The nominees for the (South African) Sunday Times Fiction Award 2004 have been announced, and Michele Magwood previews the contenders in Alive and kicking.
The R50,000 prize just recognises the local talent, but the list and article at least give a glimpse of the literary scene beyond the authors widely known abroad (Nobel laureates Coetzee and Gordimer, Zakes Mda, etc.).
Published by Tokyo-based Kodansha International Ltd., the English version of Kirino's book was launched in the United States last summer.
At first, Kodansha printed 5,500 copies for the first edition, but demand was such that five reprintings have followed so far, and hard-cover sales have now topped 20,000.
We were a bit surprised to learn that this much-touted and well-received book had only sold some 20,000 copies -- a decent amount, certainly, but hardly much of a drop in the pond.
This is the kind of article that drives us absolutely nuts.
When we thought it wasn't possible for folks in the book business to display any more ignorance, along comes super-agent Andrew Wylie and proves us wrong.
Mr. Wylie offers a lengthy piece in today's issue of (the ridiculously registration-requiring) The Washington Post, An international agent argues for a global approach to selling serious literature.
That sounds interesting and some of it is.
Wylie describes how he became the agent he is, making lots of money for his clients (many of whom admittedly do write 'serious' and even quality fiction).
He doesn't mention that many of the huge advances he gets for his clients aren't earned back (Rushdie's deal with Holt a couple of years ago, and Martin Amis' recent TalkMiramax deal seem likely candidates for having cost the publishers far more than they recouped), but that would probably be expecting too much.
But at least he has some standards -- and he has had some success.
(Of course, not all his authors are as impressed with how he conducts business -- recall that Tibor Fischer's infamous Amis-piece actually attacks Wylie more than Amis.)
Wylie can babble all he wants about how wonderful his "global approach to selling serious literature" is; it's worked for him and for his authors, after all, and that alone makes it worth considering.
(It should, of course, not be taken very seriously: getting publishers to pay huge advances that aren't earned back is a bad business model for all involved (except Wylie and the select few he wrangles these deals for), and for book culture in general).
But what he shouldn't be able to do is spout nonsense like:
Thirty-one years after the publication of The Great Gatsby, 16 years after the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls -- but only one year before the first publication of Calvino's Il Barone rampante and Faulkner's The Town -- in 1956, in the United States, the bestselling writer by far was Grace Metalious.
Her name is now barely known.
She wrote a book called Peyton Place, which is badly written, out of style, out of date, out of print, valueless.
Her publisher has disappeared.
The publishers of Calvino, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner abide.
Who made the better investment ?
Okay, Grace Metalious' name is barely known (we wouldn't have remembered how to spell it), and maybe Peyton Place "is badly written, out of style, out of date".
One thing it is not is out of print.
A US edition is available from Northeastern University Press, who re-printed it in 1999 (get your copy at Amazon.com).
(Northeastern University Press is, admittedly, apparently closing shop, but the book is still in print, and it's almost inconceivable that it won't remain that way.)
In the UK Peyton Place even came out as a Virago Modern Classic (!) in July 2002 and also remains in print (get your copy at Amazon.co.uk).
As to her disappearing publisher: yes, Julian Messner, Inc (the original American publisher) sold out to Pocket Books in 1964, but in this age of consolidation that's hardly a disappearing act.
Most significant, of course, is Wylie's concluding question: "Who made the better investment ?"
He makes it sound so obvious as to not even be worth more closely considering, a rhetorical throw-away line.
How, after all, can one not believe that the publishers of Faulkner and Calvino and Hemingway and Fitzgerald had the better vision and made the better long-term choice ?
Pretty easily, it turns out.
A Peyton Placesite notes that in the Ardis Cameron-essay that's included in the Northeastern University Press reprint:
In the "Notes" section following Cameron's essay, we learn that Peyton Place quickly surpassed Gone With the Wind as the top-selling fiction book of all time.
