"For me, the essential component of fiction is plot.
My objective is to get the reader to feel impelled to turn the pages as quickly as possible.
If I want to achieve that, I can't allow myself the luxury of distracting him.
I have to keep him hanging on and the only way to do it is by using the weapons of suspense. There is no other way.
"If I try to understand the complexities of the human soul, people's character defects and those types of things, the reader gets distracted."
Having read two Grisham titles and picked up a few others I can acknowledge that he has been successful in his ambitions: rarely have I been impelled to turn pages more quickly -- just to get to the end of the damn things.
(On the other hand, I have also gotten distracted -- by thoughts like: how does crap like this get published ?)
In Aspiring writers from India in The Guardian Anita Desai contrasts the situation there in the 1950s and 60s ("when it was an act of solitary confinement and the actual existence of writers was no more than a rumour spread by their books") with the post-Midnight's Children boom.
But there's still a sense of nostalgia for the bad old days, where:
In this distinctly discouraging atmosphere, one could only withdraw to write without any hope of there being publishers who might want to publish what one wrote, still less of readers who might wish to read it
In the 'My hero'-column in The Guardian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie profiles Muhtar Bakare, founder of Farafina magazine and the Kachifo publishing/bookselling company.
Today, Farafina is Nigeria's leading independent publisher.
It is still struggling -- perhaps the greatest setback is the lack of distribution networks -- but because of Bakare's vision, writers are energised and Nigerians are beginning to see literature as viable again.
The current issue of the New Scientist is a 'Sci-fi special issue' (well worth a look), and among the articles is Kim Stanley Robinson's in praise of contemporary British science fiction, The stories of now.
He goes so far as to say about it that:
The result is the best British literature of our time.
Oh, I know there is a Booker prize, I've heard of it even in California -- supposedly given to the best fiction published in the Commonwealth every year -- but there are no Woolves on those juries, and so they judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels.
Thus it seems to me that three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn't read.
"There has always been a debate about whether the prize is sufficiently sensitive to all the forms of contemporary writing.
He may well have a point," he said. "We judge books that are submitted.
The fact is that the science fiction component this year was very, very thin.
If it is the best contemporary fiction in this country then most publishers haven't yet tumbled to the fact."
The problem with the Man Booker Prize (as I've been complaining about for years) is its ultra-restrictive submissions policy: two titles per publisher, with only a few other ways for books to be taken into consideration.
Hence the absurdly low number (roundabout one hundred) titles that are even in the running in any given year -- and, of course, publishers are unlikely to waste one of their guaranteed spots on some piece of sci-fi.
(Ian Rankin always moans about how little respect the mystery/thriller genre gets from the Man Booker judges -- but how much respect has he gotten from his publishers (i.e. does he honestly believe they've ever submitted one of his titles for the prize) ?)
It's been tremendously successful, but it doesn't sound like it would be high on my list of books to be translated from the Korean: in The Korea Times Chung Ah-young reports that Million-Selling Novel Eyes Global Market, as:
Take Care of My Mom, by celebrated author Shin Kyung-sook, which recently set a record by selling one million copies in the shortest period ever, is receiving global attention.
A million is a lot of copies -- but such success unfortunately breeds imitators:
The book was first published by Changbi Publisher in November last year and has created a "mother syndrome" in the local publishing industry, which quickly produced other literary works with a similar theme to capitalize on the popularity.
At PBS's Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly there are transcripts of a profile/interview with Marilynne Robinson, as well as an extended interview.
Obviously, given the venue, heavy on the religion-talk, but of some interest.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Liz Jensen's The Rapture.
(Not that it's particularly noteworthy, but it's curious how little US review attention this title has gotten.)
The first issue of Belletrista, "a nonprofit, bi-monthly magazine celebrating the wonderfully varied literary work from women writers around the world", is now available, and it's a promising debut.
A good number of reviews -- and I like the New & Notable feature (click on the different regions for new and notable titles from each).
