Arbitrary literary prize eligibility requirements -- especially those having to with author-nationality -- are among the things that most annoy us about the publishing industry.
We've mentioned previously that it's ridiculous that dual-nationals like Carol Shields and Caryl Phillips are eligible for prizes that are restricted to American nationals as well as those restricted to Commonwealth nationals.
Now we have a different question.
Recently Pakistan was again un-suspended from the Commonwealth.
Officially, it was decided a couple of days ago that: "Pakistan should no longer remain suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth"; we don't know exactly what their status had been until then, but wonder how it affects the eligibility-status of writers from suspended nations (as Fiji and Nigeria have previously also been).
Quite a few nations have also removed themselves from the Commonwealth -- apartheid South Africa quit in 1961, Pakistan withdrew in 1972 and rejoined in 1989, and just recently Zimbabwe quit.
Presumably, writers from these nations -- for the periods in question -- weren't/aren't eligible.
(Recall, however, that the Commonwealth is no longer restricted to bona fide former British colonies; members include the likes of former Portuguese colony Mozambique).
The major Commonwealth-citizenship-requiring literary prizes don't address the subject of suspended nations, or those that have withdrawn from the Commonwealth: the Commonwealth Writers Prize merely requires: "The work must have been written by a citizen of the Commonwealth", while the Man Booker requires the work to be "written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland".
Why an author from Zimbabwe should have been eligible for the prize last year, but not be this year doesn't make much sense to us -- especially considering that authors from places like Mozambique are eligible.
Similarly bizarrely: what about an author like Moses Isegawa (whose Snakepit was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review yesterday) -- born and raised in Uganda (a Commonwealth state in good standing), writing in English, but now living in the Netherlands and apparently a Dutch citizen ?
If he didn't manage to hold onto his Ugandan citizenship (we don't know if he did) he surely wouldn't be eligible for the Commonwealth-citizenship-requiring prizes -- not a unique problem in these exile-filled days.
(Actually, Isegawa runs afoul of another popular prize eligibility requirement: though two of his novels were written in English, they were first published in Dutch translation (in the case of Snakepit a full five years before the US/UK publication), confusing the whole original-publication in the proper calendar year etc. requirement.)
Presumably prize-organisers think that citizenship-requirements are a simple way of making it clear who is eligible and who isn't; unfortunately, using the Commonwealth is a bad reference point (because nations quit and rejoin and get suspended -- and some have precious little to do with the English-language literary scene).
We hope they figure out a better system.
(Okay, the Commonwealth Writers Prize has a decent excuse -- but if the focus is on the Commonwealth aspect, then they mess things up by demanding works be in English .....)
In today's issue of The Observer literary editor Robert McCrum not only offers his all-time top ten list, but also a lengthy piece on the past 25 years in (British) publishing (especially his Faber years).
In the Wall Street Journal (28 May) James Bowman writes about the Open Court series of (pop-) philosophical takes on pop culture:
publishers are at last beginning to bridge the gap between the language and the subject matter of contemporary scholarship.
Most prominent in this enterprise is Open Court Publishing Co. of Chicago, whose series on Popular Culture and Philosophy, under the general editorship of William Irwin, has now produced seven volumes.
Next up in the series: Woody Allen, Harry Potter, and Mel Gibson's Passion.
We've previously mentioned some reactions to Sam Huntington's Who Are We ? The Challenges to America's National Identity.
Now even the Kakutani has reviewed it (in the 28 May issue of The New York Times) -- calling it "a 400-page PowerPoint presentation", and finding it to be "riddled with gross generalizations" and "pockmarked with perplexing contradictions".
Daniel Lazare also tackles it in the current (14 June) issue of The Nation.
We understand that Huntington has written some influential (or at least much-discussed) works, and so maybe it's understandable that it gets such prominent review-attention, but we are getting terribly tired of this seemingly never-ending focus on non-fiction -- and especially political -- titles (which will, no doubt, continue at least through the American presidential election).
A few weeks back we mentioned a Mark Sanderson Literary life column in which he discusses how little non-fiction is translated into English.
He even claimed:
While plenty of novels by French and German authors are translated into English, works of non-fiction by their fellow countrymen are generally ignored -- unless they concern the Nazis or sex.
