Slate has an amusing excerpt from Bill James' recent Solid Fool's Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom (get your copy at Amazon.com) in which he wonders 'Why are we so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers ?', Shakespeare and Verlander.
I believe that there is a Shakespeare in Topeka today, that there is a Ben Jonson, that there is a Marlowe and a Bacon, most likely, but that we are unlikely ever to know who these people are because our society does not encourage excellence in literature.
That's my opinion.
We are not so good at developing great writers, it is true, but why is this ? It is simply because we don't need them.
I'm not so sure about his arguments.
True, athletes -- and sports-success -- are glorified, and many youths are lured into wasting their time trying to achieve sports-success -- but surely there are far more 'writers' in the US than there are, for example, baseball players (and I include every local amateur league player in that mix).
Despite the (relative) lack of rewards, millions and millions try their hand at writing -- perhaps not with the same single-minded dedication youths show regarding sports, but still.
If the sheer number of participants is counted, surely ours should be a golden age of poetry, no ?
Surely the difficulty of recognizing and shaping writing talent (so often gotten wrong, even by the supposed 'experts'), regardless of the size of the pool -- as opposed to on-field talents, which are more readily apparent and more easily trained -- complicate matters greatly.
I think the issues involved (and the incentives) make for a much more complicated picture than James allows for.
I'd also argue that he overstates the case for baseball 'greatness', which tends to be considered relatively (rather than absolutely) -- for god's sake, no one's even managed to hit a feeble .400 (not a high success rate in most fields of endeavor ...) in seventy years; surely Shakespeare's equivalent batting average was in a whole different league -- an unheard of .700 or .800, at least (indeed, .400-writers -- well, let's say .350 -- seem to me a dime a dozen nowadays).
The hundredth anniversary of E.M.Cioran's birth is 8 April, and in J'Accepte in Forward Benjamin Ivry argues he wasn't such a bad guy.
Annoyed by the recent focus on Cioran's youthful indiscretions Ivry argues:
Yet such labels are profoundly unfair, since they are based entirely on early, and decidedly minor writings by Cioran in his 20s, when he suffered from chronic insomnia so acute that his resulting ravings in print included advocating cannibalism, admiring epilepsy and suggesting euthanasia for everyone older than 35.
Sounds like he's making excuses --blaming "chronic insomnia" ? come on ... -- and seems entirely unnecessary; some foolish opinions and writings can't entirely detract from the later work.
The only Cioran-related work under review at the complete review is one of those Ivry denounces, An Infamous Past by Marta Petreu.
At the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York Gitta Honegger will give a lecture on Rechnitz: Austria's Dirty Little Secret - A Rare Conversation with Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek on 4 April, at 19:00; I plan to be there.
The talk will include excerpts from a video conversation with Elfriede Jelinek (who doesn't travel -- she even skipped the Nobel ceremony); Honegger has translated some of her work, and is working on a biography.
Rechnitz is one of Jelinek's more approachable plays -- though the subject-matter is rather shocking.
See, for example, the Rowohlt publicity page, or this review in The Vienna Review, or get your (German) copy at Amazon.de.
(While there are still no Jelinek-titles under review at the complete review, there is a review of Gitta Honegger's Thomas Bernhard-book.)
Almost immediately, John le Carré's agents issued a statement on his behalf, saying he didn't want to be considered; good for the Man Booker folk for their reaction:
Rick Gekoski, Chair of the Man Booker International Prize 2011 judges comments in response: "John le Carré's name will, of course, remain on the list."
(Le Carré is welcome to turn down the prize if it is awarded to him; he has no business telling the judges they should or shouldn't consider him.)
As usual, the longlist is fairly heavy on the English-writing authors (books must be "generally available in translation in the English language" -- a hurdle that, for example, Peter Handke did not clear a few years ago) -- though two Chinese-writing authors do make it.
It is, quite honestly, a bizarre list -- Tyler ? Pullman ? Le Carré ?
(Who next ? Ian Rankin ?)
But of course any list with Goytisolo on it immediately gets a near-pass from me .....
Not all too many of these authors -- other than Goytisolo -- have books under review at the complete review.
Two of the women are, predictably, represented only by works of non-fiction: Dacia Maraini's Searching for Emma and Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind.
And the only two other authors under review are both represented by multiple titles:
In Slate Nathan Heller considers 'The historian as tour guide' in profiling Simon Winchester, and wonders:
Winchester is not the most artful stylist, the most dazzling scholar, or the deftest storyteller publishing history narratives today.
Why have these fast-baked, eccentric books made him one of the most widely read historical writers of his generation ?
I don't quite agree with Heller; see also the reviews of several Winchester titles at the complete review:
Arabic Literature (in English) points me to The Saudi Gazette's piece in which they look at the impressive sales figures at the recent Riyadh Book Fair and wonder whether it offers A glimpse of Saudi culture.
Opinion about whether many sales actually means a large, meaningful readership (or whether it just shows Saudis have lots of money to spend, even on books-as-accessories) is pretty divided.
