonreaders trying to read. We want to keep our private club, the cliquish audience for our snide and subtle remarks, the kind of in-crowd authority we did after all miss in high school. But if we truly love books, we want people to read lots of them, and we hope for the likes of Japanese literature in translation to gain a deep foothold with Westerners, we’re going to have to stop snickering at the populist manifestos, the sorts of books that say at least something yet still somehow appeal to people who watch afternoon television.

Dan Brown and James Frey have been a lot in the news in lately, and we self-described literati have saved a sneer for them, too. A thriller writer and a literary exhibitionist with a gimmick that turned out to be more gimmicky than we’d thought. Still, we’d be wise to remember that, to coin a phrase, success breeds contempt. Of course I’ve said nasty things about The Da Vinci Code -- oh that stupid faux surname right there in the title -- and I haven’t even read the book. But of late Brown and Frey have done more to make writers seem scandalously newsworthy than Norman Mailer’s small slip with a sharp object. And by “newsworthy” I mean interesting to people other than those of us who will, if pressed, coyly admit that reading, and indeed understanding, all of Proust is our one true calling. So thanks Dan Brown and James Frey for again giving us a name, brief instant that it may last.

What does this have to do with Japanese literature? In the West, everything. If we want exceptional little houses like Vertical to thrive, or even survive, we’ll have to start paying attention to the people -- yes, those people. This should be obvious, yet still we laugh at Oprah because in our book club it’s not enough to love books, we have to love the right books, the ones with pages that will disintegrate when exposed to anything but the rarified air we blow out like old gasbags. Fine, let’s laugh while we can. But do you have any idea what an Oprah selection would mean for Japanese literature in this country? Sure, she’d probably go for one of the safe, classic choices, like Kenzaburo Oe -- I’d celebrate that. But the better choice, the more informed choice, would be something like Kaori Ekuni’s Twinkle Twinkle. Can you imagine that? That would be so great I’d forget to laugh at Oprah and her ingenuous legion of unwashed fans.