We took issue with the idea that plenty of French and German novels are translated, but otherwise thought he may have a point.
Shows how little one can trust general literary instincts: hard numbers are what should be relied upon (though they're notoriously hard to get), and, at least in the case of German, hard numbers suggest a very different story.
In The Economist this week there's a story on German fiction (link will only be freely accessible on or after 4 June).
In 2002, the translation rights for 278 German books were sold to English-language publishers; of those only 28 were fiction.
So only ten percent of translation-rights went for fiction; a few more, no doubt, were poetry and drama, but the majority -- the great majority -- clearly were non-fiction.
(This is in line with publishing generally: fiction is a relatively small part of the total book-market.)
The picture isn't complete: presumably translation rights don't have to be bought for out-of-copyright titles, so there are probably a few more older titles to throw in with the 28 -- but also, as they point out, selling translation rights doesn't guarantee the books ever actually got published .....
A lot of the non-fiction titles are presumably of the more academic (rather than mass market) sort, hence not as visible to the general book-buying public (or even industry journalists), but these are still astonishing numbers.
Astonishing also the rest of the article -- for example, the fact that 3782 books translated from the English were published in German in 2002.
Also: they explain (?):
The big barrier facing German books in both America and Britain is the fact that few editors there can read the language, and few German publishers are prepared to invest in sample translations.
So the number of American and British publishers who can judge the quality of new German books is limited.
(In our opinion, evidence suggests the last sentence should read: "The number of American and British publishers who can judge the quality of any books is limited", but that's a different issue ....)
What's so scary -- terrifying even -- is that German is still one of the powerhouse languages: generally number three among the most studied in the US (after Spanish and French), and number two in the UK, and the industry has well-organised efforts to promote their products abroad (from the German Book Office to Litrix.de to new books in german).
So think how near hopeless the situation is for all those second- and third-tier languages, with no government support, etc.
(Updated - 30 May): Rachel Cooke's review appears in today's issue of The Observer.
But above all, it is Coe's determination to do right by Johnson that makes Like A Fiery Elephant so special.
It is a book about a man who really cares about novels, by a man who really cares about novels.
If you care too, you will rush out and buy it.
Two weeks ago we praisedThe Guardian's Saturday Review section, and it continues to impress.
This week there's an embarrassment of riches in addition to the Coe-excerpt mentioned above.
Highlights -- and these are just the highlights -- include:
Finally, Kate Figes reviews the just-released Amélie Nothomb novel, The Book of Proper Names (and notes -- as we have, for years -- "it is astonishing that British publishers haven't discovered Nothomb's perverse, wacky wit and fertile imagination before now").
German artist Gerhard Richter has a new book out, WAR CUT.
The publisher's publicity page explains:
In May 2002 Gerhard Richter photographed 216 details of his abstract painting no. 648-2 from 1987 (225 x 200 cm).
Working on a long table over a period of several weeks, Richter then combined these 10 x 15 cm detailed shots with 165 texts on the Iraq war published in the FAZ (newspaper) on March 20th and 21st.
The book follows an ever denser rhythm in which texts and gaps take up the same amount of space as the pictures: a strictly composed work of open to closed layout and its mirror image -- a conceptual and, simultaneously, very sensual artist's book.
an abbreviated version of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's at the LA Daily News. (His informative obituary can be found in full at the registration-requiring and hence not linked to site of The NY Times.)
Under Straus FSG developed into one of the leading literary houses in the US -- and it was the last of the major independents; unfortunately, he too caved in and sold out -- to German media-conglomerate Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck.
(Note that Holtzbrinck itself has managed to remain a privately held family business -- albeit a huge one: among their other publishing-holdings are major German houses Fischer and Rowohlt).
One hopes the fine FSG tradition survives Straus' death.
Geoff Nicholson's The Hollywood Dodo (see our review) is now available in the UK (Americans will have to wait another month or so), and the first reviews are in.
In today's issue of The Independent James Urquhart writes about: "Geoff Nicholson's delightful and clever new comic novel", while in Scotland on Sunday SB Kelly only rounds it up -- but finds: "The sublimely good Geoff Nicholsonís new novel is an absolute treat.".
