English literature itself has become merely pleasant, enjoyable and polite.
It is no longer vital, no longer vibrant, no longer the place to go to feel out the rhythm of the heart of the country in which it exists.
The form, commercially, is thriving and the quality is high.
The problem is a dearth of important novels.
The problem is one of excitement, relevance, ambition.
But he also thinks:
This isn't a global problem.
I would genuinely be excited to see Coetzee, Roth, Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler, E L Doctorow, Michel Houellebecq, Jonathan Frantzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Bernard Schlink, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo or Chuck Palahniuk at Hay -- because they have written not just good, but important books.
In my view, no English novelist can make that claim, perhaps not since Golding with Lord of the Flies, or perhaps even before that, with Orwell's 1984.
May I suggest that if his copy-editors can't even pick up on the misspelling of 'Jonathan Frantzen''s name he can't have written anything they really consider too important .....
And: Coetzee, sure, but Anne Tyler ? etc.
Lott also writes:
The writers who have come closest to writing an important work of literature in recent years are simply not naturalists.
D B C Pierre, David Mitchell, Scarlett Thomas and Susanna Clarke have all written books that were genuinely fresh voices -- but the first was a satire set in America and the other three were verging on fantasy or even science-fiction.
Our other most interesting writers are either children's writers, or crossovers.
Philip Pullman, David Almond and Mark Haddon all spring to mind.
A lot of these are under review at the complete review, and while Mitchell and Thomas have written some interesting and good books I must object to the inclusion of D.B.C.Pierre in any discussion; Vernon God Little
remains an abomination.
At Pambazuka Tendai Marima writes about Zimbabwean literature -- and sees it resurgent in Brian Chikwava's Harare North and Petina Gappah's An Elegy for Easterly -- in Silencing silence and resisting repression.
As a literary critic with a vested interest in African literature, I sincerely hope these writers will be read, if not for anything else, to re-ignite critics' and readers' interest in the Zimbabwe (and its diaspora) and to confirm that the country remains a literary powerhouse on the Continent and its borders beyond.
(Marima also discusses Yvonne Vera's work, and while her death was certainly a loss I was never much of a fan of what she did.)
Harare North doesn't appear to have a US publisher yet but you can get the UK edition at Amazon.com (or, of course, Amazon.co.uk).
An Elegy for Easterly is getting tons of coverage and publicity everywhere; see also the publicity pages at FSG and Faber, or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
Not sure I'll be reviewing either of these, though a review-overview page for the Gappah looks likely.
In The Star S.H.Lim interviews Tash Aw, whose Map of the Invisible World is now out ... in some parts of the world (it's not due out in the US for a while).
See also the complete review review of Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory.
In the Neue Zürcher Zeitung Hoo Nam Seelmann interviews (in German) Kim Young-ha.
Among the interesting observations about contemporary Korean fiction:
Es gibt noch einen interessanten Punkt, der auf einen weiteren Unterschied zwischen den Literaturtraditionen hinweist.
In der koreanischen Literatur kommen gewisse literarischen Genres schlichtweg nicht vor, Kriminalromane etwa, Science-Fiction oder romantische Liebesromane.
Diese Genres sind für den westlichen Literaturmarkt von grosser Wichtigkeit.
Man hat den Eindruck, dass demgegenüber die meisten Autoren in Korea eine Art reine Literatur anstreben.
Das mag der Grund dafür sein, dass man in Korea traditionell keine Literaturgattung kennt, die man mit der westlichen Trivialliteratur vergleichen kann.
[There's another interesting point, that demonstrates another difference in literary traditions.
In Korean literature certain literary genres simply don't exist: crime fiction, for example, or science fiction, or romances novels.
These genres are important for the Western literary market.
One has the impression that most authors in Korea strive for a sort of pure literature.
That may be the reason, why Korea traditionally doesn't have any type of fiction comparable to Western pulp/popular fiction.
Like dozens thousands of others, I went to BookExpo America yesterday, not knowing quite what to expect -- or do.
Would there be scenes of panic ? desolation ? desperation ?
