The Literary Ventures Fund is a tiny nonprofit, founded last year with offices in Boston and New York, that "seeks to challenge the status quo of literary publishing," as its Web site boldly proclaims.
LVF hopes to help exceptional works of fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry find the readership they deserve -- by using an economic model more frequently associated with Silicon Valley.
LVF invests in books it believes to have both literary merit and commercial potential that might go unrealized without an added push.
So far, its investments (there have been fewer than 10 to date) have been made in partnership with the books' publishers, though it plans to work directly with authors as well.
The extra money, along with LVF's connections and expertise, can be employed in many ways, with the most obvious being increased marketing to help a book cut through the noise of a crowded marketplace.
If its investment pays off, LVF will take a cut of the book's profits.
If it doesn't -- like a venture capitalist funding a high-tech start-up -- it will swallow the loss.
The portfolio of projects is still fairly small, but if nothing else it is an interesting experiment -- and gives tiny-budget publishers opportunities they might not otherwise have.
But it's not just the small publishers who are playing along:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux is a bit of an exception.
Owned by the giant German holding company Holtzbrinck, it nonetheless remains one of the major publishers most committed to literature. The two FSG books that LVF is backing are The Savage Detectives, a prize-winning novel in translation by the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, and Gregoire Bouillier's memoir The Mystery Guest, translated from the French by FSG editor Lorin Stein.
"The idea is that we will try some innovative techniques" in marketing the Bouillier, FSG publisher Galassi says. He doesn't actually need LVF -- unlike a smaller press, he's got access to capital if he really wants it -- but he's happy to share the risk.
Translated works are almost always a hard sell to American readers and he'd have been reluctant to commit $10,000 of FSG's own dollars to that effort.
Our concerns include: why is he reluctant to commit FSG's own dollars to such projects ?
Sure, one can argue: "Translated works are almost always a hard sell to American readers", but might we suggest that FSG's (and everybody else's) reluctance to commit their own money to these projects signals to readers, booksellers, and the media (which then doesn't bother to review the stuff) alike that they don't really believe in these projects (or the possible (sales) success of these projects -- sales being the main way 'success' is defined in even this business) .....
Another similar concern: by sharing the supposed risk in this way, FSG is also sharing the reward.
Obviously they don't believe there will be much of one, as they are willing to give up what could be an enormous upside, all to save a few thousand bucks.
(Bolaño has a small track record in English translation, which might suggest what they can expect, but if any of his titles break out it is going to be this one or 2666 (both of which we can't wait to get our hands on, by the way).
Taking a few LVF dollars is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the sales-potential they believe the book to have.)
(In fact, there are perverse incentives for publishers here: the books they want to get LVF money for are obviously those they desperately want to publish but which they figure are going to be complete sales-duds.)
Somewhat mysterious, too, their relationship with the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, with which the LVF "merged" last year -- though it looks more like a simple take-over ("LVF will serve as the parent company of the merged entities; however, both non-profit organizations will maintain their own incorporations and separate branding" -- and, yes, that 'branding' concept scares us too ...).
It's hard to complain about anything that helps publicize or bring to market additional worthy books (and so far they seem to have made some pretty good choices).
Still, we wonder how this will play out.
The New York Times Book Review's recent search for the best American novel of the past 25 years certainly did what we presume it was intended to -- attract a lot of notice.
(It will appear in the print issue of the NYTBR tomorrow.)
We didn't waste much space on it, but there's been some very good commentary elsewhere, notably now at Conversational reading, where Scott Esposito devotes his Friday Column (a great idea, by the way) to it, in Best List ? No Way.
(MAO adds: I appreciate the kind words, though as my mention (of my apparently very limited exposure to great contemporary American fiction) suggests, perhaps I'm not the ideal person to play along at Tanenhaus' game.)
Lots of links here, too, to other coverage.
There was even a BEA panel on the list.
