There are surprisingly few best-of-the-year lists to be found in the foreign press (at least at this before-the-actual-end-of-the-year time) -- certainly nowhere near as many as in the US and UK, where this exercise is so widely practiced.
Among the few are at least some semi-useful ones -- because they list English-language titles.
These include Nilanjana S. Roy's list of "the top 50 books of 2009", Under the tome, at the (Indian) Business Standard, as well as the Final word on the year's best reading, where a number of reviewers at The Japan Times each select their top three titles.
Both are obviously locale-influenced; still I'd also love to see some truly local lists from elsewhere too .....
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of the medieval Latin Solomon and Marcolf, translated and with commentary by Jan M. Ziolkowski.
Amazingly enough, that's the first originally-written-in-Latin text reviewed at the complete review.
Advances for some literary fiction débuts have dropped to as little as £500, according to agents and publishers.
Advances of £1,000 or £2,000 are becoming increasingly common although other débuts still command good figures.
Certainly a change:
Derek Johns at A P Watt said: "It certainly used to be the case that anything below £10,000 was unacceptable" but that in some instances agents now had to consider those offers.
Not being a great fan of the advance-system (unless, of course, someone wants to offer me a huge one ...), I can sort of understand this.
But it has to be a matter of some concern, given the increasing reliance on so-called literary agents: authors might be willing to put up with tiny advances, but agents have considerably less incentive to handle titles that will only bring in so little money upfront.
An agent's cut of £500 barely covers even the smallest expenses, after all .....
(Of course, I'm no big fan of agents being in the middle of this whole business either, but that is the way it currently 'works'.)
In A book in the hand in Haaretz Ariel Hirschfeld warns that: 'With their rampaging special sales, the bookstore chains are causing the destruction of Israeli culture'.
It does sound like a suicidal business model:
Two weeks ago, the bookstore chain Tzomet Sfarim announced another "four books for NIS 100 special," in response to the "buy one, get two for free" offer by the rival chain, Steimatzky.
The owners must be positively quavering with pleasure.
They sell a million books in every such sale.
It's a fantastic retailing achievement.
What they don't understand is that, like the hordes of termites that eat the innards of a thick tree, the gorging will soon annihilate the tree itself.
And then what will they eat?
Adding to the mess: the country's largest publishing house, Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, owns the Tzomet Sfarim chain (in partnership with Modan).
The "four for 100" deal is tolling the death knell of the book market in Israel.
What executives of the chain see as a tremendous achievement ("It's expanding the culture of reading in Israel!" declared the chain's top marketing executive, Tal Plosker, to the financial newspaper Kalkalist on December 7), is a new nadir in the deterioration the Israeli bookstore chains have inflicted on the local world of books.
The Modern Language Association's annual forecast on job listings, being released today, predicts that positions in English language and literature will drop 35 percent from last year, while positions in languages other than English are expected to fall 39 percent this year.
Given that both categories saw decreases last year, the two-year decline in available positions is 51 percent in English and 55 percent in foreign languages.
This can't be good for the literary world, given the number of critics, translators, etc. who rely on academic jobs (or would like to ...).
The Guardian had a good idea when they asked a few literary folk to suggest what were The decade's best unread books, but given that among the answers were Don Quixote (granted, a specific translation, but still ...) and a Sunday Times bestseller the results were not quite as interesting as I would have hoped for.
(What do I consider the best unread books of the decade ?
Among those first translated into English in that span (even if they were written earlier), Irmtraud Morgner's The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura is probably the title I'd settle on.
(Has anyone -- at least anyone who hadn't heard about this book from this site -- read the English translation ?)
Among books written during the decade ... I'd probably give the nod to Jean Echenoz's Piano; that seems to have gotten a few more readers, but also remains woefully underappreciated.
(It's great that they're supporting Arabic literature in this way, but for all the cash they're throwing around they could really pay a bit more attention to the official site and keep it vaguely up to date: no one wants to read Keep visiting the IPAF website for the latest news about the 2008/2009 Prize when they're already on the 2010 prize (but the most recent information is, indeed, only about last year's prize; neither the longlist nor now the shortlist for this year's prize was accessible; that's unacceptable).)
