David Vann might be one of the most accomplished American authors you’ve never heard of. His work has been translated into nearly 20 languages; he’s won the Prix Médicis étranger, a prestigious French prize, as well as the Grace Paley Prize for short fiction; he’s a former Guggenheim Fellow and Stegner Fellow; and when his book Caribou Island was published in the U.K. in 2011, the Guardian called it “one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the year.” He’s been likened to titans of American literature, like Hemingway and McCarthy, but he’s far from a household name in his native country.
“When I publish a book in the U.S., I feel like I’ve sent something toward Pluto and am left waiting to hear an echo signal,” said Vann, whose most recent novel, Goat Mountain, was released by Harper on September 10. “I don’t understand the U.S. market at all.”
At the Brooklyn Book Festival in September, Vann, who resides, primarily, in New Zealand but maintains his U.S. citizenship, was awarded the St. Francis College Literary Prize for his novel Dirt, published by Harper in 2012. The $50,000 prize is awarded every two years to a midcareer author (only third, fourth, or fifth novels are considered for the prize). Vann was especially grateful to receive the award, and hopes that it will raise his profile stateside. “Midcareer for me in the U.S. just means silence,” said Vann, who was pit against commercially successful books on the shortlist, including The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg and Carry the One by Carol Anshaw, both bestsellers.
Vann, who was born in Alaska, finished his first book, the short story collection Legend of a Suicide, when he was almost 30, but it wasn’t published until 2008, when he was 42. He submitted the book to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs award series, and subsequently received the Grace Paley Prize and publication by the University of Massachusetts Press. A generous review in the New York Times encouraged HarperCollins to buy reprint rights to Legend, as well as the rights to Caribou Island. Although he had secured a major U.S. publisher, he still receives more attention, and more sales, abroad. Vann said Legend of a Suicide sold 230,000 copies in France, where he is published by Gallmeister. The writer also claims he has sold more copies of the book in the city of Barcelona alone than in the entirety of the U.S. “Legend of a Suicide had 50 reviews in France,” said Vann. “Caribou Island had 58. And I was on half a dozen [French] prime-time T.V. book programs and a dozen national radio programs.”
While Vann acknowledged the good work of U.S. independent booksellers, he pointed to what he feels is a key difference between the way Americans and Europeans buy and read books as the explanation for the discrepancy between his popularity abroad and his less enthusiastic reception in the U.S. “In France, there’s an independent bookseller in every neighborhood,” said Vann. “Independent booksellers are the anchors to literary culture. They go through a degree program and apprenticeship and are respected. They encourage readers to try literary fiction, including tragedy and stylistically ambitious works.”
“In America, we drive everything to the lowest dollar and don’t respect or support high culture,” the author continued. “Whereas in France, a book can’t be discounted more than 5%.”
Vann also thinks that there is a divide between what American and European readers crave from literature, and that affects the way he is perceived in the U.S. “We have the idea in America that a book should have likeable characters and make us feel good by the end,” he said. “This is a new and idiotic idea and erases 2,500 years of literary culture. Tragedy is about exposing our badness, laying it bare. Europeans are much more receptive to this.”
Vann believes that the press has a much greater influence over book buying behavior in Europe than in the U.S. “It’s an oddity of the U.S., unlike anything I’ve seen in Europe, that a great review in a major paper such as the Washington Post can lead to no bump in sales,” he said, adding that this PW interview is the first he’s done related to the large literary prize he won more than a month ago.
The author calls his latest effort, Goat Mountain, his best book yet, and, with the support he has received from the New York Times in the past, is confounded by lack of a review from the paper. “All of these major publications have been saying [Goat Mountain] is an important book, but without the New York Times, can a book reach an audience in the U.S.? I’m hoping so. But how can we have such a big country in which one review has so much weight? That’s not true in any European country.”