Amazingly, Shashi Tharoor is probably best-known in the US for his writing work; he's a mediocre writer (check out, for example, The Great Indian Novel (though be warned: it's not) at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk), but he has had a perfectly respectable career as one of the UN's Under-Secretaries General -- and he was a viable candidate for the top job, last time round.
When that didn't work out he got himself elected to the Indian parliament (representing Thiruvananthapuram) -- and quickly got himself a portfolio he seems to have been well-suited for, Minister of State for External Affairs
That didn't really work out well, though: he recently had to resign his ministerial position, in the wake of a scandal involving his meddling with new investment in the Indian Premier League (IPL); yes, ironically he was caught out being involved in this new (and very remunerative) "Twenty20"-league -- which bears about as much resemblance to real cricket as Tharoor's writing does to real fiction.
(Is that too unkind ?
No, really, his time is better spent at diplomacy than putting pen to paper.
He is (or was ...) very present on Twitter (here) -- with over 700,000 'followers' -- and quite a bit of the scandal unfolded via Twitter.
For coverage of the still-unfolding story (with more to come today, as he gets to address parliament, as resigning ministers are allowed to do, even in disgrace), see, for example:
The new -- May/June -- issue of World Literature Today is now available, and parts are available online.
I'm very pleased to see it's devoted to 'International Science Fiction', and look forward to having a closer look.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of An Epic Search for Truth, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou's Logicomix.
I was very much looking forward to this and finally got my hands on a copy (from the local library ...); unfortunately it did not live up to expectations (or the glowing reviews).
I still don't get this whole graphic novel/comic book enthusiasm (or rather the taking-seriously of these).
Yes, I have to admit, I can barely stop myself from chortling.
Many, many years ago I briefly figured on the periphery of an earlier round of Polonsky v. Figes, a dust-up that ended with the lawyers being called in; it's the only time this site has received a proper threatening letter from bona fide lawyers (yes, the occasional reader threatens to sue, but they're all delusional; Figes' men were dead serious).
So given what's happened, I can barely contain my Schadenfreude.
(I like to think that I'm not all that petty, so you have to realize that it takes quite a bit for me to revel in another's humiliation to this extent -- i.e. here's someone who I think really, really deserves it.)
As widely reported, Rachel Polonsky noted that an anonymous Amazon reviewer wrote a dismissive review of her recent book (Molotov's Magic Lantern; get your copy at Amazon.co.uk) and of other titles that could be seen to be in some sort of competition with titles by the venerable professor (yes, this guy is apparently allowed to shape impressionable minds somewhere) Orlando Figes.
Figes himself vehemently (and apparently accurately) denied being behind the reviews -- but, as, for example, Caroline Davies reports in The Guardian, in The professor, his wife, and the secret, savage book reviews on Amazon:
"My client's wife wrote the reviews," said Price in a statement issued on behalf of Figes.
"My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear."
Last night, there was no further comment from Figes, and calls to the other figures involved in this unprecedented and remarkable row were not returned.
(Sorry, I can't keep myself from giggling .....)
Right: so Figes' wife has been supporting her man by undermining the competition.
Ah, what wonderful pettiness !
And all under the cover of anonymity !
Though, having been alerted to the problem, Amazon had by now removed the offending reviews, Service continued:
"How to expunge the practice and expose the practitioners of malign electronic denunication in countries of free expression is, I think, a matter for debate."
He attached scanned pages from the Amazon site.
Amazon leaves one-star reviews up that complain about e-book pricing but takes these down ?
I'm very disappointed.
Sure, it's very bad form to post such reviews without acknowledging one's ulterior motive, but surely Amazon-shoppers know that all the reviews are to be taken -- at the very least -- cum grano salis.
(What shocks me is the idea that anyone would take an Amazon review seriously in the first place ....
And from what I've seen of the excerpts of the Figes-wife's 'reviews' ... come on, they're a joke.)
In The Independent Philip Hensher argues that Anonymity protects too many critics, but I think that this case in fact makes for a strong case for anonymity.
