The booksfromscotland.com site was launched in December 2005 with £100,000 from the Scottish Arts Council.
It was billed as a "one-stop shop" for Scottish writing.
And this week its owner, Publishing Scotland, saw its SAC annual grant increased from about £200,000 to £260,000 for "further development" of the site.
But The Scotsman has learned that despite its reported target to sell 15,000 books annually, the site has sold books at only a fifth of that rate.
Marion Sinclair, Publishing Scotland's business development manager, said in the first year, booksfromscotland.com notched up no more than £12,000 in sales.
She insisted it is now selling "more, but not substantially more than £15,000" worth of books a year in between 200 and 250 transactions a month.
Ms Sinclair insisted booksfromscotland.com was more an information site than a sales site.
Part of the problem might be that it looks more like a commercial site than an information site .....
But to put things a bit in perspective: we shift considerably more via our links to the Amazons here at the complete review (and by the way: many thanks to all who do purchase books (and other things) that way -- it's very much appreciated).
Of course we only get a small percentage of the cash-value amount shifted -- our Amazon commission -- but as far as the number of transactions and the value of these go we're far ahead of these folk.
What gets us, of course, is the money they get to play with: our annual budget is about 1 per cent (yes one per cent) of the cash they got to launch the site with .....
Man, we really should start applying for some funding from some of these very generous local grant-giving organisations -- for just a couple of thousand pounds we'd gladly (and be able to) increase, say, our Scottish coverage by quite a bit .....
Former Australian premier Bob Carr has been getting quite a bit of attention down under for his new book on My Reading Life: Adventures In The World Of Books.
As Susan Wyndham writes in A premier's challenge in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Books have been Carr's compensation for what he considered a crummy 1960s education, heavy on woodwork rather than Latin.
It's certainly nice to see a reading-enthusiast politician:
"My equivalent of Bob Hawke's racing form or Paul Keating's absorption in antiques was opening a good reading copy like that one," he says, pointing to a sturdy, illustrated edition of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov on the meeting-room table in his Bligh Street offices.
They've announced the Spring 2008 NBCC Good Reads List at the National Book Critics Circle weblog, Critical Mass.
(Local barkeep M.A.Orthofer is an NBCC member but sat this one out, not finding any spring publication that he was sufficiently enthusiastic about to recommend (we also had none of the top vote-getters under review).
The next season does, however, look a bit more promising.)
The only Daniel Kehlmann-novel available in English is Measuring the World (though Ich und Kaminski is due out in translation in November); it doesn't seem to have been quite as successful here as elsewhere (30-some-odd weeks on the Taiwanese bestseller lists, he mentioned -- as well as topping the German lists for over a year), but at least that gave conversation-partner Jeffrey Eugenides a solid point of focus.
And since Eugenides only has two (published) novels under his belt -- Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides -- they could concentrate on these few titles between them.
Eugenides noted that they had met on a panel last year, but an overzealous moderator seems not to have let them get too many words in edgewise (that would be this panel, where even the German newspapers complained about how much Michael Naumann liked the sound of his own voice ...) so for this event they were flying solo, just two writers talking about writing.
But they did come prepared: they opted for a format in which they alternated questions for each other, which worked out quite well.
Eugenides began by asking about Kehlmann's choice to write an historical novel, wondering whether he didn't have doubts about the form and its inherent fraudulence.
Kehlmann responded that he was, indeed, deeply suspicious of the historical form, and even had doubts about whether he could pull it off.
The approach he chose was to try to to write the way non-fiction history is written, always maintaining a sense of distance -- and using a lot of indirect speech (which is more obvious in the German original than in the English translation).
He wanted to maintain a serious tone, even when writing about things that aren't at all serious: he wanted to sound like a very serious historian who had gone mad .....
Kehlmann also mentioned that, because of the reliance on indirect speech, he doesn't think a good movie can be made of Measuring the World (though they're having a go at it -- and he's said he's staying away from that).
Asked whether Kehlmann saw his Gauss and Humboldt as opposites or spiritual brothers, he said: both.
He elaborated: it's a book about two ways of doing science -- but did admit that by the end Gauss had probably emerged as the 'winner' (not that he tried to set it up that way, or even felt that's the way it was when he finished the book, but seeing all the reactions he's come to believe that).
Ich und Kaminski is a very different novel, Eugenides asked about Kehlmann being a writer who changes with every book (which one would certainly think, considering also his other work).
Kehlmann noted there are authors who write the same thing over and over again, but he doesn't quite do that.
Still, he finds his underlying themes are the same again and again (though often far from obviously so), and even where there are differences, his own voice does always come through.
But he noted he fights to stretch his limitations; given how young he is (born 1975) it'll be interesting to see how much more he can push his envelope.
Kehlmann's first question for Eugenides was how much of an influence Gabriel Garcia Marquez was, with Eugenides acknowledging he was a great admirer, and that Chronicle of a Death Foretold was an influence on The Virgin Suicides.
Kehlmann, too, considered 'magical realism' important -- especially in showing an alternative to the European fiction of the same time.
He mentioned how, to some extent, he had used it dealing with Humboldt in South America -- though he had Humboldt react to the completely new and unbelivable things he saw there by ignoring them, a very German reaction of adapting them to his mindset.
