The Guardian offers their always interesting annual look at The ones that got away ..., as 'Kate Figes finds out which books were left on the shelf and which were the envy of all' from a variety of UK publishers.
This year, Korean literature has resurged, surpassing the popularity of the self-help and practical books, which usually sell well in economic slump.
"The contents of self-help books have become similar and overdone over the years.
Instead, novels with human stories seem to be helping readers deal with their worries during these times," an official of the bookstore said.
Also of interest:
"Publishers are asked to provide more steady sellers next year but they will likely rely on local authors rather than translation versions of foreign books because of soaring foreign exchange rates," the official said.
In The Guardian Nicholas Lezard reviews one of new Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio's old titles, now reissued (at least in the UK), Terra Amata (get your copy at Amazon.co.uk).
Among the points of interest: he digs up the fact that:
One person who might have had his memory jogged was Martin Amis, who as a young man reviewed Le Clézio's novel War, and found it "such a torment to read that one yearns for the kind of nouveau-roman pranking whereby (say) the final 150 pages are left blank in order to symbolise the void of late capitalism".
(It is surprising that Amis reviewed it -- he must have been very young, as he has long stayed almost entirely away from reviewing any fiction in translation.)
Then there's also the amusing observation that:
Le Clézio more or less gave up these kinds of games in his writing and became a more conventional novelist; such controversy as has attended his Nobel laureateship in France has concentrated on the fact that he is now not experimental enough.
"From 1980 on, he has written bestsellers," said Professor Frédéric-Yves Jeannet, and one can imagine that "bestseller" is a pretty strong insult in French wars of words.
Lezard concludes that:
I doubt that Terra Amata will be a bestseller in this country, but it has its charms.
It sounds worth a look, and we'll likely cover it if we ever get our hands on a copy.
In the Wall Street Journal Lauren Mechling reports that: 'In shift, publishers issue heavyweights for the New Year', in Literary Noisemakers, as:
In January, publishers traditionally release diet and self-help books for the New Year's-resolution crowd.
But this season, some authors have a bit more on their mind: for example, the perils of liberalism and forecasts of another Great Depression.
A number of high-profile books are landing in stores on Dec. 30 and Jan 6. One reason:
Those release dates capitalize on the growing popularity of gift cards. Barnes & Noble says gift-card purchases have doubled in the past five years.
In the "Factory" series, the sequence of crime novels written from 1984 to 1990 by the late English crime writer Derek Raymond, murder has become a perfect expression of the prevailing political order -- in this case, Margaret Thatcher's Britain.
Thatcher famously claimed that there is no such thing as society.
In the Factory novels, the social order can't be violated because it has already been dismantled.
We have the latter two, and were actually considering them as Christmas reading -- but Taylor writes about the last:
Reading the book made me nauseous.
Rereading it for this piece, I found it necessary to restrict my time with it to daylight hours.
Reading it after dark gave me nightmares.
Nor do I want to play at listing the specifics of the book, thereby feeding the kind of interest that will send people to it for a kick, the way they go see the latest piece of horror-movie torture porn.
I don't know if I was Dora Suarez can be called literature at all.
If it's possible for a book to be utterly repugnant and deeply compassionate at the same time, then I was Dora Suarez is.
So we're still undecided about whether it's appropriate holiday fare .....
Horace Engdahl's infamous perceived-as-anti-American comments (see our initial mention) certainly have led to a lot of discussion -- not the worst thing.
In the New Statesman Jonathan Derbyshire takes another stab at what it all might mean, in Rise of the new Anglo-world order, noting:
It's an old controversy that was reignited this autumn by the remarks of a Nobel Prize judge: is American literature too insular, preoccupied only with the home country ?
If so, what else should we be reading in the age of globalisation ?
His interesting spin:
The real cause of Engdahl's angst, therefore, is that what he called the "big dialogue of literature" is today actually being conducted mostly in English -- by inhabitants of Britain's former colonies, for instance, especially those in south Asia and the Caribbean; and also by non-anglophone writers who have followed Conrad and Nabokov in choosing to write in English.
A reader alerts us to the passing of Francisco Casavella, who had picked up this year's prestigious premio Nadal for Lo que sé de los vampiros and was apparently an up-and-comer in the Spanish literary scene.