As Hensher reports:
Threatening letters from Mr Figes's lawyers winged out, including to a friend of mine who had commented on events in her Facebook profile.
Figes doesn't seem to know how to engage in any sort of debate, and instead apparently immediately sicks the legal-hounds on any- and everyone, an over-reaction that stifles any sort of constructive (or other) conversation (which is why I'd suggest it's best just to ignore everything he says and writes).
Arguably, anonymous attacks are the only way of putting someone like him -- whom it's difficult (for me) to think of as anything but a bully -- in his place.
(And the abuse of anonymity, as apparently practiced by his wife, doesn't strike me as particularly problematic either.
It's Amazon, for god's sake .....)
Tellingly, too, it took recourse to lawyers for Polonsky to get at the truth: as Alastair Jamieson reports in Leading academics in bitter row over anonymous 'poison' book reviews in The Telegraph:
On Friday he [Figes] forwarded emails from Amazon that appeared to show he had no connection to the offending profiles, but Dr Polonsky was not satisfied and employed law firm Carter Ruck who said it might seek a court order to establish the true identity of the poster using computer records.
At least the lawyers are earning good money .....
And, yes, I'm still laughing.
On Friday, at 2pm, Figes's lawyer got in touch to demand a retraction of the TLS's story, and damages.
Their use of the words "We find these suggestions ... implausible" was, he said, no defence.
They were in trouble.
(Is this guy for real ?
Is there anything he thinks isn't damaging and that he isn't offended by ?)
Walsh also quotes:
Sir Peter Stothard.
"Reviews in the TLS used to be anonymous and it was often argued that reviewers could be more honest if their work was unsigned.
But the real issue is -- and I feel very strongly about this -- the willingness of some writers to use legal intimidation in order to suppress comment."
One can only hope that those who resort to such "legal intimidation" are treated as the pariahs they are, and have the appropriate amounts of scorn heaped upon them.
(Updated - 24 April): And the story comes to a truly sorry close as, as reported in the Daily Mail, Amazon row don admits: 'It was me', as Figes admits that it was he, not his wife, that wrote the reviews.
No word yet on what form the class action suit those who were threatened by Figes' lawyer will take, nor whether Figes will ever dare show his face in public again.
In The Observer Robert McCrum profiles 'literary' agent Andrew Wylie.
Part of what he's doing now, he claims, is to bring discipline and coherence and a global strategy to a business that has been in the hands of dotty old ladies in shapeless cardigans.
And Wylie boasts:
We put a group of people on an individual case study.
We put writers and their work on a grid.
We have very well-developed computer systems which produce reports by crunching numbers.
Contracts. Royalties. Territories. We decide what we want. We discuss it with the client [the author] and then we go out and get it.
Wylie supposedly does well for his clients, but, as I've often noted, I'm no big fan of his approach, which I think serves neither (most of) his clients particularly well nor, especially, readers.
(Amazingly, obvious and very public fiascos like the failure to sell-at-auction the Nabokov manuscript of The Original of Laura (see my previous mention) don't seem to stick to or hurt the reputation he has made for himself -- and journalists like McCrum can't be bothered to ask about these failures.)
The Wylie Agency client list is, indeed, an impressive one (pretty awesome, actually) -- but also quite clear proof of his shortcomings.
To pick from just a few authors:
Philippe Djian: nothing by this prolific and popular author is published in English in decades -- and then the best he can unleash is ... Unforgivable ?
Yeah, that's really going to help get Djian going in English .....
Antonio Tabucchi: Yeah, his career is really doing well in the US and UK.
Wylie couldn't even parlay Tabucchi's two (!) turns as a 'contender' for the Man Booker International Prize
into any US/UK publications, and his career-in-English looks pretty dead in the water at the moment.
Yi Mun-yol: What has Wylie done for him lately ? Or at all ? One of the leading contemporary Korean writers, and it's been ages since anything has been published in English. (See, for example, the complete review review of The Poet.)
Antonio Muñoz Molina: More regular appearances in translation, but he's still woefully under-translated. (See, for example, the complete review review of In her Absence.)
