Is there any consistent relationship between a book's quality and its sales ?
Or again between the press and critics' response to a work and its sales ?
Are these relationships stable over time or do they change ?
Basically, he seems surprised by what seem to him -- given the press-raptures and (relatively) wall-to-wall coverage -- the rather middling sales figures for the US/UK editions of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle (see reviews of volumes one and two).
UK sales have (according to Bookscan, which doesn't capture the whole picture) "barely topped 22,000 copies", while US sales: "stood at about 32,000".
(Those seem like solid numbers for 'literary' stuff of this sort to me, but, hey, I know nothing of this industry and what might count for success, sales or otherwise.)
Unfortunately, Parks begins his argument with a rather big mistake, claiming, re. Knausgaard:
A search on The Guardian website has ten pages of hits for articles on Knausgaard despite the fact that his work wasn't published in the UK until 2012.
Obviously, Parks didn't bother looking too closely at those results, or he might have scratched his head why, in that case, Salley Vickers was reviewing a translation of a Knausgaard novel -- A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven -- on 7 November 2008.
Oh, that's right -- because Portobello Books published that in ... 2008.
[Updated - 22 July: this -- and the misspellings mentioned below -- have now been (quietly, and without admission of previous error) corrected; e.g. the passage now reads: "despite the fact that the first volume of My Struggle wasn’t published in the UK until 2012".
Which is at least an improvement (though it still seems worth mentioning that, for example, Knausgaard was hardly an unknown entity in the UK even in 2008).]
[I know this was a summer weekend post, and presumably the whole NYRB fact-checking crew is out in the Hamptons or something, but come on guys, that's something you catch by checking ... well, anywhere, even just on Amazon .....
Worse yet, in the next paragraph two author-names are misspelled -- it's not 'Jostein Gaardner' (Jostein Gaarder, maybe ?), nor is it 'Stieg Larssen' (Stieg Larsson).
Look, I know I probably average at least one typo/slip per post, but I do this by myself, late at night -- and I'm considerably more underpaid for my troubles than even the interns at the NYRB; surely such sloppy copyediting is unacceptable for such a site, and reaching an audience of this size.]
So, yeah, credibility quickly shot there .....
Still, Parks does raise some interesting questions -- and does offer some interesting Bookscan-number-reveals (I wouldn't have thought Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton -- better than any fiction he's published in ages -- would have shifted: "just 7,521 in hardback and only 1,896 in paperback" in the UK).
I guess what surprises me is Parks': "impression of huge and inevitable success" re. Knausgaard.
Despite closely following the often breathless coverage, I have never had this impression.
Knausgaard seems to me a specific kind of small-scale but intense success -- see, for example, the video of the line of people waiting for his recent McNally Jackson appearance.
Impressive, certainly, but also relatively clearly circumscribed.
Surely it's always been hard to see Knausgaard as any sort of potential mainstream-US/UK success -- something that the coverage actually seems to reinforce, as it focuses (near-relentlessly) on a relatively narrow reading-demographic.
Surely, also, Parks is going overboard with claims such as:
Meantime, since most newspapers have gone online and many have their own online bookshops, a certain confusion seems to be developing between reviewing and sales promotion.
Bestseller lists sit beside reviews on every webpage, as if commercial success were an index of quality, while one can often click on a link at the end of a review to buy the book.
I understand his concern that: "bestsellerdom is rapidly becoming the only measure of achievement that is undeniable" -- consider just The New York Times Book Review's pages and pages of (supposed-)bestseller lists.
Still, while I would love to see actual, hard sales numbers (i.e.: copies sold), any sort of reliance on bestseller lists would serve rather little purpose: knowing that the NYTBRlist this week has a book by someone named Brad Thor ahead of one by Catherine Coulter, with the ubiquitous co-written James Patterson at number four ... yeah, that doesn't have anything to do with my reading (or, might I suggest, with literary discussion of any sort -- other than of the turnover/sales-figure sort).