Two more of the big French literary prizes have announced their first longlists, and Prix-Litteraires: Le blog has the coverage.
The Prix Goncourt longlist surprises me with
Justine Lévy's Mauvaise Fille (sounds like a real stretch for her ... (see, for example, the complete review review of her Nothing Serious)) making the cut -- but they're also the first to give a nod to Jean-Philippe Toussaint's La Vérité sur Marie .....
(Toussaint's Running Away is due out in English in November.)
Meanwhile, David Foenkinos' La délicatesse (get your copy at Amazon.fr) is the only title to go four-for-four on the longlists so far, and thus looks like a safe bet to at least take one of these.
(Telegram brought out his The Erotic Potential of My Wife but it doesn't seem to have attracted much attention (and I haven't seen a copy); see also their publicity page, or get your copy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.)
The Prix Femina longlist is the first to toss Lydie Salvayre's BW into the mix -- and the Femina also has a foreign title longlist, which is always interesting to see (i.e. suggesting what foreign titles are attracting notice in France).
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Ornela Vorpsi's The Country Where No One Ever Dies, which picked up a couple of Italian literary prizes (but, I suspect, won't win any US or UK ones ...).
(Vorpsi grew up in Albania -- that's the country of the title --, writes in Italian, and lives in France.)
The authors on Obama's list -- from a police world chronicler to a polemical essayist -- shared a common feature that a few days later would raise a troubling issue: they are all American, and as is usually the case, they all write in English, the dominant language of expression in their multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country.
(He does not, however, note that as American president Obama is essentially prohibited -- by public opinion -- from reading foreign books, because he'd immediately be tarred as a French-pastry-puff-loving Nazi Commie and worse.
And god forbid he'd admit to watching a sub-titled movie.)
But Padura has a point that the situation has gotten out of hand:
What might have sharpened the significance of this common thread in Obama's reading was a fact that I came across few days later: a certain US university was offering a four-month residence to Latin American authors who were living in their country of origin but fulfilled one inexcusable criterion: they would have to write in English.
Note: The requirement was not the ability to write in English but rather that they wrote (meaning, had written) their works in English.
So he concludes:
Obama's reading material clearly reflects the dominant tendency of his culture, which is given to satisfying its literary appetites with products from its own orchard, so to speak, with little attempt to try the varieties grown by its neighbors, which exist, write, and of course speak in other languages.
Alas, too often 'tis too true .....
(Padura also can't help rubbing in that: "The first thing I did after registering these two news items was to make a list of the last books I had read" -- which included: Roberto Bolaño's 2666, Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness, and Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate.
What a show-off.)
Note also that Padura's new Trotsky-inspired novel, El hombre que amaba a los perros, has just come out: see the Editores Tusquets publicity page, or pre-order your (Spanish) copy at Amazon.com.
I look forward to it.
Much-linked-to, former Random House Senior Vice President and Executive Editor-in-Chief
Daniel Menaker's look at the state of the publishing industry at the B&N Review, Redactor Agonistes, makes for painful reading.
Among the sad observations:
Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors.
And it should be -- at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be.
When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public.
I think I understand what he means, but I'm not sure I agree.
Given the rate of failure in the business he acknowledges, "trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like" looks like a pretty hopeless ambition anyway -- so why not give literary discernment a try ?
(I know, I know: it'd be a completely novel approach in the American publishing industry -- but surely it's worth a shot .....)
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Fariba Vafi's My Bird.
Syracuse University Press is to be commended for bringing out this bestselling and prize-winning little novel first published in Iran in 2002, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.
Usually I try to ignore the surrounding circumstances in which a book was written, published, and received, but in this case it's worth focusing on them.
Here is a book that is not programmatic -- i.e. is anything but a mullah-supporting socio-religio-realistic work --, but conveys a sense of normalcy that is entirely absent in Western discussions of Iran.