Kehlmann asked Eugenides about the narrative-voice -- the 'we' -- of The Virgin Suicides, and Eugenides revealed that at first he had had the whole town narrating the story, with an 'I'-narrator popping up on occasion, but when he saw most of the heat of the narrative came from the teenage boys he went with that.
He noted that, despite having a chorus of narrators he never thought of Greek tragedy -- but gets asked that all the time (and wonders whether he would if his name were Abromowitz or something like that ...).
The by comparison prolific Kehlmann asked Eugenides about only having published two novels, noting that one could divide the world into authors who publish a lot and accept a range of quality, and those who only publish a few, trying to achieve perfection -- and whether he thinks each necessarily envies the other; Eugenides did (and noted that he finds himself surprised that he's not more prolific, since he works at it every day, and has accumulated tons of stuff (admittedly all just for the drawer ...)).
Kehlmann also asked whether he agreed that, unlike novels, short stories can be perfect.
Eugenides did, and said he found them much harder to write than novels -- and notes it's sort of misguided that in creative writing courses students focus on the short story, which he considers technically more difficult.
Both authors were in good form, and even if it was more of a question-and-answer session than a true discussion a lot of fairly interesting subjects were covered.
Certainly it helped in introducing Kehlmann to an American audience -- which didn't seem very familiar with his work, but certainly knew their Eugenides.
It's a good idea for an author panel: round up a few writers and ask them to talk about Books That Changed My Life.
It was an interesting variety of authors, too, from sex-book-author (The Secret Life of Catherine M.) Catherine Millet to Wolves of the Crescent Moon-author Yousef al-Mohaimeed, as well as Annie Proulx, Antonio Muñoz Molina (author of In her Absence), and Olivier Rolin (author of Hotel Crystal).
(There were also translators -- into Arabic, and from and into French -- for the authors.)
NYPL impressario Paul Holdengräber was very much in the mix too, holding the reins of the conversation; given the number of people involved it was probably good to have someone (relatively) firmly in control, though his style may not be to everyone's taste (i.e. mine).
The first 'book that changed a life' wasn't actually a main selection, but rather one Muñoz Molina recommends to students: E.O.Wilson's Journey to the Ants (see the Harvard University Press publicity page)
-- a science text that he feels shows students how something can be explained very beautifully and straightforwardly, without unnecessary embellishment, and showing self-absorbed students the potential in simply describing reality.
Surprisingly, this basic idea -- of what a book and writing can offer -- came up repeatedly over the afternoon.
As to the books themselves, this is what the authors came up with (with several wanting to suggest more than one and some thinking the idea of life-changing books a dubious proposition to start with ...):
Antonio Muñoz Molina:Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
Catherine Millet:The Lily of the Valley by Honoré de Balzac
Yousef al-Mohaimeed: first the Arabian Nights, then poetry (including haikus), and then, of all things Nikos Kazantzakis Zorba the Greek
Olivier Rolin:Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
Annie Proulx:Before Adam by Jack London (which you can read here)
The surrounding circumstances and reasons for the choices were, of course, as interesting as the selections: Proulx discovering the obscure London as a seven-year-old child, or Yousef al-Mohaimeed listening to his sister read from the Arabian Nights (which seems almost too clichéd -- but when he follows that with Zorba the Greek it all sounds almost bizarrely believable again), or Millet drawn to Balzac after coming to recognize his style from readings on the radio.
Rolin had the most doubts about any life-changing work (or at least was happy enough to be thrust into defending that position), and argued more for an orchestra of books; Proulx, too, had offered Holdengräber a longer list of mind-enlarging books (which she admitted wasn't quite the same thing).
There was some discussion about why no one chose any non-fiction.
Proulx argued that essays aren't transformative -- though
Holdengräber suggested Nietzsche might be an exception that has occasionally captured a young mind (Marx, too, one would think -- but then all that's terribly out of fashion).
And Muñoz Molina thought they should consider not only 'books that changed my life' for the implied better, but also for the worse .....
Still, the best answer came from
Catherine Millet who, before choosing the Balzac, noted that obviously the book that had most changed her life was the one she wrote.
It was a decent, fairly entertaining discussion, with some decent cases made for these as (their) life changing works -- though this is the sort of exercise that probably lends itself more to written essayistic exposition, and only gained a bit from the mutual reactions to the various choices.
We certainly can't complain about today's issue of The New York Times Book Review as far as foreign-language (fiction) coverage goes, as it includes more reviews of translated works than in all the issues from the last two months combined.
Sure, it's kind of China-heavy -- four Chinese novels each get their own full-length review -- but at least they're considering something in translation (and Marilyn Stasio's coverage of yet another translated title in her 'Crime'-round-up this week is longer than 29 words and actually offers some information about the title ...).
Still, one can't help but notice a certain lack of ... enthusiasm -- and reviews that leave the door open to shutting translations out again in the future.
"Can fiction be graded on a curve ? Are there extenuating factors that ought to be brought to bear ?" Liesl Schillinger asks in her review of Yan Lianke's Serve the People !, while Pankaj Mishra writes about Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem flat-out that: "The novel's literary claims are shaky".
Translation: translations are often inferior works.
Sure, the other two novels get a better reception -- and lots of not-translated works are also labelled (one way or another) as inferior.
But what disturbs us about the 4 May issue is what it says about the selection criteria they seem to have at the NYTBR.