As of 1988, Peyton Place was in third place, behind The Godfather and The Exorcist.
According to Hackett's 80 Years of Best Sellers, 1895-1975, it sold 10,670,302 in hardcover and paperback combined.
That was only through 1975; we've seen estimates of up to 20,000,000 units sold to date.
They also note:
In the September 23, 1957 Publishers' Weekly it stated: "that Dell upped its initial print order for the September 24 book first to 1,500,000, then 2,000,000 before publication, "probably the largest single first printing for a novel", says Dell hopefully.
Yeah, Calvino can easily compete with numbers like that ......
(We'd be surprised if the total American print run of Calvino's Il Barone rampante, The Baron in the Trees, made it to one per cent of that (which would still be an impressive 20,000.)
Peyton Place was one of the most successful books ever.
It's in the once-in-a-decade (or two) type success category, the Da Vinci Code-sphere, topping the bestseller list a year after publication, etc.
A paperback first printing of 2,000,000, for god's sake !
(Even more than four decades later publishers surely get goosebumps just thinking of that kind of print run for a book.)
That early success is hard to top (and, we would think, makes whatever happened afterwards irrelevant -- any publisher would think it was the investment of a lifetime, regardless of whether it survived as a steady backlist seller or not), but part of Wylie's argument is the very long term, appealing to our serious literary sensibilities.
But guess what .....
Compare the Amazon.com sales rank for three of the titles he mentioned (checked 8 May, only current available edition(s) considered):
So even now, at least going by Amazon.com sales, Peyton Place -- a book Wylie believes is out of print -- is outselling the Calvino and Faulkner titles he cites as wonderful examples of lasting literature that make for better long-term investments.
Surely, this doesn't speak well for a man supposedly so in the know (and who, in fact, flogs books for a living).
We're less in the know than pretty much anybody we know, and even we didn't believe he had his facts right.
A few Internet searches and he is roundly and soundly shown to be someone who doesn't have much of a sense of the book-buying world (as the too-large advances he garners for his under-performing authors have long suggested).
Yes, we like Calvino's The Baron in the Trees better than Peyton Place, and think it's far superior, but even we would recommend a publisher publish (or re-publish) the Metalious-title before they tackle the Calvino.
There's no contest: printing Peyton Place was -- and probably still is -- like printing money.
Printing the Calvino -- or, for that matter, the latest Rushdie or Amis -- isn't anywhere close to being as sure a bet.
The sad thing is that we sort of like Wylie's argument -- we'd love a world where publishing Calvino is a great investment (though we'd pass on The Town -- late Faulkner doesn't do it for us).
But unfortunately he chooses the wrong book to make his argument with: regardless of how "valueless" Peyton Place is (and we'd agree it's pretty valueless), it's the type of book pretty much any and every publisher would always kill for (if only for the outrageous profits that would then allow them to indulge in publishing their literary dream-works).
There is a good argument for maintaining standards -- as an agent, publisher, or reader -- but Wylie doesn't make it here.
Linda Jaivin provides an amusing account of attempts to ban her popular novel Eat Me from the Marion County (Florida) library system, in Blame it on the cucumber in yesterday's issue of the Sydney Morning Herald.
(Updated - 13 May): See discussion by the Book Babes.
Splinters mentions a Jacques Roubaud event at the London Institut Français on 12 May.
Sounds very much worth attending if you're in the neighbourhood.
(Among the few Roubaud titles available in translation is the impressive The Great Fire of London (see our review).)
And we're sorry we weren't aware of an event at the Institut last week: Amélie Nothomb in conversation with Alex Clark (6 May) -- as her books are finally soon to appear in the UK.
(No reviews or new press coverage yet, though.)
In his column in The Guardian today Nicholas Clee mentions (second item) that:
an industry forum of publishers and booksellers has recommended Monday publication dates for all lead titles, with sanctions against retailers that break embargoes
Monday is the day of choice because: "it gives titles six days on sale before the charts are compiled" (the bestseller charts, that is).
