The problem lies in the fact that African literature is being produced more as a commodity than as a value.
The production (editorial, publishing) and consumption (marketing) of African literature is largely in the hands of outsiders.
What is known globally as African literature lies outside the hands of its creators and subjects but is in the tight grip of institutions that obviously possess fixed ideas about what African literature should and should not be, and what authentic African characters can or cannot do.
I don't think that's entirely true -- there is a (still too small but) growing number of African publishers who focus effectively on domestic markets and aren't (as) beholden to these 'fixed ideas', for example -- but certainly there is a still too prevalent notion of/focus on aiming to meet certain foreign expectations.
As also elsewhere, foreign success (especially in the US/UK market), rather than local success, is seen as validation -- hardly a recipe for good writing (see also my most recent review ...).
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Okey Ndibe's Foreign Gods, Inc..
I was disappointed by this -- but (for what it's worth) Janet Maslin, reviewing it in The New York Times yesterday, loved it.
(She suggests that: "Only in mimicking a slick American idiom does Mr. Ndibe falter" (and even suggests: "and thatís probably to his credit"), but to me that's just the tip of the faltering iceberg .....)
They've announced the winners of the Athens Prize for Literature, awarded both for best Greek novel, and best translated work; Theodoros Grigoriadis has the run-down at his weblog.
1Q84 by Murakami Haruki took the foreign prize -- winning in a translated-from-the-English dominated longlist field (six of ten titles) (and beating out what surely had to be the hometown favorite, Aris Fioretos' Den siste greken (see the Hedlund Agency publicity page (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) or the review in the Swedish Book Review).
Other longlisted non-English titles were by Martin Walser and Chiara Gamberale, while US titles included The Marriage Plot, by another semi-native son, Jeffrey ('Τζέφρυ') Eugenides.
More interestingly, the best Greek novel was Πώς τελειώνει ο κόσμος ('How The World Ends') by Maria Xilouri; see the Καλέντης publicity page.
(See also the full Greek (and foreign) shortlists here.)
They've announced that Palinuro of Mexico-author Fernando del Paso has won the 2013 Premio Internacional Alfonso Reyes (though he'll only get it in 2014 ...); see, for example, the Latin American Herald Tribunereport.
The prize has an impressive list of previous winners, beginning with Jorge Luis Borges and including Alejo Carpentier, André Malraux, Octavio Paz, and George Steiner.
Oh, and Harold Bloom.
The prize is for authors universally recognized for their work, and whose work has dealt with Mexico in one way or another; I'm not quite sure what qualified Bloom.
Some of the major Spanish publications have now published their best-book lists of 2013 -- and the consensus book of the year appears to be Rafael Chirbes' En la orilla; see also the Anagrama foreign rights page, or get your (Spanish) copy at Amazon.com.
(Several Chirbes titles are under review at the complete review, but it's been ages since anything of his has been translated; at least English-speaking readers shouldn't have to wait too long for this one -- a great (and well-timed -- rights would surely be far more expensive now) get for New Directions (and, in the UK, Harvill Secker).)
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Turkish author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar's 1962 classic, The Time Regulation Institute, just out from Penguin Classics.
It's great to see this book get the Penguin Classics treatment -- but I am shocked that they print even on the back cover (as well as in the publicity material they send out) the claim that this is:
An uproarious tragicomedy of modernization, in its first-ever English translation.
Even a basic web search turns up a previous translation -- Ender Gürol's, under the same title, from 2001.
Sure, Turko-Tatar Press is so small it barely even registers -- but I've held a copy of their edition in my hands, so it's not that obscure .....
I'm assuming it's not willful misrepresentation on the part of the Penguin juggernaut -- but it does not speak well for them that they overlooked this, either.
Still, a nice edition of the book -- and how can one not like a book with quotes such as:
Being a realist does not mean seeing the truth for what it is.
It is a question of determining our relationship with the truth in the way that is most beneficial for us.
In The Guardian they have the list of the Bestselling books of 2013 in the UK (print versions) -- though of course it is only for the: "year ending 15 December" (god forbid anyone would actually wait until the end of the year to get an accurate result ...).
Still, since they actually provide units-shifted numbers (as measured by BookScan) this is considerably more useful than the American bestseller lists -- and it's always interesting to see what sells well.
Last year I had reviewed five titles on the top-100 list, but with the eclipse of the Stieg Larsson trilogy I'm down to one this year -- a repeat from last year's list, Jonas Jonasson' The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, at number 20 (208,403 copies sold).