That Wolf Totem was not likely to be a great read has surely long been obvious, but the tremendous buzz and publicity machinery around it (beginning with that 'record' (for a Chinese novel) English-language rights deal for it) seems to be the driving force behind it getting so widely reviewed -- and getting a spot in the NYTBR.
Granted, this was predictable even for the translation-phobic NYTBR (yes, we noted some three weeks ago that they -- "as susceptible to hype as anyone" -- likely couldn't avoid it) -- and we'd rather have them review it than not.
But it suggests that outside pressure, a feeling that they 'must' review particular works, plays a (too) significant role in their review criteria.
It's not so much the Jiang Rong review that leads us to this conclusion, but another review from the 4 May issue: Troy Patterson's take-down of Mark Sarvas' Harry, Revised (reluctantly linked to at that registration-requiring site here).
Patterson was not impressed: "Harry does not seem to have been reread, never mind revised", and he summed the book up:
The effect is of the Farrelly brothers shooting a remake of About Schmidt and leaving it to be cut together by an unemployably cynical editor.
But what really shocked and disturbed us was to read that:
That you are reading a review of this novel in these pages is a testament to the authorís success as a blogger.
Sarvasís site, titled The Elegant Variation, has been remarking on the literary world for nearly five years, and though it lacks the righteous bile of Edward Championís Filthy Habits or the nourishing meatiness of Jessa Crispinís Bookslut, it has made many worthy contributions to bookchat in that time
On the one hand, of course, we should be thrilled: maybe all the books we have planned will similarly find themselves automatically added to the to-be-reviewed piles at the NYTBR and elsewhere.
(Well, maybe not -- blogging success is relative, after all, and we may not quite have attained such august reputations as these bloggers.)
But we don't really like the idea that just because someone is a 'literary figure' in some way that automatically means their book is a must-review title.
We've seen another of these in recent weeks, an even more obvious example, with Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, which seems to have been reviewed everywhere by now
(with the NYTBR getting to it very quickly too).
Gessen certainly is a significant 'literary figure' -- as n + 1 editor, literary commentator, translator, etc.
Why that should make his fiction worth reading or reviewing isn't clear.
Not that it isn't necessarily worth reviewing -- almost everything is worth a look, after all --; it's just that the attention it has received has been so all out of proportion to its possible interest and worth (especially considering all the works (especially translated works ...) that don't get any review coverage).
In the case of the Gessen one can understand the interest reviewers (by and large: sad young literary wo/men themselves) might have in it, leading to such an overkill of coverage (though we wonder why the surely sager book review editors put up with it).
To his credit Mark at least wrote something completely different, without the obvious littérateur-connexions.
But if the only reason the NYTBR ran a review of Harry, Revised is because of his "success as a blogger" ... well, that's just a terrible selection criteria.
(Note that Mark has also been a reviewer for the NYTBR -- something for which his success as a blogger is obviously more of a qualification.)
It may well be a tough balancing act for book review editors, between covering what's 'important' and what's actually any good.
We understand -- sort of -- that Wolf Totem is hard to avoid (though honestly, with the other Chinese books they cover this week, and assuming they'll do the forthcoming Ma Jian, we would have gladly absolved them from dealing with this one), and maybe the Gessen shows enough potential (or, since he's a literary figure tackling literary figure-issues (or at least lifestyles) in his fiction) it can readily pass.
But they can't be covering books just because someone has had blogging-success.
(There: we're handing Tanenhaus an excuse on a platter to toss the next complete reviewer book aside unread -- but given the subject-matter we're pretty sure he would have been dismissive anyway.)
Note: We've been long-time acquaintances of Mark's, but while we have a copy of Harry, Revised we haven't cracked it open yet (and hence have no idea of whether or not it's any good); we're not particularly comfortable
in reading books by friends etc. (though we admit that's also a poor selection-criteria).
The Literary Review section of The Hindu has two articles devoted to translation in India this week:
In A fruitful dialogue Ziya Us Salam finds that: 'Finally, because of translations, India and Bharat are beginning to talk to and enrich each other'.
And it sounds pretty good:
There are 50 Indian languages in which regular publishing is taking place.
And newspapers come out in 101 languages! Indeed, writing in Indian languages is on the ascendant, with a boom in Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Urdu and even Sanskrit writing.
Besides the original works, there is money to be made -- and new readers to be found -- through translations.
And book publishers, market savvy as ever, are entering unexplored territories. Of course, due to globalisation, most are foreign players.
Meanwhile, Mini Krishnan finds that 'Translation offers a multiplicity of complex worlds, all waiting to be interpreted, understood and absorbed' in New worlds.
When I was in Arusha, Tanzania -- doing other things -- I greedily purchased the few African novels that were available for purchase.
This meant frequenting bookstores that sold novels to two very distinct markets: novels for white people and novels for Tanzanian students.
In P D James, crime writer behind bars in The Telegraph William Langley profiles P.D.James, revelling in how: "her dislike for the liberal refashioning of society has become steadily more pronounced".
So, of course, we get comments such as:
"The problem," she argues, "starts with the family.
Or, rather, the breakdown of the family.
Too often there are no male figures to set an example, and by the time the children are eight or nine they are in gangs and the mothers are helpless.
"I think it is terribly difficult to be a parent today, because the influences that are brought to bear on children are so pernicious.
Not only the violence and pornography, but the worship of money and materialism.