The Guardian continues its series of having leading European literary editors "reflect on the literary scene in their countries", and this week Borja Hermoso of El País reports on What they're reading in Spain.
Some interesting observations, if also a lot of familiar names -- and one highlighted book is one they aren't reading yet, because it's not available yet ("the most awaited book of the year is undoubtedly Javier Marías's new novel, Los enamoramientos" -- though admittedly: who wouldn't want to get their hands on that ?).
Unfortunately, as also in the previous installments, there is some disconnect between what the editor talk about (interesting though that is) and the books on local bestseller lists listed at the bottom of the piece (i.e. the books the locals are actually reading) -- rather a big omission that leaves the claim that: "All this makes up the spectrum of what is happening in literary Spain" ringing a bit hollow.
At literalab at Czech Position Michael Stein profiles Slovak author Michal Hvorecký, who gripes rather a lot about conditions abroad:
Hvorecký sees the world of UK and US publishers as closed and arrogant, with only university publishers offering much of an opportunity.
"I sometimes get passionate e-mails from comparative literature students that want to translate my work and then look for a publisher.
It's much easier to find a translator than a publisher."
Still, some interesting points about the difficulties tiny Slovak (no longer to be confused with Czech) literature faces, domestically and abroad.
I have Hvorecký's Plyš, and hope to get around to reviewing it.
Discussion has been raging over the past few weeks in the Afrikaans press and on Litnet about Media24 newspapers' decision to discard the books editors of their national dailies, Beeld (northern provinces including Gauteng distribution), Die Burger (Cape-based) and Volksblad (Free State) and to contract a super editor for books who would create an identical book page for the three newspapers.
Sounds like a bad (if familiar ...) idea.
As she notes:
A narrowing in the scope of the book pages means an impoverishment and loss to a wide literary readership of all literatures in South Africa.
Orhan Pamuk's 2005 remarks in a Swiss newspaper that Turks killed 30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians (at the beginning of the twentieth century) continues to keep the lawyers and the courts busy.
Legal action against Pamuk began way back in 2005 -- see, for example, my first mention more than six years ago (and many mentions have followed) -- but the criminal proceedings fortunately fizzled out pretty fast.
Not so the civil case, which has been bouncing around the courts for years now -- and in the latest round a court has decided Pamuk is liable, and has to fork over 6000 Turkish lira (and since the lira is no longer that thousands-to-the-dollar currency that is actually a not entirely insignificant amount, just over US$3,850).
See reports in Hürriyet (Orhan Pamuk to pay compensation for his words, court decides, by Musa Kesler) and Today's Zaman (Pamuk to pay compensation for Armenian, Kurdish remarks).
It's important to note that this is far from final: Pamuk has fifteen days to appeal, and he will (his lawyers will make sure of that, not because of the money involved but because of the awful precedent such an award would set).
Aside from that, much remains rather murky -- including the reasoning behind why the plaintiffs should be entitled to monetary damages.
I can't see how either compensatory or punitive damages can be assessed here (at least not without opening the can of worms of opening the door to a huge class of plaintiffs (every Turk ?) to jump on the class-action bandwagon and sue for the same wad of cash).
This legal back and forth looks like it will go on a while longer .....
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Jonathan Coe's The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, which is now also available in the US.
This novel came out in the UK last year, and, sure, a delay of a few months or a year is not unusual for a book crossing the Atlantic (in either direction, though certainly the delay is far more frequently found with books coming (by slow boat ?) stateside).
What I find bizarre in this case is that translations of this book have been out for months all over the place: France, Germany, Italy, etc.
Which makes the American delay rather less excusable.
I mentionedThe Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen -- a Thai classic, finally available in an impressive-sounding edition (see the Silkworm publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk) -- a few months ago, and I still hope very much to be able to get my hands on a copy (no luck so far).
Meanwhile, Jeff Kingston reviews it in The Japan Times this week -- and finds:
It is spellbinding stuff replete with slices of ordinary life, swordsmanship of all kinds and the bitter taste of loss and loneliness.
It is one of those epics that Thais can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably, content to know who lives, who dies, who finds love and who doesn't, eager to hear the tear-jerking finale again and again.
I hope to be able to review it, too, eventually .....
In Tattooed by Politics in the Wall Street Journal Michael C. Moynihan
suggests it's might be time for a 'Bad Politics in Fiction award' -- and seems convinced the only debate each year would be which Swedish writer to give it to (with maybe another Scandinavian author in the running every few years ...), as he finds (based on very selective reading) that quite a while ago already: "batty politics became something of a requirement for Sweden's most famous writers."
The piece is a review of The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell (get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk), but he suggests Mankell's ideological nuttiness is common to many Swedish writers (crime and otherwise) -- to the extent that:
Nowadays the country's literary reputation is being murdered, but there's no mystery about the identity of the perpetrators.
Of course only a very limited amount of Swedish fiction makes into English, and most of that is crime fiction; I don't see the situation as being anywhere near as dire as he suggests.
