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Why is my novel a hit in Italy but not the United States?
Is it luck? Culture? Or some secret third thing?
A personal mystery has arisen, one I think tells us something interesting about contemporary publishing, American culture, and why some books succeed and others don’t.
My first novel, The Revelations, original published in the US in 2020, has recently received an Italian translation and it’s. . . getting a really good reception? There are glowing reviews in prestigious magazines? Some by names I recognize? There are interview requests? Congratulatory celebration? Nothing like this happened when it was published in America a few years ago.
This is despite the fact that in America the book came out from a major publisher, Abrams Books. Barnes & Noble bought three hardcovers for every store. While I certainly never expected a literary murder mystery set in the world of scientific research into consciousness to find a seat atop of the New York Times bestseller list, I expected at least some reviews. Somewhere. And note: the book didn’t get bad reviews. Across the dozens to hundreds of outlets that review published books regularly, it simply got no reviews (other than Publisher’s Weekly, a short positive review which hilariously got the plot wrong).
At this point, I know it’s easy to read the above as complaining. Not everyone is privileged enough to get published; in fact, I’m the first to admit the entire system is ridiculous in its hoops and unfairness. Personally, having seen the horrific factor floors of the publishing industry, I think some of the most brilliant authors in America are normal folks with manuscripts sitting in drawers. I even know a few. And I’m also not complaining from a readership perspective—to this day readers who’ve stumbled across it email me about the book, telling me that they treasure it, or how much it meant to them. But I will be honest and say I thought the reception here would be more like, well, the ongoing reception in Italy.
So here are the hypotheses I’ve come up with for why this is happening:
1. The book came out during Covid.
The summer of 2020 had a lot going on and my novel was some tiny speck competing in a market of attention that had been entirely bought up. The initial publication date was pushed back because books literally couldn’t be printed, since no one could go to work to staff the printing presses.
Even my book launch was online. It was hosted by Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog and all-around beautiful writer, who blurbed the book and then proceeded to talk it up everywhere he could in one of the most quixotic efforts of pure altruism I’ve ever seen.
2. The Italian publishers did an incredible job.
Maybe my Italian publishers, Carbonio Editore, just really know what they’re doing. They’ve been extremely communicative with me, forwarding me reviews and interviews. Even the translator, Olimpia Ellero, whom I’ve never communicated with, apparently did fantastic. Here’s from a recent review (using google translate, it’s not really this clunky):
Discovering it at this point in the journey was fundamental because I began to read the effort, attention and care behind the words.
Erik I'm talking to you!
. . . thanks go to the staff of the Carbonio Editore, to the translator Olimpia Ellero who I imagine is fully satisfied with the Italian product which is certainly not easy to interpret in some passages. Even her effort should somehow be rewarded because I know the dynamics well and I know how to recognize quality when I see it.
3. I am more willing to “play the writer” to a foreign audience, and I appear more mysterious there.
I’ve already answered a couple interviews in Italy, and I am drawn to a certain type of response. Rather than the Americanized pablum you are supposed to say “I’m so excited! Can’t wait for readers! So honored! Smiley-emoji-face!” I feel comfortable saying exactly the sort of insane dramatic things I want my favorite writers to say in interviews. Here’s from an upcoming interview at Mangialibri:
When did you decide to write The Revelations? What inspired you and led you to pour a substantial part of your scientific experience into the novel?
In a way, I got into science in order to write the novel, rather than later deciding to write a novel after my scientific career had begun. Writers often lead quite boring lives now. They go to college and take courses in creative writing rather than joining a ship heading to the Galapagos like Melville—and I, also stuck in modernity, have been no exception. However, science was intellectually exciting to me, and I felt there had not ever been the great “scientific novel.” Something that found in science what Melville found in whaling—the entire compendium of human experience. Of course, I feel that I failed to capture that in full, but the idea of such a novel was what inspired me.
You said you re-read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick several times while you were writing The Revelations, and you left traces of it in some dream sequences: what were you looking for, what did you find in those pages and how did it influence your writing?
Melville is, in my opinion, the greatest of novelists, for it was he who realized just what a novel could be. Which is everything. There is no limit to the form. It is voracious, essayistic, dangerous, omnivorous. You can put anything in a novel. Entire chapters can be explanations or philosophical reveries. More broadly, I’ve always been attracted to philosophical writers—I’ve already mentioned Umberto Eco, but Borges too, and Italo Calvino as well. Melville, however, was the greatest of these, because his prose could match his ideas.
