After the comedy around the Comédie-Française's decision not to stage a play by Peter Handke (see our previous mention) the Germans apparently want to out-do them in kicking up a fuss.
As we noted, Handke was named this year's recipient of the very prestigious (and remunerative) Heine-Preis.
Ever since, it's been the literary talk of the German press; see the special FAZ-section to get an idea of the extent of the coverage.
Among the peculiarities of the Heine prize is not only that Handke is (was ?) only due to get it in December (a not unusual delay for a German prize -- they like to give lots of advance warning), but the fact that, because it is a city-sponsored prize, the Düsseldorf city council have to ratify the selection -- and guess what: they're planning not to do it.
Ratification is meant to be a pro forma thing, but they see it as a grand opportunity.
(Apparently the plan is specifically to withhold the prize-money.)
This is, of course, insane on so many levels it just blows our minds.
Leaving aside for a moment that the jury is meant to be independent (i.e. not subject to the whims of outsiders, such as the city council), the large jury (scroll down to the bottom of the official announcement) actually included members of the city government -- including both the mayor and the head-mayor ('Oberbürgermeister') !
And while there have been rumblings that some jury members felt forced into giving Handke the prize, one of those supposedly insisting on Handke was Oberbürgermeister Joachim Erwin .....
More importantly, of course: what are the city council members thinking ?
If they actually go through with this, they might as well write off the prize right there, for now and ever.
It is inconceivable to us that any author could, in good conscience, ever accept this prize in future years knowing that it was subject to such shenanigans (though the 50,000 might well tempt some desperate second-raters).
Taking the prize away from Handke at this point -- and in this way -- would compromise it beyond repair.
And while that would be a bold statement, it would also be a shame.
There hasn't been much English-language coverage of this yet (though some has to be coming), but see, for example, Germans Divided Over Prize for Pro-Serb Author Handke at DeutscheWelle.
Meanwhile, everybody has been having their say in the German press -- with opinions surprisingly divided.
See, for example PEN, Grass, Handke und viel Geheule by Burkhard Müller-Ullrich in Der Standard (seeing a double-standard here) or Sieg der Vernunft in letzter Minute by Tilman Krause in Die Welt (who thinks the politicians are right to get mixed up in this mess).
See also the interview with the 'kulturpolitische Sprecher des Landtags' ('cultural-political speaker of the Landtag') who understands that this isn't the way to proceed.
Still, it's sort of impressive to see that a literary prize could matter this much .....
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies.
It was admittedly first published in two volumes, so there's some excuse for the Princeton University Press edition -- the one on sale in the US -- still being sold that way, but theirs really is one of the most hideous book-editions we've ever seen (and we find the two-volume approach very annoying -- it's not that huge a book).
How much more pleasing -- to the eye, and to hold -- the one-volume Routledge edition (the UK edition) is -- so try to get that one !
Given the jr. Bush administration's pronounced closed-society tendencies it is, once again, a highly pertinent text even for American readers.
A couple of days ago we mentioned the Sunday Times' 'exposé' of how much publishers were paying big booksellers to push their titles.
In a Comment-column in The Times Libby Purves spreads the blame, in Reader, you're a right dimwit.
I think America is an increasingly book-free country.
In the world of my boyhood, there were books everywhere.
Your piano teacher had books, and there were lending libraries everywhere -- your department store had a lending library.
Books are still bought, and you see them being read in airplanes, but it's a last resort, isn't it ?
And it's amusing to hear him pretend to be oblivious to Sam Tanenhaus' recent top-25 game:
When The New York Times polled critics last month about the greatest work of fiction in the past 25 years, your Rabbit novels were mentioned.
I didn't see that.
Not much review-coverage yet, but John Leonard does review it in this week's issue of New York -- noteworthy because his review opens with the claim:
Terrorist, in which a New Jersey high-schooler, a "radical loser" right out of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s much-discussed essay in Der Spiegel [...]
We're glad to hear it was much-discussed -- but wonder: where ?
(We've mentioned it -- and Enzensberger did discuss it at the recent PEN World Voices festival -- but how many New York readers have heard of it ?)
Not too much German literature gets translated into English, and very little pop literature.
So what are the chances Frank Schätzing's The Swarm -- a huge bestseller in Germany -- will hit it big in the US and/or UK ?