In The Moscow Times Victor Sonkin reports on Party Lines: "A century after the birth of Soviet Nobel laureate Mikhail Sholokhov, Victor Sonkin finds opinions on the author's legacy as divided as ever."
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Michael Heyward's account of The Ern Malley Affair.
Peter Carey based much of his recent book, My Life As a Fake, on the Ern Malley hoax and it's interesting to see what material he used (Heyward also thanks him, among many others, in the acknowledgements to his 1993 book, so it must have been something Carey had long been interested in).
Both books are recommended.
Among the books we've eagerly been anticipating -- for years -- is the oft-delayed biography of B.S.Johnson by Jonathan Coe, Like a Fiery Elephant.
As recently mentioned at Splinters, it is now available; we hope Picador sees fit to send us the requested review copy (it doesn't look like a US publication is in the works yet).
A first review is up -- but not freely accessible: Julian Evans' review in the June issue of Prospect will only be freely accessible a month or so from now.
(Get your copy of Like a Fiery Elephant at Amazon.co.uk.)
In yesterday's issue of the Boston Globe David Mehegan reports that Publishers Weekly gave Alan Dershowitz's forthcoming book, America on Trial a second chance: Dershowitz protests, and a new, milder book review runs.
The first review ran in the 12 April issue, but after Dershowitz complained they decided to do it again (which they apparently never do); a new, kinder review ran in the 17 May issue:
Rawlinson said yesterday that the first review was ad hominem -- a personal attack -- and should not have slipped through the usually rigorous editing process.
"That is something you should never do," she said, "coming closer to attacking the writer than the book."
The "self-aggrandizement" crack, she says, was particularly unacceptable.
Dershowitz and self-aggrandizing !
At Phayul Topden Tsering offers English writing on Tibetan: An Overview.
He notes that even after four decades of exile: "Less than a handful of novels constitute their corpus in fiction" -- but apparently thinks William M. Bueller's Tablet of the Gods is worth a look.
They've taken to Paulo Coelho (see yesterday's mention), and now they get to deal with Alice Walker for two weeks: Serena Park reports in The Korea Herald that Walker in town to talk feminism.
(Walker apparently prefers the term "womanist" -- explaining (sort of): "Womanism is the African-American feminism in common usage of feminism in the United States."
Don't ask us .....)
The article is a goldmine of great quotes:
"I'd very much like to get to know Korean people. As a writer, I genuinely have an enormous interest in all human races," said Walker during a press conference on Tuesday morning at the Press Center in downtown Seoul.
"My zodiac sign is an Aquarius, which means that I am a natural rebel," Walker said with a grin.
Walker gave out meaningful messages toward both Korean women and men. "You should live freely and should know that you're a wonderful creation of the universe. Also I urge Korean men to see goddesses in Korean women."
Well, maybe she was speaking in Korean, and they just translated these quotes into English poorly .....
was shot at his property hideaway on the mid-North Coast.
Murray, clearly unaccustomed to the world of advertising, said this week that he'd been expecting perhaps just a couple of cameramen and a producer.
Instead the crew arrived in their truckloads complete with caterers.
Not too many other countries that could stick a contemporary poet in a TV ad; Ireland (Heaney, Muldoon), maybe England.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of a novel published by an Italian author-collective using the pseudonym 'Luther Blissett', Q, much lauded in the UK last year (and now out in paperback), and just published in the US
(Somewhat confusingly, the book actually deals with the historic Martin Luther -- while the adopted name is that of a British footballer (soccer player) fondly remembered for going from great triumphs in England to failing miserably in Seria A (he was then also apparently known as 'Luther miss-it').)
The author-collective now goes by the pseudonym 'Wu Ming', and has published several additional works.
They also admirably make their works freely available at their website -- check out Q (in English or Italian) or their more recent work.
Interestingly, the Italian print-version has sold incredibly well (over 200,000 copies, or so the press reports) -- despite always being freely available.
Q is a big book: the US edition has 750 pages, and though it's not densely written (or printed) it is in the 200,000-plus word range.
It's o.k., but not great -- just intriguing enough to keep one (or at least me) going.
But at 750 pages that's a big investment of reading-time, and several times along the way I had to ask myself: is it worth it ?
