"We can actually call it Arabic literature now because it can finally reach all parts of the Arab world," he said.
The writers said the internet helped Arabic writing free itself from political and social restrictions that had plagued pre-internet era Arabic writing, saying it was a platform for free thought and the unrestricted exchange of ideas.
This winter, I've been living in Paris. And I've been reading. But rather than doing the obvious thing -- reading French literature -- I've ended up reading other literature that doesn't seem to exist in English any more but is available in French translation
There are quite a few literary prizes rewarding debut- or first-fictions, and a few follow-up prizes that consider the best second work of fiction by an author -- but what about a prize restricted to fourth fictions ?
The well-endowed -- $50,000 ! -- St. Francis College Literary Prize does just that, as it: "is designed for a fourth published book of fiction".
You have until 1 July to submit your work -- and we are very curious to learn how many qualifying submissions they get.
It should make for a pretty interesting list, too.
(The judging panel also looks to be pretty heavyweight -- Michael Chabon, Heidi Julavits, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, and Ayelet Waldman (sadly: not that we've ever read anything by any of these folk ...).)
Meanwhile, Wyatt Mason addresses some of the reaction-to-do in his Weekend Read-recommendation at his Sentences-weblog.
I would submit that these categoricals, and the kinds of reviewers who hold such proscriptive aesthetic points of view, are diminishing: some kinds of narrowness are narrowing.
Agreed -- but in this instance few of the reviews suggest such proscriptive points of view: the negative ones largely seem to grant the validity of what Littell seems to want to do but just think he does it very, very badly.
Mason also thinks that:
what the novel is inarguably trying to do, through the lens of the imagination, is offer a different kind of picture of the unimaginable than our many exemplary histories have.
But a problem many of the reviewers seem to have had (as did we, to some extent), is that Littell's view (i.e. the bulk of the description) isn't new at all, but rather regurgitated from other sources.
As to the imaginative spin Littell does put on things (with his nutty main character), that is a 'lens of imagination' of sorts -- but surely a fairly dubious and ineffectual one (as widely addressed in the reviews, many of which find Aue a questionable vehicle for what Littell seems to be after).
New York Review Books is coming out with a new edition of the recently deceased Tayeb Salih's classic Season of Migration to the North soon (see their publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.com
It comes with an Introduction by Laila Lalami, and in The National they print an adapted version of it, Just like us they are born and die.
What is going on ?
Okay, last week's (22 February) issue of The New York Times Book Review was fairly feeble, fiction and works-in-translation wise -- but check out what the two upcoming issues will include reviews of:
Okay, some of these were predictable: translated fiction by dead people has long been favoured by Tanenhaus, and if World War II is involved it's pretty much automatic -- hence the Fallada -- and given the coverage The New York Times has showered Yu Hua with it's hard to see them avoiding Brothers -- and, sadly, The Kindly Ones is also unavoidable .....
Still, pretty impressive.
(Though, of course, we should wait and see what the actual reviews look like ...still, at least they're paying some heed to this stuff.)
(And the suspicion that Dwight Garner was the roadblock to proper coverage of fiction-in-translation grows .....)
Metacritic nicely aggregates review-reactions, and they even used to do so for books, before discontinuing that .....
Now comes a British variation, CultureCritic, which is giving books a try.
While there are still some teething issues, it does look promising .....
However some believe the future of keitai shosetsu as one that is quickly following in the footsteps of most teenage fads:
A sudden and rapid rise to mass popularity followed by a slow but steady decline to the fringes of the not-so-cool.
Last year few mobile novels appeared on best-seller lists while new stories published online have lost their characteristic edginess, said Chiaki Ishihara, a Japanese literature expert at Waseda University in Tokyo who has studied cell phone novels.
"Keitai shosetsu is rapidly declining at this point," Ishihara told CNN.
"In a few years, it may not even be considered a subculture."
But scarily enough:
While the cell phone novel market may be cooling in Japan, it is just starting to emerge in other countries, like the United States, where faster networks and cheaper data plans are leading more consumers to use handsets in ways similar to people in Japan.
They've announced the 16-title-strong Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist; see, for example, Katie Allen's report, Foreign fiction prize longlist revealed at The Bookseller.
