There's yet another new 'literary' prize, this time in Malaysia, The Star-Popular Readers Choice Awards.
Not our favourite kind of set-up -- readers get to vote, and they get to do so as often as they like (and there's an incentive to vote for the book you think is likely to win, rather than the one you think is best, because voters who 'get it right' are also eligible for prizes ...), and the prize is limited to the ten bestselling titles (in fiction and non-fiction) at the local Popular stores.
But at least that leads, for example, Elizabeth Tai to briefly describe what were the 10 bestselling fiction titles last year, in her Guide to the prizes, which gives us some idea of what's popular in Malaysia (and these are, after all, book you probably haven't seen at your local bookstore).
For additional coverage see, for example, this post at Bibliobibuli (with additional links to other posts there about some of the titles) -- and you can keep track of much of the Malaysian scene by regularly checking out that weblog.
Almost another literary award -- they have a name and a committee, but while (as MNA report) Iran's most lucrative literary award moves forward, they haven't quite gotten all the way there yet.
Given that one of the hold ups seems to be approval from everyone's favourite two-in-one ministry, the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, we're not quite sure how credible this prize will be.
Sure, it may become Iran's most lucrative (winners in each of the five categories take 110 Bahar Azadi gold coins (roughly $30,000, as best we can figure -- though given current fluctuations in the gold price that might vary quite a bit), but if there's Islamic 'guidance' behind it ... well, that doesn't sound like it bodes well for any cultural aspects .....
We wonder what Al-e Ahmad would have thought; see also our reviews of his By the Pen and The School Principal.
In The Age Louise Adler argues Fine lines: why book prizes are worth it -- as she believes: 'Literary awards are good for writers and the industry.'
That may well be so -- but are they good for readers ?
(We'd argue: a very mixed blessing: they do help make readers aware of many books they might otherwise not hear about (we find those foreign longlists, etc. are especially helpful in that regard), but then again the winning titles (as often as not not all that remarkable) receive an extraordinary amount of attention that might otherwise
be spread more evenly among other titles and authors from among which readers might find much more that's to their liking; we know a diet of only literary-prize winning titles would likely put even us off reading pretty fast .....)
With all the protests surrounding China hosting the Olympics this summer the Frankfurt Book Fair folk are already steeling themselves for next year -- as China is scheduled to be Guest of Honour in 2009.
FBF Jürgen Boos is already laying the groundwork, with, for example, an extensive interview in the Frankfurter Rundschau devoted solely to the China-question.
He has it a bit easier than the IOC folk, and practically seems to welcome criticism -- noting that book fair ideals are all about exchanges of ideas and opinions -- but he also admits he has little idea of what the Chinese themselves have planned so far (he assumes they're busy through the Olympics, and will turn their attention to Frankfurt after that show goes off).
Certainly this has the potential to be really fun -- especially if the Olympics turn into the PR-nightmare that they should .....
Carlos Ruiz Zafón finally follows up on his phenomenal The Shadow of the Wind-success with with a prequel, El juego del ángel, that finally hit the (Spanish) market on Thursday -- with Planeta's print run of a million the most ever in Spain (see, for example, the El Periódico-report).
Adriana V. Lopez already offered a good overview of Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow Fever at Críticas two weeks ago -- including the information that:
The North American English-language rights went to Stephen Rubin at Doubleday for a reported seven figure advance.
(And, yes, there was also a North American Spanish-language sale .....)
that Weidenfeld & Nicolson took UK rights (though they don't mention how much they paid), while in Hannes Hintermeier's LBF-report for the FAZ he notes that five German publishers bid for German rights, including Shadow-publisher Suhrkamp (who sold a phenomenal two million copies of that book in German), and that S.Fischer had the winning bid -- of three million euros (though for that they get three of CRZ's kids' books as well ...).
(Meanwhile, however, Lübbe forked over twelve million euros (close to twenty million dollars) to hold onto Ken Follett .....)
It'll be a while before El juego del ángel appears in English (or even before the Spanish-language edition is available in the US), but meanwhile see also the official site for the book.
In Written in the sand in the New Statesman Rachel Aspden offers her 'Observations on Abu Dhabi', looking at some of the Arabic efforts at invigorating the local cultural scene -- notably the very well-endowed Sheikh Zayed Book Awards.
Yet the glitz and hyperbole bear no relation to the realities endured by Arab writers.
Print runs struggle to reach the low thousands, copyright is patchy or non-existent, distribution networks are ineffectual, and writers and translators are squeezed between heavy-handed government censors and an increasingly dictatorial religious establishment.
Even the best-known must either emigrate or pursue a second career to survive.