I have to admit to not really caring: there are books I review that I wish would reach more readers, but I think it's pretty clear from what's reviewed at this site (see, for example, the most recent reviews) that sales-success -- potential or actual -- doesn't really figure in what I cover.
(Updated - 21 July): See now also Scott Esposito's take(-down) of Parks' piece at his Conversational Reading weblog, Yes, Virginia, My Struggle Is a Bestseller.
(Addendum: of course, sales numbers do matter -- especially to publishers, many of whom care, to varying degrees, predominantly about the bottom line.
So it is scary to see 'services' like Next Big Book, which promises to analyze: "social, sales, and marketing signals to help you make smarter, braver decisions" (shivers down my spine !); see Doireann Ní Bhriain on The next big thing in books .....)
There's a PTP/NYC revival of David Edgar's Pentecost -- a play I saw in its original 1994 London production, and which is one of the earlier reviews on the site (now updated with new links and reviews).
The most recent addition to the complete review is a review-overview of Geoffrey Parker's landmark study on War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Global Crisis, which Yale University Press brought out last year.
Usually when I resort to just a review-overview (quotes; links; no personal review) it's because I don't have a copy of the book, or I gave it a shot but couldn't get through it.
This one, however, is one of those books which I just couldn't figure out how to review in any way usefully -- beyond perhaps basic summary.
That's presumably why I don't review much non-fiction, and particularly little history -- I (generally) lack the expertise to evaluate the history on offer.
Sure, here there's sort of a broader thesis that's certainly debatable -- and one that, especially in this day and age is worth engaging with -- but I don't have a proper response/reaction (yet ?).
Nevertheless, there's no question that this is an important book, so I do want to make you aware of it, and of some of the discussion surrounding it.
(Whereby I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion yet, both from a strictly historical perspective, as well as from a present-day climate-crisis-facing policy-considering one.)
It's hard to believe that the last Tom Stoppard play premiered almost a decade ago -- Rock 'n' Roll -- but he's delivered the next one to the National Theatre, and, after some delays, it's apparently scheduled to be Nicholas Hytner's parting production, in early 2015.
The Daily Mail (of all places ...) has the scoop, revealing (scroll down; third item) the play is apparently called:
'The Hard Problem,’ he said, poker faced. 'It's a bit premature to say much about it, to be honest', he said pausing.
'But it's not about erectile dysfunction, anyway.'
I am not encouraged by Stoppard being reduced to making Viagra®-jokes.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Tanigawa Nagaru's The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya -- the first in a series, which then also spawned a manga version, as well as a popular TV-anime adaptation.
(Works fine in prose; not so sure about the cartoon versions in print and on screen (definite personal bias, but ...).)
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Michel Déon's 1975 novel, The Foundling Boy, finally available in English, from Gallic Books.
I've mentioned that the lack of Déon-translations-into-English (there's only been one before this) is ... odd; he's well known (an 'immortel', even, member of the Académie française since 1978 (fauteuil 8)), been around forever (he was born in 1919) -- and he's a fine writer, as this volume certainly demonstrates.
Good for Gallic Books (and us) that they're bringing this and the sequel out.
Maybe Jean Dutourd next ?
Here, in the country of poets and thinkers, the idea that top-class writing can be developed is slow to catch on.
He compares the situation to the US and UK ("Universities in Anglo-Saxon countries tend to be more progressive than their German counterparts when it comes to integrating non-traditional fields of study") -- and tries to sell readers on why this sort of nonsense might be a good thing.
(Yeah, okay, I'll grant that MFA-trained US/UK: "writers are 'more polished' because of their writing training" -- but rarely is it the kind of polish I'm looking for or drawn to (or, indeed, even find bearable).
This is, of course, also a personal/style bias -- I can't stand the approach of the vast majority of journalism-school trained 'news'-writing (which seems to me to be anything but) that currently prevails in the US either.)
At least there's also a good quote re. writing in translation in the UK, director of the creative writing programme at UEA, Andrew Cowan, acknowledging:
"British publishing is extremely parochial and nervous of the public's receptiveness to writing in translation," he points out.