GalleyCat -- providing wall-to-wall in-depth coverage of BEA -- reports in Canadian Markets and No Brownie Love, while Ed Champion warns Do Not Question the NYTBR ! in his report.
Tanenhaus challenged Champion to name a book review section in the country that paid more attention to serious fiction (to which my mental response was, "You did not just say that in Book World's hometown. I know you ain't that crazy").
With its many pages, and mini-reviews of fiction in its occasional 'Fiction Chronicle' and 'Crime'-round-ups, it is possible that the NYTBR covers (or at least mentions) more fiction than any other book review section in the country.
Where they lag, however, is in their coverage of "serious fiction" -- Tanenhaus has (as he warned he would when he took over) embraced coverage of 'pop' fiction (not a bad thing in and of itself, but he's made it one by doing so at the expense of coverage of serious fiction) -- and where the NYTBR is truly mired in second-rateness is in its serious coverage of (any and all) fiction.
Sure, a few big books get their due -- even Tanenhaus can't ignore them all -- but it's clear he has little interest in or respect for fiction (and a distinct antipathy for anything that's been translated).
His unwillingness to devote proper and appropriate space to discussion of fiction titles borders on the ridiculous (just to remind you: last Sunday's issue had full-length reviews of 2 fiction titles and 14 non-fiction titles (see our discussion)).
The mini-reviews (mentions, is more like it) that are found in the 'Chronicle's or 'Crime' etc. round-ups just don't cut it.
(Updated): The 21 May issue of the NYTBR is apparently devoted entirely to fiction -- admirable, in a way, and it certainly helps balance the review-numbers, but it's the week-in, week-out coverage that counts, not the "special" issues (though, desperate as we are, we'll take what we can get).
The author of On Liberty, who was born 200 years ago today, would be as appalled by the current assault on civil liberties as by the shocking failure of its critics to find a vocabulary with which to rally mass opposition.
Now, more than ever, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the wisdom of the last great English polymath.
See also Richard Reeves' profile in Prospect.
They held a book fair in Iraq a few days back, the Erbil International Book Fair and Library Equipment Exhibition.
(See some preliminary information here.)
At the Charkinblog Charles Jenkins (of Palgrave Macmillan) describes his experiences there, in Publishing without frontiers.
Last week, the top four hardback non-fiction bestsellers were Jade: My Autobiography, Jordan: A Whole New World, Constance Briscoe's Ugly, and Danniella Westbrook's The Other Side of Nowhere.
Sitting pertinently at number five was Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit ?
(Horace Bent makes the same observation in his column in The Bookseller.)
A few weeks back in The East African David Kaiza reported on the whole project in his piece on Publishing On Demand in Uganda (here at allAfrica.com, so probably not freely accessible for long).
It is difficult to get published in Africa.
Publishers complain that few of the manuscripts they get from budding authors are worth publishing.
They also blame a poor reading culture, which makes it difficult for publishing ventures to make profits due to low sales.
PoD is an ideal solution to these challenges.
By reducing the cost of producing books, publishers in Africa will be able to bring out more books from new writers and have the courage to experiment.
We're certainly keeping our fingers crossed -- and hope to be able to eventually cover some of these titles !
On the one hand, we're always pleased when something gets translated, especially from a generally under-represented region.
On the other hand: just because it's translated, doesn't mean it's any good.
Certainly Kaelen Wilson-Goldie's review of Alexandre Najjar's The School of War in the Daily Star, Another war memoir, another sob story (!), suggests this isn't exactly a must-read:
The trouble with The School of War is that it is a modest, meandering memoir arriving late to the canon of Lebanese literature, which is already crowded with examples (a few of them brilliant) of the memoir's tougher, more ambitious and quite often more brutal older brother, the novel.
(Of course, how much of that canon is accessible to English-speaking readers ... ?)
As to author Najjar:
According to the jacket copy for The School of War, he is considered to be among the best of the country's novelists -- though not, one hopes, on the basis of this particular book, which should not, and could not, call itself a novel.