We haven't seen many of these titles yet (many haven't been published in the US yet), and we only have three under review:
With a few more days left until the official US (and UK) publication dates, we were hoping to avoid round-the-clock (or at least every-day) coverage of reactions to Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, but the reactions keep coming .....
(To think, we almost thought this thing would be dead on arrival; apparently no such luck .....)
Besides, when Pierre Assouline writes: "The Literary Saloon est sur l'affaire ...", then we feel sort of obliged to keep on top of things.
(Note, however, that it is our frequently updated review-page that has the most extensive and up-to-date collection of links and review-quotes -- i.e. that's really the place to stay on top of things.)
There haven't been that many weblog-stirrings yet -- too few have finished (bothered to finish ? been capable of finishing ?) the book yet ? -- though Obooki's Page naughtily tries to get things going between us and Stephen Mitchelmore (who thinks we've got it completely wrong -- but won't tell anyone why (hey, we're patient and glad to wait for his review -- but surely claims such as: "The Kindly Ones is one of the most intense reading experiences you will ever have" need to be supported by some -- any ! -- sort of argument and explanation, no ?
(We're not really big fans of such certain pronouncements -- especially since we read the damn thing and have found instruction manuals to be more intense reading experiences .....)))
Understandably, it's the Kakutani's review in The New York Times that has attracted so much attention, though a batch of (generally far more positive) UK reviews have also come out in the last week.
As noted, you can find links to and quotes from all those on our review-page; here we'd like to point you to a couple of the smaller reviews from the last week.
First, there is
Michael Korda's gushing review at 'The Daily Beast' (thanks to Sarah Weinman, for pointing it out).
He really liked it -- though his judgement already has to be called into question early on, when he claims that: "Dr. Max Aue is, in short, a monster, but not a grotesquely imagined one like Dr. Hannibal Lecter, rather a realistic one".
Come on, even Littell acknowledged that Aue wasn't a plausible figure
Korda also seems impressed by the weighty look and feel of the book, and one has to wonder how much that influenced him, and left him feeling obliged to take it seriously ...:
The book is likely to challenge a great many fiction readers, frankly.
It is 984 pages long, each page is densely packed with small type (and with narrow margins).
Mr. Littell sticks stubbornly to the French way of using quotes, and avoids paragraphs and space breaks, so that reading the book is like swimming far out to sea without a life belt, or climbing a mountain until one runs out of breath.
Ah, yes -- if you don't get it, it's because you're not up to the challenge .....
And note how he also proudly slips in the fact that he: "originally read Mr. Littellís novel in French".
Some of his praise is shocking -- not just the enthusiasm he expresses, but how he expresses it.
This man was once an editor ?
Consider this (hyperbole alert ! hyperbole alert !):
I read it without pausing for breath, so powerful and terrifying was its portrayal of Nazi Germany, and of the Holocaust for once seen through the eyes of one of the perpetrators, instead of one of the victims.
It was like drowning.
There is not an ounce of sentimentality, or guilt, or apology in this very long book -- it presents a searing portrait of the Nazis as seen by one of them.
Korda also thinks:
Littell is a genius, both as a historian, and as a novelist
(But where is the genius in this ?
Where the historical brilliance ?
Where the compelling writing ?
We barely got a whiff of it, in a book filled with stenches.)
You want to read about Hell, here it is. If you donít have the strength to read it, tough shit. Itís a dreadful, compelling, brilliantly researched, and imagined masterpiece, a terrifying literary achievement, and perhaps the first work of fiction to come out of the Holocaust that places us in its very heart, and keeps us there.
But even he has to admit the ending is a bit silly .....
Still, Korda was obviously moved and touched by this thing (we know he read it to the end -- which we suspect not every reviewer did ... -- since he mentions how weak that is), but we don't get what he is responding to (and, really, this review doesn't make it clear, either, not to us).
We also don't fully get his reading of Aue -- surely he is not the Nazi everyman Korda suggests .....
And what's with the bravado -- 'If you donít have the strength to read it, tough shit'
Yes, there's lots of violence and excrement and sexual perversion, but most of this is just annoyingly unpleasant, not shocking; the inhumanity is more disturbing but we still didn't feel placed at the heart of the Holocaust or anything like that.
More than anything, we found reading The Kindly Ones simply tiresome.
Anyway, for a contrary view, consider Norman Lebrecht's in La Scena Musicale.