It was a close call: the temptation to toss it aside and better spend my time with better books was great.
It made me wonder about the calculations that go into actually finishing a book.
Your average book -- two or three-hundred pages -- makes for quick enough a read that I'll generally take the risk and accept the lost hours, if that's what they turn out to be.
But committing to a book that's 750 pages long is tougher.
If it had been of Proustian length I would have bailed out.
Even less -- say, a thousand pages -- would have probably been enough for me to reconsider and give up, even after an initial investment of 250 or so pages.
But 750 was right on the edge.
Did I waste my time ?
Well, it wasn't a necessary book -- but then few are.
My time would have been better spent with other books -- but I can't say I'm entirely sorry that I read it.
(The whole Wu Ming concept, which is also of some interest, also factors into the equation: familiarity with at least this text of theirs also being worth something.)
Peter Craven -- recently dismissed as editor of the Australian Literary Quarterly -- published a piece in the 14 May TLS, Still Cringing ?.
(See Jason Steger's 20 May piece in The AgeLiterati spat goes global, for more about all that.)
In it he writes, en passant:
It continues to scandalize me that cultivated English-language readers exist, in Britain and America, who have never read White and who don't realize that those who have taken the trouble to do so are inclined to rank him with Nabokov or Beckett -- or indeed Faulkner.
We're always glad to find some Patrick White-enthusiasm -- but note that at least American readers, cultivated and not, have a decent excuse for not being familiar with White: except for the NYRB-edition of Riders in the Chariot all his fiction is out of print in the US.
(We've mentioned this before -- and we'll mention it again, for as long as it's the case (and we're not holding our breaths).
As long as it is the case, we'll find it hard to take American publishing seriously.)
It's been a few years now -- quite a few, actually -- since the books have dropped out of print (though the guy's been dead less than fifteen), and though a handful of titles can readily be found in used-bookstores it's likely that a whole generation is growing up without familiarity with the works of this great writer.
That is a loss -- for any idea of literary culture.
That is a scandal.
(There are many, many others, similarly ignored, but White is right up there in that Faulkner-category (with fewer weaker works in his oeuvre, we'd argue, and more true classics) and should be widely read.)
The great Iranian author Mahmud Doulatabadi (also: Dowlatabadi) -- none of whose novels appear to have been translated into English -- is planning a new work: Mehr News Agency report that Dowlatabadi Resolute to Write Book on Sacred Defense.
(The 'Sacred Defense' refers to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s).
Apparently: "he will devote the rest of his life to writing a story about the 8-year Sacred Defense."
(See also our review of parts one and two of his epic saga, Kelidar, and of Safar, and the author-page at Mage.)
We recently mentioned that the US hadn't embraced the (baffling) international phenomenon that is Paulo Coelho.
(See also the official Paulo Coelho site.)
In The Korea Times Yang Sung-jin reports, that after initially responding sanely (i.e. indifferently) Coelho mesmerizes Korean readers.
Worse, Coelho is bucking general trends:
The domestic publishing market is in the doldrums and readers are tightening their belts.
Sales of novels have plunged.
But in spite of the downturn, works by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho are still selling extremely well.
One explanation -- note: by an interested party -- is:
A local copyright agency handling Coelho's works said his books were selling unusually well in the poor economy, partly because his novels had happy endings and brought comfort to readers weary of worldly troubles.
In USA Today Greg Toppo reports on the clash of Contemporary vs. classic literature in American high schools.
Apparently contemporary literature is increasingly displacing many established classics.
Nothing wrong with that -- theoretically at least -- but it doesn't look like standards are being maintained, as the likes of The Da Vinci Code make it into the classroom.
Or consider this:
"Times have changed -- high school has changed," says Niki Locklear, English department chair at Simon Kenton High School in Independence, Ky.
Her seniors just started reading Tuesdays With Morrie, the best-selling memoir by sports columnist Mitch Albom.
The article also discusses a new book, Great Books for High School Kids, edited by Rick Ayers and Amy Crawford (see the Beacon Press publicity page or get your own copy at Amazon.com).
The excerpts include a fair number of reasonable titles, but it's a slippery slope ......
(One thing: Toppo writes that nowadays: "Cold Mountain sometimes freezes out War and Peace".
