Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Three Percent Podcast

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Vital stats:
Format: two publishers talking books, and much else in the cultural space besides
Episode duration: 40m-1h20m
Frequency: 1-2 per month

Checking out any new bookstore, I head immediately to its world literature shelves. That is, I see if it has them at all. It usually doesn’t. Though small, the world literature shelf at Skylight Books here in Los Angeles so impresses me that, often, I don’t leave it for the entire visit. Not that I visit much anymore; shortly after moving to town, a broadcaster friend of mine — probably the best-known non-writing figure in the Los Angeles book world — called up Skylight and recommended they hire me, using some of the most gleamingly superlatively terms with which I will ever hear myself described. When I turned up to talk to the managers, they asked if I had a car, suggesting that maybe I could drive stuff around for events. I didn’t have a car. My applications to a few other such businesses met with the indifference of the universe. I did land an interview with one noted Pasadena bookstore, which proceeded to surround me with at least a dozen other, clammier applicants — supplicants, really — each more desperate than the last, and all more desperate than me, to convince the interviewers of their single-minded dedication to customer service.

That about sums up my contact with that side of the book business, though I do spend much of my time reading about books, writing about books, and interviewing the writers of books, especially books of the international variety. Hence my interest in The Three Percent Podcast [iTunes], the audio branch of Three Percent, a site from the University of Rochester meant to provide “a destination for readers, editors, and translators interested in finding out about modern and contemporary international literature” (which constitutes three percent of the business). Podcast co-host Chad W. Post teaches at the University, runs Three Percent, and also direct’s Open Letter, the University’s own literary publishing house. They’ve put out a few cool-looking titles from the likes of Alejandro Zambra, Mathias Énard, and Marguerite Duras. Tom Roberge, the podcast’s other co-host, works as the Publicity and Marketing Director at the long-respected press New Directions, whose spine logo — a “colophon,” I think they call it — my eyes zip right toward when I scan those world-lit shelves. I trust that little stylized man and wolf. Having introduced before to writers like César Aira, Yoko Tawada, and Enrique Vila-Matas, they probably won’t steer me wrong now.

I remember meeting Roberge a few years back, at an Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. (I have nothing to do with any academic writing department, but I do get a fair few podcast interviews recorded there.) He sold me some books from New Directions’ table there at the conference’s book fair, and later mailed me a box of Aira’s work so I could do a radio show on the writer. I seldom buy new books these days; it felt weird, almost wrong, to exchange actual money from the handful I picked up off the table. I do, however, get a lot of them sent to me by publishers. The rest I check out from my friendly local library. This may not bode well for the publishing industry, but then, if you listen to publishers, things haven’t tended to bode well for them a century or so. Roberge and Post, two publishers, do tend to get into the nuts and bolts of the business of publishing on most episodes of Three Percent, and this fascinates me, though I do often find myself surprised by what surprises them. On one episode, Post, who teaches a class on publishing, sounded aghast as he described how his students think of the price of a book not as the price of a new book, but as the price of a used one, and as a used one on Amazon, no less. As a buyer of used books when I buy books at all, I can sympathize with the snot-nosed youngsters. Some of those new ones can cost, like, eighteen bucks! What do I have, oil wealth?

But they don’t always talk publishing, which I don’t think most readers will mind. Video gamers, say, thirst for news about the video game industry, but I suspect any given reader would die happy never again having to hear about thin profit margins, the complications of eBook digital rights management, or the latest wildly unappealing proposed alternative to the printed book. And these fellows don’t always talk books: Three Percent conversations weave all over the cultural space, from music to movies to sports, especially in the absence of a guest from the book world. A dubious prospect, you might think: who would want to hear a couple of “book guys” discuss whatever happens to come to mind? I may sound like an apologist for standard podcasting indiscipline, but hear me out: projects in this medium, experience has shown me, can more effectively be about everything than projects in most other media. I see the trick of it, especially for a podcast, as always seeming to be about just one thing. Only through ostensible specialization can a podcaster pull off actual generalism. So I do indeed want to hear Roberge and Post talk about everything, but to do it always through the lens of new literary fiction in translation, or to do it with segues from that subject so smooth and untraceable that I never even realize they went from Javier Marías to Eurovision or Quentin Tarantino or 45 minutes about their fantasy basketball leagues.

Come to think of it, I find that as true when reading as I do when listening: writing simply about one thing can never satisfy, nor can writing simply about everything. The Three Percent Podcast also has another lesson generalizable not just across podcasting, but across all forms of human communication. Virgil Thomson, as I recall, advised a young music critic never to make his personal opinion explicit, because “the words that you use to describe what you've heard will be the criticism.” I feel as if I’ve heard many, many of Roberge and Post’s personal opinions on the show, most of them strong and several surely worth noting, but I can’t for the life of me remember them. (I do seem to recall something about Malcolm Gladwell being The Enemy.) They might have made their way deeper into my mind had the conversations delivered them implicitly, rather than explicitly. I mean, jeez, after Podthinking for over five years now, I’ve heard guys sitting at microphones make many a judgment, when even my own opinions don’t interest me. But you know what does interest me? This English novelist by the name of Derek Raymond, whom either Roberge or Post mentioned offhand on one episode. I can’t remember whether they liked or disliked him, but they did say something about his having written thoroughly Thatcher-era crime stories. Sounds like a read to me.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]