This focus on the bestseller lists -- apparently the main thing that helps sell titles -- is unfortunate, to say the least, but this proposal sounds completely unrealistic anyway -- someone will always want to get a jump on the competition -- so considering it just makes the whole industry look foolish (once again).
(Clee also mentions (fourth item) the Prince Maurice prize which we mentioned a few days ago.)
In today's issue of The Guardian Maya Jaggi thinks the Commonwealth Writers Prize should widen its horizons, in Oh, Kolkata.
Jaggi was in Kolkata (Calcutta) because it hosted the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Eurasia region, and she notes that the restriction to English-language works means many, many titles can't be considered.
(She also recalls that: "Amitav Ghosh refused his 2001 award for The Glass Palace partly because it excludes the 'many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives' of the countries it covers.")
The organisers say widening the scope of the prizes is probably unaffordable.
Yet the Impac in Dublin offers a precedent, dividing the award between author and translator in cases of foreign-language winners.
Enlarged prizes, allowing entries in English translation, might play a part in bolstering languages that English sometimes threatens to engulf.
We don't understand why there should even be an English-availability requirement (other than the feeble logistical argument), noting that the vast majority of foreign literature remains untranslated -- and that includes many great works.
(Our favourite example: Peter Weiss' Die Ästhetik des Widerstands -- to our minds the most important post-war German novel, along with The Tin Drum (and while we're probably more enthusiastic than most, we figure most critics would admit it's in the top ten) -- still unavailable in English.)
In Al-Ahram Weekly Nigel Ryan reports on the first of two lectures Tariq Ali delivered at the American University of Cairo.
That lecture was: Literature and market realism, a topic he's dealt with before (he apparently published an essay with the same title in the May-June 1993 issue of the New Left Review).
(The second lecture was on: Empires and Resistance.)
Lars Saabye Christensen's The Half Brother came out in the UK last summer, to some great (and a few not so great) reviews, and only now has finally made it to the US; our review is now also available.
It's among the handful of titles we've been most eager to cover, and it didn't disappoint -- though it is an unusual (and very big -- in the 300,000 word vicinity) book.
It'll be interesting to see how and if it catches on in the US; it's not your usual sweeping, quirky family saga, but we found it considerably more interesting (and better) than, say, Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (which is the sort of book it will likely be compared to).
It's probably not to everyone's taste, but is the most impressive work of fiction published in the US this year that we've come across so far.
The Elegant Variation mentions that Pan Macmillan is launching a new imprint, Picador Africa.
The official press release states:
Building on the foundations of the UK’s leading literary list, Picador Africa aims to capitalise on the energy, optimism, and rapidly expanding readership, of today’s South Africa.
So, unfortunately, this sounds very much like a southern African rather than pan-African exercise: with authors such as David Cohen, Ahmed Essop, Alexandra Fuller, Peter Godwin, and Chris Van Wyk, the initial list doesn't appear to include any author who isn't from South Africa or Zimbabwe.
Understandable, given where they're located (and where the money is -- few African countries have a book-buying public that spends enough to sustain much of a literary culture outside southern Africa), but limited.
Michele Magwood wrote about the new imprint in her Shelf Life column last October (scroll down):
MD Dusanka Stojekovic says there's a groundswell of interest in African writing overseas, and Picador is well positioned to identify new talent from across the continent.
So there is some hope they'll look beyond these narrow confines.
And we have to agree with Magwood:
Coming as it does after the closure of the legendary African Writing Series, Picador's new project is a welcome one.
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's new novel, Snow, is now available in the UK (and coming out in the US in August).
Among the first reviews we've seen is Julian Evans' in the 10 May issue of the New Statesman.
It's also reviewed in this week's (8 May) issue of the registration-requiring (and therefore not linked-to) The Spectator, by John de Falbe, who writes:
But what makes it a brilliant novel is its artistry.