Admittedly, I'm fairly oblivious under the best of circumstances, and the inner workings (if one can call anything to do with the book business 'working(s)') of the publishing industry continue to completely mystify me (which is also part of the appeal of industry get-togethers like this), but for the most part it looked like business as usual -- or at least like the last two BEAs I'd attended (two and four years ago).
Not quite as crowded or bustling, but for every small publisher that was here last time and not this someone else seemed to have come (not so next year, I heard, but that's next year ...).
One side of the hall is devoted to Global Market Forum: Books and Publishing in the Arab World, and it was good to see quite a big showing from those associated with Arabic publishing (though the Germans' Frankfurt Book Fair stand confusingly dominates the entrance to the hall).
The foreign stuff is what's of greatest interest to me, and the Arabs did a decent job of providing a variety of material.
Older hands Germany, Poland, and Spain (plus Mexico, too) were there too -- while the French and Italians got themselves some better real estate in the middle of the main hall.
So I ambled about, ran into several of the people I had hoped to meet (though missing many, many more), and conducted what little 'business' I had to quickly enough.
At many of the booths there was enough activity for me not to bother butting in; I don't find there's much to learn at here anyway -- new offerings are just as readily considered online or in catalogues, etc.
I didn't collect a great deal of swag: review copies arrive just as well in the mail (though actually it's been a bad couple of weeks, with quite a bit of promised/announced material not having made its way to me yet -- for which I hope BEA prep is to blame).
But it's impossible not accumulate a few odds and ends.
My favorite ?
My 'Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - BookExpo America 2009'-commemorative ... well, I'm calling it a beer mug.
(Hey, it's a frosted glass mug, and though smaller than your average beer mug it'll do just fine.)
And, proving attendance and wandering the halls is worthwhile, I was very pleased to find UK short book publisher Roast Books in attendance (reviews of some of their fine little offerings forthcoming), and they kindly let me have a preview-copy of the wonderful-looking boxed-book (well, pamphlet) The Commuter's Lunchbox, 'The A-Z of the Possible', by A.C.Tillyer, a set of twenty-six (yes, alphabetical) pamphlet-stories, collected in an attractive little box.
No Amazon pages for it yet, nor any publicity page at the official site yet (just that tantalizing brief mention on the home page); forthcoming in the fall, I'll certainly have some more coverage of it by then.
Elsewhere, you'll be able to find many more BEA stories -- Publishers Weekly is offering close to wall-to-wall coverage, while you can go to pretty much any literary weblog (certainly all the New York-based ones) and find much more.
I haven't gone to any of the panels or the like, where most of the woe-is-us (and: we-need-new-paradigms) talk seems to be going on; while there seems to be considerable entertainment value to these, I simply don't have the patience.
But, again, you should readily be able to find reports galore elsewhere.
Oh, and I have now finally seen a Kindle -- sighted not at BEA (where I did, however, see my first Sony e-reader) but on the subway headed to the Javits center.
The June SWR-Bestenliste, where thirty German critics vote on the favorite reads, is now up.
The top three (with a relatively low point total -- i.e. there was no title a larger number of critics were enthusiastic about) are hardly household names abroad.
The list also describes the level of difficulty of the books, and the top three are all 'leichtere Lektüre' (easy reading).
(By comparison: Aleksandar Hemon's Lazarus (number 5) is 'hard reading', Tom Wolfe's Look Homewards, Angel (number 6) 'medium-hard', Melville's Billy Budd (number 8) 'easy'.)
Interesting also that choices six through nine are all books by dead foreign authors (Wolfe, Gogol, Melville, Mansfield).
Yes, it's time for BookExpo America, "the premier event for the North American publishing industry", and since it's being held in New York I find it unavoidable; I'll be in attendance, at least for a while.
As usual, I don't really know what to expect, but there should probably be enough entertainment-value to make it worth my while.
I'm particularly looking forward to the widely anticipated doom-and-gloom-atmosphere (I don't really see it, so I'm curious how this will manifest itself; I am keeping my fingers crossed for a bit of apocalyptic hysteria).