Maybe Wylie's 'global' approach serves these authors well elsewhere; it certainly doesn't serve English-language readers well.
In the Sunday Times Patricia Nicol profiles David Mitchell.
Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is coming out soon; see the official site, or pre-order your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
I haven't seen a copy yet but I'm looking forward to it; all the other Mitchell titles are under review at the complete review; see, for example, the review of Cloud Atlas.
DH: There are many languages in these countries which have their own excellent literary traditions. Is there some thought on how to bring them under some kind of umbrella like the CWP?
You have a raised a matter that is being kept very much under discussion. We are conscious of that. One want to tap all the Commonwealth literature, but there are certain logistical problems in finding a wider range of judges other than the English language judges. That is to be solved.
There is vast literature that needs to be included if that can be done. But I cannot point you to any immediate solution to that.
And see also Sheela Reddy's 10 questions for CWP-winner Rana Dasgupta in Outlook India.
A publisher can enter a maximum of up to 2 published titles per imprint
The rules are very badly written, however -- for example, it's not clear that only publishers can submit titles.
Can an author submit a book from an imprint, even if his or her publisher already has submitted two from that imprint ?
And how are 'publisher' and 'imprint' defined: if a US Random House imprint submits titles X and Y which are also published by Random House India imprints, can those Indian imprints submit additional titles ?
Ah, I look forward to the confusion that surely must follow.
(The two basic requirements for a literary prize should be: it should be open to all comers (and certainly shouldn't rely on publisher-submissions), and a list of all submitted/eligible titles must be made public (so that people know what titles are in the running); the Man Booker -- and many other prizes -- fail on both counts.)
Of course, in the DSC case maybe confusion will not follow.
Indeed, in the Bibliofile-column in Outlook India they shockingly report:
last year saw such an explosion of commercial fiction that publishers are now finding it hard to find anything to enter for the bumper dsc book prize ($50,000).
Fearing a flood of entries, the DSC prize committee has limited entries: each publishing house can enter only two books per imprint.
Even so, several publishers are dropping out.
Random House won't enter any book as they haven't published a single piece of literary fiction in the eligible period (April '09-March '10).
Others, like Tranquebar, are taking a gamble and entering a commercial title.
It's a 'gamble' to enter a 'commercial' title ?
Recall Ian Rankin's constant whingeing about how mystery titles aren't ever in the running for the Man Booker: as I've often explained, it's because publishers don't bother to submit them for the prize (i.e. the fault is that of the publishers, not the prize-judges -- though of course ultimately it's the fault of the stupid rules that allow publishers to shape the prizes by only submitting certain kinds of books ...).
But the idea that a publisher would rather not submit any title than what is perceived as the 'wrong kind of' title .....
This is exactly why publishers should have no role in what books are in the running for literary prizes .....
The DSC folk can still do the right thing -- open the floodgates and accept all comers.
They shouldn't fear a flood of entries, they should welcome it !
Poet Ko Un has finally completed Maninbo [만인보] (Ten Thousand Lives), a 30-volume epic poem series, 25 years after he first began publishing the monumental work in 1986.
A sliver of the work has been available for a while in English, as Ten Thousand Lives, from Green Integer; see their publicity page, or get your copy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
(I'll get around to reviewing it when I get my hands on a copy; meanwhile, the only one of his titles under review at the complete review is The Three Way Tavern.)
Note also that Ko Un is appearing stateside: see for example this Smith press release; he'll be reading there on the 20th.
See also the official Ko Un site.
Most of the novels from East Africa were poorly edited books about worn-out themes such as torture and suffering, commented one of the judges.
The region's writers are not as experimental as their counterparts in West Africa and South Africa.
There seems to be a consensus among critics interviews by Africa Review that the major problem facing East African literature is poor editorial choices.
"Publishing houses in the region have not been enthusiastic about promoting the publication of novels for instance, partly also due to the market forces that tend to favour school texts more than anything else," says Dr Godwin Shiundu of the University of Nairobi.
(See also my review of James Currey's essential Africa Writes Back (depicted in the article-accompanying photograph).)