How many high school kids ever got War and Peace assigned ?
No doubt there's an AP class or two that tackled it, but surely it has never been a widely studied title, not in high school.)
The National Theatre production of Alan Bennett's new play, The History Boys, has now opened.
We hope to eventually review it but it'll probably be a while before we can get our hands on a copy, so for now: here are links to the first batch of reviews:
Charles Spencer's in Daily Telegraph ("But this is a play with depth as well as dazzle.")
Susannah Clapp's in The Observer ("Improbably but triumphantly, the play pivots on a grammatical point. These scenes are written in recognition and praise of the subjunctive mood: they celebrate uncertainty, being in two minds, and being excluded from the main clause.")
We recently reviewed Javier Cercas' Soldiers of Salamis.
At Words without Borders we now find an extract from Diálogos de Salamina -- "a book of conversations between Javier Cercas, author of Soldiers of Salamis, and David Trueba, director and screenwriter of the film of the same name."
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Bruce Wagner's I'm Losing You -- the first volume (from 1996) of his cellphone trilogy.
Usually, when a novel has been made into a film -- any novel -- it will get a mention on the cover of the next paperback edition, often with a movie-still as cover art, etc.
I'm Losing You was made into a film -- directed by the author, no less, and starring Frank Langella, Rosanna Arquette, and Andrew McCarthy -- but you'd never know it from the paperback, which doesn't mention the existence of any film version.
Yes, we're guessing that must have been one stinker of an adaptation.
The great Czech poet Miroslav Holub doesn't get nearly the attention he deserves, but in today's issue of The Guardian there's a profile by Andrew Motion, arguing that "Miroslav Holub powerfully influenced English writers including Ted Hughes".
It's a pretty thin piece, actually, but, hey, at least it's something -- and they do also offer a Holub poem, Homer.
Another large Australian publisher has decided not to bother doing any real publishing: in today's issue of the Sydney Morning Herald Julian Lee reports that Publishers not taking new authors.
Publishing houses are relying on imported American and British titles for sales as their global head offices place greater pressure on them to deliver profits over literary prowess.
He also states:
Only 124 works of fiction were published locally last year of the 4500 general non-educational books brought out.
We're not sure what the 124 refers to -- only Australian fiction ? total fiction ? -- in any case, it's a ridiculously small number for any part of the market.
That's a pace -- a book every three days -- that a moderately diligent reader could easily keep up with.
Le Monde offers a "rencontre avec Sam Tanenhaus", Le nouveau patron de la Book Review, as Lila Azam Zanganeh talks with the new head of The New York Times Book Review.
Not much more than what we've heard before in the (few) profiles published in the US, but still fairly impressive for a foreign-language-press piece.
Once again there's a lot about his interest in politics, and the fears that he will (in what has become the less-than-fine NYTBR tradition) ignore fiction.
He tries (?) to allay those fears with vacuous statements such as:
Et si l'on pense que je ne m'intéresse pas à la fiction, on sera surpris.
(And if you think that I'm not interested in fiction, you'll be surprised.)
Hey, he may very well be "interested" in fiction -- but does that mean that he'll actually bother covering any ?
(Any more than what can only be considered the token coverage found in the NYTBR for years now, that is.)
What does being interested even mean ?
We're interested in a ton of things you'd never guess from our coverage (because we don't share it with you, because we don't think it has a place here).
We couldn't care less if he's interested in fiction or not -- we just want him to cover some !
He appears to offer some reassurances:
Sam Tanenhaus a la ferme intention de faire une place de choix à la fiction, et même à la fiction vierge d'idées politiques.
"Une des fonctions les plus utiles du roman est de nous rappeler qu'il existe des valeurs esthétiques et spirituelles qui n'ont rien à voir avec la politique."
Sam Tanenhaus rêve d'ouvrir les pages de la Book Review aux poètes, romanciers et philosophes.
(Sam Tanenhaus has the firm intention of giving a choice place to fiction, and fiction free of political ideas at that.
"One of the most useful functions of novels is to remind us that there exist aesthetic and spiritual values which have nothing to do with politics."
Sam Tanenhaus dreams of opening the pages of the Book Review to poets, novelists, and philosophers.)