Writers outside the government-funded golden circle are matter-of-fact about the prizes' limitations.
"Literary awards in the Arab world are always ceremonial, detached from the concerns of writers and readers, and this is no exception," says the Palestinian writer and Abu Dhabi resident Huzama Habayeb.
And she concludes that:
It is hard to imagine the Sheikh Zayed winners, vetted by Abu Dhabi's decidedly undemocratic government, becoming so popular -- and hard to imagine writers flocking to an emirate whose cultural aspirations are undercut by deep political conservatism.
There was a consensus among the literati that serious literature has been marginalized in China.
People reminisced of the 1980s -- the golden age of literary writing -- when poems and novels were devoured by tens of millions and a single piece of work could spark a nationwide fire of passion and frenzy.
The emergence of sociology, economics and law effectively pushed literature to the sideline as these subjects can better tackle difficult issues of our society, especially when it has been going through such dramatic changes.
The 1980s were the Chinese golden years ?
Who knew ?
Xu Chunping, editor of Literature Journal, maintains that Chinese culture as a whole is moving in the direction of entertainment.
There are new genres like "cellphone literature, online literature and movie fiction" that did not exist before.
"Literature as we know it gets purer and contends with only the ultimate issues, and new literature tends to provide solace rather than soul-searching capabilities."
She faults the mainstream media for the decline.
"Belles-lettres are shriveling to an elitist enclave," she laments.
Of course if, say, any of the American presidential candidates ever used an expression like 'belles-lettres' (or, for that matter, 'literati') in public they could kiss their candidacy good-bye and crawl right back to their elitist enclave .....
At Forward Joshua Cohen (whose reviews are worth regularly checking out -- a much more interesting selection of books than what's found in most of your print outlets ...) reviews the two recent Kertész Imre novels, Detective Story and The Pathseeker (the latter of which was also reviewed in The New York Sun (who also cover a better selection of titles than almost any other newspaper ...)).
Cohen's review is worth a look not just for his take on the two books but because he adds: "two words about the business and translation of books" -- and, no, it's not just two words, and the issues he raises deserve closer examination, especially when considering Kertész-in-English.
(Too bad Kertész isn't here to address these questions himself, but, as we mentioned, he had to cancel the New York appearance that was scheduled for today.)
The BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction -- now with its very own website -- has announced its twenty-title strong longlist.
(Not too surprisingly, we don't have a one of them under review -- though we should get to one or two of them eventually.)
The longlist was chosen from: "131 entries and 31 call-ins" -- considerably more than are likely to be considered for the Man Booker.
Unfortunately, like the Man Booker, they don't reveal what the submitted (and called-in) titles were -- it still seems like awfully few, especially given what appear to be the very loose submission requirements.
But having so many called-in titles suggests publishers didn't try very hard submitting titles in the first place (unless this prize too, like the Man Booker, limits the number of titles a publisher can submit ...).
Sorry we didn't let you know about this earlier, but we only heard about it now.
Too bad: Under the Tongue: A Festival of African Literature (which ran at Brown University 15 to 16 April) sounds like it would have been interesting, with a line-up of: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nuruddin Farah, Chenjerai Hove, Jack Mapanje, Pierre Mumbere Mujomba, and Charles Mulekwa
In Decadence of literature in the Daily Texan Andres Martinez reports on Russian author Mikhail Shishkin's lecture on 'Writing Under Putin'.
Sounds like it was a lot of fun:
Today there is a paradoxical situation in Russia -- that of a totalitarian state with free literature, Shishkin said.
"The acceptance [of literature] does not show liberalism, but how marginal literature is," he said.
Under the Soviet Union, writing was something that the government controlled, so when the state collapsed there was, all of a sudden, a free literature.
Today, however, Shishkin said he thinks many contemporary Russian authors sacrifice quality for profits.
See also a sample of his work, his story Calligraphy Lesson at Words without Borders -- though note the Translator’s Note-warning:
Calligraphy Lesson is highly allusive and attentive to the formal qualities of a story both inventively told and steeped in Russian atmospherics
Among the offerings at the relaunched Granta-site: Ngugi wa Thiong’o's opinion piece on the situation in Kenya.
A genuine solution to Kenya’s crisis must address the twin problems of democratic rights, now desecrated by the rigging scandal; and of human rights, now destroyed by ethnic cleansing and the internal displacement of thousands.
Whatever settlement Annan proposes, its effectiveness will depend upon the extent to which the leadership of the two camps will give their minds and hearts to its implementation.
I would be the last person to swear that they will give much of their minds and hearts to it at all.