In his commentary accompanying the list John Dugdale does note:
The most striking display of indy flair, though, is the performance of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of a Window and Disappeared (20).
Bigger publishers were sniffy about a translated Swedish novel that wasn't crime, by an unknown author with an overlong title; but Hesperus turned it into a sleeper hit that has so far earned almost £1.5m.
It even beat the One Direction annual.
Here's a rare case where I can't complain about the bigger publishers passing this one over: I would have too.
But Hesperus is certainly deserving of success and some nice cash flow, so I don't begrudge them this particular success.
As for the other independents, Dugdale notes:
Smaller, independent houses meanwhile largely struggled, with top indies such as Bloomsbury, Canongate, Faber and Profile either managing only single entries or no-scoring.
Quercus/Maclehose seems to have been shut out too -- and all in all I'd prefer these smaller publishers to share in some of these big successes too.
The Millions will no doubt soon have their 'Most Anticipated: The Great 2014 Book Preview' up (see their 2013 preview), offering a reasonably thorough overview of at least the major (though not necessarily most interesting ...) releases to look forward to, but there are already a few 2014 previews worth a look:
Interesting New Books - 2014 at Conversational Reading -- very much a work in progress (so continue to check in in the coming month for additions), but definitely with an eye out for the more intriguing titles
Publishers' catalogues are also now out (online, too, if you're willing to hunt them down), and working one's way through those is a lot of fun (and reveals a lot of titles that look good).
I don't know where to begin with the titles I'm looking forward too -- and I both haven't been looking ahead too much and also have already seen a lot of these (I got my ARC of Jean Echenoz' 1914 in May ... (see the New Press publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk)) --
but among the titles I'm most looking forward to is certainly Andrei Bitov's The Symmetry Teacher (see the Suhrkamp foreign rights page, or pre-order your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk).
Swiss author Oscar Peer has passed away -- one of the leading Romansh (or rätoromanisch, as it is called in German -- or Rumantsch as it is in ... Rumantsch -- in any case, the least widespread of Switzerland's four national languages) authors; see, for example, the obituary in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Limmat Verlag published several of his books in dual-language (Romansh/German) editions (see their publicity page), and his work has also been extensively translated into French and Italian; English ... not so much.
The Salon round-up, Salon's What to Read Awards: Top critics choose the best books of 2013 has the obligatory top-ten lists, but at least gets the critics to answer a few questions ('What was the strongest debut book of 2013 ?' 'Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013 ?' 'What was the most unlikable character of the year ?').
Pretty short on books in translation (Eric Banks gets two in his top three, and Daniel Levin Becker's top choice is a ((good-looking) comic book) in translation, but otherwise ...), but reasonably interesting -- though I'm baffled that Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch comes out as the critics' overall favorite.
(Of course, I've read practically none of the others -- though I am still looking forward to and curious about Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries and look forward to someday getting my hands on a copy.)
German author Helga M. Novak has passed away; see, for example, (German) notices in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
She has one of the more interesting backgrounds of contemporary German authors -- a longtime GDR connection (she attended the leading East German MFA-equivalent program (the Johannes R. Becher-Institut)), a participant in the (in)famous 1966 Princeton Gruppe 47 meeting, Icelandic citizenship (since the 1960s), Polish residency.
Not much has been translated into English (but see, for example, this college thesis, consisting of several translated stories) -- and see also her most recent collection, which just came out a few months ago; see the Schöffling foreign rights page.
The Macedonians really know how to time those literay awards for maximum publicity effect: Wednesday night they awarded the Табернакул -- whereby:
The award consists of sculpture made by Goran Stamenkov, €5,000 money prize, golden coin featuring recipient's name and publishing the work of the awarded author in Macedonian language.
Okay, €5,000 isn't a fortune -- and those Macedonian royalties are going to be a drop in the bucket, too, but still ....
They have managed pretty well with the prize winners: last year Milan Kundera was one, while this year the prize went to The Museum of Innocence-author (and Nobel laureate) Orhan Pamuk and Good Stalin-author Victor Erofeyev; see, for example, the report: Authors Pamuk and Erofeyev to be presented with "Tabernakul" award.
Not sure who thought it was a good idea to hand out a prize on Christmas day, but I suppose there is an argument to be made for it -- though not much of one, when all is said, I'd suggest.
They announced the 2013 'Chinese Writers Rich List' (中国作家富豪榜) a couple of weeks ago; I've been hoping for some better English language-coverage to link to, but none seems forthcoming.