It's very hard for parents and they should get a lot more support than they do."
Ingo Schulze and Eliot Weinberger got together to discuss Private Lives, Public Lives, Other Lives, New Lives at the Goethe Institut, in front of a good-size audience.
It turned out to be pretty much an introduction to Schulze, covering his career trajectory and especially his recent (2006) novel, which will be coming out as New Lives in the fall from Knopf, in a translation by John E. Woods (pre-order your copy at Amazon.com), from which he also read an excerpt.
Schulze was born in what was then still East Germany, in 1962, and did not publish until after the fall of the wall; the East-West contrast was a recurring subject in the conversation.
Schulze actually went east in the 1990s, to St.Petersburg -- his business-man (as newspaperman) years -- and noted generally that the East German 1990s seemed to him much like at least the European 1950s, a time of rapid change and rise of living standards (with the new-found possibilities of discretionary spending, travelling abroad, etc.).
Still, when Weinberger suggested that his books were like a documentation of private lives (in keeping with the festival theme ...) in East Germany, he said he never thought of that (though he seemed inclined to agree).
Among the points raised were the English-- or rather German-versions-of-English-words of some of his titles: Simple Storys ('Simple schtorries' as he gave the 'Saxon' pronunciation, published in English as Simple Stories), or his new novel, Handy (which, as a bemused Weinberger noted, is the German term for cellphone -- allowing, he observed, English-speakers to go around asking folks in Germany if they have their handy handy, etc.)
Of interest, too, the German authors Schulze praised -- most notably Wolfgang Hilbig, whom he holds in particularly high regard.
When asked to named other authors he though highly of he named: Hans Joachim Schädlich, Katja Langen-Müller, and Marcel Beyer
Overall: a decent, fairly informative introduction to the author.
Despite the heavyweight-panel -- Nuruddin Farah, Chenjerai Hove, and Abdourahman Waberi -- African Wars was the most disappointing of the events I've been to so far.
It's also the first (of the ones I've attended) where the audience was charged for their tickets
(though my press pass meant I didn't have to pay).
Farah and Hove are from countries very much in the news -- Somalia and Zimbabwe, respectively -- and between them one might have expected -- if nothing else -- some insight into the volatile present-day situations there.
There was a bit of that, but overall things ranged far too far afield in what was an unfocussed and ultimately pretty messy sort of discussion.
Moderator Violaine Huisman's introduction of the panelists was informative if somewhat drawn-out, but in trying to jump-start discussion with a quote from Ryszard Kapuscinski, that 'Africa does not exist', she definitely got off on the wrong foot.
"Where is that man coming from ?" Hove asked (and noted then that he had once met
Kapuscinski and told him that he was mixing fiction and journalism -- and should put a disclaimer in his books).
Waberi sensibly tried to put the proper spin on the contentious words, noting that by the same token one could say 'Europe doesn't exist', and that
Kapuscinski's statement is obviously a simplification, and that cultural differences exist in all these areas (Greece and Lithuania are both part of Europe, but very different, and it's the same with the African countries, etc.).
But from there it was still hard to rein in the conversation.
Farah and Hove have apparently jousted frequently, and Hove smilingly said early on that they disagreed on a great deal.
Their very different personalities -- Hove tends a bit to anecdotal rambling, and readily offers up his opinion at any point, while Farah is more of an elder (literary) statesman type, his speech much more measured and carefully worded -- could probably play
well off each other, but it didn't work out that well here.
(Among the interesting potential in the personal dynamics: Waberi wrote his thesis on Farah and Hove recounted wanting to write his PhD on Farah as well.)
Getting the conversation back to the ostensible subject repeatedly proved difficult, but Farah at least spiced things up by suggesting more context must be allowed in considering war in Africa: after all Africa did not have civil wars at the time when you had them in Europe or America.
The natural development in Africa, he said, was interrupted for over a hundred years, by colonization; cultural development (in its broadest sense) was frustrated by the arrival of other people, with other interests.
And he suggested that, for example, the Thirty Years War in Germany was remarkably comparable to the situation in the Congo.
Hove disagreed, arguing against the idea that it was just Africa's turn to go through such a war-cycle (and, presumably, sort of get it out of their system).
He said: "Wars in Africa are simply about the distribution of power and its benefits."
(The two positions, at least as to the limited extent they were expounded on, don't seem entirely
irreconcilable, and Farah did agree that economics and power drive all wars.)
Another interesting aside of contention was a project that Waberi took part in but Hove declined to, where authors were sent to Rwanda to write, in some form, about what had happened there.
Hove worried generally a great deal about the danger of authors being co-opted on the side of the victimizer, and he did not think the Rwandan project offered the necessary guarantees of independence; Waberi disagreed -- and while an interesting issue in and of itself, it also got the discussion off track.
Still, Hove's points about the ease with which the author can be co-opted were interesting, and he recounted that he had been offered the position of Minister of Culture in Zimbabwe some years ago; he turned it down, saying he'd only accept the Ministry of Finance (because that was something he knew nothing about and could learn a great deal at, while he already knew everything about culture ... certainly, it's hard to imagine he could have done any worse with Zimbabwe's economic policy than the current regime).
The question-and-answer session was a complete disaster, with Huisman losing any remaining control over the proceedings, as audience members failed to grasp the basic concept of succinctly directing a (possibly relevant) question at the authors.