At 896 pages (well, that's the US edition -- the Brits apparently managed to squeeze it into just over 700 pages) it's asking pretty much.
Still, early reviews (all British so far) are fairly good -- see, e.g. Peter Millar's in The Times:
This is a rip-roaring monster movie of a plot with unexpectedly credible human characters
But given the sci-fi climate in the US, can it fly here ?
This is science fiction in the purest sense of the word, and it is no surprise that it has come from Germany.
The market there for what we call sci-fi is small.
But the interest in science, and the obsession with ecology and the threat to the natural world, is huge.
Maybe with the three-day weekend (it is 'Memorial Day' today in the US, a bank holiday) Sam Tanenhaus figured no one would read it anyway -- and he was at BEA last weekend, so he was busy doing other things and presumably had little time to put together anything resembling an appropriate 'book review' and so what readers are left with with the 28 May issue is: The Food Issue, the laziest and most pathetic issue of the NYTBR we can remember.
We're forever grateful to Tanenhaus for discontinuing Charles McGrath's annual lowpoint, the horrific Baseball-themed issue, but with this he's actually come up with something that is worse.
In some ways, of course, this is the defining Tanenhaus issue -- exactly what he wants the Book Review to look like, as:
it contains not a single review (not even a mini-mention in some pathetic round-up) of a work of fiction (because finding any food-related novel or story-collection was no doubt too daunting a task ...)
it contains not a single review (not even a mini-mention in some pathetic round-up) of a work originally written in a foreign language -- Julia Child's My Life in France and Bill Buford's book about apprenticing to some 'Dante Quoting Butcher in Tuscany' are about as international books as Tanenhaus dares to present to his readers
Sure, last week was an all-fiction issue (after a week with barely a fiction-mention, however ...), but as Levi Asher points out in Ignoring the Review at LitKicks:
Now I see that "concept issues" are going to be a continuing plague at the Book Review, and I also see that the fiction-book category is only equal to the food-book category in the mind of editor Sam Tanenhaus.
Fiction books, food books ... they're all books, right ?
Actually, one of the other (of the many, many) disappointing things about this crap issue is that the focus isn't even primarily on food: the majority of the full-length reviews are devoted to memoirs and biographies -- people-books (food-people, but still), because it's personality that counts (and sells), not anything literary (or even primarily culinary, apparently ...).
We've come to expect to be disappointed by Tanenhaus' book-selection every weekend, but this is the first time we are entirely uncomprehending.
The 28 May issue is simply a jaw-dropping embarrassment.
The independents-vs.-bookselling-giants debate is a constant one, and was louder again the past week or two.
Now there's another argument in favour of the independents: in the Sunday Times Robert Winnett and Holly Watt report that it costs £50,000 to get a book on recommended list:
Britain's biggest bookseller is demanding payments of £50,000 a week from publishers to get books on its supposedly impartial list of "recommended" reads in the run-up to Christmas this year.
The WH Smith scheme is the most expensive in a range of confidential deals being operated by retailers to promote lists that consumers believe are based on independent assessments of a book’s quality.
Do consumers believe that ?
Sadly, they probably still do.
Regardless: it's hard not think it pretty outrageous that:
No authors appear on recommended lists unless their publishers pay the fees, and those refusing to pay may not even find their titles stocked.
None of this is new, of course.
There have been similar stories in the US about pay-to-display at everywhere from Barnes & Noble stores to Amazon.com -- and they also note that:
The schemes were first exposed by The Sunday Times five years ago but, with fees having risen as much as ten-fold, publishers say that it is getting "out of hand".
Not that publishers are doing much, beyond whining -- and paying up (which makes it pretty hard to have any sympathy for them):
The chief executive of one medium-sized publisher said: "You have to pay heavily and you pay for visibility and better positions in the stores.
But we’ve got to play by the rules because we need them.
The stores say that they’re doing you a favour if they offer you these slots."
Sounds like a deal with the devil to us, and damaging -- in the long term -- to absolutely everybody involved.
Will this article make a difference ?
Will book-buyers remember or even care ?
Yesterday shoppers in central London expressed surprise over the schemes.
Jennifer Hewitt, a 54-year-old civil servant, said: "I’m shocked.
That information should be disclosed to readers.
You trust bookshops but now they seem to be behaving like supermarkets."