Some imaginative choices (the Mathews ... though you have to wonder: is that sexy ?) -- but the focus is almost entirely modern: Fanny Hill is the only pre-20th century work that makes the cut.
(German readers can find a bigger dose of erotic (which admittedly does not equate with sexy) lit on the CD-ROM Erotische Literatur von Lysistrata bis Lady Chatterley.
40,000 pages worth !
The list of contents gives you an idea of what's on offer (it's not restricted to novels, which lets more older stuff slip in).)
The Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung have announced that Rumanian-born German writer (and Oulipo member !) Oskar Pastior will be the recipient of the 40,000 Georg-Büchner-Preis, probably the most prestigious German literary honour.
Typically for German prizes, they give him lots of time to prepare his speech: the awards ceremony is 21 October.
Dubravka Ugresic was in NY a few weeks ago for the PEN World Voices festival, and now there's an interview with her at House of Mirth.
Local barkeep Michael Orthofer talked to her too, and his interview is up at the current crQ.
At the Reading the World-site we learn not only about the current RTW programme, but also get pointed to Bill Marx's wbur review of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Seven Stories (which, you'll recall, we were similarly enthusiastic about a few weeks back).
We're thrilled to see the deserving book get some more coverage (and pleased that RTW is keeping an eye out for this sort of thing as well) !
Marx also mentions the RTW-efforts -- though he does note:
And why publicize classics, such as Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, when lovers of literature need to be introduced to the neglected brilliance of Krzhizhanovsky and Platonov ?
Major writers shouldn't be left out on the margins.
Meanwhile, if you haven't discovered it on your own yet, note the excellent RTW coverage going on at Emerging Writers Network -- reviews of lots of the titles (and more to come) !
And don't forget that the Words without Borders book groups are starting up this week, Dalkey Archive Press' Chad Post leading the discussion of Dubravka Ugresic's (see our interview ...) new (to the US) novel, The Ministry of Pain.
(Not sure exactly how that is going to work, but the RTW-site (and the links there) should point you in the right direction.)
(Updated - 16 May): The discussion can be found here.
As we mentioned re. The New York Times Book Review's efforts to identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years", what's most surprising about it is that editor Sam Tanenhaus shows this much interest in anything to do with fiction.
We've complained about this repeatedly, but even though we sense it's futile -- Tanenhaus appears set in his very narrow ways, and other readers don't seem to be complaining too much -- we can't help complain yet again about the preponderance of non-fiction coverage, and the absence of fiction coverage in the NYTBR.
Looking at the full-length reviews in the 14 May issue devoted to individual titles (i.e. excluding reviews that lump together several titles in one review), we find: reviews of 2 adult fiction titles, compared to individual reviews of 14 (!) non-fiction titles.
It's kiddie week at the NYTBR, so maybe Tanenhaus figures the balance of non-serious coverage (which is surely what he thinks wasting space on fiction amounts to) is covered by the 'Children's Books' section .....
(Of one of the books in the kids' section a reviewer even writes: "I strongly suspect it was written for adults", but even if we count that, full-length fiction-reviews are outnumbered 3:14.)
Yes, this week also has a 'Fiction Chronicle', stuffing "coverage" of five fiction titles (including Dubravka Ugresic's The Ministry of Pain ...) on one page, but this section is so irrelevant that obviously not even the NYTBR copy-editors (much less the editors) actually read it, as suggested by the fact that Michael Agovino's discussion of Gilles Rozier's The Mercy Room includes the baffling sentence:
While it may be fun for book clubs to try to decipher the clues of the narrator's identity, this device that shows little faith in the story itself, which is simple but complex, with themes well worth exploration: heroism and cowardice, domination and submission, war and comeuppance, sexual needs versus sexual wants.
(Which, even if the missing words had been included, is not great criticism.