A few stray comments of interest came up, and Farah did manage to stir things up by saying that they were not fighting for democracy in Zimbabwe right now (because democracy is something only arrived at at the end of a very long process, which begins with regaining one's dignity and one's integrity -- Farah also noting that while the US was much farther along on the road to democracy, it was also still far from truly achieving it), but things were far from neatly tied up.
Not too much about any specific African wars, and what generalities there were also strayed far too far, making for an unsatisfying afternoon.
Too bad, because all three writers did seem to have some ideas worth exploring -- but under Huisman's moderation it remained an oil-and-vinegar combination that just wouldn't mix.
Asli Erdogan could not make it to the festival, due to illness, so Bookforum: Political Engagement was a two-man show, with
Nuruddin Farah and Elias Khoury, moderated by Albert Mobilio.
Farah and Khoury come from
perhaps the two places in the world that have been most seriously and violently unsettled for the longest, Somalia and Lebanon.
Farah has lived in exile for decades, while Khoury -- though he currently teaches at NYU -- says he has never been an exile.
For Khoury, Beirut has always been central to his writing, while Farah said he found exile helped his writing: "distance distills", he said, allowing him to get at the pure essence of the place, as he has continued to live in the 'country of his imagination'.
For Khoury the language to write in was never a political choice: he only knew how to write in Arabic he said (though he completed his graduate studies in Paris (i.e. is presumably fluent in French) and certainly speaks English well enough).
For Farah the situation was more complicated: raised in the Somali-speaking part of Ethiopia, he learned a number of languages but faced various hurdles -- most notably, at least with Somali, the fact that the Somali language had no written script until 1972 .....
With Somali, Amharic, Arabic, and English to choose from -- and trying his hand at it seems like all of them -- he claimed that it was the typewriters that decided it: English had the strong, dependable Royal typewriters.
Later he also wrote in Italian, but those Olivettis kept breaking down .....
(He also noted that he wrote the first seven chapters of Maps
in Somali and published them in serial form, only to be hauled before the censors, who demanded changes he was not willing to agree to; publication was suspended, and he switched to English.)
Politics seems almost inevitably to play a role in these authors' writings, but there was also some discussion of their activity beyond just writing -- including Farah's role in trying to help broker peace in Somalia, and
Khoury's opposition to a Holocaust-denying event and then his response to an Israeli ambassador lauding him for that action (he did not particularly appreciate it, suggesting that denouncing some of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians would be the better response).
Farah, in particular, has a nice way of mixing anecdotes into his answers to make his points, but both authors were in good form, making for a fairly interesting event.
Saturday is loaded with events -- 22 of them.
Once again,the overlap makes it hard to pick and choose, but we'll probably aim for Private Lives, Public Lives, Other Lives, New Lives with Ingo Schulze in conversation with Eliot Weinberger (13:00),and then African Wars with Nuruddin Farah, Chenjerai Hove, and Abdourahman Waberi, moderated by Violaine Huisman (15:00) -- Farah showed us he's worth paying attention to, and given the catastrophic situation these very days in Zimbabwe we're interested in what Hove can tell us (and Waberi's In the United States of Africa is one of the translations we're most eagerly anticipating).
So we'll miss Olympic Voices: A Celebration of New Literature from China, which is too bad (though with Flora Drew, Xiaolu Guo, and Ma Jian it's more like a China-in-the-UK event anyway).
They've announced the shortlist for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize ("for translations into English from any living European language which have been published, are book-length, and are distributed in the UK").
Yeah, not at the site itself -- and the newspapers don't seem to have pounced on the news -- but they did send us the press release and we're glad to share (or announce) the list:
Margaret Jull Costa for Eça de Queiroz's The Maias (Dedalus)
Richard Dove for Friederike Mayröcker's Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946-2006 (Carcanet)
Jamie McKendrick for Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Penguin)
Mike Mitchell for Georges Rodenbach's The Bells of Bruges (Dedalus)
Natasha Randall for Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (Vintage)
A good reminder of the importance of Dedalus in the UK literary scene, too .....
Nevertheless, this list is an absolute shocker.
Yes, every title on this list save the Mayröcker poetry collection [updated and corrected :] and The Bells of Bruges (Le Carillonneur) -- which, despite being a title from way back when has not yet appeared in translation -- is a new translation of a previously-available-in-English title.
(Yes, even the Hermans, though that Roy Edwards translation from nearly half a century ago pretty much disappeared without a fight.)
Surely this can't be a good thing .....
Last year Robert McCrum was the big-name guest judge, but that didn't result in much additional broadsheet coverage; this year it's Helen Dunmore who joins the judging panel of Katherine Lunn-Rockliffe, Chris Miller, and Matthew Reynolds.
The winner will be announced 5 June; even if no one else mentions it, we certainly will.
In Al-Ahram Weekly Rania Khallaf looks at The Metro we missed, recounting the sorry Egyptian mess surrounding it, as:
Magdy El-Shafie, author and cartoonist of The Metro, widely regarded as the first Egyptian graphic novel, last week received a summons to appear before the state prosecution service following the confiscation of his novel from the publisher, Malameh.
According to the state prosecution service, El-Shafie's graphic novel, his first, contains obscenity and libelous references alleging corruption on the part of prominent Egyptian political figures.
In the final analysis, the job of disseminating knowledge about what is best in Arab culture falls primarily on the Arabs.