I want to posit that the really great narrative about what Kenyans went through in the last five years, and more specifically in the last 3 months, will probably not be written for another 20 or even 30 years.
Given that the Kenyan situation continues to be far from resolved, we wouldn't place any bets on any definitive fiction arising in the next couple of years either.
Nyairo also suggests:
Maybe in this intervening period and as the plot thickens and unfolds the moment also belongs to the literary critic.
Can our critics turn to the vast canvas of (African) Literature and locate credible examples that will give us hope, stories that will show the way by helping us breakdown the intrigues of human emotion, character and situation that we are daily witnessing ?
They've announced the shortlist for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction; we don't have any of the titles under review.
Given that the judging committee did not benefit from what surely would have been discerning and perceptive insight from Lily Allen (who backed out of her commitment to play along; see our previous mention) one has to wonder how seriously the public will take the list; tellingly the Orange-folk still seem to be desperately clinging to Allen's coattails, as they still list her as one of the judges.
(Updated - 17 April): The Times reports that, in fact, the organisers have now: "admitted that they had dropped her from their panel of judges after she failed to turn up to meetings".
Surely there's more to this story than that, given how hard it is to get thrown off a book-prize jury -- can you remember the last time this happened ? -- and the low expectations everyone had for her going into this.
(Were they actually expecting her to show up and participate ?
Didn't they hire her just for the name-recognition and the publicity they knew they'd get ?)
the tenth in a series of interviews published in the book Dumite (The Words) that brings together 48 interviews aired during Darik Radio's program "Who is Talking ?", hosted by Prolet Velkova and Vesselina Petrakieva.
The guests were asked to draw a number of words out of a straw hat.
The book The Words was released on the occasion of the media's 15th anniversary.
Last November, in Abu Dhabi, I talked to the founder of the Kalima project, the Egyptian entrepreneur Karim Nagy, about his dream of "filling the gaps in the Arab library" with well-produced, widely read editions of authors from Dante and Chaucer to Stephen Hawking and Haruki Marukami.
In time, he plans to translate out of Arabic as well, making the scheme a "two-way street".
Sitting in the Arabian Nights fantasy of the Emirates Palace hotel, I heard him say something I have never heard from any other cultural masterplanner:
"Funding is the least of our concerns."
What does worry Kalima and other such ventures is: (of course) erratic and often arbitrary censorship across the 22 Arab states; the habits of book piracy, which have often turned the region into literary quicksand for unwary incomers; and the fragile production and bookshop networks in a part of the world where state-run, Soviet-style dinosaur firms often dominate the publishing scene.
Even major authors may have to pay for publication or else simply wait in line, and a local bestseller may just about hit a peak of 5,000 to 6,000 copies sold.
Of the 'six to read' suggested at the end of the article, we have four under review:
More good news, too, as Tonkin also mentions: "Last week, the British publishers Arcadia and Haus announced the creation of a new list: Arabia Books"; see also Tom Tivnan's report in The Bookseller, Arcadia and Haus launch Arab imprint.
See also Benedicte Page's report in The Bookseller on Arab book world challenges, where:
Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the League of Arab States, outlined the "immense challenges" the Arab books world faces, but hailed an increase in small publishing houses and books published in the region.
"The number of books issued [in the Arab world] in the last five years was three times greater than the books issued in the previous 50 years.
There is increased quality and diversity, especially in children's publishing."
It's disappointing to hear that, due to the ill health of the Nobel laureate that has prevented him from travelling to New York, the Thursday event at which Ruth Franklin was to introduce and interview Kertész Imre (and András Schiff was to play) at the 92nd Street Y has been cancelled.
In lieu of that you might, however, want to pick up his newly translated book, The Pathseeker.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review-overview of Keith 'n+1' Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men.
We are very impressed by the review coverage it's gotten -- we counted at least twenty reviews appearing even before yesterday's official publication date -- but that certainly also contributed to our steering clear of reviewing it ourselves, for the time being.
So they've actually managed to elect someone to the Académie Française: as Charles Bremner reports in The Times, Academie Francaise, bastion of high culture, admits Jean-Loup Dabadie, writer of pop lyrics.
Sure, that still leaves six (!) vacanicies -- though they'll only admit to three (bizarrely they note: "Les fauteuils du cardinal Lustiger, de Pierre Messmer et d’Alain Robbe-Grillet n'ont pas encore été déclarés vacants", as if they're still hoping for these three to rise from the dead and return to their seats ....) -- but if they've now let in a pop songwriter perhaps they've thrown in the towel and will now basically admit anyone who applies .....
Over the past few weeks we've repeatedlynoted that it's not quite true that, as Douglas Kibbee suggested: "Now it's rare to go a single issue without having a translated work" get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review.