(We've probably done it at some -- possibly even several -- points in our lives, too, but saying something is "simple but complex" is about as desperate as it gets.)
So, yes, additional fiction coverage gets squeezed in here and there -- the occasional Crime round-up, etc. -- but as far as stand-alone, one-review-for-one-book reviews go, the NYTBR is looking more than ever like it's non-fiction all the time.
The ratio of such reviews covering fiction v. non-fiction in the past nine issues is:
14/5: 2 to 14
7/5: 5 to 12
30/4: 4 to 11
23/4: 7 to 10
16/4: 4 to 11
9/4: 8 to 10
2/4: 5 to 11
26/3: 4 to 15
19/3: 7 to 11
So in the past nine issues there have never been more than 8 full-length reviews devoted to individual fiction titles, and never less than 10 devoted to non-fiction titles.
The totals ?
46 fiction, 105 non-fiction.
(Obviously, we do things very differently here, and aren't as focussed on current publications, but a quick count suggests the ratio of fiction-to-non-fiction titles covered at the complete review is at least 5 to 1, and probably higher.)
And this doesn't even take into account what books they're covering (and what books they aren't ...).
(For what it's worth -- not much, to us, but still -- we do note that there appears to be considerably more poetry coverage under Tanenhaus than under the previous administrations.)
The 32nd Annual Meeting and Conference of the African Literature Association starts in Accra, Ghana, later this week.
A fairly interesting-sounding programme (the theme is "Pan-Africanism In The 21st Century: Generations In Creative Dialogue"); we hope there will be decent coverage of this.
(Updated - 19 May): See now also a report on Adzei Bekoe's opening speech at Ghanaweb.
But here in Nigeria, politics and writing or politicians and writers hardly ever mix.
The two are like oil and water.
Whether deliberately or not, writers themselves are the ones putting up the barriers.
(We do wonder about that picture of Achebe they use to illustrate the article .....)
Afghan poet Mohammad Hassanzadeh said that the Afghan publishing industry was established several decades ago but there is still no publication in Afghanistan, adding, "Most of the books distributed in the country are published in Iran."
For a long time, James Hardley Chase wrote the only known and much-read detective stories in Zimbabwe.
But apparently there's quite a bit of local stuff now too -- though:
With time, Zimbabwean authors -- Mordekai Hamutyinei, James Kawara and Edward Kaugare among others -- sought to provide fast-paced thriller detective stories in Shona.
But just like a typical Shona novel, these books seek to reprimand as a way of controlling the society.
The site of The Standard (Kenya) has a number of sections you can click through to -- the usual stuff, for the most part: besides Home, there's News, Sports, Editorial, Cartoon, Your Letters, Special Reports, Columnists, and Politics.
But there's one more, and we must admit we're impressed.
Why don't more newspapers have a section for Literary Discourse ?
In The Guardian Lucasta Miller profiles Everyman-series publisher David Campbell, in Bound for glory.
The classic imprint was apparently revived by Campbell -- though it's now in the hands of Random House/Knopf:
Everyman's continued survival, Campbell feels, has been assured since it was sold three years ago to the US publisher, Knopf.
"I don't think it has really affected Everyman's independent status."
The relationship with Knopf was always close; from the beginning, in 1991, Everyman had an arrangement that Knopf buy their books and market them in the States.
Without them Campbell, who remains publisher, feels Everyman might never have got off the ground in the first place.
(See also the official Knopf-Everyman-page -- or don't.
(Someone explain to us why the splash page announcing a new website is due up in May has to be a Flash page ... (Flash ranking right behind ActiveX and ahead of pdf as the web-page accessories/formats that we most detest).
And isn't it May already ... ?).
Of course, the new incarnation isn't quite the old one:
Founded in 1906 by Joseph Dent, it had been revolutionary in its day for providing pocket-sized editions of the classics at a shilling.
The books were exquisitely produced -- Dent was committed to high design ideals, employing the talents of Aubrey Beardsley, among others.