The best I can find is the obnoxious eleven-page slideshow of the top ten Chinese authors with the highest royalty income in 2013 at People's Daily Online, Ten richest Chinese authors in 2013.
Mo Yan does come in second, pulling in 24 million yuan (about US$3,950,000), but narrowly beating him out is ... fantasy writer Jiang Nan.
See the full top 60 list -- in Chinese -- here.
Among the additional lists they compile is that of the highest-earning foreign writers, and J.K.Rowling again topped that list, though her Chinese take of 8.5 million yuan is down considerably from the 15 million she raked in in 2012; see the full list -- in Chinese -- here.
Murakami Haruki came in second -- and Alice Munro's Nobel win managed to get her up to 15th position, with a take of a million yuan.
It was a great relief. Contemporary fiction is very difficult to write.
Times change so fast, it's hard to get a handle on what's going on.
And novels take quite a long time to get out. By the time you've got one done, nobody's interested.
(Seems to me you're focusing on the wrong things if your novel becomes out of date in the time it takes to get from manuscript to bookstore, but what do I know ?)
And she's pretty down on the novel-form in general:
It seems to me that the novel has become just entertainment.
Now we live in a digital age. And it's an age of disambiguity. Art deals with the ambiguous. And I don't think language carries the weight it once did.
The resonance and beauty of language is, I think, not particularly understood by readers.
So I'm not finding fault with writers, only with readers.
(Surely writers share some blame if they can't convince readers, no ?)
Megahed said 24 countries would participate, 17 Arab and seven non-Arab. There would be 755 publishers, 518 from Egypt, 210 Arab and 27 non-Arab.
Kuwait is to be guest of honor -- not exactly known as a literary heavy-weight, maybe this will serve as a nice wake-up call ... (?)
The fair has chosen the dean of the Arabic literature, Taha Hussein, who died forty years ago this year, as its Person of the Year.
Megahed stated the GEBO would publish 20 of Hussain's rarest books in celebration.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Katherine Pancol's The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles.
Pancol is, year in and year out , one of the bestselling French novelists in France, and this book -- the first in a trilogy -- has been translated into twenty-nine languages -- before now finally also being made available, sort of, in English.
Yes, despite the book's bestselling bona fides (and the decade she spent living in New York, which suggests she can come over and market the hell out of this book) Penguin has only published a version they admit is: "an abridgement of the original French-language work".
Apparently what's good enough for the rest of the world -- and sells by the bucketload -- has to be 'fixed' for US/UK readers.
Books in translation published by Penguin as paperback-originals seem to suffer this fate more than most -- I recall last year's very unhappy experiment with Goce Smilevski's Freud's Sister -- but (radical) editing of books in translation is one of the industry's (many) dirty (and reader unfriendly) little secrets, about which much too little is said.
A firm believer in the sanctity of the (original) text (and author's wishes), this kind of meddling drives me nuts -- and, in the case of this book, it appears to have made what was likely a mediocre book one that is just a mess.
Alice Munro couldn't making it to the Nobel ceremonies a couple of weeks ago, but her longtime editor Douglas Gibson made the trip and reports at nice length in the National Post about the proceedings, in Alice Munro country stretches to Stockholm.
They've announced the longlist for the Etisalat Prize for Literature, a new "pan-African prize celebrating first time writers of published fiction books".
Overall, it sounds pretty good -- except for the one dreadful restriction, that entered books have to be: "first published in English".
Because, you know, Africans surely can't write in other languages .....
(Indeed, I would think there'd be a strong case to encouraging entries in other languages, if you really want to foster African literature -- and by excluding fiction written in Arabic (and, to a lesser extent, French and Portuguese) you're excluding huge swaths of African fiction (and by excluding all the other languages you're excluding a vast number of smaller swaths).)
Despite the language limit (which helps explain why five of the nine finalists are Nigerian ...) it looks like a pretty interesting longlist -- and it certainly is great to see new African talent getting this attention (it's a first-book prize, after all, so established writers with more than one under their belts aren't eligible).
A nice idea: 1,000 copies of each of the the three shortlisted titles (announced 15 January) will be purchased by Etisalat -- nice support for the publishers of these, and a great way of making sure the books get into some circulation.
The winner of the £15,000 prize will be announced 23 February.
The National Book Critics Circle Award is among the leading American book awards, and has consistently (or at least more consistently than the nearest competition, the (American) National Book Awards and the Pulitzers, in my opinion) picked deserving winners.