Again however, I’m forced to admit this is a bad hypothesis, as it’s after-the-fact. I got interview requests after the book was already getting reviews, not before.
4. Maybe American culture is not very intellectual?
It is often said that, compared to Europe, America is very hard-nosed and empirical. I’ve found when walking around NYC it’s hard to find someone reading an old moldy classic; it is much easier to do so in Paris. While in many ways the US is the most intellectually successful country, there is a sense in which its form of intellectualism is always grounded either in academic success or in corporate success and there is less pure free-range intellectualism.
A brief example: when I was in graduate school I and my co-authors established the field of causal emergence, which is a mathematical theory of how emergence is based on error-correction and noise minimization. I recently gave a talk on the subject (and my other, upcoming book this summer) at what I thought was a small Zoom event hosted by a group called the Causal Emergence Community in China. It turned out instead that:
Why do I feel I could not get 150,000 Americans to listen to a talk about causal emergence if my life depended on it? While the United States is my country, and I love it more than any other, experiencing stuff like this does make me curious. By the way, there should be a Chinese translation of The Revelations out soon. We’ll see if if the Italian translation effect replicates, or if it’s just a one-off.
5. Maybe Italian literary culture is less political?
Another thing that’s often said: Europe is culturally a decade or two behind the United States. Usually this is said with a tone of dismissal, but I certainly don’t feel that. Please, give me the literature of 2003 rather than 2023! After all, my favorite novels growing up were big omnivorous and intellectual books from that era, like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Exactly the kind of book The Revelations is, and exactly a style out of vogue now, left behind in favor of a contemporary literature that is more personal, diaristic, and political.
Speaking of this last part—and this is always a bit dangerous to talk about—perhaps the heavy politicization of literature has not yet come for Italy. All I mean by this is that it’s no secret that cultural products in America exist under a high amount of political scrutiny now, like the controversy over changes to Roald Dahl’s oeuvre.
Personally, I didn’t think of politics at all while writing The Revelations, which is, in retrospect, naive. I was just so concentrated on the characters and language and story. A book not defensively written is sort of innocent, and like most innocent things, this leaves it open to political attack. Now, there’s really nothing highly controversial or politically incorrect in the book (that I know of). It’s just not that kind of work. But for sure the book is not explicitly political, either offensively or defensively.
However, if the difference in reception were about politics, wouldn’t it mean someone would have bothered to review the book harshly? It seems like you need to read a book to have a problem with its content. So I don’t weight this very highly either.
6. The scariest of them all: the null hypothesis
Maybe there is no explanation. Maybe a bunch of books get published every year, and, even among the group coming out from major publishers, even among the kind that end up in most bookstores, a bunch, maybe the majority, are never reviewed by anyone. And you don’t hear about them, ever, because why would you?
I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to give a huge shoutout to literally the entire nation of Italy. I’ve never talked about this publicly, but after The Revelations was published I swore off fiction forever. Again, it’s not that it got a bad reception, it’s that it became clear to me that the amount of work entailed by writing novels—truly an insane quantity—did not justify itself. I’m not talking about from a monetary perspective, I’m talking about a how-am-I-going-to-spend-my-life perspective, and it just didn’t add up, even though I was very confident in the final product, felt artistically fulfilled, and was receiving love from readers.
That’s actually why I started this Substack. I thought I could bring what I enjoyed most about fiction—the language, the meditativeness, the personal aspect—to nonfiction subjects instead, and Substack seemed the rising medium with which to scratch that itch (I’ve even published a few short stories here too). I don’t regret this move in the slightest, as this is the writing I love doing right now, and expect that to be true for years to come.
But because of the unexpectedly positive reception in Italy, I think one day I will return to fiction. Perhaps I’ll even serialize my next novel right here on Substack (not anytime soon, years from now, and it would be separately opt-in). Meaning that it’ll all return, the hundreds of post-it notes containing plot points and character details spread out on my walls like I’m a detective in a noir TV show, the obsessive note-taking in public whenever I hear a bit of dialogue that rings true, the mornings of a blank page and cups of coffee, the nights of a blank page and a bottle of wine. That feeling of grappling with an abstract construction ever shifting, which does seem like putting together sheets of plywood in high wind; so too will return the sensation of being blown over but recovering, of putting two and two together and, with staunch firmness, hammering in another nail.