And I figure I'll finally actually be able to lay eyes on a Kindle (and/or other "e-readers").
I have absolutely nothing specific planned, and can't think of anything better to do than wander the halls aimlessly.
Many other literary webloggers will be in attendance, and you should be able to find your fill of
detailed and up-to-the-minute coverage elsewhere; you probably shouldn't expect too much here.
One program of interest is the Global Market Forum: Books and Publishing in the Arab World.
As part of that they'll also have a program on Translation to and from the Arabic language at the New York Public Library (i.e. off-site, not at the Javits Center, where the convention itself takes place) tonight at 19:00, open to all, which sounds interesting.
One reason I only made passing mention of the Palestine Festival of Literature -- PalFest 09 -- was because I figured it, and especially the Israeli actions, not permitting the show to go on at the National Theatre, would receive much outraged attention in the press.
Instead, print-media mentions have been few and far between.
What gives ?
Now, at Reuters (at least Reuters !), Ivan Karakashian reports that Israeli police shut Jerusalem book fest, again (yes, that's: again):
The police action was the latest in recent weeks against what Israel sees as attempts by the Palestinian Authority to host political activities in the city, where both sides in the conflict have staked claims to have their national capital.
From here -- admittedly very, very far away -- PalFest looks like an admirable attempt to promote culture and dialogue -- activity that is, in a way, of course political, but surely not in the (negative) way implied in the crack-down excuse --, and from here the actions by the Israeli government look pretty outrageous.
Maybe they have good reasons for the police interference; what astonishes me is that they don't even seem to have to worry about explaining themselves, or any bad PR.
Other than what are probably considered outlets that are on the fringe or to be in the other camp anyway no one seems to much care what they've done, or why.
I hope that some of the participants -- Claire Messud, Michael Palin, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Henning Mankell, etc. -- stir things up a bit once they get back to their respective homes.
Whatever the story is here, it's more of a story than the press have made of it so far.
Iíve been enjoying the new Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice.
The most striking thing about is that if you had handed me the first 30 pages, I would have staked my life I was reading the opening of the new Elmore Leonard.
The lean, witty lines recounting the exploits of hippy private dick Doc Sportello in Sixties LA (albeit with a nod to Raymond Chandler) absolutely smacks of Leonard and his humorous imagination (how about a crooked Jewish property developer with Nazi biker bodyguards?).
How did he get a copy ?
And why couldn't he tell us more about it ?
You can pre-order Inherent Vice at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
As the time to choose the next director-general UNESCO comes closer, Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosny makes another big push for the job -- and issues a mea culpa for his notorious book-burning comment.
In an op-ed piece in Le Monde he explains Pourquoi je suis candidat à la direction générale de l'Unesco.
As to his infamous statement, he writes: "Ces mots sont à l'opposé de ce à quoi je crois et de ce que je suis" ("Those words are the opposite of what I believe and who I am") -- and, in a formulation I particularly like, he begs: "ne tombez pas dans le piŤge de l'amalgame" ('don't fall into the amalgamation-trap' -- well, you know what he means).
Meanwhile, at IPS Alecia D. McKenzie writes about the current state of affairs, in Political Clouds Hang Over UNESCO Selection, also mentioning some of the others apparently in the running (including: "Marcio Barbosa, a Brazilian whose country is backing Hosni" and two Algerian candidates, one of them all of 81 years young).
Ynet's report, Egyptian culture minister apologizes for anti-Israel slur, focuses on Hosni's candidacy -- noting also that Israel has dropped its objections.
(yes, they can't seem to settle on the spelling ...) also has an official site -- which includes a page devoted to his UNESCO Candidature.
Kaoru Kurimoto, who also wrote as Azusa Nakajima and whose real name was Imaoka Sumiyo, has passed away; see, for example, the brief obituary at The Japan Times.
Kurimoto was best known for The Guin Saga; Vertical has brought out several volumes of it in English; see their official page.
They've announced that Alice Munro has won the Man Booker International Prize; see also prize-administrator Fiammetta Rocco on The challenges of choosing a winner.
