In Listen to all the voices of Africa , his 'The Week In Books' column this week in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin praises the Caine Prize for African Writing
-- a piece that would be praiseworthy simply for the fact that he avoids mention of and comparison to the Man Booker (the lazy-journalist tagline for the Caine Prize is that it is 'Africa's Booker' -- but it's not: it's a short story prize).
For this reason, among others, the annual Caine Prize for short stories by African writers demands louder applause with every passing year.
With a mission to promote and celebrate the best new writers from the continent, but no partisan investments, it has showcased one outstanding newcomer after another.
There's been lots of buzz about Vikram Seth planning a sequel to his bestselling A Suitable Boy, to be titled A Suitable Girl.
In The Telegraph (Calcutta) Sreyashi Dastidar has a Q&A with the author -- and it seems a bit early to get all too excited about all this:
So how is A Suitable Girl coming along? How many pages old is she?
To be honest, not much has been written, other than a few doodles here and there. Itís mainly inside my head at the moment.
Also of interest:
I prefer to call A Suitable Girl a "jump sequel" -- it will travel 60 years and two generations ahead of A Suitable Boy.
But, of course, the novel will move back and forth in time a great deal, so you will get a glimpse of the intervening years as well.
I rather enjoyed A Suitable Boy and look forward to the sequel -- though I do have my concerns after the very flat An Equal Music.
(Updated - 12 July): See now also Sheela Reddy's Q&A with Seth in Outlook India.
Like education, which is socialized, and health care, which should be, literature is a national resource that we can't afford to lose.
That's why we need to adopt a set of tax incentives that would make it easier, or even in a publisher's interest, to take chances on new and underselling authors.
And he thinks:
Publishing houses that print only small-run fiction by authors who have never achieved high sales should be afforded tax breaks on whatever revenue they do pull in.
Better yet, tax only novels that sell a certain number of copies, reducing the risk inherent in authors that may undersell.
The monolithic giants of book publishing should receive similar tax incentives for specialized imprints that publish only new or less-than-profitable authors.
Let the whole company get a break for maintaining a branch that's demonstrably about nurturing talent, not profits.
I'm all for the nurturing of talent, but tax breaks seem about the worst possible way of going about it.
Where to begin with all the ways this can/would go wrong ?
For starters, everyone is always complaining about how far too many books are being put out in the first place.
The problem is, of course, quality -- i.e. making sure it's talent that is nurtured, not simply anyone who can churn out something on their word processors --, and tax breaks surely won't do anything to insure that there's much attention paid to that.
Fisher may believe that giving the tax breaks to the publishers will make for some quality-control, but given their record as gatekeepers I seriously doubt it -- indeed, it would give them perverse incentives to publish limited-run crap.
'Underselling' is a poor criteria (and 'new' hardly any better -- not to mention 'less-than-profitable').
After all: most authors are 'underselling' -- and most of them are for good reason: their books are crap.
Just because an author is 'struggling' doesn't mean they deserve support and cash.
What counts is quality and talent -- but that is damn hard to identify.
(Also: don't 'not-for-profit' publishers (many of the finest small publishers in the US) already get obscene tax breaks ?
Yet another article that wonders: 'Why the most peaceful people on earth write the greatest homicide thrillers', as Nathaniel Rich looks at the current Scandinavian Crime Wave at Slate.
Part of the explanation:
What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility.
When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Padgett Powell's forthcoming (sorry, only in October ...) The Interrogative Mood.
Powell is always worth paying attention to, but this book will obviously get lots of attention for its unusual form: it is written entirely in questions.
And I already dread the day -- coming sooner rather than later, I'm sure -- when some wise-ass reviewer tries reviewing the thing in a review consisting entirely of questions .....
I've loved what Vertical has been doing ever since they started a couple of years ago, as they've been the leading publisher of popular Japanese fiction in translation these past few years -- books of the sort that previously weren't being translated.
Yes, a lot of schlock (and some real crap) -- but fascinating stuff nonetheless.
Sadly, for a while now they've been shifting their focus towards non-fiction.
In Publishers Weekly Calvin Reid reports on the changes, in Vertical Inc. Is Still Here, noting that:
Although Vertical Inc., a New York City publisher specializing in translations of contemporary Japanese prose literature and manga, has struggled during the economic downturn, the house has secured a new investor, hired a new marketing manager and plans to make adjustments to its list beginning in 2010.
A lot of the adjustments seem to have already been made -- but maybe things are going to get even worse (for us fiction-loving readers, that is -- not their bottom line):
Mentzas said the weak economy forced the house to reschedule some of its titles, and now Mentzas is "changing the editorial balance" of the Vertical list with plans to publish more contemporary manga titles and "increase the number of books with a visual component."