He seems to us much closer to the mark when he finds:
I have come regard The Kindly Ones on second reading as a novel of no imagination, a work devoid of character and ingenuity, fundamentally without plot, without subtlety or irony or any mitigating cause.
Its events are plundered from published memoirs and decorated with no literary skill that could be mistaken for originality.
It neither illuminates the human condition nor elevates the mind.
Lebrecht also finds:
The Kindly Ones reads like a strategy paper for excusing genocide.
Its chief mercy is that it leaves no aftertaste, no residual memory to tease or haunt the reader on sleepless nights.
It is a bad novel with a fake objectivity that travesties classical civilisation, the origin of its title and stucture.
Tiresome, pitiless and prurient, it is a perverse and dirty book.
We're not sure about the excusing-genocide notion -- if so, it's a misguided strategy paper that fails in its intention -- but he is right about the (lacking) literary merit of this thing.
Author Philip José Farmer has passed away; see, for example, the CNN mention, or his official site.
We haven't read much of his work, and none of it in decades, but do recall his alternative Jules Verne-take, The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk), with some fondness.
It does not sound like a recipe for publishing success: a roster of translated literary novels written mainly by Europeans, relying heavily on independent-bookstore sales, without an e-book or vampire in sight.
Actually, to us that sounds like a perfect recipe for publishing success ... but what do we know ?
Lots of talk about their biggest success to date, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.
"Now everybodyís buying it because everybodyís buying it," said Mark LaFramboise, a buyer at Politics and Prose in Washington.
"Hedgehog," he said, is "one of the hottest books in the store."
A Festival of New French Writing starts tomorrow in New York, and will offer eleven pairs of 'French & American Authors in Conversation' over the next three days.
(Typically, we have dozens of works by seven of these French authors under review (and hope to get to Abdourahman Waberi soon), and only a single title by any of the Americans (Power and the Idealists by Paul Berman, at that)
We hope to catch one or another of the pairings; we'll report if we do.
Telugu may have attained classical language status, but very few people will get to read any of its literary texts, if current translation trends continue.
At present, translation of Telugu literary works is taken up sporadically, and that too only into English and not Indian vernacular languages.
(We only have one (classical) Telugu work under review -- The Demon's Daughter by Piṅgaḷi Sūranna -- but we'd certainly love to cover more.)
The first in what will be a flood (well, give it another week or so) of US reviews of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones is the Kakutani's review in The New York Times -- and, after some surprisingly positive UK reviews, she nails it (even as she flails about in trying to come to grips with its awfulness).
We found it to be a mess, and so did she -- well, she calls it: "an overstuffed suitcase of a book".
Among her flailing efforts:
Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellisís American Psycho, after repeated viewings of The Night Porter and The Damned.
But she's right that:
Whereas the heroes of the play Good and the movie Mephisto were ordinary enough men who out of ambition or opportunism or weakness turned to the dark side and embraced the Nazi cause, Aue is clearly a deranged creature, and his madness turns his story into a voyeuristic spectacle -- like watching a slasher film with lots of close-ups of blood and guts.
(Updated - 25 February): Stephen Mitchelmore apparently has a very different opinion of the book -- but offers no explanation as to what there could possibly be to like or appreciate about it.
We look forward to his review, in the hopes that he can
point out some redeeming features of the text and/or suggest what possible literary worth there might be to it (which none of the other reviews we've come across so far have).
At The Los Angeles Times' weblog, Babylon & Beyond, Batsheva Sobelman writes about Reading with the enemy in Israel, describing the difficulties in selling most Arabic-language books there, as:
Not many know, but obtaining an Arabic copy of Harry Potter in Israel requires a special permit under the pre-state Trade with the Enemy Ordinance.
It's published in Lebanon. The same applies to the work of Israeli novelist Amos Oz, as Syrian publishing houses are the only ones in the Arab world that publish Arabic translations of his and other Hebrew literature.
(Interesting to learn that Oz's Arabic publishers are Syrian .....)
In Ha'aretz Maya Sela profiles 'literary' agent Amanda 'Binky' Urban, in Brave new literary world.
Among Urban's concerns: "book pricing: Amazon is breaking the market, she says."
When I met Richard Ford for the first time, he already had published three novels, which had been very well-received critically and had sold 7,500 copies.