Judging by what institutions from both countries with long-established publishing traditions, such as Egypt, and new rich institutions from the Gulf region tried to market at the recent London Book Fair, the Arabs are not yet ready for this task.
Caught between the rock of what Tonkin described as "Soviet-style dinosaurs," on the one hand, and the hard place of an Arabic version of "Russia's Potemkin villages," on the other, the Arabs have to come up with alternative institutions that are capable of presenting the best of what they produce to the outside world.
Until this happens, let market forces take their course.
This is not necessarily a bad thing since among the translated books that enhance existing stereotypes there are bound to be one or two that are worthwhile.
Alternative institutions indeed -- or a radical overhaul of the existing ones.
Banning comic books (see above) is certainly the wrong way of going about it.
While hardly bodice-rippers by western standards, the controversy surrounding what academics call "Kano market literature" is increasing with the books' readership.
Conservative scholars and clerics in Nigeria's north deride the tomes as pulp fiction that degrades Islamic and indigenous cultural mores.
A top Islamic leaders recently set fire to a pile of the books.
You know you're doing something right when they start torching your books .....
And it's good to see some real African bookselling-success:
The women writers' books, along with similarly themed novels by men, now crowd jerry-rigged roadside bookshops across Kano.
At about 30 cents a copy, writers say sales are way up in the past few years.
As Levi has already reported at LitKicks, the Burma: A Land at a Crossroads event offered more of a political-historical overview than literary panel.
Moderator Dedi Feldman effectively used Thant Myint-U's The River of Lost Footsteps as a foundation for the discussion, and between the three of them (Ian Buruma was also there) they gave a good overview of what has led to the current situation there.
Thant's book was somewhat controversial because of the strong position he took regarding the current Western policy of imposing sanctions and trying to exert pressure on 'Myanmar' through them, and he argued that he believes even more firmly now that it's a futile policy.
Some twenty years ago, during the last period of serious unrest, they might have done some good, but given that the sanctions are limited to a few Western countries, and that vital regional contacts and trade partners (China, India, etc.) are more than willing to deal with the junta (i.e. it's far from truly isolated -- and has adjusted to what isolation there is) they do little good -- and prevent the US and EU from having pretty much any influence on possible change in the country.
(He does acknowledge that even if the US and EU were more active in Burma it's still an open question as to how much could be accomplished.)
Thant also noted that the military-led junta has completely different concerns, in any case, their main focus now being on how to achieve the necessary generational transition of power in the country-controlling army, as the current crop of leaders age out.
Burma doesn't get much attention, and it was interesting to hear Thant's elaborations on aspects of his book -- and while Buruma acknowledged not being a Burma-expert he had enough familiarity with the country and situation to offer some additional perspectives.
Still, for an event at what bills itself a 'festival of international literature' any literary talk was conspicuously absent: there was no time for questions, and no mention of any Burmese (or even Burma-focussed) fiction.
While Thant's book was the basis for the discussion, that was about as bookish as it got.
Obviously, what's most interesting about Burma to Americans -- much like Tibet, these days -- is the political situation: a completely nutty isolationist government (only North Korea and a few forgotten African and Central Asian states can compare), a clerical opposition (though surprisingly there was little mention of the significant role the monks continue to play in the country), a well-known, Nobel Prize-winning figure who to the outside world appears to be the one who should be in charge (Aung San Suu Kyi), etc.
Still, Burma has a decent literary tradition -- and, apparently, still a reading culture of sorts -- and it would have been great to hear a bit about that.
(We will get a small glimpse of it soon, as Hyperion is scheduled to bring out Nu Nu Yi's Man Asian Literary Prize shortlisted book -- in a translation by Murakami Haruki-translator (!) Alfred Birnbaum; see Nyunt Win's Myanmar writer nominated for new Asian literary prize in The Myanmar Times
for more information.)
I was glad to hear this discussion of Burma (since pretty much no one else talks about the place ...), but I would have loved a more literary focus.
Soldiers, Gramophones, and Brecht: A Literary Conversation with Saša Stanišić and Gonçalo M. Tavares was a pleasant surprise.
With PEN World Voice director Caro Llewellyn moderating, this turned out to be a very enjoyable and informative presentation, two basically unknown-in-the-US authors introducing themselves and their work (in accented but more than adequate English) to an American audience.
The English edition of Stanišić's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone was literally hot off the presses (and the author still revelled in the feel of that), while the only English translations of Tavares' books have come out in India; admirably, PEN has ordered copies to have them for sale, but they hadn't yet arrived by the time of the event.
Each author talked about his book(s), and read a bit, giving a very good impression of what they're about.
Stanišić's novel still doesn't sound like something I need to read, perhaps trying a bit too hard for effects, but after hearing him it sounds more of an admirable effort, and I'm certainly curious to see what he does next.
Tavares, on the other hand, sounds like an author I'd kill to read, his little booklets in 'The Neighbourhood'-series something I have to get my hands on.
The Keuner-like stories that were read aloud -- along with a ringing endorsement from Stanišić, and Tavares' own explanations -- were certainly enough to convince me: surely some American publisher will -- if they package these right -- do very well with these titles.
And yet his other novels, taking a completely different approach (and, alas, still untranslated, even in India ...) sound equally intriguing.
(See what's available from transbooks, as well as the
information page on Tavares at literarische agentur mertin -- and see also Tavares' official site.)
