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The Literary Saloon Archive

1 - 10 June

1 June: Amazon flexes its muscles | Howard Jacobson | Naipaul story | I.B.Singer | Griffin judging
2 June: New Man Booker prize | New Context | Bi-lingual Luc Sante | NY Press book coverage | Kids' favourites | More Jacobson
3 June: Abebooks to sell new books | Byatt review
4 June: BookExpo America | Transit of venus
5 June: Orange essentials
6 June: Four times Echenoz
7 June: Publishing business | Clinton memoir | Joyce copyright issues | 99 p books
8 June: Hill's Style and Faith | Poetry tour | Greil Marcus on The Manchurian Candidate | Oprah and Anna Karenina
9 June: Teen reading in Scotland | Limited Quicksilver | The Age/SMH registration | Orange Prize 2004 | Japanese publishing doldrums | Ella Minnow Pea in German | »Anthrax« review
10 June: Ozick move | Writer's block | Welsh literature

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10 June 2004 - Thursday

Ozick move | Writer's block | Welsh literature

       Ozick move

       Among the books we're most looking forward to this year is Cynthia Ozick's Heir to the Glimmering World (due out in September, pre-order your copy from We were a bit surprised to learn that her long-time publisher Knopf won't be bringing this one out: apparently there's been a parting of the ways, and Houghton Mifflin now has the honour (see their publicity page); they'll also be re-printing her debut, Trust (the one work of hers we don't have under review).
       We don't know why Knopf didn't keep her on (or why she left), and wonder whether it was a financial issue; we have no idea how well she sells, but recall that a few years ago Barnes & Noble CEO Leonard Riggio noted that B & N had sold only a few hundred copies of The Shawl. A popular school-text -- and perennial top-25 review at the complete review -- it is surely her best-selling popular book, and if B & N can only shift a few hundred copies a year .....
       Still, it's surprising that Knopf didn't try harder to hold onto her -- surely one of the most important and best American writers out there. But they spent all that money on the Clinton-memoir, so maybe there wasn't enough left over for real literature .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Writer's block

       Among the articles in the current issue of The New Yorker (the fiction (double-)issue, which contains surprisingly little fiction) is Joan Acocella's Blocked -- yet another look at the odd phenomenon and pre-occupation that is "writer's block". She notes that it's largely an American phenomenon, and looks at some of the (possible ?) explanations.
       We're far more interested in the works than their authors -- and wouldn't mind if more "writers" were a bit more blocked, i.e. realised their limitations. There are already far too many who just churn out books (or manuscripts), writing for the sake of writing rather than because they actually have something worth offering to the reading-public.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Welsh literature

       We're always interested in expanding our literary horizons, and are pleased now to have a book originally written in Welsh under review, Robin Llywelyn's Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn, translated as White Star.
       Okay, we would have preferred it if it were a better book, but at the very least it made us aware of publisher Parthian Books, specialising in Welsh literature.
       The book also offers another opportunity to ridicule the situation regarding translations into English: this British book appeared in French translation (!), as Étoile blanche sur fond blanc, before it was translated into English.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

9 June 2004 - Wednesday

Teen reading in Scotland | Limited Quicksilver | The Age/SMH registration
Orange Prize 2004 | Japanese publishing doldrums | Ella Minnow Pea in German
»Anthrax« review

       Teen reading in Scotland

       Great statistics out of Scotland: a third of teens never or hardly ever read for pleasure, over a fifth consider reading a waste of their time, and 40 % only read if they have to
       So the results of a 2000 OECD study, just released; see PISA 2000 - Scotland analysis at Scotland Executive, and these media reports:        One vaguely comforting statistic: over 40 % of kids reported that their households had over a hundred books.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Limited Quicksilver

       Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (see our review) is now available in a fancy limited edition, list price $ 200.00. Get your copy at (where it currently is a bit cheaper).
       The Agony Column offers A Quick Look at QuickSilver Ltd, which does make it look (they offer pictures) and sound fairly tempting. But considering that when we spend $ 200.00 dollars on books we expect to get at least 40 or 50 titles (we tend not to buy our books at retail (or new)) we think we'll pass.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       The Age/SMH registration

       Two more decent online review sources are about to bite the dust: The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald warn that they will soon be requiring registration (one registration for both -- and other affiliated sites).
       They explain
We want you to register so we can improve and keep the site free.