After all, through the 6 April issue of the NYTBR three of the past four issues were entirely without any review-coverage of a translated title.
Well, it looks like now it's our turn to look foolish.
Yes, the 13 April issue offers review coverage of a translated title !
Here we are ranting on and on about how little attention they pay to books originally written in a foreign language and then they go ahead and ... actually cover a book written in a foreign language !
So, in all fairness, we want to make sure you hear it from us as well: the NYTBR does review books that weren't written in English.
Surely congratulations and a round of applause are due !
Surely we should all say: 'Hallelujah ! Hallelujah !'
Okay, it's not a full-length review -- but then those take up a lot of space, right ?
(There are fourteen full-length reviews in the 13 April issue of the NYTBR, each devoted to a single title, each of which was originally written in English.)
Okay, it's tucked in Marilyn Stasio's 'Crime'-round-up, along with discussions of four other titles.
Okay, there's no mention or acknowledgement that the book under review was originally written in a foreign language (but, hey -- it was ! it was ! so it still counts).
Okay, the "review" is all of 29 words long .....
But, yes, we stand reproved: this is, after all, review coverage of a translated title.
What more could you ask for ?
Well, maybe a little more.
After all, this is a "review" that reads in its entirety:
In Heart of the Hunter, Deon Meyer created an unforgettable protagonist in the peaceable retired assassin Tiny Mpayipheli, who returns with a vengeance in Meyer’s latest book, Devil's Peak
Okay, if you're feeling really generous you could say the preamble of sorts is part of the review as well -- pushing the word-total to ... 77:
Readers may be lured to Africa by the landscape, but it takes a great character like Kubu to win our loyalty. When apartheid prevailed in South Africa, James McClure mocked it to death with cheeky procedurals about an Afrikaner cop, Tromp Kramer, and his Bantu sergeant, Mickey Zondi.
Either way -- and despite the almost blinding thrill that they're dealing with a translated title -- well, it's hard not to point out this isn't exactly the most informative review readers might wish for, is it ?
In fact, it's hard to call it more than a book-mention.
But then again, even that is rare enough under the current NYTBR administration.
(And, for those keeping track, the 13 April issue does mark the fifth in a row that there hasn't been a full-length review devoted to a translated title, compared to 76 full-length reviews each devoted to an individual title over that period, all of which were originally written in English -- yeah, that's a reasonable ratio, isn't it ?)
No doubt Stasio only managed to slip this by editor Tanenhaus and his eagle-eyed translation-phobic cohorts by not mentioning that Devil's Peak
was not written in English .....
(For what it's worth: the book was written in Afrikaans and translated by K.L.Seegers -- something Little, Brown doesn't care to mention on their publicity page either (so that when Tanenhaus or one of his assistants does a quick check they won't be scared off ?) -- and which they managed to keep out of sight on the Amazon.com page for the book as well (as did the British publishers).)
What is it with this fear of scaring off readers by acknowledging that something has been translated ?
Consider the title reviewed in the 13 April NYTBR that you might have expected to be a translation: 'Socialism is Great !'
A Worker’s Memoir of the New China by Lijia Zhang (review word count: 912) -- and note that both on her official site as well as the publisher's publicity page for the book they specifically note (in slightly different variations; emphasis added):
Written in English, "Socialism Is Great!" is a testament to Zhang’s personal triumph over the controlled existence that was supposed to be her destiny.
And Joseph Kahn's NYTBR review mentions -- no doubt to reassure Tanenhaus -- that the book is: "written in fluent English peppered with dated Chinese idioms"
'Socialism is Great !'
may well be a great book and interesting story, but it's telling that Tanenhaus gravitates towards the English-written title, rather than seeking out (or allowing) something that was written in Chinese.
Oh, sure, they'll very likely get to Wolf Totem (they're as susceptible to hype as anyone -- witness them covering the Keith Gessen book in this issue (review word count: 1196), just like, it seems, everyone else did this weekend), and we figure they'll be hard pressed to avoid the forthcoming Ma Jian (what with the Olympics making for a generally more China-aware atmosphere anyway).
But still .....
But rest reassured, as they've now amply demonstrated in the 13 April issue: The New York Times Book Reviewdoes, occasionally, cover (in one slight form or another) books originally written in a foreign language.
In two issues out of the past five now, after all.
Sure, that still falls a bit short of Kibbee's belief that: "Now it's rare to go a single issue without having a translated work in it", but it's something, isn't it ?
And believe it or not (yes, yes, we have our doubts too, but really:) occasionally they'll even devote more than 29 words to a translated book in reviewing it.