In Holiday romance in The Guardian Blake Morrison describes judging the "Le Prince Maurice Prize" -- the bizarre literary contest this Mauritian hotel has set up to attract lots of publicity (and even we have mentioned it over the past years, so that part is working).
We'd have a bit more respect for the prize if it weren't for the rather limiting criteria:
Out of the 48 entries for 2006, we finally agreed on a longlist of 12.
From those, three of my prime candidates -- Zadie Smith's On Beauty, Rachel Cusk's In the Fold and Julian Fellowes's Snobs -- were ruled out when we came to the shortlist: it's a condition of the prize that the authors attend the awards ceremony, and with Smith and Cusk committed to appearances at literary festivals on the same day, and Fellowes unwilling to fly to Mauritius unless certain of winning, that reduced the list to nine.
(It should be noted that quite a few major prizes have an author-presence requirement; god forbid a literary prize would actually be about the damn books .....)
See also the fancy official prize press release (warning ! dreaded pdf format !).
The collection includes popular Victorian and early 20th-century novels with beguiling titles such as Tempted of the Devil, Love Affairs of a Curate and Only a Village Maiden (which, despite the implications, has an entirely innocent content).
As the definition of academic in the 19th century was very restricted, it also covers translations of foreign and classical literature and authors not studied at Cambridge.
In Shanghai Daily Nicholas Ning reports that Police target porn, violent pocket books.
Here's stuff that the little kids actually want to read -- and spend their pocket money on (five yuan to buy, one yuan per day to rent) -- and the authorities are preventing them for doing so:
A market watchdog in Hongkou District is working with the primary and middle schools to crack down on "pocket books," whose contents are filled with pornography and violence.
The move comes in response to parents' complaints.
The number of stores suspected of selling such books is not big, but officials are concerned about a resurgence of sales.
Pocket books used to be rampant near schools two years ago.
Ah, yes, the kids must be protected:
"The books will mislead the children who easily accept everything they read and see at the young age," said Song Ronghua, a teacher at the Quyang No.2 Primary School, adding they have caught several children reading such books at school in the past three years.
O.k., o.k., we should finally get to Celestial Harmonies, or his The Book of Hrabal, but come on, it's almost time for the World Cup and Esterházy Péter is a real football (soccer) fan -- a participant in the Headers-programme ! -- and we couldn't resist.
So the most recent addition to the complete review is our review of his Utazás a tizenhatos mélyére.
Sure, not many of you are going to rush out and get a copy, and it probably won't get translated anytime soon (though his Danube-book is apparently just out, and sounds like it's in a similar (if not quite as catchy) vein).
The thing is, it really is a fine little book -- little, i.e. of no grand significance or ambition, but a good, clever, diversion-read.
We don't see too many of those.
We mentioned that Günter Grass' speech at the on-going 72nd International PEN Congress was quite critical of the American president.
Die Zeit now prints it -- in a slightly abreviated version -- online.
(Only in German; we're curious as to whether any English-language publications pick it up.)
Matilda alerts us that the Sydney Writers' Festival (currently going on) is apparently offering live streaming online of several of the events; see here or here.
It sounds good -- though we must admit we were unable to watch anything (but we're pretty lazy and so didn't try very hard, and also tried at a time when there was definitely no live streaming).
We mentioned that José Luandino Vieira was awarded this year's Prémio Camões -- the most prestigious Portuguese-language literary prize (and, at 100,000, a nice pile of cash).
But it turns out he doesn't feel so honoured: he's turned the prize down.
See, for example, the IOL report, Angolan author turns down cash prize:
"Stressing his thanks for the distinction, the writer justified the decision not to accept it for 'intimate, personal reasons'," the ministry said in a statement.
We're pretty curious what intimate, personal reasons would lead someone (especially a presumably not particularly well-paid writer) to turn down 100,000.
These writers and their peculiar morals .....
Don't they know the mantra is: publishing is a business, you take the cash where you can get it, etc. etc. ?
Xinhua report that Bestseller writer's novel ruled plagiarism, noting that Guo Jingming has been found guilty of plagiarizing a novel by Zhuang Yu.
This might sound familiar: Xinhua reported Popular young writer loses plagiarism lawsuit back in December 2004, and, yes, it was the same case.
In 2004, however, it was Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court that ruled, and this time around it was a higher appeals court, Beijing People's Supreme Court.