The information you provide will give an overall profile of our readers and enable us to work better with advertisers
       How having people provide false information (as surely everyone will, there being no incentive to be truthful) in any way benefits anyone is unclear to us. Registering with inaccurate information seems to pose no problem, but they do appear to require cookies to be enabled.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Orange Prize 2004

       As has been widely noted, the Orange Prize 2004 winner was Small Island, by Andrea Levy.
       At The Guardian John Ezard reports that this was an upset.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Japanese publishing doldrums

       Manabu Hara reports that Recovery likely to leave most books and magazines still on the shelves in The Asahi Shimbun:
According to the Yano Research Institute, a well-known independent think tank in Tokyo, Japan's publishing industry faces "structural problems" and will not enjoy the fruits of any economic upswing. Last year, the size of the publishing market was estimated at 2.23 trillion yen, down 3.6 percent from the previous year. The market could dip to 2.17 trillion yen this year and drop to 1.97 trillion yen in 2007.
The average pretax operating income of the top 300 publishing firms has dropped 6.5 percent over the last 15 years. Their total sales have declined to the level registered 11 years ago.
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Ella Minnow Pea in German

       Some books pose special translation problems -- such as Georges Perec's e-less La disparition, rendered into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void. The Germans recently have shown little fear: they did Walter Abish's letter-dependent Alphabetical Africa, and now they've taken on Mark Dunn's letter-losing Ella Minnow Pea, translated as Nollops Vermächtnis. See also the publisher's publicity page.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       »Anthrax« review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Philipp Sarasin's look at Bioterror als Phantasma, »Anthrax«.
       Note that the image of the book-cover at the publisher's publicity page (and at is a lame light green; the actual book cover is bright warning red.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

8 June 2004 - Tuesday

Hill's Style and Faith | Poetry tour
Greil Marcus on The Manchurian Candidate | Oprah and Anna Karenina

       Hill's Style and Faith

       We reviewed Style and Faith by Geoffrey Hill almost exactly a year ago -- and remain shocked by the lack of coverage of this title.
       A couple of reviews have appeared, including P.N.Furbank's in the spring 2004 issue of The Threepenny Review (which we haven't seen yet). Most, however, are found in a very similar group of publications. There's the most recent, Alan Jacobs' review in Christianity Today's Books and Culture section (where he wonders: "Is Geoffrey Hill 'the greatest living English poet' ?"). There's a brief review in First Things. And there's a review in Crisis -- by a First Things editor.
       What kind of weird marginalisation of Hill is going on here ? And how did we (as anti-theistic as it gets) wind up here ?
       Sure, religion plays a major role in Hill's writing -- but his significance extends considerably beyond that. And Style and Faith is a collection that deserves attention from general literary publications as well.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Poetry tour

       It's pretty easy to make fun of poetry readings, and Christina Patterson finds yet another variation -- with actors rather than poets reading -- that is less successful than hoped for, in the cruelly titled No one gets out awake in today's issue of The Independent.
Bloodaxe Books, the bastion of cutting-edge poetry publishing, is pairing up with an arts centre, a literature promotion agency and a poetry performance company (yes, such things do exist) to organise a poetry tour with actors and music. Based on the bestselling (and wonderful) poetry anthology Staying Alive, the tour will, it's envisaged, bring poetry to the people in 17 towns around the country, starting off in Maidenhead and culminating in the capital.
       The official page of the Staying Alive tour pretty much says it all -- such jaw-droppingly awful and off-putting copy that we can't even quote it.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Greil Marcus on The Manchurian Candidate

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Greil Marcus' monograph on the John Frankenheimer film (based on the Richard Condon novel we also recently reviewed), The Manchurian Candidate.
       It got remarkably poor customer reviews, and is among the least useful of the otherwise impressive BFI Film Classics series we've come across.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Oprah and Anna Karenina