Mentzas said he will publish 30 books this year and plans to publish as many as 40 books in 2010.
About half will be manga and the rest will focus on cookbooks, crafts and puzzles -- "books you can use rather than simply read."
Dear god -- I would do anything to avoid books I can ... 'use'.
But it's understandable they're doing this; after all:
Vertical's biggest sellers, Mentzas said, are Japanese puzzles like the sudoku series and the o'ekaki series of logic games.
Vertical's biggest-selling title ever is The Cute Book by Aranzi Aronzo, one of a series of new hipster craft books by a sister duo based in Japan.
Yes, this is one of the saddest stories of a promising publisher going down the wrong path (even if one can't blame them ... too much).
It's been a while since they've put out a book that impressed me -- but that backlist is still worth checking out.
Among the works worth your while:
In The New York Observer Leon Neyfakh reports
Hugh Hefner's Playboy has acquired the first serial rights to The Original of Laura, the final, unfinished novella of the late Vladmir Nabokov.
This book doesn't really sound like it lends itself to excerpting in a magazine, but what do I know; Andrew Wylie -- agent to the Nabokov estate -- 'arranged' things -- though:
There were a few sticking points in the negotiation, chiefly the fact that Mr. Wylie wanted Ms. Loyd to give an offer on the book without first reading a page of it.
But "I knew because of Nabokovís genius, even if the manuscript was even more messy than it actually is, I would probably still be content," Ms. Loyd said.
Who would deal with a 'literary agent' who doesn't even want to let you look at a page of what you'd be publishing ?
(As I've mentioned, this is a 'business' I will never, never understand.)
Mr. Wylie had indeed sent Laura to the The New Yorker months earlier.
But as it happened, according to a source at the magazine, the fiction department was not interested.
In any case:
The plan right now is for a 5,000-word excerpt to run in Playboyís December issue, which arrives on stands on Nov. 10 -- about a week before Knopf will ship the book to stores.
They've named the winners of the biggest Botswanan literary prizes, the Bessie Head Literature Awards, and, as Gasebalwe Seretse reports at Mmegi, Women dominate Bessie Head awards.
(They're still a bit behind the times at the official site.)
Vassily Aksyonov (Василий Аксёнов) has passed away; see the brief notices at RIA Novosti and AFP.
Quite a bit of his work is available in translation -- Generations of Winter (get your copy at Amazon.com) is probably your best bet to start off with now.
I do hope the 2004 Russian Booker-winning Вольтерьянцы и вольтерьянки gets translated, too.
(Updated - 8 July): See now also Robert G. Kaiser's piece 'Remembering Russian Writer Vassily Aksyonov' in The Washington Post.
It claims to have invented its own distinctive genre, distorted reality, "where the bizarre, the unusual and the grotesque and the surreal meld in a kind of intellectual fiction which is very European".
At The Daily Beast Francesca Mari finds 'Enterprising fiction writers are marketing themselves to book groups in person, by phone, and over Skype to boost sales. Meet the new breed of literary types on the make' in The Book-Club Hustlers.
No doubt, with all the talk of authors needing to sell themselves this is all very 'admirable' -- but, god, how I wish everyone could just focus on the damn books and forget about the authors.
In The Los Angeles Times Sarah Weinman tackles one of my (many, many, many) pet peeves regarding how American publishers tackle books in translation, asking: 'Why do some publishers release some serial mysteries out of order ?' in The French detection.
As she notes:
Lately, English-language publishers have developed an unfortunate habit with crime fiction in translation: Instead of starting at the very beginning of a series -- as Pantheon did in bringing out the 10-book "Story of Crime" opus by Swedes Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo in the proper sequence -- books appear out of order, in haphazard fashion.
I actually haven't noticed that this is anything new: it seems par for the course (and Pantheon's Sjöwall/Wahlöö series the least one could expect: it's both a complete series (no chance of any new volumes being added) and a series of reprints (they've all been published before in English, many, many years ago)[Updated - 7 July I was actually thinking of the current paperback re-issues here -- when Pantheon originally published these they did not, in fact, do so sequentially, publishing the third volume (The Man on the Balcony) before the second volume (The Man Who Went Up in Smoke)]
Certainly, however, the random order of publication has been noticeable with the recent Scandinavian crime-wave -- and also in the case Sarah focuses on, that of Fred Vargas' books.