Moreover, ideological looniness -- and big, bad capitalist enterprises that do bad things and governments that can't be trusted, as well as conspiracies involving business, government, religion, and academia -- i.e. all sorts of 'bad politics' (because overly-simplistic, naive, unrealistic etc.) surely are a staple of almost all contemporary thriller-fiction.
The juggernaut that is Emma Donoghue's Room continues to perform impressively, both in terms of sales as well as racking up prize-nominations left and right.
In The Bookseller Philip Stone now reports that Donoghue accounts for 90% of Orange Prize longlist's sales, as in the week after the Orange Prize for Fiction-longlist announcement it sold 13,121 copies ("accounting for 81% of the entire longlist's sales in the seven days to 19th March") -- and:
In total sales to date terms, Room's 318,055 sales account for 90% of the entire longlist's 354,000 sales.
No other book on the longlist managed to sell more than 1,000 copies last week
According to BookScan data, 13 of the 20 longlistees sold fewer than 100 copies at UK booksellers last week, with nine of those selling fewer than 50 copies, and two (Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge and Anne Peile's Repeat it Today with Tears) selling fewer than 10 copies.
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
(I am one of the nine judges for the prize; eight of the ten titles I voted to be a finalist made it (needless to say (and I'm still shocked !), one of the two that didn't was the other Cossery, A Splendid Conspiracy.))
A few notes and observations:
- with six languages represented there is a fairly decent spread here; French is, unsurprisingly, the language with the most texts in the final ten (three)
- notable books (i.e. that got lots of review coverage and praise) from the longlist that didn't make it include To the End of the Land by David Grossman and I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, as well as Microscripts by Robert Walser.
They've announced that The Jump Artist, by Austin Ratner, has taken the $ 100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in fiction, with A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell the $ 25,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Choice Award runner-up.
This is yet more validation for the editorial hand at The Jump Artist-publisher Bellevue Literary Press, as they take yet another important literary prize -- very impressive indeed.
The Jump Artist is not under review at the complete review at this time, but see the Bellevue publicity page, or get you copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
I won't point out that Nobel laureate Kertész Imre's Fiasco was reviewed at the complete review way back in 2002 (oh, whoops ...) but now the book has finally also come out in English (yay, Melville House !); I haven't seen Tim Wilkinson's translation, but I have faith that it does the great Kertész justice.
Adam Kirsch's review at Tablet seems to be the first review of the English translation, but I certainly hope it gets its due -- and can only commend it to you.
At a mere US $ 175,000 the Premio Alfaguara de Novela is an also-ran by Spanish-language literary (cash) prize standards (though of course still dwarfing the major UK and especially US prizes), but it is relatively prestigious; previous winners under review at the complete review include Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo (2006) and Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea by Sergio Ramírez (1998).
They've announced that this year's prize goes to El ruido de las cosas al caer, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez -- selected from 608 titles (I remind you again of how many few submissions the major US/UK prizes are willing to consider ...).
(The run-down of where the submissions come from also gives an interesting picture of the Spanish-language writing scene: Spain leads the way (231), Argentina (105) and Mexico (99) are in a close race for second, while for example Chile is far down the list with a mere 19 submissions.)
See also the brief AP report.
The only Juan Gabriel Vásquez-title under review at the complete review is The Informers.
The Guardian continues its series of having "literary editors reflect on the literary scene in their countries" with Le Monde's Raphaële Rérolle discussing What they're reading in France -- though in fact she offers a broader overview of the publishing and literary scene, rather than really saying much about what's being read in France.
Still, it's fairly interesting, as she notes that midlist titles' sales "have been completely squashed" -- and also that:
In newspapers the space devoted to literature is now relatively stable after a dramatic decline over the past 10 years.
As a result, critics struggle to cover the full range of books produced, caught between the need to talk about what everyone else is talking about, the need to explore types of literature that almost no one is talking about and the wish to get themselves talked about by taking up increasingly clear-cut positions.
It's good to see that Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is back on Broadway (it opened last Thursday; see the official site).
Reviews have been a bit mixed (see links/quotes now add to the complete reviewreview-page), but it's a pretty hard play to ruin (though I have to admit I haven't seen an anywhere near flawless version yet (usually it's the casting that's the problem) -- but I do hope to catch this one, too.)
Since the preparations for the Leipzig fair began, 30 new books by Serbian authors, selected by German publishers, have been translated into German
Similarly, a ton of Icelandic books are being translated into German, in preparation for the Frankfurt Book Fair this fall -- why doesn't this happen with any English-language book events ?
(In part, of course, because there's a constantly ongoing effort to publish English anyway, of course; still, these book fairs seem to add a lot of incentive (and get lots of publicity -- dozens of these Serbian books have been getting reviewed in the German book sections and supplements ...).)
See also the official Serbian page for Leipzig (just German, however).
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Umberto Eco's Confessions of a Young Novelist -- his 2008 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, now out from Harvard University Press.