I understand the value of regime-critical novels such as Shahriar Mandanipour's recent Censoring an Iranian Love Story -- and I endorse the criticism.
But Vafi's book -- a book that, unlike Mandanipour's, circulates widely in Iran itself and thus is part of the everyday conversation there (well, among those who read this sort of thing) -- sheds a light on Iranian life that most outside it remain oblivious of.
(It's a pretty good book even aside from that.)
Farzaneh Milani's Foreword notes the success of Iranian women writers since the Iranian revolution; while writers such as Zoya Pirzad
and Fattaneh Haj Seyed Javadi are under review at the complete review English translations of their work are, disappointingly, not yet available (though Pirzad has had considerable success in France).
I capitulate to the Dan Brown / The Lost Symbol juggernaut -- and so does most of the rest of the literary world, as there appears to be very little else that one could possibly report on today.
At least I can enjoy the fact that the silly 'embargo' was broken (embargoes are by definition silly, and I encourage everyone to break and undermine them by any means) and reviews are now already available.
In The New York Times Janet Maslin doesn't pan it (why couldn't they let the Kakutani at it ?), though she does observe:
Also, the author uses so many italics that even brilliant experts wind up sounding like teenage girls. And Mr. Brown would face an interesting creative challenge if the phrases "What the hell ...?," "Who the hell ... ?" and "Why the hell ... ?" were made unavailable to him. The surprises here are so fast and furious that those phrases get quite the workout.
Meanwhile, Nick Owchar reviews it in The Los Angeles Times, and is also quite enthusiastic -- though he notes:
Brown's narrative moves rapidly, except for those clunky moments when people sound like encyclopedias (...). But no one reads Brown for style, right?
Call it Brownian motion: a comet-tail ride of short paragraphs, short chapters, beautifully spaced reveals and, in the case of The Lost Symbol, a socko unveiling of the killer's true identity.
In the UK The Times appears to be the first one to get in the act, with Andrew Collins' review.
Brown writes genre fiction -- hence the literary snobbery ranged against him -- but his Langdon thrillers are laced with art-history as well as political and theological fact, making their dismissal as junk both patronising and misleading. If anything, The Lost Symbol is too heavy on the footnotes.
But he concludes:
Since the hype was begun by fans and merely stage-managed by Random House, we have only ourselves to blame if the latest reconfiguration of a proven formula doesn’t quite live up to anticipation.
Meanwhile, in The Telegraph Jeremy Jehu expresses disappointment in his short review, noting:
So the narrative is still lumpen, witless, adjectivally-promiscuous and addicted to using italics to convey excitement where more adept thriller writers generally prefer to use words
The two writers travelled to Frankfurt although their invitations to the symposium had been revoked after criticism from Beijing.
When Bei Ling and Dai Qing on Saturday addressed the symposium, the official Chinese delegation left the room in protest.
I'm not big on Schadenfreude, but I have to admit, I'm loving this .....
What I love less -- though
I should hardly be surprised by -- is that:
The delegation returned only after an apology from Juergen Boos, organizer of the book fair.
Yes, even after he had already handed his over gift-wrapped on a platter, Boos was wiling to get down on his hands and knees and kowtow even further (rather than finally stand up for some principles ...).
So, pre-book fair, what we have is a situation that has pretty much devolved into farce.
Boos -- who doesn't seem to have anything resembling a backbone in his body -- has demonstrated that everything will be done so that the Chinese get their way, regardless of how unreasonable it is.
(Pretty much the only way they can salvage this now is if they spring the Dalai Lama on the Chinese in the middle of the fair -- but under Boos' 'leadership' they'll probably be 'escorting' out anyone who even mentions the Dalai Lama's name during fair-time .....)
(Updated - 14 September): See now also Hannah Johnson's more detailed report, Dissidents and Officials Face Off at Frankfurt Book Fair's China Symposium, at Publishing Perspectives, which suggests things worked out reasonably well in the end.