It also stands apart from the others in considering foreign and even translated works for the award (and, for example, 2666, by Roberto Bolaño, took the 2008 fiction prize).
I also particularly like this prize because it is basically open to all -- unlike the Pulitzer and National Book Award, which books must officially be submitted for (and have entry fees: the NBA charges an obscene $125 (and only allows publishers to nominate books), the Pulitzers charge $50).
Not only that:
Any book that receives votes from 20% of the NBCC voting membership is automatically included among the finalists that we announce during the week of January 14, 2013.
All NBCC members (including myself) have until 8 January to vote for up to five books in each prize-category.
(Members should have received an e-mail with the appropriate link; if not, please contact the NBCC so that you too can play along !)
The 20 per cent hurdle is, of course, a high one -- though it has apparently been reached in the past.
But, to help things along, I think a more concerted effort is required, and I think it behooves us to organize a bit better and make more of a concerted effort to vote en masse.
I suggest NBCC members share the titles they feel most strongly about, which might serve as suggestions for members to vote on.
Weblogs -- including the NBCC's own Critical Mass -- are one place to do so; Twitter seems another ideal forum: I'd suggest #NBCC20pct as a hashtag (the more obvious '#NBCC20%' is less ideal because the "%"-sign doesn't register in the hashtag when published on Twitter ...).
As noted, voting is open until 8 January.
I plan to wait until near the deadline, and welcome suggestions I can throw my vote behind.
(Recall: there are five categories: autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry).
I will publish the titles I plan to vote for in the week leading up to the deadline, but for now -- and as a starting point for others -- here the titles I am firmly behind for now:
There are an endless number of year-end literary round-ups, some of which are of some interest, and many of which aren't.
And then there are the few which are .....
I hesitate to mention this one, because it's so feeble.
And even though a mere blog post, by someone who tends to post very short posts (i.e. he doesn't take the space to explain himself (and justify his nutty opinions) at any length) ... well, it's at a reasonably well-known magazine-site, and I'm sure it gets some traffic, so it seems fair game.
The post is F.H.Buckley's, at The Spectacle Blog (at The American Spectator) -- claiming it was: Not a Great Year for Books.
I can live with that claim -- but not with this reasoning.
Not a great year for books, was it ?
Still there were standouts. Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop told us why we shouldn't trust our local police: Because they're liable to kill us (and then get away with it).
This seems an odd title to choose as a stand-out -- but maybe Balko did a superior job of putting together a book about something that doesn't really sound like news, so ... okay, whatever ....
But then Buckley continues:
And just when we thought things couldn't get any worse, Charles Murray comes along in Coming Apart (2013 reprint edition) to tell us how the rot has spread throughout the underclass, white and black.
Never mind the politics at issue here -- as the 'reprint edition'-mention suggests this isn't a particularly new book: Murray came along with it in January, 2012 -- so it's kind of odd to bring this up as an example when you're (supposedly) discussing the year in books, 2013 .....
Those are his two non-fiction mentions -- so how about the year in fiction ?
No discussion of how that went wrong -- but at least:
Of novels, there's the new Michael Connelly Gods of Guilt.
Should we take his word for it ?
Well, there's the slight problem that he admits:
Haven't cracked it, but it's got to be great
Denounce an entire year in books and then pick, among the few you're willing to say weren't half-bad, one you haven't even looked at ?
Way to take this exercise seriously .....
His other fiction mention ?
And let me not forget cousin Jonathan: Jonathan Buckley's Nostalgia.
Because there's never enough nepotism in this world, right ?
(It probably does his cousin an injustice -- the novel sounds reasonably interesting -- but come on ......)
[Updated: Further proof that the piece is apparently meant tongue-in-cheek (and to be taken as such) comes from the fact that I have now received an e-mail from said Jonathan Buckley -- who informs me that writer F.H. is: "not a cousin of mine -- until today, I had never heard of him".
He assumes the mention is an attempt at humor -- but shares my bafflement; "the humour escapes me".]
So that's his 'year in review' -- but he doesn't stop there: he has advice, too:
So let me let you in on a secret.
The trick to finding books you'd enjoy reading is look for an author you'd like to have a beer or a coffee with.
I can't imagine worse advice.
I guess if you mainly read non-fiction, and you want your whacky world-view affirmed in your reading (personally, I don't -- I like my whacky world-view challenged, but maybe that's just me ...), then it makes a bit of sense.
But as far as fiction goes -- god, most of the stuff I love is by people I would pay to avoid, and many of the writers who I think I'd find good company write execrable crap.