Not being particularly enthusiastic about short-story-limited authors, I'm not wild about the choice, but
it's certainly defensible.
The leading German author-prize, the Georg-Büchner-Preis, has gone to Walter Kappacher; see, for example, the DeutscheWelle report Prestigious Buechner prize goes to little-known Austrian author.
Looking back at the last five winners of the Büchner Prize -- in reverse chronological order: Josef Winkler, Martin Mosebach, Oskar Pastior, Brigitte Kronauer, and Wilhelm Genazino -- a few have been translated into English, but none made much of an impact.
Going further back Alexander Kluge and Friederike Mayröcker are more familiar names, but their work is also not widely known in the US/UK, while 2000 winner Volker Braun, a local favorite, remains completely obscure.
The last winner to gain widespread recognition in English translation is 1998 winner Elfriede Jelinek .....
None of Kappacher's works appear to be available in translation; see also his official site and biography at the Goethe Institut, as well as the 'Goethe-Institut Books creating buzz'-page on Der Fliegenpalast
The French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation
have announced the winners of their 22nd Annual Translation Prizes for superior English translations of French works published in 2008.
Interestingly, in both categories the winning titles were translated by a pair of translators:
The winners were:
Yet another sad chapter in Oxford's attempts to find a new Professor of Poetry, as election-winner Ruth Padel has now resigned before assuming the post.
Apparently she was a bit more active in stirring things up against Derek Walcott -- who took himself out of the running -- than she had originally let on; for decent overviews of the affair to date, see John F. Burns on Poetic Justice: Briton Quits Post, Saying She Helped Taint a Rival in The New York Times, and Jerome Taylor's How dirty tricks dossier forced Oxford's female poetry professor to quit.
Neither Walcott nor now Padel have displayed a great deal of character; interestingly, the third poet in the running, some guy named Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, remains as unknown as ever (see the nomination page and click through the "flysheets" (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) for more background on both Padel and Mehrotra).
Padel is set to have more of a say on the matter at the Hay Festival today, and no doubt a lot more ink will be spilled about all this.
As to the Professor of Poetry-elections, apparently they're going to wait on those a while.
Personally, I'd like to see Walcott and Padel (and -- why not ? -- the sadly irrelevant Mehrotra) duke it out again, laying all their cards and dirty pasts on the table.
At least it would get more people interested in poetry (well, poets ...)
, and get lots of press coverage.
Because of the difficulties Palestinians face under military occupation in traveling around their own country, the Festival will travel to its audiences.
It will tour to Ramallah, to Jenin, to al-Khalil/Hebron and to Bethlehem.
To celebrate its year as Cultural Capital of the Arab World, the festival will begin and end in Jerusalem.
President Arroyo ordered yesterday the Department of Finance to scrap the taxes imposed on imported books and reading material.
Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said the directive was prompted by a torrent of criticism on the move of the Bureau of Customs (BOC), which is under the supervision of the finance department, to impose the duties.
As I mentioned last week, now that Amazon.com has opened up its Kindle-platform to weblogs, many have signed up -- including many literary blogs; see here for a list of many of them.
Many others -- concerned about the terms Amazon "offers" -- wanted nothing to do with this opportunity.
Right now, it's beginning to look to me like a lot of fuss about nothing -- and I mean nothing.
Not a person appears to have subscribed to the Literary Saloon: the Kindle edition.
And the same appears to be the case for all the other weblogs that made themselves available in the past week.
After less than a week, Amazon has also already resorted to drastic price cuts: originally offered for $1.99 per month,
the Literary Saloon and several of the other new weblogs are now available for $.99.
(Amazon.com sets the prices for the Kindle products -- and apparently hasn't figured out where the optimal pricing point lies .....)
I'm curious whether this makes much of a difference -- after all, all these weblogs are available for free to all with access to the Internet .....
Poised to be one of the big titles of the summer, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game will be published in the UK next week and in the US soon thereafter; I haven't received a copy yet but a review-overview should be up soonest [updated: now available here] -- meanwhile, order your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
The Times is first to have a go at it, beginning with the worthwhile piece by Carlos Ruiz Zafón himself, Step inside Barcelona's Secret Library.