At The Huffington Post Nicholas Spice ("Publisher, London Review of Books") gets to write a piece on London Review Of Books Publisher Celebrates 30 Years: The Book Review Is Not Dead!
I'm a fan of the London Review of Books, at least to the extent that I actually shell out for a subscription (which I do for very, very few publications) and I do find it worth my while (though sometimes only just ...) to work my way through pretty much every issue -- but to suggest the LRB proves the 'book review is not dead' (!) ?
Come on !
But Spice writes:
For all the dark mutterings of the intelligentsia about the decline of serious literary journalism in the digital age, it seems the long form review essay is doing just fine.
It's a genre that would have been entirely familiar to 19th century readers, but it did well in the 20th century and it looks like doing even better in the 21st.
At the London Review of Books (about to celebrate 30 years as a fully independent publication, with a series of events in New York) we've found print circulation has risen steadily during the last decade and we have more readers now than any literary magazine in the UK has ever had.
Either way, the LRB, as it enters its 31st year, is well up for the challenge.
Yeah, they are well up for the challenge ... but for one reason only: they are well, well backed.
This kind of puff piece reminds me why I almost never bother linking to The Huffington Post.
(Or maybe that's because it seems to be the most annoyingly slow-loading, over-busy site in existence ?)
Surely it's rather ... disingenuous of Mr. Spice to fail to mention the fact that ... well, as Richard Brooks put it in the Sunday Times earlier this year: London Review of Books £27m in the red -- but it isn't counting; see also my previous mention.
Yes, the LRB hemorrhages money at a rate -- over £3 million in the last year alone, according to Brooks -- that could sustain the entire literary blogosphere.
With that kind of money (which, among other things helps subsidize the low subscription-price (which I certainly appreciate -- but then, of course, I wouldn't subscribe if they wanted more money)) it's rather easy to enjoy some success; whether it's a measure of any sort of true success .....
Much as I enjoy (much of) what the LRB does, with that kind of safety-net -- and those kinds of cash outlays -- I would be very careful in drawing any sort of conclusions about what 'works' (or 'is doing just fine' ...).
(A reminder, too, that the complete review
has been in the black from year one (and we're in year twelve ...); the amount of money involved is trivial (especially by LRB standards ...), but I've never spent more money than I've made off the site .....)
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of A Story about Business, Cricket and Religion by bestselling Indian author Chetan Bhagat, The Three Mistakes of my Life.
(While the Indian edition is obviously (more or less) obtainable in both the US and UK I still find it curious that there's a French edition of this title, but not a US or UK edition .....)
In The Independent Andrew van der Vlies offers a good, extensive overview of post-apartheid fiction in South Africa, in Over the rainbow: South African writers take centre-stage at the London Book Fair.
It's a good starting/reference point for interested readers -- he name-checks pretty much everyone you should have a look at.
Of course, it's difficult to find much of this stuff abroad -- and I'm particularly hoping that Ivan Vladislaviċ's fiction finally becomes more readily available outside South Africa.
(I'm actually just finishing up reviews of the two Niq Mhlongo books -- should be up in a few days -- and it's also good to see van der Vlies note that: "Njabulo Ndebele's 2003 The Cry of Winnie Mandela, published in Britain by Ayebia Clarke, proved that he can still surprise and provoke".)
I recently mentioned that some Chinese literary magazines are facing declining circulation (and raising their prices), and now Global Times follows up with a Q & A in which Chen Chenchen talks to Yilin Press editor-in-chief Liu Feng, Literary magazines on the ropes in China.
(Annoyingly and outrageously they spread this thing out over four pages, without a 'single page' option; bad form.)
Foreign literature magazine Yilin has seen circulation decline from "as high as 700,000 to 800,000 copies [...] to 40,000".
Liu thinks there's something to the American approach (though I'm guessing he does not fully understand it ...):
The system of fostering pure literature magazines by the government is well established in some developed countries.
For instance, in the US, the government-sponsored National Endowment for the Arts aims at protecting pure literary magazines, which are often registered as non-profit organizations.
there was another extraordinary year of growth in the number of "non-traditional" books in 2009.