After the paperback revolution of the mid-20th century, the imprint lost its way.
The Everyman hardbacks of the post-war years lacked the aesthetic appeal of their predecessors; the introduction of the paperback in 1960 was far too late to compete with its rivals.
The key word and attribute of course being: "pocket-sized".
Oh, how we love that !
They're actually pretty crappy quality, but we still snap up the stray Dent volumes when we find them -- and what a wonderful pleasure it is to be able to slip a volume of the 6-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or the 4-volume Clarissa into one's pocket.
The modern counterparts are certainly better-quality (physically) but -- except for a few stray titles -- they're of the same ridiculous over-size as most any other hardback.
But at least the new series does offer some new stuff as well:
The new Everyman's Library differs from its Edwardian counterpart in that it does not simply reprint old texts, such as Austen or Dickens, that are out of copyright.
Indeed, it could be said to be establishing a constantly growing canon, including living authors in its list of "classics".
It comes as a surprise to discover that once a book, such as Midnight's Children, has gone into paperback, the hardback rights are easy to acquire.
That's an interesting point -- that the hardback rights become cheap -- but unfortunately the hardbacks themselves remain pricey ....
Alexander Zinoviev, expelled from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, has passed away; see, for example the BBC obituary.
For all his dissident credentials this writer and professor of logic (!) made some unusual choices.
As the obituary in The Independent notes:
He also performed a U-turn on Stalin, a man he had once derided, claiming that he was the most effective leader the Soviet Union had ever had.
And don't expect any dramatisations of any of his works to be performed at the Comédie-Française any time soon (cf. Handke, cont'd.).
As the Daily Telegraphobituary notes:
A fervent supporter of Slobodan Milosevic, he was co-chairman of an international committee to defend the fallen Serbian tyrant.
(No word whether like-minded Handke will speak at the funeral on Monday .....)
See also his official site and the obituary in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Widely noted and discussed, The New York Times Book Review's editor Sam Tanenhaus:
sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years."
125 of them responded, and the results -- to be printed in the 21 May issue of the NYTBR -- are now available online.
Toni Morrison's Beloved came out tops, with 15 votes.
(See also A.O.Scott's essay In Search of the Best.)
Obviously, this will generate lots of commentary, so I'll just make two observations, one general and one personal
1) No surprise that Tanenhaus -- notoriously indifferent to literature in translation -- would limit his question to American fiction.
(Well, a small surprise that he has this much interest in fiction .....)
It's fair enough -- but it's also typical.
2) I read a fair amount -- 200 books a year over the past quarter-century sounds about right, 5000 titles over the period covered, give or take a few hundred -- but I've read a mere two of the titles that received multiple votes: the first Rabbit-novel by Updike (a 1960 work, that somehow slips in as part of the bigger Rabbit-quartet) and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.
So now I'm wondering (as many of you no doubt long have) about my qualifications to run a literary weblog and review site -- and what the hell I've been reading all these years.
We recently reported on Hans Magnus Enzensberger's conversation with Philip Gourevitch as part of the PEN World Voice festival, where they discussed his essay The Radical Loser.
As we mentioned, he has expanded it into a (small) book, Schreckens Männer: Versuch über den radikalen Verlierer, which is now available (in German).
(See the Suhrkamp publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.de.)
Early (German) reactions are now in at Die Zeit (Die Bombe Mensch by Sven Hillenkamp), as well as Der Standard and Die Welt.
We don't much care for Tom Wolfe, and so ordinarily we wouldn't bother linking to an interview with him -- especially if it has a silly title such as: Not Just Another Ice-Cream-Suit-Wearing, Pen-Wielding Master of the Statusphere, as Bruce Cole's conversation with him in the May/June issue of the official NEH magazine, Humanities, does -- but we can't resist sharing some good ol' MFA-bashing with you:
For the novel now, it's all downhill.