Pamuk keeps so many balls in the air that you cannot separate the inquiry into the nature of religious belief from the examination of modern Turkey, the investigation of East-West relations, and the nature of art itself -- and, by implication, life, for the stage(d) coup is certainly deadly, and art and life mimic one another with hideous, occasionally hilarious, persistence.
For additional information, see the Faber and Knopf publicity pages, or get your own copy at Amazon.co.uk or pre-order at Amazon.com.
Maybe we'll get around to covering some of his older works over the summer, when we cover this one.
(Updated - 8 May): See also Nicholas Wroe's profile in today's issue of The Guardian.
I scanned the entire 44-page guide to authors appearing at the festival and counted at least 55 authors whom most would consider liberal or leftist.
As for conservatives, I located a grand total of maybe four
Of course, all he considers and is concerned with is non-fiction authors (the words 'fiction' and 'novelist' don't appear in the entire article -- despite an impressive roster of authors (both fiction and non-) who were in attendance).
We're already sick of all the press attention and adulation for non-fiction and especially political books that have completely dominated literary coverage for far too many months, and so the fact that conservative non-fiction authors were ignored is fine by us.
Now if they could have just ignored the so-called liberal non-fiction authors and let everybody get back to what counts -- fiction ! -- then we'd be all set.
The award is for literary love stories, and is alternately awarded to a French- and an English-speaking writer.
The aim of the competition is to strengthen the cultural links between Mauritius and Europe, mainly France and Great Britain, since Mauritius has a rich history influenced by both cultures.
It sounds a bit too complicated to really catch on, but the free vacations (or temporary exile ?) for authors -- even if it's in the off-season -- should make it at least a moderately sought-after literary prize.
The 2004 National Magazine Awards -- also known, most unfortunately, as the 'Ellies' -- have been announced.
The award in the 'Reviews and Criticism' category did not go to a literary critic: Esquire won, for some Tom Carson film pieces.
The award honouring: "the quality of a publication’s literary selections" also went to Esquire, the three stories that were singled out were by Arthur Miller, George Saunders, and Stephen King.
The Samuel Johnson Prize 2004 shortlist has been announced (though, typically, media reports appear before they post the list at their site, which they haven't as we write this).
Louise Jury reports on it in The Independent, in Bryson's 'Short History' nominated for £30,000 non-fiction prize.
(We're not sure why Bryson gets such prominent headline-treatment; after all, he's not the only one on the shortlist.)
Another shortlisted author: Anne Applebaum.
Her piece on the so-called Literary Divide was recently discussed here, and we can't exactly say we're rooting for her (unfair though that is -- it's the book that counts, and nothing else), since it may very well occasion yet another piece bemoaning being a prize-winning but poor-selling (or at least not selling as much as she feels she's due) author.
We do note that that she mentioned Samuel Johnson in that piece ("As long ago as the 18th century, Samuel Johnson declared (...)") -- perhaps trying to curry favour with the judges by showing she not only knew the guy's name but had actually found a quote from him.
Jasper Rees writes at considerable length on "the literary send-up" in the Sunday Telegraph, in The cheek of it.
We haven't read most of the originals, so the parodies don't particularly tempt us, but there are a few fun ideas (and titles).
But some of them sound a bit too ambitious, too:
Later this year comes The Sellamillion, which will bravely parody The Silmarillion, the one book by Tolkien no one has actually read.
Ian Sansom really doesn't like John Fowles' The Journals, Vol. I: "Ian Sansom destroys John Fowles' diary" is how the London Review of Books describes the review on the cover of the current (6 May) issue.
In the review, His Own Peak, Sansom describes the book:
And this is John Fowles, 1949-65: 250,000 words of adolescent whining, groaning, anomie, enthusing about Antonioni films and wishing he were somewhere else, with more glamorous people, doing more glamorous things.