So: was it all a case of harmless bureaucratic confusion and ineptness or one of unwarranted deference ?
I still think the latter -- and note that the German press has fairly uniformly been savaging Boos and the Book Fair organizers at far greater length than I have (though it's clear that pretty much no one is willing to give the Chinese authorities the least benefit of any doubt).
Note also that Boos keeps making statements at the official site, but manages to avoid clearing up much of exactly what happened.
And his admission that: "At the request of the Guest of Honour China organisation committee, Dai Qing and Bei Ling were stricken from the list of participants" is pretty much all that's needed to damn him.
That sure sounds like an uninvitation to me -- and while it's great that the authors were able to appear in some capacity at the event, their on-the-record comments as things proceeded suggest a hell of a lot of stumbling blocks were strewn in their path on the way (i.e. everything was being done to keep them out of town and off stage).
Statistics from the book industry show clearly (unless the facts at our publishers' warehouses are doctored) any book that is not based on exams is left to gather dust at booksellers' halls.
With a group of others, in various places at various times, we chose not to keep whining about lack of a reading culture and do something about it.
A major problem why we do read general books is that our exams pre-occupy us with parrot-like rehearsals.
The second problem has been that there was lack of continuity in the publishing of creative works.
On the 22nd of August, seven Swedish writers undertook the task of defining the essential terms of Swedish fiction for the near future in a piece entitled 'Manifesto for a New Literary Decade.'
Primarily, the piece bemoaned the way in which 'pure' or 'realistic' storytelling (a not unproblematic categorisation) had been eclipsed in recent years by other popular forms such as the 'deckare' (or crime/mystery novel), and urged a return to the conventions of honest old-fashioned Swedish storytelling found in works by authors such as Selma Lagerlöf, Kerstin Ekman, Pär Lagerkvist and Vilhelm Moberg.
Within days a second, opposing manifesto entitled 'Manifesto for an Unlawful Literature' was published by thirty-two other Swedish authors, rebuking the tenets of the first and insisting that 'renodling' or 'pure' cultivation produces nothing more than undernourished soil (the impact of the original Swedish phrasing loses something in translation).
Here, the authors fervently insisted that the coming century should be that of the 'boundless, expansive millennium of fiction' and advocated the ideas of 'cross-pollination', 'borrowing', 'experimentation' and 'self-reflection' in writing.
As Webb notes, maybe everyone would better off if they just got on with it (writing fiction, that is).
Or maybe not.
At Pambazuka News Dobrota Pucherova reviews Chielo Zona Eze's forthcoming The Trial of Robert Mugabe (see also the Okri Books publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.com).
It sounds fairly interesting:
The narrative frame is the trial of the 85-year-old dictator, who is facing God's justice on the Last Judgment Day.
On the divine jury are no other than Yvonne Vera (1964-2005), whose attempts at healing the wounds of Zimbabwean history through exposing its taboos gained her international recognition; Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987), the enfant terrible of Zimbabwean writing who had predicted the country's destiny with a Cassandra accuracy; Steve Biko (1946-1977), the martyr of the South African apartheid; and Chief Justice Olaudah Equiano, the 18th century Igbo writer and slave abolitionist.
Pucherova isn't entirely won over:
The Trial of Robert Mugabe falls short of both Vera's lyricism and Marechera's subversive wit, falling rather too easily to sentimentality that dampens the narrative's poignancy.
Philippe Claudel's Brodeck (published as Brodeck's Report in the UK) is now available in the US, and
a few weeks back I mentioned (see end of post) the confusion that has arisen because of the fact that his first novel to be translated, Les âmes grises, was translated twice into English -- and published as Grey Souls in the UK in 2005 and as By a Slow River in the US in 2006:
ridiculously the US edition of Brodeck lists books: 'Also by Philippe Claudel Published in English' at the front of the book -- and lists both (!) By a Slow River and Grey Souls (i.e. the same book under both the US and UK title).