       As has been widely reported, Oprah has chosen Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as her next book club selection.
       An article in The New York Times yesterday (available here, at the Toronto Sun) by Edward Wyatt focusses on the translators. As he notes:
at least a half-dozen translations of Anna Karenina are in print in North America. Because Oprah's Book Club uses online readers' guides and other materials specific to the book, Winfrey recognized the importance of having everyone on the same page. "First of all, get this edition," she told viewers. "You see the one with the little flowers on the cover, and it'll have the little banner ? Look for the Oprah's Book Club little sticker there because there's lots of different editions. This is an award-winning translation, so you're really going to get scared if it's not translated well, okay ?"
       Okay ?
       We're particularly interested in how she made this choice -- as, most remarkably, Oprah admits:
"I've never, ever chosen a novel that I had not personally read," she said on her show last week, introducing the selection. "It's been on my list for years, but I didn't do it because I was scared." Now, she said, "I am going to team up with all of you and read it together."
       What possessed her to pick a book she hadn't read and vetted ? Is Anna Karenina's reputation so overwhelmingly good -- as well as, apparently, scary -- that she's willing to subject the million or so readers who will follow her lead to this book without knowing for sure whether it's her cup of tea ?
       But back to the specific translation: her only explanation of why this one is the preferred one is that it's "award-winning". And while it's nice to see that a translation-award can carry such weight, it might help if she mentioned what award it is.
       It is the PEN/BOMC Translation Prize. And what a wild selection of titles that's been awarded to. Somehow we don't think Oprah would have been as willing to choose other this-award winning titles, such as volume three of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter (2001). Or André Breton's Earthlight (1994).
       Admittedly there've been some big-name books that have won this prize -- but at least one (admittedly among the first, from 1966) we found near unacceptable: the translation of Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade.
       The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation has gotten very good notices, so it probably is a good choice, but we'd have loved a bit more explanation than merely that it's award-winning.

       As to Oprah's selection itself -- well, the book is great, but we're worried where this is going when her site describes it as:
An extremely sexy and engrossing read, this book tells the tale of one of the most enthralling love affairs in the history of literature -- it truly was the "Harlequin Romance" of its day.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

7 June 2004 - Monday

Publishing business | Clinton memoir
Joyce copyright issues | 99 p books

       Publishing business

       We often mention how incomprehensible we find the publishing business, but we should clarify: it's not that we aren't (at least to some extent) aware of how the business works (as it were): what constantly baffles us is that this business is run in such an un-business-like manner. (It is for that reason that, for example, BookExpo America 2004 doesn't mean that much to us. We've enjoyed the reports from there (notably from The Elegant Variation and Beatrice), but the convention coverage is no more reassuring about how things are run.)
       We mention this because The Reading Experience writes today:
I understand that book publishing is a business, but it has always been among the least business-like of businesses. If it really was "only a business," only a way to amass capital for owners and stockholders, then almost no "literary" fiction would ever get published, since very little of it ever contributes to the financial stockpile. A truly efficient business would publish only what it considered to be potentially profitable, the more blockbusterish the better. If book publishing had always followed a sound business plan, only Clancy and Grisham and company would be available in your neighborhood bookstore.
       We don't see it this way at all; in fact, a major problem we have with publishing today is that it's not run in a business-like manner. Far from keeping "'literary' fiction" out of bookstores, we think sound business practice would get more in.
       The Reading Experience states that: "If book publishing had always followed a sound business plan, only Clancy and Grisham and company would be available in your neighborhood bookstore." First, it's important to realise that book-publishing and book-selling are two very different sectors of the industry. Booksellers largely probably do prefer to stock what they hope are high turnover titles, such as those by Clancy and Grisham. For publishers the equation isn't as straightforward: these authors and the like get advances that run into the millions and even tens of millions -- big bets that rarely come with a big upside any more. Publishing Grisham and the like does generally generate a lot of cash flow (which looks good on the annual report), but generally does not make for much profit-making.
       It's not "literary" or "serious" fiction that most of publishers' advances are spent on, or where they lose (or, occasionally, make) most of their money: the biggest losses are in the six-figure advance level, often non-fiction flops by personalities (or, as it turns out, non-personalities), or fiction by authors with good name recognition but (relatively) poor sales. That's the bigest problem we have with publishing: unreasonable advances. A while back we were upset by Nell Freudenberger getting a sizable advance on the basis of a single story (triggering our obsession), but nowadays publishers seem ready to throw six-figure advances at practically anybody (as long as they have some name recognition). And that just doesn't sound like a sound business practice.
       Big books -- hyped, and with all the publicity that big advances generate -- do potentially offer bigger rewards. But a solid backlist of lasting titles seems a better bet -- which is where the search for quality should come in. The Reading Experience berated us for our comments about Peyton Place, a rare schlock book that we thought was too good to pass up; but generally we agree: having a backlist of Faulkner, Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Nabokov, etc. is the sort of lasting money-generator that publishers would be wise to be on the lookout for. But nowadays there seems little backlist-building interest -- short-term interest (the next quarter's profits) trump long-term sense. To us that's bad business. (But, admittedly, the current American business environment rewards this short-term outlook.)
       Sure, signing up, say, the next presidential memoir gets lots of press attention -- but consider how much money was lost on the Ronald Reagan memoir (one of the great flops of recent times -- though there are many to choose from). Think how many "literary" authors could have been signed up -- and even marketed, half-way decently -- for the money that was pissed away on that. But publishers prefer to risk shareholder's money (note that in this conglomerate age it's rarely their own that's at risk) on established (though not necessarily successful -- or at least literarily successful) names -- even if that often means losing great heaps of money.
       In the 1990s, HarperCollins famously wrote off $270 million in unearned advances; you can bet that wasn't literary fiction they had wasted their money on. And we think their return on investment would have been far better if that's what they'd tried to spend their money on.
       The current business environment does reward a blockbuster-attitude, but given how poorly publishers have performed in trying to follow that model, we think it would be worth their while exploring other approaches. An emphasis on quality might be worth a try. That, it would seem to us, would be a sound business approach. (Competitive pricing might help too, by the way.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Clinton memoir