Both authors spoke at length about their experiences with translation, which was also particularly interesting, Tavares going so far as to allow that the translator is as much a writer, creating a new work.
Stanišić, meanwhile, seemed more welcoming of translator notes and comments (and apparently had a particularly thorough Spanish translator, who pointed out a number of mistakes in the book), while Tavares noted that if he answered all their questions he'd spend his entire time writing e-mails, rather than books.
Certainly this was exactly the sort of small revelation-introduction that one hopes for from this kind of festival, making one aware of new authors from whom one can certainly expect quite something in the future.
The Publishers Weekly: On Translation-panel was the event I'd had the highest hopes for.
It offered an impressive line-up: PW-editor Sara Nelson moderated, and publishers Edwin Frank (New York Review Books), Michael Krüger (German Hanser Verlag), Halfdan W. Freihow (Norwegian Font Forlag), and Morgan Entrekin (Grove/Atlantic) made for a good trans-Atlantic mix.
They all discussed their experiences with publishing translation -- with the American representatives not being entirely representative, as both their houses publish a larger percentage of titles in translation than most (or all) of the large American publishers.
Still, all noted the wide disparity between the Anglo-Saxon world and Europe, with much more translation published in the European markets.
The majority (50 to 60 % in his case, Krüger said) of translations still are from the US-UK area -- but interestingly several panelists mentioned (anecdotally and from experience) that there has been a slow-down of US/UK titles getting translated, both because so much of it is agented (which tends to drive up the price, making it cheaper to translate from other languages) and, possibly, because there was a glut of American-British translations in the 1980s and 90s (including, presumably, too much crap).
Translation-funding was repeatedly discussed.
Krüger noted that in Germany being a translator is a respected profession (and one off which one can live), while in the US publishers seemed to consider translation costs as simply sunk costs, not even caring much about finding the best person for the job.
Freihow mentioned that one reason even a tiny country (4.5 million Norwegian speakers !) could sustain university departments in obscurer languages is that students know that they can fall back on literary translation from those languages, which will always be in (at least limited) demand.
The Europeans remained baffled by the lack of translation-subsidies in America (they just can't get over the fact that it's politically unthinkable for public money to be used that way).
Krüger believes that, as the conglomerates take over much of publishing, the Europeans, too, are inevitably moving towards a university-press system, where certain types of books can (only) get published on the public dime -- showing little understanding of the American university press system where there is now also a great deal of pressure to balance the balance-sheets.
(As we mentioned recently, there even seems to be a strong trend towards books that get published by 'normal' publishers elsewhere (the UK, Canada) only getting published by a university press in the US.)
Krüger also spoke a great deal about the obligation to publish good books -- worthy stuff, even if it's a money-loser, an argument where most Americans' eyes seem to glaze over immediately (or is a fantasy they can only dream of ...).
He spoke with pride of publishing something like the works of Manlio Sgalambro, even if it sold only 400 copies -- and thinks the fact that he was willing to publish that is worthy of a mention in his New York Times obituary: that's the sort of publisher he'd like to be remembered as.
Of course, in the US, where the only argument is about the bottom line, that's not exactly something to be proud of -- in fact, it sounds a lot like self-indulgence.
(Personally, I think that's the way publishers should think and act -- purely self-indulgently (with maybe a nod towards indulging me ...) -- but in corporate dominated American publishing firms that obviously won't fly.)
The panelists also noted that the situation is much worse in the non-fiction area -- even in Europe.
Freihow noted that small languages were losing many of their non-fiction authors, who now often write in English, while Krüger noted that from what one finds in translation one would think many, many countries (such as all of Eastern Europe) have no historians or economists or local thinkers producing any non-fiction -- which is, of course absurd: they're there, but they're just not getting translated -- into any language.
A fairly interesting panel, on the whole, and an interesting contrast of experiences -- but I've reached a point where such generalization-filled talk isn't enough any more.
This sort of panel serves as a nice introduction to the issues (and usefully offers some different perspectives -- though not many of the ones I'm really interested in (what about translation in India ? in the Far East ? at the US Bertelsmann subsidiaries or similar conglomerates ?).
Now I'd like to see some more narrowly-focused discussions (addressing specific issues).
The panel on New Directions in Spanish-Language Literature consisted of three novelists: Bolivian Juan de Recacoechea, Spaniard Andrés Ibáñez, and Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and was moderated by a fourth, Instituto Cervantes-director Eduardo Lago.
Several of the authors have spent a considerable amount of time in New York and Lago, who has been here the longest (some two decades), began by noting that despite a strong Spanish presence in the US there still is a shocking lack of knowledge and awareness of Spanish-language literature here.
Reviewers and readers, he complained, expect a certain pattern from Spanish and Latin American fiction -- but expectations of a particular style or kind of fiction seem to be an issue in Spain and Latin America, too.
Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez noted that for decades Colombian authors found it almost impossible to get around the overwhelming figure of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
No country, he suggested, has had such a dominant literary figure, and the effect was in many respects stifling, as readers came to expect everything to follow in that same magical realism-mode.
Gabriel Vásquez said the situation has improved, but that the Garcia Marquez-question still comes up for all Colombian authors.
He said it took him eight years after he left the country to be able to write about Colombia -- and that he chose an 'American method' for his own writing, leaning on American authors, from Faulkner to a bit Pynchon.