Sadly this then leads reviewers to make statements claiming of Brodeck: "This is the third of Claudel's novels to be translated into English" .....
(Sorry, it's only the second, as even the most basic research would reveal .....))
Unfortunately, the confusion continues, and in Caryn James' review of Brodeck in tomorrow's issue of The New York Times Book Review she writes:
Although Claudel had long been respected as a novelist in France, only two of his previous books, "By a Slow River" and "Grey Souls," had been translated into English.
Sorry: it was/is just the one book .....
(To their credit, The New York Times Book Review responded very quickly when I alerted them to this mistake, and a correction is apparently forthcoming.)
Ah, the problems that arise when US and UK publishers can't agree on one title.
But at least Brodeck and Brodeck's Report
are close enough that reviewers of his next book to be translated presumably won't start claiming four of his novels have been previously translated .....
(Updated - 21 September): The NYTBR has been taking its sweet time with posting a correction -- i.e. they haven't yet, ten days after I alerted them to it .....
(Updated - 27 September): And finally, the correction has been published.
China is the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair next month, and things are off to a disastrous beginning, as a pre-fair symposium -- on "China and the world - perception and reality" ! -- has shown the true colors of both the Chinese government (and let's face it, it's the government that counts, not the writers ... even at a book fair), who decided to flex their muscles just to see what they could get away with, and the Frankfurt organizers, who shamefully buckled and bowed and gave way, as Frankfurt Book Fair revokes invitations to dissident Chinese writers:
The symposium planned in Frankfurt this weekend, entitled "China and the world - perception and reality," was initially intended to clear up misconceptions about the guest country -- China -- ahead of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, which begins in mid-October.
However, Beijing's refusal to let several prominent dissident authors participate in the event has put a damper on hopes that China was interested in an open exchange of thought.
An open exchange of thought ... there's a concept.
But it was enough that:
Beijing threatened the organizers of the symposium that it would withdraw its participation in the two-day event, should the dissidents attend.
Instead of saying: good riddance:
The director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Juergen Boos, defended the move to revoke invitations the dissident authors as a compromise.
In the past few days, the debate in the German press has been about whether the Frankfurt Book Fair allowed itself to be pressured by its Guest of Honour China regarding the participant list of the symposium.
The Frankfurt Book Fair will not allow itself to be pressured by anyone and, as a part of the German and international publishing industry, stands for freedom of speech, of expression and of the press throughout the world.
Sorry, but if you claim you won't "be pressured by anyone" and that you stand: "for freedom of speech, of expression and of the press throughout the world" you can't be acting like this.
But, with an apparently straight face, Boos maintains:
In the case of the symposium, we decided, under difficult circumstances and after consulting with the co-operation partners, to allow the conversation to go forward and not to cancel the event.
Shame, shame, shame.
But at least: after this who needs a symposium on perception and reality any longer: this makes all the points that need be made better than any 'dissidents' could have.
(Updated - 13 September): See now my comments on the next sad chapter in this mess.
The Education Ministry said Wednesday that excerpts of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, published in 1973, are to be required reading for students.
Unfortunately, I fear the operative word is 'excerpts': while admittedly the massive, multi-volume whole is too much to expect of anyone, surely the sheer scale of the damn thing is a big part of the punch it packs.
Whereas excerpts .....
Ah, yes, the French prize season has started, too, with the first round selections (longlists) of the Médicis and now the prix Renaudot announced.
As every year, I commend the comprehensive coverage at Prix-Litteraires: Le blog (and wish someone would do the same for the English-language prizes ...).
Among the useful features which I believe are new this year: a 'Calendrier Prix d'automne 2009', with all the dates (so that you know, for example, to expect the first round selections for the Goncourt on the 15th), and the chart of Statistiques sur les sélections -- which lets you quickly see which were the most-nominated books, and how long they were in the running.