See also their reviews by Hugo Barnacle (middling) and Margaret Reynolds (more enthusiastic).
At hlo László Valuska reports on 'The economic crisis and publishers' woes' in Hungary, and you can guess from the article-title just how woeful the local state of affairs is: Letís just dump our books into the Danube .
Donald Duckís popularity was helped along by Erika Fuchs, a free spirit in owlish glasses who was tasked with translating the stories.
A Ph.D. in art history, Dr. Fuchs had never laid eyes on a comic book before the day an editor handed her a Donald Duck story, but no matter.
She had a knack for breathing life into the German version of Carl Barksís duck.
Her talent was so great she continued to fill speech bubbles for the denizens of Duckburg (which she renamed Entenhausen, based on the German word for "duck") until shortly before her death in 2005 at the age of 98.
Ehapa directed Dr. Fuchs to crank up the erudition level of the comics she translated, a task she took seriously.
Her interpretations of the comic books often quote (and misquote) from the great classics of German literature, sometimes even inserting political subtexts into the duck tales.
Dr. Fuchs both thickens and deepens Mr. Barksís often sparse dialogues, and the hilariousness of the result may explain why Donald Duck remains the most popular childrenís comic in Germany to this day.
As a childhood Fuchs-enthusiast I can attest to the appeal of the comics -- and I'm sure a steady diet of this stuff is one of the reasons I remain baffled by American comics and comics-enthusiasm.
In The Independent Johann Hari asks Is Tom Stoppard's Arcadia the greatest play of our age ? -- and argues that it most definitely is.
I'd find it hard to disagree.
Arcadia is the only drama under review at the complete review that rates an A+, and has always been one of my favorites.
My only hesitation about anointing it best of the times is that while I've seen it performed three times I've never seen a performance that really lived up to the play.
They've gotten the staging (those switches in time) down well, but the performers haven't ever been completely up to it -- specifically the hard to cast Thomasina.
None of the three Thomasinas I've seen have been anywhere near adequate (largely, I suspect, because I have never seen the role entrusted to anyone who is anywhere near Thomasina's age).
So while in the abstract Arcadia does strike and haunt me as one the greatest modern plays, I'm not sure about it as a stage-play.
But then I prefer to read dramas rather than watch them, anyway -- I have a vivid enough imagination to play them out in my mind's eye, and Thomasina is sublime every time in there.
The Hay Festival is collaborating with Beirut as the World Capital of the Book 2009 for Beirut39, a project which: "will bring together 39 of the best known and loved writers of Arab heritage under 39 years of age."
They're still early in the selection process, looking to build a longlist of 200 (!) names -- and nominations are welcome.
So if you can think of any writers worth considering -- as long as they're: under 40, of Arab heritage, and have published at least one work of fiction or poetry -- let them know.
I'm curious to see what the longlist looks like -- and especially whether it will be Arabic-writing-authors heavy, or consist mainly of diaspora writers.
You'll recall that in 2007 Hay did the same thing in creating 'Bogotá 39' (for Latin American authors); shockingly, the Hay website has purged all the pages with all the information about that from their site, but you can find the names of the 39 authors here.
The number that have had an impact in the English-speaking world is still relatively small -- Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Santiago Roncagliolo, Juan Gabriel Váquez, Jorge Volpi, and Alejandro Zambra come to mind -- but it was a useful exercise (and I expect several more from that list to eventually be published in English, too).
I recently mentioned one new book-review-aggregating site that has popped up in the UK, CultureCritic, and now another with an already impressive and rapidly expanding archive has popped up, The Omnivore -- with a particularly nice, sleek, simple design.
While I offer the review-aggregating feature too, I'm not particularly good at keeping up with the newest publications (since there are way too many of them (and not that many of them interest me ...)), so I very much welcome sites that cover all these titles.
I can't help but add, however, that the aggregating task isn't as easy as it looks.
I haven't looked too carefully, but compare, for example, the three pages on a relatively new (and still unavailable in the US) title, Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes:
CultureCritic has review quotes/links from/to 5 outside reviews.