A marathon of self-obsession, self-pity, misery, filth, shame, loneliness, isolation, and a lot of embarrassing stuff about sex.
Tempting though that sounds, we'll hold off on it for the time being.
As best we can tell, Nell Freudenberger received less attention than expected with the UK launch of her book, Lucky Girls (see our review) -- though, embarrassingly, even we missed Hephzibah Anderson's glowing review ("these surprising, generous stories signal the arrival of a born writer") in The Observer a few weeks back.
Now Nell Freudenberger has moved on to India.
That's not a stop on the book tour for American authors too often, but since some of the stories are set there -- and she previously lived and taught there for a while -- it seems it might be worth the effort for her.
There certainly has been a fair amount of coverage there.
In The Economic Times Rajeshwari Sharma tells readers: "She is the hottest thing on the American literary firmament."
(For such a hot thing it comes a bit as a surprise that her book has already (only eight months after publication) been remaindered .....)
Sharma also opines about the book:
Unlike Freudenberger, her girls are more jittery than lucky.
Largely from affluent families, they live in — or are at least exposed to -- the whole wide world, and still find themselves at sea.
Set in South East Asia and India, the stories revolve around young women, who find themselves, often as expatriates, face to face with the compelling circumstances of their relationships.
Their dysfunctional families make for damaging environments in which they struggle, to differing extents (and largely unsuccessfully), to find a hold.
How insightful and very well stated, we thought.
Oh ... right, and: how familiar.
You see, our review begins:
Nell Freudenberger's girls are more jittery than lucky in this collection of five stories.
Largely from privileged backgrounds, they live in -- or are at least exposed to -- the whole wide world, and still find themselves at sea.
Their damaged families make for damaging environments in which they struggle, to differing extents (and largely unsuccessfully), to find a hold.
We're glad to see our description (give or take a few small changes) is apparently, in some circles, considered definitive (or the easiest to copy, at any rate).
Still, we wouldn't mind some acknowledgement thereof .....
Book readings in the US see the audience edging off towards the exit after 10 minutes.
That’s what New York-based writer Nell Freudenberger said when asked if book readings in India were any different.
Here the audience has more patience, she added.
We've actually never been to a book reading where the crowd was this edgy (admittedly we don't go to many), but we hope this isn't simply Freudenberger's experience at her own readings.
Here one also finds Freudenberger positioning herself for her forthcoming novel-exercise (her much-discussed contract was for a story collection and a novel, which she is now presumably working on):
So is it natural to graduate from short stories to novels ?
"I wouldn’t look at it that way.
Lucky Girls, for me, is a collection of five novellas and my writing style is suited for novels," she explains.
(Admittedly some seem to share her opinion: Hephzibah Anderson does write that the Lucky Girl-stories have "the resonance of a far longer work. A novel will surely follow.")
For a young American on holiday, Freudenberger has been very perceptive and sets out to paint in very simple English, almost reminding one of Indian writing in English.
Presumably this is meant to be considered a good thing.
(Updated - 5 May): We've now also received the 30 April Times Literary Supplement, in which Sophie Ratcliffe reviews Lucky Girls.
She reads it much as we did, also finding the last tale to be the most interesting one:
Apart from the final tale, these stories about American women in India and South-East Asia, are disappointing. (...)
The collection, like the protagonist, suffers from a desire for admiration; throughout Lucky Girls, one senses a writer who is concerned not so much with writing, but with justifying herself through an appeal to a harmonious image.
Political literature -- of sorts -- lives: The Chosun Ilbo reports that N. Korean Literature Lampoons U.S. President Bush.
Apparently not all their very limited resources are devoted to building nuclear weapons (rather than, say, feeding the populace) -- and they don't seem quite as isolated as reputation has it: North Korean literature journals (yes, there apparently are such things) are apparently full of works lampooning American president George junior Bush.
Mostly poetry, but also novels.