Bolaño was a strange combination of a fierce ironist, a technical virtuoso, and a hopeless romantic; the result is an engaging, complex perspective and voice that that I can't easily find a parallel for among English-language critics.
She also suggests:
I don't think that Americans have a basic indifference to world literature.
I think they have a basic indifference to literature, period.
And that's not so different from what I've witnessed among people in Chile, Mexico, or Spain.
Serious readers -- the kind of people who prefer reading a book like 2666 to the kind of pabulum that's generated to be consumed primarily on airplanes -- have always been few on the ground.
And I don't see that changing anytime soon. To the extent that it does, it may change precisely because publishers and critics get better at luring general audiences to the hard stuff through narrative and persuasion, in hopes that they'll get addicted to the special highs that only great literature can provide.
An interesting piece in The Guardian, where Andrew Dickson wonders: "With so much new work in circulation, how do script departments forge strong relationships with writers, to help them produce their best work? And how do they handle plays that don't make the grade?": The slush stops here.
It begins with the somewhat surprising observation:
What's Britain's biggest growth industry?
According to a recent report by Arts Council England, the amount of new writing produced by mainstream, subsidised theatre has more than doubled in the last six years.
The Arts Council report, Writ large: new writing on the English stage 2003–2009, can be found here (in your choice -- ughh -- of either pdf or 'Word').
Interesting reading -- but note that it is an Arts Council report and that obviously they're pleased (and presumably were also determined ...) to find that pumping so much money into theater (and theaters) pays off in some measurable way .....
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of David Toscana's The Last Reader.
A pleasant surprise -- though more of a surprise than I care for: Toscana isn't unknown hereabouts (several of his books have been translated into English), but I heard nothing about this becoming available in English and just happened to chance upon it.
(Chad Post did mention it at Three Percent when it was due out a few weeks back (and PW did review it (scroll down)), but otherwise this seems to have gotten practically no attention so far -- and it certainly deserves at least some .....)
Open Letter has just come out with their new translation of the classic, The Golden Calf, by Ilf and Petrov -- see my review --
but it turns out they're not the only ones with a new translation: Russian Information Services have also just brought one out -- as The Little Golden Calf -- by Anne O. Fisher; see their publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.com.
I haven't seen it, and I don't have the time/patience to compare translations and editions (though I like the sound of those heavy annotations ...), but I figure it's a book that you're unlikely to go wrong with .....
Today, there are only handful of major agents working here, each with a very different style.
Not being a great fan of middle(wo)men in any capacity, I'm none too thrilled -- but three cheers for the likes of Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens:
With the exception of a few editors such as Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, director of Editions POL, who has publicly said that he will not consider a manuscript that has been submitted by an agent, most editors are grudgingly coming around to the fact that agents are here to stay.
Petty as I am, I did particularly enjoy one part of this piece, where Laure Pécher is quoted:
There is a risk, she adds, that the small number of agents in France means that French authors may turn to using British or American agents, much like French President Nicolas Sarkozy has done by using Andrew Wiley as his agent.
Yes, despite all his notoriety they manage to spell the much-reviled über-agent's name wrong .....
With a few months still until Scarlett Thomas' next novel is out I'm biding my time with her Lily Pascale-series, and so the most recent
addition to the complete review is my review of her Dead Clever.
'Tis the season, and faced with so many lists of best/favorite/recommended books even I grow retrospective.
Yet aside from the fact that the year isn't over yet (i.e. there's still hope, of finding that great, overlooked book), I'm finding it difficult to come up with a plain top ten (or three, or whatever), or even any sort of sensible list of recommendations.