(The only one under review at the complete review is Have Mercy on Us All.)
rogueclassicism points to a forthcoming (28 June - 1 July 2010, at Swansea University) conference on: 'The Author-Translator in the European Literary Tradition' -- a fascinating subject.
Confirmed keynote speakers include Susan Bassnett, David Constantine, and Lawrence Venuti, and:
The conference seeks to reassess the importance of translation for European writers -- both well-known and less familiar -- from antiquity to the present day. It will explore why authors translate, what they translate, and how they translate, as well as the links between an authorīs translation work and his or her own writing.
It will bring together scholars in English studies and modern languages, classics and medieval studies, comparative literature and translation studies.
Given the gravity and previous treatment of Murakami's motifs, readers might imagine 1Q84 to be a slog to get through, but this is not the case, thanks to subtle humor and fresh narrative details.
Decades of Murakami's experimentation with voice and style have culminated in sophisticated but simple prose that avoids pretension (except when he mocks Japan's literary culture).
In addition, the characters' intonation, gestures and facial expressions are described with a new degree of precision.
He also suggests Jay Rubin will be doing the translation; I have not seen confirmation of this anywhere yet.
They've finally announced the winner of the Franz Kafka Prize -- best known for their recent streak of naming two authors in a row a couple of years ago who went on to win the Nobel Prize in the same year.
This year Peter Handke takes the prize; he'll get to pick it up on 26 October.
(He probably won't be getting that Nobel, however: previous Kafka Prize-winning Austrian Elfriede Jelinek beat him to it.)
They actually announced this more than a week ago -- see the CTK report at the Prague Daily Monitor, Austrian author Handke to receive 2009 Franz Kafka prize -- but need to work on their public relations: nobody seems aware they made the announcement (and I just came across it now).
The Freakonomics weblog at The New York Times has an unconvincing 'explanation' by Daniel Hamermesh on How the Market Influences What Language You Read In, as his Dutch friends tell him that: "they read foreign (non-Dutch) novels that are translated into English rather than into Dutch", despite their Dutch being better than their English.
He thinks he has a simple explanation:
If somebody translates it into Dutch, the relatively small number of Dutch-speakers means that the market for the translation will be much smaller -- and the royalties and profits smaller too -- than the market for an English translation.
These smaller returns attract translators who are not as good as those attracted into translating a book into English; the supply curve of translators is upward-sloping.
My friends say they would rather read a good translation into a language they know well, but not perfectly, than a mediocre translation into their native language.
Okay, all you translators, stop laughing already.
Come on !
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is, of course, a bad example -- it's the rare book in translation that has sold well in all markets, including that elusive English-language one.
(It's also a bad example because its sledgehammer prose could have been adequately translated by computer-program, for god's sake ... (no disrespect meant to
'Reg Keeland' ...).)
But, of course, the vast majority of translated-into-English books never sell anywhere near enough for there to be any royalties to trickle down to translators.
In fact, translators are consistently (though there are exceptions) better paid (and treated) for their labors in most of the major European languages than for translating into English.
As to quality ... the supply of (quality literary) translators is astonishingly small into all languages (and from practically all languages), and from what I can see it's, on the whole, no better into English than into many of the major European languages.
(There are all sorts of exceptions -- of exceptional (as well as truly mediocre) translators from language X to Y -- but into-English is certainly not over-supplied with the exceptional kind.)
I'm looking forward to translators' (and publishers') takes on this nonsense.
In Fiji Times Jogindar Singh Kanwal writes about the Pains and problems of the literary scene in Fiji, as:
In a small country like Fiji, writing in vernacular offers tough challenges to those who want to publish their works in Fijian and Hindi languages.
Readership is very limited. There is a narrow market if an enthusiastic young author produces a novel, a book of short stories, plays or poetry
They've been trying their darnedest to make the Sapir Prize the Israeli equivalent of the Man Booker Prize, but they keep failing miserably.
As I mentioned a few months back, many of the major Israeli authors (David Grossman, Meir Shalev, Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz) do not submit their works for consideration, which already waters things down.
Now they're having problems giving it to anyone .....
They did find a winner this year recently -- 'The House of Dajani', by Alon Hilu (see his official site) -- but now, as for example The Jerusalem Post reports, Winner of prestigious Sapir Prize forced to give it back:
Alon Hilu, winner of this year's prestigious Sapir Prize for literature, will be forced to give back the NIS 150,000 award after the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel raised concerns of a conflict of interest between him and one of the judges, former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid.