It's heading downhill very fast because the writers today almost always come out of Master of Fine Arts programs such as the famous ones at Iowa and Stanford.
These programs are like standing water.
Mosquitoes breed in standing water.
It has become unfashionable to put your hands in the social muck of a society and deal with all these vulgar motivations such as social status or greed or anything of this sort.
The psychological novel, which is mainly the novel of yourself at home, is what is taught.
Your own experience is the only valid experience that you can draw from.
We agree with him that the (American, and now British) novel is on a dangerous road -- though one can't generalize quite as much as he does -- but we are a bit more confident in its staying power than he is:
Anyway, nonfiction was very exciting.
It remains, I think, a very strong direction and one that will survive, unlike the novel.
There's no reason why the novel will survive, except as an anachronism like epic poetry.
(We can just see Sam Tanenhaus' head bobbing in agreement .....)
We've mentioned the fun surrounding the Comédie-Française's (well, CF programmer Bozonnet's) decision to strike a Peter Handke play from their programme because he decided Handke's enthusiasm for Slobo Milosevic was simply too unpalatable.
There's been some weblog coverage, but overall not much English-language interest -- though finally there's an op-ed piece, in The Times, by Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Two months after his death, Slobo still finds a way to stir up trouble.
We figured Uwe Wittstock had it right in his opinion piece in Die Welt, Liebe zum Skandal, where he wonders what Bozonnet hoped to achieve -- and notes that it's led to the baffling result of winning sympathy for the otherwise (on this subject) much-reviled Handke.
Turns out there's only so much sympathy: we mentioned the manifesto opposing what they see as the censoring of Handke, but it wouldn't be France if there weren't now a counter-manifesto: Olivier Py's A plus tard, Peter Handke (which can be translated as: 'See you later, Peter Handke').
The manifesto in support of Handke had its Nobel laureate supporter -- Jelinek -- , and this one has its -- Gao Xianjian.
Among the 150 others who have signed it, agreeing that part of artistic freedom is the freedom to censor (well, some bizarre idea like that anyway) are Hélène Cixous and Ariane Mnouchkine
See also the article in Libération, Handke mobilise contre lui -- which notes that the manifesto is apparently being called: "Le droit de dire non" ('The right to say No').
Also in the Libération, the reminder that French minister of culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres met with Handke (and his translator) a few days ago.
(The minister had previously put some pressure on Bozonnet to change his mind, but to little effect.)
The Guardian's Culture Vulture weblog is doing a nice job of drawing attention to international literature.
There's their World Literature Tour (currently in Japan), and the occasional other commentary, such as Eric Dickens' Finds in translation.
Among the authors he mentions:
Yuri Andrukhovych has written one of the few Ukrainian postmodernist novels to have been translated into English -- Perverzion, translated by Michael Naydan -- but he is also a blunt purveyor of home truths when it comes to central and eastern Europe.
At Leipzig, Andrukhovych suggested that Ukrainians should be afforded visa-free travel to western Europe.
But are they being afforded such travel into the minds of British readers ?
As we mentioned yesterday, the American publishing industry has run out of ideas and drastically cut back the number of titles that came to market in 2005.
Just to rub in how embarrassing that is, just released Turkish statistics show that even there the number of titles being published is increasing dramatically; see Reader Interest in Turkish Authors Increases at Zaman:
According to statistics for the last six years, a 100 percent increase has been observed in the number of publishers and a 175 percent in the variety of the books available has been recorded in Turkey, as reader interest in Turkish authors has also climbed.
Admittedly, this hasn't worked out entirely as hoped:
The variety of publications has increased but the number of copies has dropped.
And we're not sure whether this is a good sign either:
That is the reader interest in Turkish authors increased, Tuzuner said, and a considerable drop in the publication of translated books was also observed.
(It all depends whether the translation situation was previously like that in the US (i.e. essentially negligible in the first place) or like in a normal country.)