We don't know if additional appeals are still to follow.
The law is apparently still a bit loosely defined in China, the first court noting:
"There is no regulation concerning the protection of concept in China's Copyright Law, language should not be monopolized by a certain person, and features of characters are not under protection," according to the verdict.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island, just out in the US.
If nothing else, it's made for lots of fun reviews and commentary (generally with too much focus on the author and too little on the book, though admittedly it's hard to leave him (and his previous efforts) out of any discussion of any of his texts).
Probably also worth a closer look: the translation question.
Gavin Bowd's approach (apparently very, very literal) hasn't been much commented on, but where it has (notably Emilie Bickerton's TLS review (25/11/2005)) it hasn't exactly been deemed a success -- and, more to the point, arguably distorts Houellebecq's approach.
(It is noteworthy that the French and German-language reviewers are, by and large, considerably more sympathetic to what Houellebecq has wrought than the British (and the few -- so far -- American) reviewers -- a continental issue, or a translation issue ?
Depite (or because of ... ?) Peter Handke's French Comedy-issues (see our previous mention) he has now been named as the recipient of the 2006 Heine Preis, awarded by the city of Düsseldorf (and, at 50,000, one of the richest German literary prizes).
Because this is a German prize, the actual ceremony will only take place months from now -- on 13 December, Heinrich Heine's birthday.
That gives him lots of time to prepare -- and this sounds like it will be a speech worth hearing.
(For Germans, Heine is the big free-speech writer.)
Previous winners of the prize include Elfriede Jelinek (in 2002 -- she really did rack up a lot of prizes before she got the Nobel), W.G. Sebald, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, both von Weizsäckers, and Max Frisch.
Parts of the Summer issue of Bookforum are now available online.
Particularly noteworthy: James Gibbons looks at Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow (among the summer titles we're most looking forward to), and Craig Seligman's look at The First Novel -- which includes recollections by John Banville, Hilary Mantel, and others.
The New York Public Library has an interesting looking exhibit on: French Book Art | Livres d'Artistes: Artists and Poets in Dialogue through 19 August.
It: "features joint works by Stephane Mallarmé and Edouard Manet, Tristan Tzara and Pablo Picasso, Jules Renard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec", and others
See the informative press release.
The Prémio Camões, the biggest Lusophone literary prize -- previous winners include José Saramago, Jorge Amado, and Pepetela --, has been awarded to Angolan author José Luandino Vieira.
(Bits of his work are available in translation, such as his story-collection, Luuanda; get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.)
At : 100,000 nothing to sneeze at .....
Not quite as publicly oriented as the recent PEN World Voices festival in New York, but this week they're holding the International PEN Congress in Berlin.
It's the 72nd one, and they even have an official site
Over 400 authors from 100 countries are expected, apparently.
This year's theme is: 'Writing in a World without Peace'.
Check out the programme of public events.
One of the most exciting factors in the creation of a new Ryunosuke Akutagawa collection for Penguin was the fact that the original idea for it came not from me or from anyone else with an established interest in Japanese literature but from Penguin itself.
A publisher interested in publishing a work of translated fiction ?
Of course, there was a catch:
Indeed, this was central to the editor's concept: the book should include an introduction by Murakami.
Book sales, however, are another matter.
The British edition of the book features a woodblock ukiyo-e print of a samurai holding a sword, and now Amazon.com offers to pair the book with such "other" samurai titles as Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings and Hagakure.
The U.S. edition is not due to be released until October, at which time it will be given a startling manga cover by Yoshihiro Tatsumi with gruesome scenes from Rashomon.
This edition will receive special treatment as a "Deluxe Classic" in celebration of Penguin's 60th anniversary in the United States.
At a time when exotic Japan is receiving renewed attention in the United States after the release of the film version of Memoirs of a Geisha, one can only hope that the new Akutagawa is recognized as a modern master with the Murakami imprimatur rather than another example of Japanese exotica.
We're thrilled to see another Akutagawa translation, but there's still a long way to go (and did we really need 'Rashomon', yet again ... ?).
(We have several older Akutagawa-works under review; see for example, our review of Kappa.)
Also of some interest: the piece at Penguin by then still Buying Manager at Waterstone’s Scott Pack about this edition, Sushi With Akutagawa.