So, for example:
In the satirical fantasy novel The Bush Commotion by Yeom Ho-sam, the writer features both a real and fake President Bush and deals with the U.S. president's destruction.
The work seems to get its inspiration from the stubborn old men commonly found in classical literature.
Unlike the classical examples, however, this one ends tragically.
From the sounds of it (read more at The Chosun Ilbo-link) the North Koreans aren't lacking in imagination.
We're really keeping our fingers crossed that this novel gets translated by the time Korea is featured at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2005.
This month's issue of The HinduLiterary Review is crammed full of interesting coverage (though there's nothing about Nell Freudenberger ...).
All sorts of stuff that tempts us: Harish Trivedi's review of the Oxford India Premchand (a book we have to get), Mandira Moddie's review of Babughater Kumari Maachh's The Virgin Fish of Babughat, Rakhshanda Jalil on some contemporary Pakistani writing, and Padmini Devarajan's review of Returning the American gaze: Pandita Ramabai's The People of the United States.
And even some more familiar stuff -- like a review of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran (see also our review).
Will Penguin ever be able to live this down ?
Their 'Good Booking' promotion is an attempt to "make reading more attractive to young men" -- which they plan to do: "by making young men who read more attractive to women" (publishing good books was apparently not an option).
As their Get Good Booking website explains, they have grand ambitions (and delusions):
We will make reading sexy for the first time, we'll turn books into fashion accessories
In this month's issue of The New Criterion John Derbyshire writes about The strangest travel book ever written, Tété-Michel Kpomassie's An African in Greenland -- a book we've also been meaning to have a look at for a while (like so many others from the New York Review Books list).
(See also the NYRB publicity page, or get your own copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.)
(In the May issue of The New Criterion, Max Watman also offers a round-up of current fiction.)
Lee Siegel has some fun in Outlook India, where he reviews Pavan K. Varma and Sandhya Mulchandani's anthology, Love and Lust.
A nice touch: they misspell his name in the by-line (as "Lee Siegal").
We didn't much care for his Love in a Dead Language, but he does have a point (or several) here.
For another review, see: the Deccan Herald.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Lawrence Lessig's book on (as the overly sensationalistic sub-title puts it) How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, Free Culture.
As has been widely reported, Lessig has made the book freely downloadable (here).
A 29 April article in The New York Times puts total downloads from that site alone (and it is available elsewhere, including in numerous "remixes") at 65,000 by 28 April, while BookScan (which covers a majority of book outlets, but not all) puts print sales at a mere 2600 through 25 April.
User-interest in the complete review continues to increase fairly steadily, with just under 20 per cent more users and over 20 per cent more review-page views in April than January.
The one exception is this Literary Saloon, where user interest remains stagnant, with no appreciable increase in the number of readers turning to these pages over the past four months.
So, has this literary weblog reached its saturation point, and found all the audience that might be interested in what's on offer here ?
At the Sydney Writers' Festival site we also learn that Hilary Mantel shortlisted for prestigious prize.
The prize in question is the Mind Book of the Year Award -- to be awarded for the 23rd time this year.
A shortlist of six books have now "been chosen for their enlightening portrayals of mental health", out of 120 nominated titles.
All this is probably admirable, but we can't imagine wading through 120 such titles (or even just the final six -- though the Mantel is one we've been meaning to consider): mental impairment lit. (from the drug-addled to the profoundly retarded) is, along with household-pet lit., among the sort we have very little patience for.
(You might figure that at a Literary Saloon we might be more sympathetic at least to alcoholic lit., but 'tis not the case.)
Today's expansion of the European Union has led to some coverage of the literatures of the joining states.
The continental papers do this better, but The Guardian offers some decent introductions today, notably Julian Evans' survey of the Continental shelf (offering a glimpse of all the national literatures -- and what little is available in translation), and Eva Hoffman's closer look at contemporary Polish literature, Paradise glossed.