       We don't understand why people are all excited about Bill Clinton's memoir, but in the Denver Post David Milofsky suggests: Clinton fuss reflects state of publishing.
       We're not sure we agree that:
Yet it's still hard to see Clinton's publisher earning back the money it paid the former president for an advance against future royalties.
       The sums, in this case, might actually work out (though the reported ten million is also cash out of hand, i.e. money that couldn't be spent on other, actually worthy titles until it's earned back). But he's probably right that:
Of course, if Clinton's book were less than wildly successful, nothing would change in the way publishers do business.
       Which -- as we mentioned above -- is one of the big problems we have with the publishing industry.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Joyce copyright issues

       As has been widely noted, the Joyce estate takes their copy-rights very seriously, but they've had a few setbacks recently.
       A Swiss court undid a preliminary injunction against wine-maker Provins Valais, preventing them from shipping their Cuvée James Joyce Fendant de Sion 2003 to Ireland (see Wine Republic for a review of this "fruity easygoing number").
       As more widely noted, the Joyce estate was apparently also threatening to contest the Irish National Library's right to exhibit and otherwise present Joyce-material for the upcoming Bloomsday centenary. In The Guardian Angelique Chrisafis reported Rejoyce... Irish MPs save festival, while Out-Law reports Ireland argues copyright of James Joyce. All is not clear yet, but The Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Bill 2004 has been passed by the Seanad (but still has to be considered by the Dáil).
       The Bill can be found (as a pdf file) here. It is:
proposed to remove any doubt as to the right of any person to place literary or artistic works protected by copyright or copies thereof on public exhibition without committing a breach of copyright as provided for by Part II of the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000.
       Chrisafis optimistically claims that this is: "emergency legislation which will prevent Mr Joyce from suing the government and the National Library". It does no such thing, of course -- he can sue all he wants (though his chances of prevailing aren't as good any more), and since it's unclear whether or not this legislation conforms to EU copyright law this legislation might not even stand up.
       We actually don't mind the Joyce estate's aggressive assertion of copyright, as it serves well to highlight how nutty some of this protection has become (recall also that Joyce's works were actually copyright-free for a few years in the early 1990s, since protection only lasted for fifty years, before it was once again increased). But these last-minute amendments (and done on a national, rather than EU-wide, level) are a poor way of addressing the many problems current law poses.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       99 p books

       It's worked well in Italy, where book promotions of this sort are apparently all the rage, and now HarperCollins is trying it in the UK. The News Corp. company is teaming up with another News Corp company (synergy !): The Times offers 20 Modern Classics - Prize-winning books for just 99p each.
       It is a damned good deal: for twenty weeks you can buy a copy of The Times in WHSmith and every week get a different book for a mere 99p. And the first week you even get it for free. And some of these are even decent titles (though all, not surprisingly, are apparently HarperCollins books). Hey, we'd buy a copy of The Times for a free copy of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
       Good business -- or undermining the retail side ? (And we're not sure how the author-remuneration goes in this case.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