When he came to me, he said he may never write another novel, which is not what an agent wants to hear. The next novel he wrote was The Sportswriter, for which he won the Pulizer Prize.
"When I first met Cormac McCarthy, he had already written four novels, none of which had sold more than 2,500 copies.
I moved him from Random House to Knopf, they did a fabulous job, and the next book he wrote was All the Pretty Horses, which sold about 300,000 copies in hardcover and millions in paperback.
"The question is really how you keep authors alive until they break through and garner a large readership.
That's what I stay awake at night and worry about."
The film version of Vikas Swarup's Q & A, Slumdog Millionaire (as the book re-issue has now also been retitled as ...), picked up a couple of Academy Awards on Sunday -- the latest in many, many movie awards it's picked up -- and so the book is doing pretty well too.
As Alison Flood reports in Slumdog Millionaire novelist Swarup set to reap Oscar rewards in The Guardian:
Swarup's Q&A, the colourful tale of how an 18-year-old boy from the slums manages to win one billion rupees on a television game show, was ticking along at a perfectly average rate before Boyle filmed it for the big screen as Slumdog Millionaire, selling some 35,000 copies since publication three years ago, according to book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan.
paperback film tie-in edition has sold 35,666 copies since it was published on 2 January this year.
(Our review has also consistently been among the most popular on the site.)
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Hans Fallada's 1947 novel of Berlin life during World War II, Every Man Dies Alone (UK title: Alone in Berlin), finally available in translation.
So the Thais have pardoned Australian author Harry Nicolaides, after letting him stew in jail for a while for his 'crime' of insulting the local royals -- a major no-no in Thailand -- in a short passage in his completely-ignored-until-this-came-up novel, Verisimilitude, and now he's back down under again.
Now, in the Sydney Morning Herald, an acquaintance of his, Heath Dollar, writes that he was a Martyr to his literary ambition -- and that it was all a stunt:
Though he is sometimes portrayed as a dissident, Nicolaides would more accurately be described as an opportunist.
And if he is a martyr, he is not a champion of free speech but a martyr on the cross of ambition.
He wrote about Thailand as nothing more than a beautiful facade, and has since himself become the embodiment of verisimilitude.
Via the NZZ we learn that at the German litprom site they're starting a new quarterly list of book recommendations, of the seven best books from Africa, Asia, and Latin America available in recent/new German translation.
The first list is up, and is led by Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, with Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo in the third spot.
But they also find room for, for example, Deon Meyer's Blood Safari (and somebody again has to explain to us why this is available in German before it is in the UK (coming soon -- pre-order your copy from Amazon.co.uk) or the US (coming ... who knows when ...)).
They also have one of the jurors recommend an additional title that's not available in German yet but that they think should be -- and Navid Kermani's choice makes us aware (since no one else has) that Shahriar Mandanipour's Censoring an Iranian Love Story is due out in English shortly: see the Knopf publicity page (though the only place we could find a picture of the cover was at The Book Cover Archive), or pre-order your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
Parsipour recently was an International Writing Fellow at Brown's admirable International Writers Project; see also his official site.
For a few days now the story of how Geraldine Bedell's The Gulf Between Us had been banned from the Dubai literature festival (in fact, the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature)
has been getting lots of attention.
While we generally enjoy a good censorship story as much as the next literary weblog -- especially with all the good elements: sex ! Islam ! --, you may have noticed that we passed on covering or even mentioning it; there was just not enough solid information for our tastes, thank you.
It looks like we were right to be wary.
Festival-guest Margaret Atwood promptly withdrew from the festival -- and now finds that not quite everything (or, possibly, anything) seems to have been what it seemed.
As she writes in The Guardian's The week in books-column:
From reading the press, I got the impression that her book had been scheduled to launch at the festival, and that the launch had then been cancelled, for whiff-o'gay-sheikh reasons; and that, furthermore, it had been banned throughout the Gulf states; and that furthermore, Bedell herself had been prohibited from attending the festival, and also from travelling in Dubai.
But it wasn't that clear-cut, and now she wonders:
Is this a case of "banning" and "censorship" ?
I'm not sure those terms apply. Maybe they do, maybe not: we'll find out in time.
The whole incident certainly should make people think twice about rushing to judgements -- and quite admirably, as Melanie Swan reports in The National, now Festival to discuss censorship -- so maybe some good can come from this after all.