Nothing of his appears to be available in English yet.
See, for example, the obituary at El país, Muere el escritor Francisco Casavella.
Sheer scale is not all that is forbidding about the book.
Japanese prose was still in its infancy in Murasaki’s day, so her syntax can be opaque.
Sentences lack subjects, direct speech is often unattributed and, most alarmingly, the characters change names according to their rank or circumstances.
Genji, for instance, is variously referred to as the captain, the consultant, the commander, the grand counsellor, the palace minister, the chancellor and the honorary retired emperor.
They also note that:
The Tale of Genji rewards perseverance, but just as young Genji flits from one mistress to the next, so the reader can choose between the three English versions of the story.
Effervescent Waley, prim Seidensticker or suave Tyler -- who will you take to bed with you tonight ?
(A reader kindly purchased the book for us from our Amazon-wishlist (much appreciated !) -- the Royall Tyler/Penguin Classics edition, which sorely tempts us (even as the over half a million words -- or rather the time-commitment they demand -- scare us off); get your own copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.)
In Le Monde Thomas Wieder writes about the Vitalité de la traduction -- specifically as far as social science books goes.
While the overall percentage of titles translated into French among non-fiction titles has declined from 6 per cent in 1985 to around 4.5 per cent, the social sciences have seen a nice increase -- and there is also more linguistic diversity as far as the language-of-origin of the titles goes.
Financial aid seems to make a big difference:
"Sans le soutien du Centre national du livre (CNL) et, dans une moindre mesure, de quelques régions et instituts culturels étrangers, on traduirait sans doute trois ou quatre fois moins de livres de sciences humaines"
French publishers notoriously dump most of their books on the market during the so-called
rentrée littéraire, around the end of August (segueing nicely into the literary prize-season), but a second rentrée at the beginning of the year
has established itself pretty well recently.
Libération writes about this Rentrée littéraire, deuxième -- with 558 novels due out, 347 French and 211 foreign.
In his Salon-column in The Moscow Times Victor Sonkin finds that in Russia:
Literary results for the outgoing year were mixed, not to say mediocre.
If literary awards provide any guidance of the general picture (and given their number, in a sense they do), they reflected this situation.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine's History Strikes Back, supposedly on How States, Nations, and Conflicts Are Shaping the 21st Century.
Apparently it was a bestseller in France -- presumably due to the author's (former) position.
In the January issue of Prospect Tom Chatfield writes about the modern literary prize-culture, in The art of prize-fighting.
Prizes are an attempt to mould, and to pre-empt, posterity.
Their answers rarely satisfy; they seem, sometimes, to possess an astonishing capacity for ignoring talent. Yet they occupy an increasingly crucial, and volatile, position amid those imperfect processes by which writing is turned into literature.
Simply decrying the populism and commercialism of modern times, however, won't make these problems go away.
And it's also to miss perhaps the most important point of all: that literature is, among other things, a confidence game; and its health depends a lot on what one is and isn't able to say and do in its service.
Unlike a sporting contest, the notion of a literary winner is itself a kind of fiction: an act of propaganda and persuasion.
If the current landscape of literary prizes is approaching deadlock, then, its problem is not so much over-extension as the sheer narrowness of the ground that's being battled over -- ground where the delicate balance between populism and underlying standards is increasingly warped by the need for easy headlines and safe sales.
Even before it arrives, every controversy has a hollow ring to it.
The sniping, the joke awards, the populist panels: these aren't half as amusing or interesting as the media pretend.
A new Transcript -- issue 30 -- is now available online (along with the news that they'll be publishing quarterly from now on).
The focus is Turkey, and among the pieces of interest are two by Petr Kucera: his look at 'Contemporary Turkish Literature and the New Historical Novel', A Different Hi(story), and a brief look at Turkish literature in translations into Czech.
In this suspicious context, one person shines out for his truth-telling.
‘The book I’ve enjoyed most this year,’ Alastair Darling writes, ‘is Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.
It’s a thoroughly evocative novel from one of the best writers of his generation. Reading it was a great escape from the Treasury.’