6 June 2004 - Sunday

Four times Echenoz

       Four times Echenoz

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of four novels by Jean Echenoz:
  • His newly translated Piano
  • His newly published (in Mark Polizzotti's translation) Chopin's Move (which, confusingly, was scheduled for US publication years ago but somehow never made it -- but was published in the UK in 1998 (as Lake) in a translation by Guido Waldman)
  • His Goncourt-winning I'm Gone
  • And Big Blondes
       The double translations -- I'm Gone was also translated (separately) by both Polizzotti and Waldman -- don't help, but we never really got the widespread Echenoz-enthusiasm. And Big Blondes, for example, did very little for us. But what a surprise Piano was -- a damn good book.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

5 June 2004 - Saturday

Orange essentials

       Orange essentials

       The Orange Prize (to be awarded next week) and the Hay Festival organised a vote for something they call the Orange essentials:
to celebrate the huge wealth of contemporary fiction. We’re putting together a library of 50 novels by living writers you want to recommend as ‘essential reads’. The list will be announced at the Festival.
       The votes are in -- not that they'd been announced at the site last time we checked. But the press has the results (numbered 1 to 50 here -- but the order is alphabetical, not in order of ... essentiality).
       In the Daily Telegraph Tom Leonard emphasises that Cooper rides into literary acclaim. Yes:
Jilly Cooper's Riders, the raunchy bestseller about sex and showjumping, has been voted into a list of 50 contemporary "essential reads" by visitors to the Hay-on-Wye literary festival.
       He also quotes:
Kate Mosse, the prize's co-founder and honorary director, described the selections as a "satisfyingly international list".
       With a mere six (as best we can tell) titles out of the fifty originally written in a foreign language we beg to differ.
       Over at Ananova they note: Harry out of top 50 'must' books:
none of JK Rowling's five Harry Potter books are included. There is also no space for last year's Booker winner, DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, Monica Ali's Brick Lane or Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

4 June 2004 - Friday

BookExpo America | Transit of venus

       BookExpo America

       The publishing industry remains a complete mystery to us, and so we also don't really know what to make about this big get-together in the Midwest called BookExpo America 2004 (apparently the biggest publishing shindig around). Fortunately, more capable literary webloggers are present in force and in the mix, and The Elegant Variation already offers excellent on-site coverage (with pictures, too), complemented nicely by coverage from Beatrice.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Transit of venus

       With good timing John Gribbin reviews Peter Aughton's The Transit of Venus, about Jeremiah Horrocks -- who:
really did do something special. His observation of the transit of Venus was not just a chance to see a spectacular event, but also enabled him, using the geometry of planetary orbits, to work out the first reasonably accurate estimate of the distance from the Earth to the Sun.
       It's good timing because it's almost time for a repeat of that spectacular and very rare event, a transit of Venus (in which, as observed from earth, the planet moves in front of the sun). Not very literary but damn cool: if you miss this one (and the follow-up 6 June 2012), you'll have to wait until 2117 to see one again.
       Additional information can be found at:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

3 June 2004 - Thursday

Abebooks to sell new books | Byatt review

       Abebooks to sell new books

       The online book market grows more interesting as leading used-bookseller (which is actually a network of thousands of booksellers of all shapes and sizes) will now also make "it possible for book retailers, publishers and authors to begin selling new books directly to customers online." A press release announces The world's largest online marketplace for used books officially opens its doors to new books.
       All of a sudden it looks a lot more like -- without any of the inventory concerns (or costs). It'll be interesting to see how this affects Amazon. It certainly looks like a great business model to us.