In The plots thicken in The National Kelly McEvers reports that: 'some Saudis realise thereís more to literature than crossing lines'.
Among the authors in the mix: Wolves of the Crescent Moon-author Yousef Al-Mohaimeed.
But there are some odd bits, too -- such as Hana al Omair's claim that:
"I know good writers who are working on novels but donít want them to be published at this moment," she says.
"They donít want to be seen as part of this fad, this tsunami. They would rather wait until things quiet down again."
The first batch of UK reviews for the English translation of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones have now come out ... and they're unaccountably positive (see our review for comparison; we did not look kindly upon it).
In the Financial Times Donald Morrison actually believes it is: "A book that tries to ask the big questions. And fails magnificently".
(We found that while it apparently meant to ask some big questions, it failed miserably.)
Even more worryingly, in The Times Anthony Beevor
thinks this is: "a great work of literary fiction, to which readers and scholars will turn for decades to come."
Dear god !
It is terribly unliterary -- and surely only scholars who want to see how not to produce historical fiction will turn to it in future (plain old readers should certainly avoid it from the start).
But some of Beevor's praise isn't misplaced -- such as his point that:
Where Littell is particularly strong, both in historical terms and as an integral part of his novel, is in his depiction of the Nazi and SS bureaucracy, with their rival departments, each with its own viewpoint and ethos.
And don't forget how he gets all those ranks right !
(Updated - 22 February): And yet another close-to-rave, Jason Burke's review in The Observer.
What are these people thinking ? (and what were they reading ? Certainly not -- to judge by their comments -- the book we read.)
Living in a cultural milieu where the foreign writers most widely available and admired were Russian, I came very late to postwar American writers; and I had great trouble with the canonically exalted white male writers I tried first.
But unaccountably he ends the piece suggesting -- without any foundation -- :
However, the outlook for American literature seems brighter than at any time in recent decades.
Just as the tragedy of the civil war expedited the maturing of American literature, and the Depression seared its lessons on a generation of writers, so the present crisis will likely incite a fresh re-evaluation of values, styles and genres.
Out of widespread turmoil and confusion may come America's greatest novels yet; and we will cherish them not because they evoke America's glamorously singular modernity but because they describe a more universal human condition of public and unremitting conflict.
"Western critics don't realize something: The most critical authors are in China, not overseas.
Look, there's me, there's Mo Yan -- we criticize a lot. Anyone can criticize the Cultural Revolution nowadays. We criticize the current society."
And then there are gems like:
But what bothers Mr. Yu more about these obvious problems is a lack of trust in society.
The book trade itself is good example of this, he says.
"It's really hard for a young author to break in because there are few reputable critics.
It's corrupt. People pay critics to write all sorts of nonsense."
He says reviewers charge 3,000 to 5,000 yuan for a review.
The accusation is impossible to prove but it is true that China has a weak scene of literary criticism.
He contrasts the situation to a western publication like France's Le Monde.
He says that newspaper gave him a two-page spread, resulting in a huge spike in sales -- because French people could trust the newspaper's judgment, not as infallible but as an honest effort at reviewing a book.
Western forms of corruption -- the fact that Yu's books are brought out by major publishers that can 'convince' the likes of Le Monde, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal (Asia) to run inordinately long favourable profiles of the guy -- apparently don't bother him as much.
(Sure, Yu is a fine author, but he's certainly getting a disproportionate amount of coverage these days .....)
So, does the Best Translated Book Award provide a bounce for the winning books ?
It's perhaps a bit early to tell, but checking in shortly after the awards were announced and twenty four hours later we found:
Tranquility by Bartis Attila had jumped from an Amazon.com Sales Rank of 275,373 to one of 13,441 (good enough to rank it 82nd in the category: "Books > Mystery & Thrillers > Thrillers > Psychological & Suspense")
Tranquility slipped from an Amazon.co.uk Sales Rank of 771,178 to 781,427
Hiraide Takashi's For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut slipped from an Amazon.com Sales Rank of 627,897 to 706,779
It slipped from an Amazon.co.uk Sales Rank of 232,121 to 275,684
So, so far only a relatively limited effect; we'll keep an eye on the figures to see whether it lasts/spreads.