In New York Sam Anderson writes about 'Albert Camus and the pleasures of literary obsession', in Stalking the Stranger, as:
one of my all-time favorite genres is the memoir of literary obsession -- that aesthetic wreck at the intersection of biography, confession, literary criticism, travelogue, love letter, and detective story
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Georges Perec's The Machine, finally available in English translation.
Currently it's only available in the most recent issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction; I hope they eventually print it in its own little booklet too.
It's brilliant stuff.
At the admirable Romanian Observer Translation Project Jean Harris has The Experts Weigh In this month, as Norman Manea, Susan Harris (of Words Without Borders), Chad Post (of Three Percent and Open Letter), and translator Susan Bernofsky: "address a literary zone in permanent crisis: the world of literature in translation".
Well worth your while, with fun observations such as Chad Post's:
I love pointing out to my interns just how shitty and self-involved the publishing world is when it comes to understanding the market.
Thereís no such thing as market research in publishing, but if you ask an editor he/she wonít hesitate to claim that "there is no market" for certain books in translation.
And then along comes Bolano, or Muriel Barbery ... I think there is a craving for genuinely good literature.
Africa has, surprisingly, not been fertile ground for crime fiction, especially of the home-grown variety, but suddenly there seems to be a (mini-)flood of Ghanaian crime fiction coming to market: I just reviewed Nii Ayikwei Parkes' Tail of the Blue Bird, and now Kwei Quartey writes that Accra Provides Mysterious Milieu for Ghanian-American Novelist
at Publishing Perspectives, as his crime novel, Wife of the Gods, is due out shortly (get your copy at Amazon.com -- where it already has almost two-dozen reader-reviews, pre-publication).
Meanwhile, Jonathan Cape also recently published Yaba Badoe's True Murder (review forthcoming; get your copy at Amazon.co.uk) -- okay, it's set in Devon, but still ......
Promising stuff -- and it would be great to see a continetal expansion of the genre.
In their roundup of international magazine articles signandsight.com point to Frauke Meyer-Gosau's review of Aleksandar Hemon's
Lazarus and his conversation with the author in Literaturen, and translate this anecdote:
Aleksandar Hemon prefers to talk about a Lazarus reading in California to which exactly six people turned up: three friends, a Holocaust researcher from the university and two old ladies who had meant to go a cookbook presentation but were too polite to leave.
'In Germany you get introduced by a prominent critic, and all you have to do is read and answer their questions -- they personally vouch for the quality of the book and the people buy it.
In America, on the other hand, you have to do all of this alone: you have to be nice and funny and really work the crowd to get them interested in you and buy your book.
In the US it's now almost taken for granted that you have to be an entertainer in order to sell your book; I'm constantly amazed that more people (other than hapless authors), especially in the industry, don't find something shockingly wrong with that.
(What ever happened to the primacy of the written word when you're talking about books ?)
The Millions weblog has a nice round-up of Most Anticipated: Rounding Out 2009, An Epic Year for Books.
A few odds and ends of interest to me, though especially among the big publisher titles I'm wondering how many I'll be able to get my hands on -- I'm having the damndest time getting any books I request from major publishers in recent months.
(In all of June a measly total of 36 (new) review copies made it here, almost all from independent and foreign publishers, as well as a few unsolicited big house strays -- what gives ?)
You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that.
So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review.
How heartening for reviewers everywhere, to learn that authors believe a single review can kill a book .....
As if The New York Times Book Review really mattered that much .....
(When I first read the review, I didn't even think it was that bad -- has de Botton even been following the reviews of some of his recent books ?)
I haven't had an opportunity to look at the book (like anyone would bother sending it, given how little coverage there's been of his work here over the years ...), but given de Botton's super-privileged background (which I'm always surprised reviewers don't make more of -- and which Crain pretty much completely disregards) it sort of souds like he's asking for it with a book like this.
They've announced that Leviathan, or The Whale by Philip Hoare has taken the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2009.
No American edition yet, as far as I can tell, but you can get it from Amazon.co.uk.
In Time Gilbert Cruz has a Q&A with Carlos Ruiz Zafón.
He thinks the state of literary affairs is a bit healthier in Europe:
I don't think in Europe it's such a big deal.
People are talking about it, but I see much more concern in American publishing.
I think a lot of it has to do with the way books and literature are dealt with in the media.
It's very hard in the mass media in the U.S. to get exposure for books.
There's very little space, and a lot of newspapers are shrinking their space.
But if you go to Europe, you find that a lot of newspapers and TV shows and radio shows are constantly featuring writers.
It's part of people's lives. Here it seems like only serious readers are concerned about those things.
Books and literature don't seem to be part of the mainstream. Which is a shame.