       (Updated - 4 June): See also Rare move to cut out the bookstores by Judy Stoffman in the Toronto Star.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Byatt review

       Knopf finally sent us a copy of A.S.Byatt's recent collection, Little Black Book of Stories, and our review is now available.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

2 June 2004 - Wednesday

New Man Booker prize | New Context | Bi-lingual Luc Sante
NY Press book coverage | Kids' favourites | More Jacobson

       New Man Booker prize

       The BBC thinks Booker goes global with new prize, The Guardian just informs that Booker committee announces international prize (though no doubt they'll have more to say in the coming days). Yes, the Man Booker folk have announced a "Major New Global Literary Prize".
       It's called The Man Booker International Prize -- and, as you see, already has its own website (with an incredibly annoying -- though skipable -- 'Flash'-intro).
       The idea is to honour an author every two years -- not a book, but an author. This will apparently highlight: "one writer's continued creativity, development and overall contribution to fiction on the world stage".
       It is, indeed, sort of global: it's open to authors who have: "published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language", a clever way of pretending to be worldly but insuring that the public doesn't have to deal with these annoying obscure authors who aren't translated into English but so often win the Nobel Prize (Imre Kertesz sure doesn't sound like he'd be in the running for the 2005 Man Booker International, for example).
       It does sound pretty darn ambitious: a shortlist (!) of fifteen contenders will be announced early in 2005. No wonder they can only award it every two years.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       New Context

       Those who haven't been lucky enough to come across a print copy can now enjoy Context 15.
       Good stuff, as always -- though quite a bit of it is familiar: Bookslut Jessa Crispin's interview with Dubravka Ugresic was previously published at Bookslut, and Eric Dickens' Selective Xenophobia and Literary Translation in Britain appeared at CLCWeb two years ago. And a lot of those book reviews were previously published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Still: it's a good collection of pieces.
       The title-piece is Jonathan Bolton's Reading Patrik Ouredník. Dalkey Archive Press (the third in the literary triad that is the Center for Book Culture, along with Context and the Review of Contemporary Fiction) will bring out this Czech author's Europeana out in 2005; definitely something we'll have a look at. (For an additional perspective on Europeana, chech out Viktor Slajchrt's review.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Bi-lingual Luc Sante

       In the Summer issue of The Threepenny Review Luc Sante, who came to the US a young child, writes about French Without Tears.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       NY Press book coverage

       This week's issue of New York Press there's considerable book coverage. Aside from the regular reviews they offer a special "Summer Guide" -- which includes Jim Knipfel's Alternate Summer's Reading List for 2004 and Stanley Holditch on Francis Wheen's Idiot Proof
       And among the standard reviews is one of the first four volumes of Osamu Tezuka's Buddha. (See also the Vertical publicity page.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Kids' favourites

       In today's issue of The Independent Richard Garner reports that Favourite read is a closed book for many children.
One child in five was stumped when asked by researchers to identify a favourite book.

A survey of 300 seven to 14-year-olds published today claims they have not read enough books to be able to name a preferred read. Of the boys, 24 per cent were unable to answer compared with 16 per cent of girls. Thirty per cent of 13 and 14-year-olds were unable to name a book they liked.
       We're not entirely clear what some of the questions posed to these poor kids were -- if you asked us to identify a favourite book we'd be hard pressed to single one (or a few) out (and not because we've read too few to choose from). But the fact that: "Thirty per cent of 13 and 14-year-olds were unable to name a book they liked" is pretty scary.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       More Jacobson

       As we mentioned yesterday, we've just added our review of Howard Jacobson's The Making of Henry. Now the Telegraph offers considerable additional coverage: a Jacobson profile by Matthew Norman, and reviews of the new book by Gerald Jacobs and Will Cohu.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

1 June 2004 - Tuesday

Amazon flexes its muscles | Howard Jacobson | Naipaul story
I.B.Singer | Griffin judging