Writing -- especially creative writing -- and personality have nothing to do with one another.
I assume some of this is meant as 'humor' -- I'm not a regular reader of The American Spectator, so I have little sense of the 'tone' of the magazine and its contributors -- but I'm damned if I can tell what is and what isn't.
Does Buckley want nothing more than to share cocoa with: "preening, smug Jonathan Franzen, the literary equivalent of Pajama Boy" ?
I honestly don't know.
[Updated: The mention of a 'cousin' Buckley who -- see update above -- is not actually his cousin suggests perhaps the whole piece is meant to be pure ... fun ?
But some of what he says comes across so seriously ... and I have no idea of what he's making fun of.
Very, very bizarre.]
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Lasha Bugadze's The Literature Express.
It's not the first work of Georgian literature under review at the complete review, but it is the first one that is available in English -- as Dalkey Archive Press are bringing this and several more Georgian titles out.
(It's also longlisted for the 2014 International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award -- dubiously, as I've noted, and not because it was put up for the award by a Georgian library (questionable though that hometown-favoritism is).)
The January/February 2014 issue of World Literature Today is now out, with a fair amount of the material freely available online.
NSK Neustadt Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye is, of course, the focus -- but Restless Books-man Ilan Stavans' Should Books Be Sold ? in particular is also worth your while.
And don't forget that all the reviews are freely accessible, in the World Literature in Review section (always my favorite).
Literary imagination is yet to create a powerful mythology for a common Nigerian nationality.
He accused the writers of failing, for 100 years, to write a national literature.
All they have done all this time, he said, is to write from the regional or ethnic perspectives.
As someone who finds nationalism the root of much contemporary and historical evil -- and who thinks the concept has been particularly debilitating on the African continent -- I find this to be, by and large, just a good thing.
Yes, regional and ethnic perspectives can be equally problematic -- but at least they're smaller scale.
And surely it also says something that literary imaginations have failed to: "create a powerful mythology for a common Nigerian nationality" -- like maybe that's such an artificial beast that there is no good reason to even bother and try to create a mythology around it.
(Fundamentally, I support all secessionist impulses: freedom for Biafra ! freedom for Tibet ! Catalonia ! Scotland ! etc. etc.
Large-scale nationhood -- especially where artificially created (as in much of Africa) -- is way, way overrated (beyond the great benefits of scale it offers).)
As far as year-end round-ups go, The Guardian's The publishers' year: hits and misses of 2013, where publishers also name a book they published that they feel deserved to do better as well as a book they wish they'd published, is among the most interesting.
The ones they feel did undeservedly poorly are particularly revealing.
A Faber creative director writes:
Translated fiction remains difficult in this country, even though publishers are undoubtedly much less reticent about committing to novels in another language.
I was dispirited by the lack of attention, and sales, for My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain by a young Argentine writer, Patricio Pron.
A book by a talented writer, I continue to have some reservations about it; too-close-to-true, it might not have been the ideal book with which to introduce the author to English-speaking readers.
Meanwhile, the Hamish Hamilton publisher says:
César Aira's three "novelitas" in a box didn't receive a single mainstream review, despite there being so much to say about this brilliant, playful, subversive Argentinian writer
They've announced that Parabole du failli, by Lyonel Trouillot, has won this year's Prix Carbet de la Caraïbe et du Tout-Monde, a $5000 prize for Caribbean authors with a solid list of previous winners; see also the (English) Haiti Librereport, and the Actes Sud publicity page for Parabole du failli.
As Aaron Westerman reports, they've determined The 2013 Typographical Translation Award Winner -- and it's The Devil's Workshop, by Jáchym Topol, beating out Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, 137 votes to 107.
The public voting system -- both for the winner and the shortlist -- makes the award a bit vulnerable to the usual online voting issues -- and I suspect few to none of the voters actually read all the finalists before casting their vote (I haven't, either -- but I didn't vote) -- but the results suggest things didn't go totally off track.
The Topol certainly wouldn't have been my choice (nor the make-up of the shortlist, even just selecting from that longlist), but it's certainly defensible.
And very nice to see that all the polling numbers have been made public.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Natsume Sōseki's unfinished magnum opus, Light and Dark, just out in a new translation by John Nathan from Columbia University Press.
Several authors have taken it upon themselves to complete Sōseki's novel -- Nathan says there have been four full-length sequels -- and the most notable of these is Minae Mizumura's; it hasn't been translated into English yet, but her A True Novel just came out (and certainly makes me eager to see what she did with this story).