These books, marketed almost exclusively on the web, are largely on-demand titles produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to self-publishers and "micro-niche" publications.
Bowker projects that 764,448 titles were produced that fall outside Bowker’s traditional publishing and classification definitions.
This number is a 181% increase over 2008 -- which doubled 2007’s output – driving total book production over 1,000,000 units for the first time.
A bit of further clarification is needed; the Bowker numbers presumably refer to the number of ISBNs issued; obviously, many of these "non-traditional" books (as is also the case with the traditional books ...) are not truly "new".
It should also be noted that, for example, the Bowker totals include a mere 10,386 Lulu.com titles; go to the Lulu site and they claim: "Lulu alone published over 400,000 titles last year" (whereby it's unclear whether they mean 2008 or 2009).
Clearly, "titles" are measured differently by Bowker and Lulu .....
In any case, 'non-traditional' certainly looks to be where most of the future of publishing will take place.
Through 27 May you too can vote
for the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards Book of the Decade (the BGEIBABotD, as it will presumably come to be known as ...) from their just-announced shortlist of fifty titles.
Three of the titles are under review at the complete review:
They've announced the Guggenheim Fellowship Awards, 2010; see the full list here.
Among the writers who won fellowships are: Lorraine Adams, Adam Begley (for his Updike-biography), Tom Bissell, Ethan Canin, Nell Freudenberger, Philip Gourevitch, Victor LaValle, Joseph O'Neill, and Salvatore Scibona.
Three fellowships were also awarded for translation projects, to: Peter Constantine (for writings by Emmanuel Roidis), Margaret M. Mitchell (the late antique homilies of John Chrysostom), and Sarah Ruden (Aeschylus' Oresteia).
Beside the timely billowing of birthday laudations as Esterházy turns 60 this Wednesday, his infamously liberal use of borrowed "guest texts" has also been getting a considerable share of public lambasting recently.
Whether or not a fair share is a matter of renewed debate.
He notes: "Controversy has long surrounded Esterházy's text-borrowing modus operandi" -- but it doesn't really seem to have bothered anyone in the English-speaking world (yet ?).
Does it make a difference that he's a writer with such a strong literary reputation ?
That the texts are additionally revised (by being translated) before reaching English-reading readers (who probably don't have access to the original sources ...) ?
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Mahasweta Devi's Baitand Other Stories -- the first translation from the Bengali under review at the complete review.
(Devi got some attention as a 'contender' for the 2009 Man Booker International Prize; she's actually fairly well translated into English (well, a couple of books are available, with Seagull now making more available beyond just India).)
I mentioned that Ala Hlehel was named one of the Beirut39 but had not been granted permission to attend the actual event (since Israel considers Lebanon an enemy state and won't permit Israeli residents and citizens to travel there), and that he had petitioned the High Court seeking permission to be honored; as recently as a few days ago: "Netanyahu released a statement on Monday in which he declared that he would not permit the author to travel to the Lebanese capital".
Fortunately, the Israeli High Court was more sympathetic and sensible: as Maya Sela and Jack Khoury now report in Haaretz, High Court goes against government, lets Israeli-Arab author collect prize in Lebanon:
In their ruling, the High Court judges said that "no negative information" could be found in Hlehel's case.
"The general policy [of banning citizens from enemy states] is reasonable in and of itself, yet the state's refusal to permit [Hlehel's trip to Lebanon] was reached without examining all of the relevant considerations related to this extraordinary and unusual instance," they wrote.
The High Court also instructed the state to provide an explanation as to why it has not established clearly defined criteria to enable visits by Israeli citizens to countries deemed "enemy states."
this case is not of humanitarian nature.
Lebanon can send him the prize via post.
(Of course, part of the problem -- in this case, and in similar ones of people being honored in Israel -- is this idea that anything that happens on a specific nation's soil is representative for (and some sort of endorsement of) the nation as a whole: "Lebanon can send him the prize via post" ?