       Amazon flexes its muscles

       This is troubling. It's only (the German branch), but should send shivers up spines everywhere: in yesterday's issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Hannes Hintermeier reports that Diogenes traut sich was gegen Amazon.
       Apparently, has been demanding ever-increasing discounts from publishers for books they stock. Leading (Swiss-)German publisher Diogenes (reportedly "the biggest European publishing house, with sixty employees, dealing exclusively with fiction") apparently thought the discounts were getting too steep (i.e. the money they were getting per book was too low) and wouldn't accept what Amazon was offering. Result: no longer stocks them.
       Diogenes titles -- which include the works of bestselling authors such as Paulo Coelho, Donna Leon, and Amélie Nothomb, and a ton of classics -- haven't been entirely delisted, but no longer supplies them to customers. Instead, they are only available as 'Marketplace' items (i.e. sold by third parties).
       This is an interesting show-down. Diogenes isn't one of the biggest players in the German market, but it's unimaginable that a general bookstore could get away without stocking their titles; as Hintermeier notes, they count: "wie wenige andere zu den absoluten Lieblingen der Buchhändler" ("like almost no other to the absolute darlings of the bookshops").
       Amazon, meanwhile, is -- in this country which is only slowly making the transition to book chains, and which has a firm fixed-book-price policy (no retail discounting in Germany !) -- apparently already the biggest German book retailer (Hintermeier says the industry believes to have grown by about fifty per cent in 2003, and had a turnover of € 520 million in books alone). Which suggests they have a lot of power -- and it looks like they want to prove it.
       The German book-retailing market could arguably use some shaking up, but's American methods are jarring in this more gentlemanly (or over-regulated and anti-competitive) world. Smaller publishers can certainly be squeezed with ease; a mid-size outfit like Diogenes is tougher, but as long as other publishers don't join in the protest probably doesn't have that much incentive to back down.
       It'll be interesting to see whether similar scenarios play out in other Amazon territories. With Amazon by far the biggest online-bookseller in several markets they probably feel pretty comfortable now. If they want, they presumably could make more onerous demands of publishers. And it's hard to imagine why, eventually, they wouldn't want to.

       (Amazon has positioned itself brilliantly: de-listing books to Marketplace-only status actually isn't a big loss for them. They still get a nice cut of sales with almost none of the hassle of selling the item (they don't actually have to purchase, handle, stock, or ship the item: they just coordinate and bill). Lots of readers at the complete review buy books (and other products) via Amazon through the links we provide at this site (for which we get a commission -- so thanks !), and the percentage of items that are Marketplace rather than sold directly by has gone up dramatically. It wouldn't surprise us if eventually becomes largely a middleman, rather than bothering with all those expensive warehouses, etc.)

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       Howard Jacobson

       Is Howard Jacobson the most prominent contemporary British author never to have made it in the US ? Publishers Weekly did review his The Very Model of a Man a couple of years back, but that's about the only trace of his fiction we've seen stateside (it doesn't look like even that book ever made it to American bookstores). Now -- well, this fall (September) -- Anchor is publishing The Making of Henry, and it's being touted as his American debut (the poor guy having seven previous novels under his belt -- and clocking in at over sixty years of age -- he's no up-and-comer).
       The Making of Henry just came out in the UK, and we now have it under review. And we've also reviewed two more of his titles: The Mighty Walzer and Peeping Tom (sorry, no relation to the classic Michael Powell film). (We also just got our hands on a copy of his Booker-longlisted (good god, now even that is considered honour enough to mention on a book-jacket) Who's Sorry Now ?, which we look forward to reviewing in the near future.)
       It's odd stuff, admittedly. He certainly can write, and he has a great comic touch. But he's shame-obsessed, and can probably fairly be called misogynistic (though in The Making of Henry he manages a halfway decent relationship with a woman -- a pleasant surprise). And perhaps American publishers thought so much about the British (and specifically Mancunian) Jewish scene was too much for American audiences.
       The first reviews for The Making of Henry have been very enthusiastic, and he's gotten great reviews for previous efforts too. But not everyone is a fan: recall Jason Cowley's year-end round-up (New Statesman, 7 January 2002), in which he wrote:
Less enticing is Who's Sorry Now ?, the usual tale of middle-aged angst and adultery from the ubiquitous, unashamedly bearded (and deeply tedious) Howard Jacobson.
       Tedious and bearded. You've been warned.

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       Naipaul story

       There's a V.S.Naipual story, Suckers, in this week's issue of The New Yorker.

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       In this week's issue of The New Yorker Jonathan Rosen writes on an: American Master: How I. B. Singer translated himself into American literature.
       We're a bit intimidated by the three-volume set of Isaac Bashevis Singer-stories which the Library of America is bringing out, but we think we might have a go at them.

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       Griffin judging

       In the 29 May Globe & Mail Rebecca Caldwell talks with Griffin Prize judges Bill Manhire, Billy Collins, and Phyllis Webb about the judging-procedure: an interesting behind-the-scenes look (link first seen at Bookninja).

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