All those caveats and complications ... but, anyway: here's my best shot:
Not entirely unsurprisingly, several of my favorite books have not (yet) been translated into English, notably:
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, which was fairly clearly the best novel I read this year
Meine Preise by Thomas Bernhard -- his prize acceptance-speeches, which fortunately will soon be available in English
(Also worth a mention: The Discoverer, by Jan Kjærstad -- the final volume in his Wergeland-trilogy, and my favorite of the lot; I read and reviewed it back in 2005, but it finally came out in English (and, this year, finally came out in a US edition ...); Tom Shone's ridiculous review in The New York Times Book Review shouldn't put readers off this great series.
And, speaking of parts of trilogies, there's also Peter Pišt'anek's Rivers of Babylon-trilogy: volumes two (The Wooden Village) and three (The End of Freddy) came out in English in 2008 but I only got around to them this year, and they were also among the year's highlights.)
One of the other clear stand-outs of the year was Georges Perec's The Machine -- not published as a separate book, but rather in a Georges Perec-issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction.
A few novels stood out specifically for the tone the writers adopted, and these were among the best I read this year, specifically:
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (another Jessa/NPR pick -- allowing me to almost overlook the fact that she also endorses Jorge Volpi's Season of Ash -- a book the NYTBR (Tom Bissell) had a better handle on)
There are any number of books that impressed me that haven't gotten the attention they deserve, including:
Op Oloop by Juan Filloy -- the first of his novels to be translated into English, and I'm desperately hoping there will be more
My Bird by Fariba Vafi, an unexpected piece of contemporary Iranian fiction
The obviously worst best book of the year was actually a twofer-- two bad books in one ! -- the brilliant edition of Douglas Hofstadter's translation of Françoise Sagan's That Mad Ache, coupled with his essay on that translation, Translator, Trader (yet another book which also hasn't gotten the attention it deserves).
Finally, as always, for the most part non-fiction made less of an impression, but among the noteworthy titles of the year were:
Not that there wasn't a good deal else of note and worth -- a couple of Bolaños, the new Pynchon, the new Byatt, and a good deal else (especially additional titles from Dalkey Archive Press, Open Letter, and similarly inclined independents) -- but this probably covers most of the cream of the crop.
(Time will tell, of course; it's far too soon to be making such lists .....)
I also have quite a few to-read books that I suspect are similarly praise-worthy (the final volume of the Marías trilogy ? the García Márquez biography ?).
And then there are the books I haven't gotten my hands on yet, such as the new Pamuk .....
The Czech Republic has its own JT LeRoy, as the veneer of 'authenticity' apparently needed to make a book successful again proves to be thinner than it first seemed: earlier this year Vietnamese teenager Lan Pham Thi won a prestigious literary prize for her novel, Bílej kůň, žlutej drak ('The White Horse, the Yellow Dragon'), describing the life of the Vietnamese minority in the Czech Republic.
Now it turns out there is no 'Lan Pham Thi', and that the book was actually written (and the stunt orchestrated) by one Jan Cempirek.
Tuoi Tre has a good overview of The literary scandal that rocked the Czech Republic in VietNamNet Bridge, and see also Awarded Czech novel not written by ethnic Vietnamese in The Prague Monitor -- where they report:
Student Thu Ha Nguyen, member of the Viet-Czech Friends group, said she and her friends discussed the book a lot and that they were proud of the author.
She said was well written and correctly described the problems between the majority society and ethnic Vietnamese.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse -- one of the rare works of translated fiction that has made it to number one on The New York Times' bestseller list.
Random House has sent a letter to literary agents claiming the digital rights to books it published before the emergence of a thriving electronic-book marketplace.
In the letter, dated Dec. 11, Markus Dohle, CEO of the Bertelsmann AG publishing arm, writes that the "vast majority of our backlist contracts grant us the exclusive right to publish books in electronic formats."
Mr. Dohle writes that many of the older agreements "often give the exclusive right to publish 'in book form' or 'in any and all editions.' "
So it makes you wonder why they now use language that explicitly covers 'e-books' and similar variations in their contracts.