The Omnivore has review quotes/links from/to 8 outside reviews.
The complete review's review-overview page has review summaries/quotes from 14 outside reviews, and links to 18 outside reviews.
(Both CultureCritic and The Omnivore stick to big media, too -- understandable (it's
a real pain digging up and linking to weblog and online-only book review site reviews), but also a shame, since these other resources often do provide useful commentary.
And both stick to English-language reviews -- also understandable.)
The June/July/August issue of Bookforum is now available online (all of it, admirably).
I prefer to wait for the print edition before passing judgement, but a first peek does leave me somewhat concerned, especially the imbalance between fiction and non coverage -- especially given that, for example, Marjorie Perloff's review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett is listed under 'Fiction and Poetry' ......
Strikingly, also, there's nothing here I have reviewed, and practically nothing I plan to (Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, reviewed here by Mark Greif, looks to be close to the extent of it).
James Gibbons does review a couple of African fiction titles in Clout of Africa, a not uninteresting piece undermined by the bizarre selection of books meant to suggest "that Africa may be in the midst of its own literary boom".
While it's great that he gets in Tayeb Salih's wonderful novel, he's really overreaching when he explains:
Season of Migration to the North is timely, precisely because, forty years after its publication, it comes across as an anachronism.
These works are worthy of attention, but a poor choice for making a case for an African literary boom.
I'm also more generally troubled by the reactions to The Letters of Samuel Beckett, a bandwagon Perloff jumps on as she suggests:
In literary annals, 2009 may well go down as the year that saw the publication of not this or that novel, set of poems, or "important" theory book, but, quirkily enough, the first of four promised volumes of the letters of Samuel Beckett.
As she notes, she's hardly the first to suggest this -- and she continues:
Can a writerís letters -- occasional and ephemeral as these tend to be -- really qualify as great literature ?
In Beckettís case, yes. For here is the most reticent of twentieth-century writers -- one who refused to explain his plays and fictions, wrote almost no formal literary criticism, and refused to attend his own Nobel Prize ceremony -- revealing himself in letter after letter as warm, playful, unfailingly polite even at his most vituperative and scatological, irreverent but never cynical, and, above all, a brilliant stylist whose learning is without the slightest pretension or preciosity.
I don't doubt Beckett's letters are wonderful, and I've been tempted to get a copy for myself, too, but what concerns me is this eager embrace of the personal, as yet again author trumps work and we revel in what's personally "revealing" rather than focusing on the creative work -- the fiction and plays.
Just think how much Kafka still suffers from the shadow his letters cast over him (and his work) -- great, revealing letters, yes, but ultimately really completely beside the point.
(Yes, they do shed some light on some of his work -- and yet I always find much of that light misleading, blinding in many spots, and a distraction: let the works speak for themselves and forget the authors, please !)
Here's another publication that looks like it'll be worth checking regularly: Publishing Perspectives (still in beta for now):
An international online publishing newsletter, Publishing Perspectives delivers daily opinion about the industry from top members of the global publishing community, a look at the innovators and issues who are shaping the future of the business, as well as news and links from around the Web and the world.
Ye Xin, one of China's most successful authors and the vice-president of the China Writers' Association, said on Tuesday the English-speaking world had so far had access to only a narrow slice of Chinese writing, mainly "scar literature" about survival struggles, especially during the Cultural Revolution. That was about to change, he said, with new writers "focused on their own contemporary interests and issues" bursting into print.
A single literary website, Shengda, has published online novels by 200,000 mainly young Chinese writers.
There's also the claim that:
The China Writers' Association has chosen the 100 best novels written since the Communist Party took control 60 years ago -- the year Ye was born -- and the People's Publishing House has its own list of 60.
None of them has been published in the West.
I haven't found either list, but it seems a bit unlikely that none of the works
have been translated into any Western language yet.
The super-rich Sheikh Zayed book awards are accepting nominations now through 15 September.
Lots of Arabic-literature-related categories, lots of money -- well worth looking into for anyone who has anything that might be eligible.