I'm not sure the polished prose of German MFA-graduates is going to do anything to change that.
They awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing last night (at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, because ... well, of course ...), and they've announced that My Father's Head, by Okwiri Oduor, took the prize.
There's apparently a new Planet of the Apes-movie out, and in The Los Angeles Times David L. Ulin takes that as occasion to look back at The transformation of 'Planet of the Apes,' from book to movie legend.
Pierre Boulle's book, on which the films are based, is, as Ulin notes, a bit different from the cinematic versions -- but it's good to see a bit of attention paid to the source material (and Boulle -- a man of many inspired ideas and much terrible writing (and even The Bridge over the River Kwai ...)).
They've announced the (very -- 24-title-strong) longlist for the ridiculously-named Russian 'Booker' prize, one of the leading Russian book prizes (which comes with a 1,500,000 ruble payout -- a decent $44,000 at current exchange rates (though it will presumably amount to less by the time they actually name the winner, on 5 December)).
As always, Lizok's Bookshelf has a good overview of the longlist, which includes quite a few familiar names -- I am (as I've previously noted) particularly curious about the Vladimir Sharov.
The six-title shortlist will be announced 8 October.
Adam Bellow -- Saul's kid -- writes at the National Review Online encouraging (American) 'conservatives' to Let Your Right Brain Run Free, suggesting that the American 'right': "may have reached the limit of what facts and reasoned arguments can do", and that fiction is the next area to conquer -- and so:
We need to invest in the conservative right brain.
A well-developed feeder system exists to identify and promote mainstream fiction writers, including MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics.
Nothing like that exists on the right.
Rarely has a piece both sent such shivers up my spine and had me laughing so hard .....
Adam Kirsch writes about what he thinks 'Adam Bellow and other conservatives get wrong about the political leanings of creators of imaginative fiction' at Tablet, in The Tea Party's New Front in the American Culture Wars: Literature (which is how I became aware of Bellow's piece), making some sensible arguments.
I can't really bring myself to respond -- basically because Bellow's piece is simply too fundamentally misguided to even begin to address.
(My own incomprehension of the simplistic, extreme, and total 'left'/'right' divide in American politics and society he posits also makes it hard for me to play along with his pseudo-arguments.)
In The New York Times Eve M. Kahn writes about Collecting Books That Are Just Covers -- any object: "that looks like a book but is not one".
This sounds/looks pretty neat -- but I have to admit that learning the preferred term for such things is apparently ... 'blooks' my interest has diminished greatly.
(Wikipedia still defines Blook as a: "printed book that contains or is based on content from a blog" -- why would you want to recycle a term that has already failed so miserably once before ?)
Can books cross borders ? Tim Parks mulls over once again, this time in the Financial Times, trying to frame the question around the current 'debate on the British school literature syllabus'.
A good point that some perhaps need reminding of:
Whether we're reading The Satanic Verses (1988) or The God of Small Things (1997), our exposure to the subcontinent is softened and mediated by endless references to western, usually English culture.
When translating Rushdie into French, German or Italian, for example, the problem is not with Indian references, all usefully explained, but the many allusions to English literature.
In Roy's book English connections to India are everywhere stressed; characters watch The Sound of Music, listen to "Ruby Tuesday", read The Jungle Book, are likened to Hansel and Gretel, quote Sir Walter Scott, play Handel's The Water Music and keep bottles of French perfume in the safe. Readers need never fear they are too far from home.
Meanwhile, huge numbers of novels appear in native Indian languages but are rarely translated for readers in the west. When they are, they are challenging.
UR Ananthamurthy's wonderful novels Samskara and Bhava introduce us to a truly foreign tradition with a completely different range of reference as they delve into changing religious customs.
But unmediated for a western public, they have not become part of the international conversation. Globalisation is not a level playing field.
(As I often note, however, it's not merely a question of mediation, but also more generally of access: these are books you're unlikely to find in US bookstores, and even I, who actively try to seek them out, have the damnedest time getting my hands on them.)