It seems obvious to me that they missed the boat on this one: they should simply have claimed and enforced e-book rights when the possibility of selling books in this format first came up, relying on the existing contracts (and placing the burden on authors/agents to prove otherwise).
By not setting a precedent -- and by then foolishly changing the language of the contracts to explicitly include e-books -- they pretty much conceded that e-rights (etc.) are of a different category, not previously covered.
It'll take the courts to resolve this, but even here the precedent goes against Random House et al.; presumably it's worth the longshot try for the publishers .....
(Updated): See now also Dohle's letter (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) -- with the wonderfully contorted 'legal' argument on the second page --, helpfully posted at Mediabistro.
(I hope that this was just the model-letter, and that the ones sent out were personalized, i.e. not all simply addressed to: 'Dear Agent' .....)
A total of 29 literatus have won manuscript awards in Myanmar extended by the Sarpay Beikman (Literature House) for 2008, an announcement of the Sarpay Beikman Manuscript Awards Scrutinizing Committee said on Saturday.
I don't know of too many other places where they honor 'literatus' -- and they sure take their time about it (2008 awards ?!?).
And how many other literary prizes are awarded by a 'Scrutinizing Committee' ?
Among the 12 genres, there was no winners in the manuscript award in political literary and translation genres, the report said
After being bogged down for over a decade, the Saudi Literary Conference has come back to life stronger and enjoying more appreciation and recognition with the patronage of King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
They haven't had great success in following up on the previous ones:
The conference has come to reinvigorate the life of this conference which first started in 1974 at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah and then in 1998 at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah.
Only two conferences on Saudi literature in 35 years.
This third conference, however, will be the real start of more organized and recognized literary movement in Saudi Arabia, critics say.
I'll believe it when I see it, but they are, apparently, holding this conference 14 to 17 December.
Besides the lecture series "In Translation", the CTS will convene a yearly international translation studies conference.
It will also hold theoretical, historical and practical thematic workshops and seminars for researchers, students, faculty members and professional translators.
Another programme, "Translators in Residence", will be held each semester and will host distinguished translation theorists and practitioners who will have a teaching role in the theoretical seminars and practical workshops.
There will also be an annual bilingual journal, In Translation, to announce the best student in translation, review translations in the market, and suggest works for translation and interview translators and publishers.
In the Wall Street Journal Paul Sonne reports on the recent success independent publishers (especially Canongate, and also Faber) have had in the UK:
Canongate isn't the only British independent publisher recording revenue growth amid the recession.
Atlantic Books' revenue more than doubled from a year earlier in the 24 weeks that ended June 13, thanks largely to Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, while Quercus reported 49% growth, and Faber and Faber notched a 48% revenue jump.
Meanwhile, big commercial houses like Bloomsbury, Random House and Harper Collins posted double-digit percentage declines in U.K. revenues over the same period, the trade magazine The Bookseller reported.
One reason the British indies are shining is that they have scale on their side.
Whereas big houses rely on recently disrupted supermarket sales for as much as 35% or 40% of their business, even the most mainstream U.K. independents like Faber count on supermarket retailing for less than 10% of sales, Mr. Atkinson said.
(Faber sells more than half its books at commercial and independent book shops and about 20% online).
Quite a few outlets have been reporting that, as the BBC has it in their piece, Rare words 'author's fingerprint': "Analyses of classic authors' works provide a way to "linguistically fingerprint" them, researchers say."
See also, for example, Physicists develop formula to calculate 'literary footprint' by Richard Alleyne in The Telegraph.
Of course, in cases like this it's best to go to the source, so I refer you to the article these articles refer to, Sebastian Bernhardsson, Luis Enrique Correa da Rocha, and Petter Minnhagen's piece in the New Journal of Physics,
The meta book and size-dependent properties of written language.
I'm going to have to take a look at this more closely (not that I'm sure I can make heads or tails of it anyway), but I do note that they rely on the work of only three authors, which seems rather few (and they're all authors of a bygone era -- would this also hold up for contemporary writers ?).