(His fiction apparently concerns itself largely with Colombian history (though not (yet) recent history); one title has been translated into English, The Informers.)
Juan de Recacoechea added that the Gabriel Garcia Marquez-shadow loomed large in all the Spanish-speaking countries (while expressing a preference for Mutis himself Ö) -- and eventually Borges and Cervantes were also cited as near-overwhelming figures that Spanish literature has had difficulty moving past.
De Recacoechea noted that despite a great deal of variety in the literatures of the Spanish-speaking countries there was only a limited literary exchange: in Bolivia, he said, only prize-winning novels were readily found in bookstores, and the others later noted that this has been one of the problems throughout Latin America.
De Recacoechea also harped on the idea of specific expectations: in the US he found Spanish literature was expected to be, among other things, "dirty, gay, sensationalistic" and imitation-pulp-fiction, while in Bolivia much of it concerned itself with the local issues; his American Visa (see the Akashic publicity page) was, he said, the first crime-novel in Bolivia, a genre previously not exploited by local authors (but which has apparently now caught on).
Andrés Ibáñez's writing seems the least focused on 'national' issues (making it perhaps harder to pigeonhole -- which might explain why of the three authors he hasn't yet had a book translated into English Ö), though he focused a great deal on the transformation of Spain in the post-Franco era, which has made for entirely new conditions -- but for him many of the connotations (right down to the sound of the name of the nation, 'España') still were too strong, explaining why retreated into what was largely unknown until then, a more fantastical literature.
While speaking mainly about their own writing, there was enough variety here to give a decent overview of the broader picture of contemporary Spanish-language writing (and publishing).
Of particular interest also was the (limited) discussion of the translation situation -- with Lago getting rolling at the end, complaining how some authors who are translated (and get some review coverage) still are relatively unknown (he mentioned: Javier Cercas (see, for example, our reviews of The Speed of Light and Soldiers of Salamis), Antonio Muñoz Molina (Lago's predecessor as director of the NY Instituto Cervantes; see our review of In her Absence), and Javier Marías (see, for example, our review of his Dark Back of Time).
Lago complained bitterly about how American publishers go about publishing (and considering) translations, noting that the fact that no one in the major houses seems to be able to read these works in the original is a major hurdle and problem.
He spoke from experience, noting that his own novel has been translated into eleven languages -- but not English.
The problem with his novel is that it "is very literary", his agent tells him Ö. And he was not thrilled about those Spanish titles that have been successful -- such as Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind.
(Lago also mentioned what a great loss it was that New York city's two major Spanish-language bookstores had recently closed; the books may still be available elsewhere, but the loss of these meeting places and cultural centers goes much further and is, he said, irresponsible.)
Overall it was a fairly interesting discussion, giving some sense of the breadth of current Spanish-language writing (and publishing). But, of course, there's a lot more to it Ö..
Soldiers, Gramophones, and Brecht: A Literary Conversation with Saša Stanišić and Gonçalo M. Tavares.
We considered reviewing Stanišić's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone but didn't take to it at all (see Sam Munson's review in The New York Sun for an idea why; see also this Litrix-profile), but there's been a lot of buzz about Tavares and we're very curious about him and his work.
(See also his official site.)
(14:30, at the Instituto Cervantes)
As if the PEN World Voices festival weren't enough, in nearby Princeton Politics and Miss Herbert/The Delighted States-author Adam Thirlwell is at the centre of a Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication-event, in their Translation Lecture Series (16:30 at 219 Aaron Burr Hall).
No convenient link, but here the information that we have: it's titled Amerikas, and is described as:
An experiment with translating an imaginary country, featuring stories by Cesare Pavese, Franz Kafka, and Vladimir Nabokov; musical interludes by Erik Satie and Irving Berlin; and free pencils.
"The reviews tend to be repetitive and tend to be so filled with error that theyíre kind of unbearable to read, even the nice ones," Franzen said.
"The most upsetting thing nowadays is the feeling that thereís no one out there responding intelligently to the text," he said.
"So few people are actually doing serious criticism. Itís so snarky, itís so ad hominum, itís so black and white."
Well, it's sort of nice to hear someone complain about snarky reviewers again -- we haven't heard that one in a while.
But Franzen pretty much blows any remaining credibility when he resorts to hyperbole:
"The stupidest person in New York City is currently the lead reviewer of fiction for the New York Times," he added, referring to controversial, Pulitzer-Prize winning reviewer Michiko Kakutani.
One may dislike the Kakutani, but to consider her the stupidest person in NYC ... ?
But at least this has led to new articles, such as Kira Cochrane's in The Guardian, trying to explain Why literature's big guns all fear Michiko Kakutani.
(To add our two cents: if anything bugs us about the Kakutani -- beyond her limning ... -- it's that she's wasted so much time on non-fiction books recently.
She, like everyone, should stick to fiction.)
At hlo Miklós M. Nagy interviews Bret Easton Ellis.
Among the responses:
You have come to Hungary to receive the Budapest Grand Prize (previous recipients include Umberto Eco, GŁnter Grass and Mario Vargas Llosa). What does receiving it mean to you ?
Iíve received so few prizes that Iím not sure how to react. Itís nice. Somewhat humbled to be in such company.
But then again Iím very self-critical so ... maybe I deserve it and just donít realize it.