And while I don't always agree with Parks' opinion about specific works, I appreciate his calling out Andrés Neuman's Traveller of the Century (along with Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which I haven't yet read):
Here all is pastiche and cleverness, the supposedly historical setting merely a passport to fantasy that will travel.
These are the kind of books international literary prizes were invented for.
I can certainly also get on board with Parks' call:
Above all, students should be invited to wonder why they are being asked to read this or that book, if only to encourage them to think carefully when they choose books for themselves, so as not to fall victim to the intensifying hype that has turned out to be the most easily internationalised of all literary phenomena.
Tucked in here is also some information I haven't heard elsewhere yet: one of those recommending is Sarah Churchwell, who writes:
As I am a Man Booker prize judge this year, my summer reading list consists of 160 new novels that I can neither name nor (currently) endorse
As best I can tell, no one has made public the number of titles being considered for this year's Man Booker Prize -- presumably saving the announcement for the 23 July longlist announcement.
So is Churchwell's number her guesstimate (we've had judges tossing those out in previous years -- many of them seem to have a bad head for numbers) or is it the actual number ?
As longtime readers know, one of my biggest issues with the Man Booker (and many other literary prizes) is that they don't reveal the names of the submitted titles (a major issue since, given the strict limits on how many titles each publisher can submit, means that inevitably some (and possibly many) worthy titles are not even in the running).
Of course, this year is also the one where they've fairly dramatically changed the rules, both allowing books published in the UK by non-Commonwealth authors writing in English to be considered (i.e. opening the floodgates to US fiction) and changing the formula as to how many titles each UK publisher can submit; see my previous discussion for more about all that.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Andrei Bitov's The Symmetry Teacher.
I've repeatedly mentioned this, as one of the 2014 translations I was most eager to see -- and suggested months ago already that it was an early favorite to be one of the finalists for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.
Now it's finally out -- published last week, by Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- and I'm a bit disappointed by the limited initial reaction.
Yes, the trades reviewed it (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews), but apparently no one yet beyond them (and, well, now me).
(And the dismal Amazon-sales-rank suggests it certainly hasn't caught the attention of many readers yet.)
Okay, there's still lots of time for folks to get to it -- but recall that back in 1987/8 when Pushkin House came out, it was reviewed by John Updike (The New Yorker), John Bayley (The New York Review of Books), and Frank Kermode (The New York Times Book Review of the pre-Sam Tanehaus era).
And David Remnick profiled The Life and Work of Andrei Bitov: Author Regarded as 'One of Best Writers of Soviet Period' in The Washington Post Book World .....
Okay, Bitov is kind of an old-timer, and rooted in the Soviet world/literature (though that's barely noticeable here -- the novel's Russian-rootedness, yes; its Sovietness, no), and this is a work that has been in the making for some forty years (with earlier versions published in Russian and some other languages, but only excerpts appearing in English).
And it's not exactly easy reading -- though for those who like this kind of thing it offers a whole lot of rewards.
It is certainly an important work of fiction (as has also been recognized elsewhere: it was a finalist for 'Germany's International Literature Award' last year, along with books by Valeria Luiselli, Jean Rolin, Lloyd Jones, and eventual winner Teju Cole ...).
FSG also sent out a nice information-package with the book -- an 'Autobiography and an 'Anti-CV' Bitov supplied them with (which I'm surprised no periodical -- at least of the online variety -- ran).
It will certainly get some more attention -- but I wonder if it will get the attention it is due, and deserves.
In The Korea Herald Chung Joo-won finds examples of how local Small, unique booksellers survive competition.
Always nice to see -- and that 'Your Mind; locale sure does look impressive at nighttime -- but I'm not sure how helpful it is to learn that one store's secret to 'success' is ...:
We are not eager to become successful in terms of business, and that is probably why people find this place ever so relaxing and comfortable.
Long-term, I'm not so sure about that formula .....