This is wrong on so many levels that it could only be artless.
Or so I thought, until I realised that it’s actually fiendishly clever: in times like these, who’d want a chancellor who took risks on their reading matter, or didn’t like Ian McEwan? What a safe pair of hands. Alastair Darling: winner of the prize for book of the year of the year.
We've very much enjoyed the PEN World Voices Festival here in New York the past few years, and no doubt much of the success is due to the work of festival-head Caro Llewellyn; unfortunately this go-round -- 27 April to 2 May, on the theme of "Evolution/Revolution" -- will be her last, as she's taking up a new position in May, running the new Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas
in Melbourne (and we're guessing they'll get their own website by then).
For Australian reports (nothing in the US press yet, or at the PEN site) see, for example:
We haven't been linking to all the dreadful news from the publishing industry -- though we follow it with keen interest, always fascinated by how this baffling 'business' is conducted (not very well, we've always thought, but what do we know ?) -- but Catherine Neilan's The Bookseller-report that UK sales slide 17% at Faber does offer a few more interesting titbits than usual.
All right, one admission hardly comes as a surprise:
Faber attributed the profit drop to its sales performance as well as adverse stock and advance right-offs.
Adverse -- are there any other kind ? -- right-offs (i.e. write-offs, surely) on advances ?
Paying authors more upfront than you can ever hope to earn back ?
Yeah, we've always been fans of that business model .....
But that's just (bad) business as usual -- what about:
Faber’s move into the "more commercial" non-book business -- such as the creative writing courses and merchandising, as well as digital innovations -- were also credited with ensuring the publisher had "a robust, future-fit business".
"We [have] laid the foundations for an exciting future, particularly in new digital and brand-based businesses," said Page.
We're all for brand-name identification -- as long as it has to do with the core business (books, right ?).
Once they start looking at the "non-book business" -- and once they start thinking that is "more commercial" ... well, surely the end (and products like Faber perfume, with that musty book-smell) is nigh .....
Okay, Faber Finds -- 'Bringing Great Writing Back Into Print' -- sounds like a digital-innovation winner.
But stuff like the faber academy ... worries us.
The New Yorker has its critics offer their best-of-the-year picks, including James Wood: Ten Favorite Books of 2008
A notable but not unexpected absence: Roberto Bolaño's 2666 -- not unexpected because The New Yorker only devoted 124 words to it in their 'review', and one has to assume that if he thought much of it he would have insisted on slightly better treatment of it .....
At Three Percent they are helpfully introducing all 25 titles on the 'Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist', most recently Marcel Proust's The Lemoine Affair -- coverage which includes an interview with translator Charlotte Mandell.
Kawakami, whose work has been translated into Korean, German, and Chinese (but not yet English), is part of an edgy and unconventional generation of female writers who are tackling women's stories of marriage, divorce, friendship -- and finding a receptive audience at home and abroad.
Yet another article wondering whether, after all the concern about the shrinking book review sections in the US the UK is next, as Peter Wilby wonders whether it is the Final chapter for book reviews ?
Could something similar happen here ?
A couple of sackings do not make a trend -- or even a column centimetre less of book reviews -- but two literary editors have lost their jobs in the past fortnight.
Sam Leith left the literary editorship of the Daily Telegraph and John O'Connell left the same position at Time Out. Both were described as redundant.
Always interesting to see what is selling abroad, and the La Plaza weblog at The Los Angeles Times list: The 10 bestselling books in Mexico last week.
Though with four of Stephenie Meyer's 'Twilight' titles in the top six -- and too much non-fiction -- there's not that much new we're made aware of here.
His work has appeared in translation but hasn't gotten that much coverage -- a profile in The New York Times a few years back, but little review coverage -- is it the Sandinista background that makes people wary ?
These two titles should certainly attract a bit more notice; it'll be interesting to see if they will.
This mountain of the best of Arabic fiction, the crop of only one year, and the doubly agonising process of reducing it to a list of 16 and then a shortlist of six, is a resounding statement of the good health of the Arabic novel, showing an amazing array of technical versatility deployed to tackle some of the most pressing issues of Arab life today, in structures and metaphors that transcend the particular to the universal and ultimately speak of the human condition, as all great art does.