It's not Lebanon that's awarding him the honor; it just happens that the honor is being awarded in Lebanon (though for some that is, of course, close enough to treason -- as it would be for many Arab nations for an Arab national to accept any prize on Israeli soil ...).
So what now ?
Well, the Haaretz article also notes:
Hlehel is currently in London and is waiting to see whether Lebanese authorities will permit him to enter the country.
A new issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction is now available, dedicated to Writing from a Postcommunist Romania.
None of the contents (and disappointingly few book reviews ...) are available online, but it looks fairly interesting.
(Updated - 16 April): Apparently more book reviews will eventually be available .....
(Updated - 17 April): And now a nice, large bunch of book reviews is available, as well as several excerpts (the latter, alas, only in the much-dreaded pdf format).
They've announced the winners of the Commonwealth Writers' Prizes (though not yet, last I checked, at the official site ...); see, for example, Richard Lea's report in The Guardian.
Solo by Rana Dasgupta took the Best Book prize; it's coming to the US in ... February, 2011 (pre-order your copy from Amazon.com, or get your copy from Amazon.co.uk).
Best First Book went to Siddon Rock, by Glenda Guest -- which doesn't seem to be available in either the US or UK; see the Vintage Australia publicity page.
They've announced the Pulitzer Prizes (hey ! the information is available at the official site ! what a concept !).
The Criticism prize went to a dance critic; the other finalists covered drama and film .....
The Fiction prize went to Tinkers by Paul Harding; see the Bellevue Literary Press publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
In Viet Nam News Trung Hieu profiles prolific translator Duong Thu Ai, in Translator contributes to nation's literature.
Duong Thu Ai has translated 198 books since 1988.
And among his quirks is that he writes all his books with pens he finds on the street ......
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Emma Larkin's Everything is Broken -- A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma, as the US subtitle has it (or The Untold Story of Life Under Burma's Military Regime, as the UK subtitle has it ...).
As the first and largest publishing house to focus on women readership, Enjoying Reading Era has produced a series of novels of different genres targeting teenage girls and enjoys a turnover of 100 million yuan ($14.65 million) each year, according to Hou Kai, director of Enjoy Reading Era.
Ming Xiaoxi's Cinderella, Zhang Yueran's Newriting, Rao Xueman's M-Girl and Seventeen are all publications targeted at girls aged from 14-22 and are hugely popular.
Of course, not everyone is all that impressed:
"Generally speaking, female youth literature is more a concept than real literature.
Compared to traditional female literature, which is rich in plot and literary significance, female youth literature has a long way to go to be labeled as real literature," Zhang Yiwu, professor of literature at Peking University, told the Global Times.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Sofi Oksanen's Purge.
This looks to be the most-widely translated Finnish novel in recent memory ("soon to be published in 25 languages" my not-provided-by-the-publisher-galley says on the cover ...), and I'm curious to see how it does in the US and UK.
(If readers are so curious about Estonian history they should be reading Mati Unt ... check out Brecht at Night.)
Author Mai Jia shocked many when he called Internet literature "garbage" at a seminar held on April 7.
"If I had the right, I would eliminate all Internet literature," said Jia, to everyone's amazement.
"The rise of the Internet is proof that humanity is coming to an end."
Mai Jia said that 99.99 percent of writing on the Internet is "garbage," and only 0.01 percent is worth reading.
Of course, given how much online writing there is -- especially in China (where print is still much more strictly controlled) -- 0.01 per cent is actually quite a lot .....
But People's Daily Online takes the progressive line:
It is regrettable that the writers are so afraid to face the times and the readers.
Your abuse of the Internet literature cannot hinder its development.
On the contrary, to refuse new things ultimately brings failure.
That'll teach you, Mai Jia !
(By the way: I'd love to see some of his writing available in English -- on the Internet or otherwise .....)
(Updated - 13 April): See now also Eric Abrahamsen's update at Paper Republic.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Surender Mohan Pathak's The 65 Lakh Heist.
Certainly of interest, even if mainly for the novelty value: this immensely popular Hindi writer also translated some of the works of James Hadley Chase -- and it shows.