Just not this week.
For the first time since 2004, when the six Amazon websites -- in America, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Japan -- began to offer readers of The Economist a monthly snapshot of the books that really fly, the world's biggest-selling novel last month came from Germany.
The novel is Charlotte Roche's Feuchtgebiete ("which translates as 'wetlands' or 'damp parts'", The Economist helpfully explains) -- and a week later it still ranks as the bestselling title at Amazon.de (get your copy there), and the book -- which came out in February -- is now in its eighth printing.
In Die Welt Hendrik Werner now looks at Die Bestseller-Methoden der Charlotte Roche -- noting also that DuMont has now printed more than 415,000 copies of this thing -- making it by far the hottest title of the spring in Germany.
The German literary establishment seems to be in a state of shock -- it wasn't widely reviewed (and sounds godawful), but it certainly has struck some chord -- or she hit just the right combination of being a semi-celebrity and offering up some soft porn.
DuMont now have some information up about the title on their foreign rights page, and it will be interesting to see whether any English-language publisher takes the plunge (or the German Book Office gets behind it ... so to speak).
(French erotica has been a pretty easy sell for a while now, but German porn ?
You don't see much of that making it into English.)
Nice job by the British Council in setting up the useful New Arabic Books site.
Well worth digging around there -- check out the informative interviews, find some information about not yet translated titles, and see the best-selling titles at Diwan bookstore (see also our review of the top Arabic-language seller, Taxi by Khaled Al Khamissi).
And there's more .....
At The Guardian they asked Arabic authors and those involved or familiar with Arabic publishing and literature "about the challenges of writing today and which works they think the world should have the chance to read" in One thousand and one delights -- definitely worth checking out.
Among the interesting comments: Ahmed Alaidy finds:
Old conventions also changed when Dar al Shorouk, the biggest Egyptian publishing house, created a new series based on the blogs of young writers, which was an immediate hit.
First editions sold like hotcakes and reprinting began almost straight away.
And Hala Halim backs him up, noting:
the emulation of new media and electronic literature -- the boom in blogging in the Arab world, satellite TV channels, and text messaging -- which has had a curiously rejuvenating effect on both the form and content of novels.
Also worth noting: how many focus on Arabic poetry, which doesn't seem to have made the transition to English as well as fiction recently.
Arnošt Lustig has taken the 2008 Franz Kafka Prize (which gained a lot of publicity -- and Nobel Prize punters' attention -- when they gave their award to the eventual Nobel winner two years running (Jelinek in 2004, Pinter in 2005)).
No word at the official site yet, last we checked, but see, for example, the AFP report.
It's certainly hard to object to Lustig getting the prize -- he's certainly up to the high standards they've set so far for the prize -- but we can't help but be a bit bothered by the fact that ... Lustig is the Honorary President of the Franz Kafka Society (that gives out the award).
Sure, a lot of prominent authors are among the 1000 members (including, for example, Günter Grass and Amos Oz), but it still doesn't look good.
For additional Lustig information, see also the CER interview from a couple of years back, A Small Stone in a Big Mosaic, by Pavlina Kostková.
And note that quite a few of the titles by this longtime US resident are available in English (not that they get the attention they deserve ...).
Yamada then started the Nou Hach Literary Project -- a publishing outlet for Cambodian writers -- that is earning her international recognition through the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award administered by the Association of American Publishers.
Despite the Ukrainian publishing growth, the Russian publishing business is currently dominating the market, industry insiders said.
Also interesting to find that:
Another difficulty is publishing translated and international books, as publishers often don’t have the capital to pay for copyright and translation fees.
"For example, in my publishing house, translated literature accounts for 10 percent of all books and even this was made possible by grants from foreign embassies," Finkelshtein said.
In The Nation (online only) R.H. Lossin looks at how Iraq's Ruined Library Soldiers On.
The whole depressing story of the past few years is summarized here, including:
In a speech to the Internet Librarian International conference in 2004, Dr. Eskander described the state of the INLA:
"When I was officially appointed as the new DG, INLA faced several challenges.
It was the most damaged cultural institution in the country.
The building was in a ruinous state; there was no money, no water, no electricity, no papers, no pens, no furniture (apart [from] 50 plastic chairs). The morale of employees [was] very low.
Three departments out of 18 were half-functioning."
Despite this state of near-total ruin, the budget awarded by the CPA for the INLA in 2004, was only $70,000
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Thierry Jonquet's Mygale (published in the UK as Tarantula).
Pedro Almodóvar is reportedly filming it, as Los abrazos rotos -- and starring Penélope Cruz