But, of course, the picture isn't entirely rosy:
But my heart goes out to Arab novelists.
They are unknown soldiers, toilers in the sea, shouters in the wilderness.
They largely write to a non-existent readership and experiment and excel to the appreciation of non-existent critics and literary reviewers.
Most publishers "boast" a print run of 1,000 copies.
Even the mighty Nagiub Mahfouz, who died two years ago, normally printed no more than 10,000 copies.
This is for an Arabic-speaking population of some 300 million.
And the vast majority of those 121 novels published in the past year will have been like stillborns, with no birth certificate in the form of even a solitary review.
It is as if Arab novelists wrote for family and friends, if those.
As if they wrote, against their better judgement, only in response to the irrepressible creative impulse without hope of repayment, moral or material.
No Arab author can earn a living from royalties, however famed and prolific.
Again, even Mahfouz could support his family only by remaining in the civil service until compulsory retirement age.
(Updated - 14 December): See now also Rachel McArthur on Saving Arab literature at 24/7, where Jonathan Taylor finds:
"The two biggest problems Arab authors face are problems with distribution and translation into other languages," he said.
"This is where we can come in and hopefully make a difference."
The new issue
of Context is now available online, with a great deal of good stuff.
Among the side-notes of interest: at the end of Mihajlo Pantic's Letter from Serbia they list ten contemporary Serbian novels (published after 1989) that are to be translated into a variety of languages, including English, by 2015 -- led by David Albahari's Pijavice (see our review-overview).
We're keeping our fingers crossed .....
Also of great interest: the great Juan Goytisolo writes on Revising Juan the Landless, as Dalkey Archive Press will be releasing Peter Bush's new translation of that third volume of his trilogy next summer.
Helen Lane translated it back in the mid-1970s, but ... well, let's say the new translation has been eagerly awaited.
Still, we're very eager to compare the two versions.
No Dalkey publicity page yet, but you can pre-order the Bush translation: get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
We've actually managed to review two Burmese novels in the past few months, Nu Nu Yi's Smile as they Bow and Ma Ma Lay's Not Out of Hate, and we'd love to cover more, but not much makes it into English.
There's not too much information about the current local literary scene in Nilar Win's The Myanmar Times report that Myanmar national literary awards for 2007 declared (except that they seem to be really behind the times if they're only now getting around to naming last year's winners ...).
Still, we do learn about yet another whacky government organisation, since these prizes -- "Myanmar’s most prestigious national literary awards" -- were organised by the 'National Literary Award Scrutinising Committee' (yes, part of the Ministry of Information ...).
Also of interest:
Readers of translated books are few in Myanmar and such books are often not commercially feasible.
Nonetheless Saya Tin Maung Myint has chosen to work in this field and translates classic foreign novels as a means of sharing knowledge.
This year Saya Tin Maung Myint won the translation genre award for the book Black dream, green love (A place for Kathy), written by Henry Denker.
What an odd choice for a book to get translated into Burmese ... get your copy (of the English version) at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
We've mentioned the new (and expensive and only-available-in-a-limited-edition) translation of The Arabian Nights by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons (get your copy at Amazon.co.uk), and now Hugh Kennedy also reviews it, in the New Statesman -- and finds:
This is a truly magnificent achievement.
There are some 2,800 pages and exactly 1,001 "Nights", all newly translated from the fullest Arabic text, the so-called Calcutta II of 1841.
(Updated - 20 December): See now also Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's review in The Telegraph.
(Updated - 22 December): See now also A.S.Byatt's review in the Financial Times.
The TLS covers foreign-language (i.e. not yet translated) titles fairly frequently -- see our mention yesterday of a Kurdish title they covered -- and a few other magazines very occasionally cover some -- the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books -- but it doesn't happen often.
This week the New Statesman tackles a German novel, as Rick Jones considers Bernhard Schlink's Das Wochenende.
Unfortunately, it hardly seems worth their -- or our -- while: he calls it "sub-Agatha Christie without the crime", and finds:
Where Schlink's Reader featured two well-observed central characters who manage at least to evoke our understanding if not our sympathy, Das Wochenende has a circle of people with no depth at all.