There's translation support and there's translation support: Geisteswissenschaften International -- 'Translation Funding for Work in the Humanities and Social Sciences' -- certainly lends a nice hand in supporting the translation of German non-fiction (sigh) into English: they've just announced thirteen projects that will receive support to the tune of €200,000.
That works out to an average of almost US$21,000 per work -- the kind of cash any publisher of fiction-in-translation would kill for (or do almost anything just short of that, anyway).
Yes, more-or-less-academic non-fiction is a different beast, but still ... wow !
I recently mentioned that, in tidying up his affairs, German author Siegfried Lenz has established a biennial 'Siegfried-Lenz-Preis', an author prize that, at €50,000 vaults into the top tiers, money-wise, of German prizes.
As I also mentioned, I desperately hope it becomes known as the 'Siggi' .....
They've now announced who will pick up the prize this first time around, at a ceremony on 14 November (German prizes like to announce the winners way, way in advance, just in case ...) and it is ... the certainly deserving but already much awarded and hence ultra-safe (especially from a German perspective ...) Amos Oz.
(See, for example, the dpa report, Amos Oz ausgezeichnet.)
Hard to say what kind of a prize this is going to turn out to be, but as to the need of yet another literary prize that selects as its first laureate Amos Oz .....
I think there might be better ways of supporting the literary world.
Of course, if they start referring to the prize as the Siggi .....
At USA Today they offer Daniel Lefferts' list of The 7 most literary politicians in history (pretty much what he originally offered at Bookish in The Most Literary Politicians in History, just without specific mention of a title in each case).
I usually don't bother pointing you to these sorts of literary lists, but when they're this aggravating I sometimes can't help myself.
It's unclear whether or not the choices are meant to be ranked, but they are numbered 1 through 7 and the top choice is called: "one of the stars of this class" ("of true literary figures"), suggesting that they are.
One can quibble about that top choice -- Winston Churchill -- but his Nobel Prize in Literature is enough to earn him an honorary spot on any such list; still, without any fiction of note under his belt (Savrola, anyone ? maybe not ...), his literary fame rests entirely on the non-fiction.
And while that can be enough to make someone a 'literary figure' ... well .....
Anyway, the obvious top dog, a real novelist (and real politician), Disraeli, only comes up at number five.
Meanwhile, only one non-English-writing 'author' cracks the list -- the admittedly deserving Václav Havel.
As to the rest ... sure, Grant's memoirs are fine works -- but do those really make him a 'literary figure' ?
And Obama ?
I'm not so sure about their legacy in purely literary terms.
Meanwhile, surely any number of foreign statesmen have impressed more.
My personal choices would include the much-overlooked Henri Lopès -- one-time prime minister of Congo-Brazzaville, and author of several impressive works of fiction -- and, especially, A Thousand Deaths Plus One-author Sergio Ramírez, vice-president of Nicaragua from 1985-1990.
But many other well-regarded authors have also held high office, such as Hungarian president Göncz Árpád (1990-2000).
And don't forget that Mao Tse-Tung was a poet (the University of California Press recently brought out a nice edition; see their publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk) -- and published one of the bestselling books of all times (that little red thing ...).
And then there's the novelist Mussolini, author of The Cardinal's Mistress .....
At least serial-fiction co-author Newt Gingrich didn't make Lefferts' list -- but then that stuff isn't anything that could be called 'literary'.
Nicely done: at French Culture Juliette Coirier and Sophie Thunberg collect information about Award-Winning French Novels, looking at the 112 books that were nominated for or that won sixteen of the major French literary awards in 2013.
Fourteen are in the process of being translated, or translations are planned (the Yasmina Reza has actually already appeared in the UK (get your copy at Amazon.co.uk), though US readers will have to wait until early 2015); all are listed with their US publishers.
Even better: they offer more in-depth information about twelve of the titles, by authors who have not yet been translated into English.
Some interesting stuff here -- and I'm surprised Frédéric Verger's Arden hasn't been picked up by a US publisher yet.