(Funny, however, how the promises to cover fiction don't come in the direct quotes; Zanganeh makes the claim for him, and then he waxes eloquently about something different, telling us how wonderful novels are but not committing to actually reviewing any.)
And it is political fiction -- of any fiction -- , as well as a political approach to fiction generally, that seems to interest him most:
Dans le meilleur des cas, la fiction est habitée par ces débats.
Tanenhaus cite notamment La Tache, de Philip Roth, comme exemple d'une grande uvre gorgée d'énergie politique.
Ce qui ne veut pas dire que toute fiction doive accomplir un geste politique ou que la Book Review s'intéresse uniquement à ce genre de romans, mais peut-être y a-t-il moyen d'analyser la fiction dans un contexte politique, dit Tanenhaus.
(In the best cases, fiction is imbued with these debates.
Tanenhaus cites among others The Human Stain, by Philip Roth, as an example of a great work gorged with political energy.
That's not to say that all fiction has to be political or that the Book Review is interested solely in this sort of novel, but perhaps it is possible to analyse fiction in a political context, says Tanenhaus.)
Tanenhaus is still relatively new to the job (having taken over 1 April, as we understand it), and it will take some time for him to shape the NYTBR into whatever his vision is.
We've held our tongues, more or less, so far (and will for a while longer, until the Tanenhaus-NYTBR has really taken shape), but the first signs continue not to be good.
We note that of the of the seven NYTBR covers under the new administration, more than half -- four -- have been political (soldiers in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, Alexander Hamilton, the jr. Bush cabinet), two more non-fictional (an NYC police shield, Negro League baseball players), and only a single one (John Gregory Dunne) devoted to fiction.
(Again: this isn't much of a change: of the seven NYTBR covers published in the same span last year six were also non-fiction related (though at least the subject-matter was more varied).)
Admittedly, it's easier to find cover-illustrations for non-fiction subjects, but still .....
The real issue is the reviews themselves.
So far there's been no improvement as far as the extent or breadth of fiction-coverage goes (though no real worsening either -- remember: in recent years the NYTBR has always neglected fiction coverage).
Unfortunately, Tanenhaus' statements don't lead us to believe that things might get better (whereby 'better', for us, basically means more fiction coverage, more serious fiction coverage, more coverage of fiction in translation).
One of the few pieces that Tanenhaus is clearly responsible for at the NYTBR is the last-page piece in the 16 May issue, "Black, White and Brown", a discussion between Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates jr. "on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision" moderated by Tanenhaus.
(The text and a fuller video version are available at the registration-requiring site of The New York Times.)
Whatever the merits of the discussion, we're wondering what the hell this is doing in a section called the "Book Review".
There is no book being discussed.
There is one brief literary mention ("In 1937 Richard Wright wrote that once the goals of a nation's civil rights movement are realized, Negro literature as an institution would disappear"), but no discussion beyond that whatsoever of anything literary.
Neither of the participants discusses a relevant work they (or anyone else) has written.
So, again: what is this doing in a section called the "Book Review" ?
The Sunday issue of The New York Times has a lot of sections.
Surely, the least (and most) we can expect from the small section called the "Book Review" is that the coverage has something (anything !) to do with books (or authors or publishing or bookselling or literature generally).
The essays that usually go in this space (by Laura Miller and Margo Jefferson recently), or even the occasional ridiculous waste of space that is the Boox cartoon all have considerably more to do with books than this piece.
Maybe Tanenhaus likes using his new-found power to "moderate" big names like this (we have no idea what his moderation involved; there's nary a trace of him in the piece aside from the mention in the introduction).
Fine -- but this is not the place.
Or hasn't been, for a while.
Admittedly, other literary publications -- notably The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books have always included non-literary pieces (generally political ones).
But we note that: a) they've historically always done things that way, and, more importantly, b) they have no alternative space to fit non-literary coverage.
The New York Times offers sections galore where this piece would have been a better fit.
There's been some praise for the piece -- Beatriceapproved -- and we think it was of some interest.
But we also think it didn't belong in the NYTBR.
And if this is the direction Tanenhaus is taking the publication in, well, it doesn't look good for literary coverage, does it ?