Each is only a mouthpiece for society's attitudes to terrorism. Where The Reader had a storyline -- boy falls in love with older woman whose lack of education rendered her suitable for no job other than concentration-camp guard -- Das Wochenende has a dramatic action so clichéd it's almost comic.
Why review this title, then ?
Well, in part it no doubt has to do with timing, which he makes quite a big deal of, as the movie version of The Reader is coming out, etc.
They even title the review 'Germanic timing' -- but given that it was actually released early in the spring that turns out not to be a very good excuse or explanation .....
See also the information at new books in german and the Diogenes publicity material, or get your own copy at Amazon.de.
They've announced the shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction -- not at the official site, last we checked, of course, but in The National, for example, Karen Attwood reports: Shortlist issued for 'Arab Booker'.
One of the titles, Hunger by Mohamed El-Bisatie, is actually already available in English.
American University in Cairo Press brought it out earlier this year -- one of quite a few El-Bisatie titles they have published --; see their publicity page, read an extract at the International Literary Quarterly, or get your own copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
(We actually have a copy and should be getting to it eventually.)
We have a soft spot for novels in verse -- and who can pass up lesbian mysteries in verse ? --, and so we've always been intrigued by the works of Dorothy Porter (though we don't have any under review at this time), but, as Matt Buchanan reports at the Sydney Morning Herald, One of literature's great talents loses her battle with cancer.
See also the Dorothy Porter page at Australian Literature Resources.
Without their own country, and use of the language still suppressed in Turkey, the Kurds have had a hard time establishing much of a publishing culture (and forget about trying to find the latest (or much of any) Kurdish fiction in English translation ...).
But a couple of months ago Kareem Abdulrahman suggested that a Kurdish novel re-writes rules at the BBC, as:
In an unprecedented deal, author Bakhtyar Ali has been paid $25,000 by a publisher in the Kurdish region of Iraq, who has printed 10,000 copies of Ghazalnus and the Gardens of Imagination.
And he suggested:
Its publication could spell the end of "vanity" publishing in the region, when authors pay for their books to be printed from their own pockets.
Now Abdulrahman has reviewed the book for the TLS, in A Kurdish imagination -- and it sounds pretty intriguing:
This is a novel about post-revolution failure and the transformation of once committed freedom-seekers into business moguls and power freaks.
The ruling political elite live in an upmarket district sectioned off from the rest of the town; they are in control of the economy and personally corrupt; Ali describes their relationships with prostitutes and their role in so-called honour killings of women.
The Kurdish region we are shown is in complete contrast to the optimistic picture painted by some international media reports.
But it would be wrong to reduce the richness of this novel to its depiction of a particular time and place.
Its main theme is the power of imagination and its 600 pages are full of discussions about love and revolution, and the power of literature and art in the face of political force.
Kind of long for any American publisher to take a chance on, but it sure looks like something worth looking into .....
(The novelty value -- translated from the Kurdish ! -- would guarantee it some media attention (and we're pretty sure we'd review it ...) .....)
In the wake of the sacking of "the much-loved and greatly admired" Sam Leith at The Telegraph Philip Hensher requests (begs ?): Help save the review (and the reviewer) in The Independent.
But he doesn't really sound too worried, finding:
The best literary blogs, such as dovegreyreader.com, are clearly as good as anything written in the paper press, expert and disinterested.
Others, frankly, are self-publicists who know very little, and who may, as far as anyone knows, be serving an agenda.
Every author knows the obsessively hostile blogger or online reviewer who turns out to be a slighted participant on a creative writing course; those reviews on amazon are interesting guides to what ordinary readers think, but not necessarily the product of any great expertise or experience.
Nor are they meant to be.
In JoongAng Daily Richard Scott-Ashe finds that: "as the Korean diaspora grows, the literary offerings in English are also set to explode", in Still a Korean book by any other name -- and:
At the forefront of this is Yonsei University’s Underwood International College.
The school has an English-language creative writing program -- headed up by the very person I was having the language talk with, writer Gabe Hudson.
Which at least answers a question that hadn't crossed our minds in years: what ever happened to that guy who didn't write the president ?