Sunday, 27 September 2009

Appendices omitted: it's all on Google

The video below is a review of 'Brecht At Night' by Mati Unt, a 'documentary novel' recently published by the ever-adventurous Dalkey Archive Press. I happened to find the review on the site of a promising new monthly literary journal, The Collagist. But this post isn't here to recommend the output of the Dalkey Archive Press (although I do, very highly), or to note that it might be worth keeping an eye on The Collagist (which it might), or even to highlight the book itself (pretty intriguing though it sounds), the moment where this video becomes relevant to this particular blog occurs at the 06:30 mark (click here if you prefer to watch only from that moment).

Apparently, the translator has decided to omit a bibliography and other appendices because, to quote the translator's note, "the internet, still in its infancy when the book was first published, has rendered [them] redundant. Nowadays you can find a great deal of the information included there by using a search engine" - in other words, they've been omitted because nowadays you can just 'google stuff'; a rationale which, for me, utterly misses the point.

Firstly, I generally don't read whilst next to an open laptop - that, of course, being the big advantage of books, that they don't have to be plugged in or connected to wi-fi, you can read them anywhere - but even more than that, often I've simply had enough of staring at a computer screen - books are a wonderful break from all that work and idle clicking. Therefore, if there's some additional information that might enhance my experience of a book, I'd much rather read it within that book - and indeed I'm much more likely to read it if that's where it's to be found. Even if you have got a phone or laptop beside you, it's still much quicker to just flick to the back of the book.

Secondly, omitting these appendices ignores the work done by the author in compiling them - sifting out the illuminating sources from the dull, the reliable from the less reliable. Why make the readers do this all over again for themselves? Moreover, much of the history that seems to be an integral - though also in some ways fictionalised - part of 'Brecht At Night' will be unfamiliar to the majority outside of Estonia, and while the novel itself is probably a very useful starting source for further research into that history, I'd be much more interested in the additional context the author himself had judged worth pointing us towards.

I suppose it's possible that omitting appendices may make a book cheaper to publish, perhaps cheaper to buy, and in turn perhaps more likely to reach a wider audience. But even if that was the case here, why not include a web address in the book and instead publish the appendices on the Dalkey Archive Press site? Hosting the information may even have helped drive a few potential customers to the site - via a search engine, in fact.

Ultimately, what concerns me most about the decision to omit information from 'Brecht At Night' is that in a world where almost everything can be googled there is huge value to having a reliable route through it all - a curator, a guide, an editor, someone to point you in interesting and reliable directions. Sure, cut costs by posting appendices online, if you must, but please, publishers, don't leave them out altogether. Navigating a world of near infinite knowledge can be hard enough at the best of times without some of the signposts being removed as well.

N.B. More usually, books from Dalkey Archive Press include useful additional information, such as critical essays or author interviews, rather than omitting it. And long may that continue. [ADDITIONAL NOTE] 'Brecht At Night' does in fact include a substantial context-setting introductory essay as additional content.

UPDATE: Eric Dickens, the translator of 'Brecht At Night', has responded in the comments - many thanks to him for taking the time and for clearing up the matter.

Just in case anyone should only see this page, however, I should just like to make clear that the book is in fact prefaced by an introductory essay in which Eric Dickens very much sets the work in its historical/literary context - as you'll see for yourself at Google Books - and that the decision to omit the appendices was not the publisher's decision. Also, from Mr Dickens' descriptions, and he should know, what has been left out does indeed sound substantially less interesting and extensive than the reviewer in the above video perhaps suggests.

A possibility that publishers could begin to omit appendices in favour of an assumption that an interested reader should resort to Google, does (or did) concern me; but, all in all, these particular appendices don't sound any great loss. My apologies for commenting solely on the basis of a review!


Eric Dickens said...

A comment from the horse's mouth (i.e. that of the translator himself):

You may feel cheated, but I made the decision that the original appendices were not necessary. There were some rather poor quality black-and-white photos, something by Ernst Bloch, something by Uku Masing, and a long bibliography of books in Estonian, Russian, etc., that Mati Unt had used. I don't think I've cheated the reader.

I absolutely agree that you don't sit with a novel in one hand and keyboard under the other, but I decided that leaving out these few appendices was something that would not diminish the enjoyment and purport of the book. You can do a bit of Googling after you've finished reading to look at the photos and read the Bloch and Masing. They will add a little, but not much.

The key things that Unt was trying to say are already in the text itself, not least the very real and disturbing passages covering the murder of members of the Estonian government, which contrast greatly with the generally zany nature of the Brecht parts of the book.

I also added an fairly long introduction, assuming that virtually no North American reader would know anything much about the history and geography of Estonia. That, to an extent, compensated for the lost appendices.

So, I hope that anyone commenting on [my translation of] the novel will not suspect that I'm depriving them of valuable insights, but simply understand that I made a personal judgement. I'd like feedback on whether I got the English right vis-à-vis the Estonian original. That would be valuable to know.

Page 209 explains exactly what is missing. It was my own decision as translator, not that of Dalkey. So blame me, but do not blame Dalkey.

In real life, when things are complex and the deadline is getting nearer, you have to stop at some point. Getting the permissions from the Brecht estate to publish the Brecht poems (in my own translation) took a very long time and we were already running up against the printer. But at the very last moment, Suhrkamp were very good and gave the permissions; I am very thankful.

What I think is important about this novel is the sychronicity, the contrast of the cushy life that Brecht was leading in Finland versus the fact that Estonia was being invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union at exactly the same time and the tongue-in-cheek playing around with the dialectic and the concept of alienation.

Tim Warren said...

Hi Eric,

Many thanks for taking the time out to respond - and my apologies for being foolish enough to comment only on the basis of a review!

I have added an update to the original post to direct readers to your comment and to point out my main mistakes and lapses of clarity. For instance, I didn't mean to suggest that leaving out the appendices was the idea of D A Press, it was just that while listening to the review the possibility came to mind that perhaps publishers might begin to omit certain appendices on the basis that so much info is only a search engine away - I perhaps wasn't sufficiently clear that the speculation was more general than specific to DAP.

Also, now you mention it, it did occur to me that some of the content in the appendices may have needed clearing with rights holders... but unfortunately that possibility had apparently ejected itself from my mind when I came to write. Apologies for that too.

Anyway, thanks again for such a comprehensive response - not least because what you had to say makes me even more intrigued to read the book. I shall be ordering it as soon as I've posted this!

Best wishes,