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The Literary Saloon Archive

1 - 10 August

1 August: More literary prizes ! | Indian consolidation ? | Literature in translation under review
2 August: More NYTBR ranting | Checkpoint talk | Harry Stephen Keeler
3 August: Gombrowicz centenary | Ginzburg review | Writers’ Museum ?
4 August: Library of Unwritten Books | Tanenhaus interview | Enemies of Promise review
5 August: Grünbein in translation | Not such a gay old time at ZIBF
6 August: Abdel Haleem's Qur'an translation | Kermode on Coe and B.S.Johnson | Arab authors approaching Frankfurt
7 August: Checkpoint review | Zola review | Gordimer gets biography dumped | Bestseller list effects ? | Gotham Book Mart | Apologies for writing in English
8 August: Gloria Emerson | Out of print, out of luck ? | Wieseltier reactions | Robert Silvers profile
9 August: Marek Hlasko | One less inchoate literature | ZIBF round-up
10 August: Iraqi book market | A mere hundred million books ?

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10 August 2004 - Tuesday

Iraqi book market | A mere hundred million books ?

       Iraqi book market

       At Dar al Hayat Majed Al Samarrai looks at the Book Market In Iraq (link first seen at Yahoo !).
       Still something of a fumbling effort, but it does raise some of the pertinent questions:
The question remains: why type of reader are we going to see in Iraq today and in the future if the over flooding of books continues. The second question I would like to ask: will the book market in Iraq find someone who will work to rebalance this market by providing "the other book" such as philosophical books, or books that represent the creative sprit of our modern time ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       A mere hundred million books ?

       Michael Kanellos writes that Next-generation search tools to refine results at ZDnet. All about putting information on the Internet (or otherwise collecting it), and includes the interesting information:
About 100 million different books have been published in history, Kahle said, citing estimates from professor Raj Reddy at Carnegie Mellon University. About 28 million sit in the Library of Congress. On average, a book can be condensed to a megabyte in Microsoft Word. Thus, the books in the Library of Congress could fit into a 28-terabyte storage system.

"For the cost of a house, you could have the Library of Congress," Reddy said, adding that mass book-scanning projects are currently under way in India and China.
       Where do we make our down payment ? (But: will the bank give us a mortgage ? )
       Only a hundred million different titles. it sounds almost manageable .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

9 August 2004 - Monday

Marek Hlasko | One less inchoate literature | ZIBF round-up

       Marek Hlasko

       It's nice to see the Boston Globe devote some space to a worthy but still largely untranslated (and otherwise generally very hard to find) author, Marek Hlasko. James Sallis writes about: Hlasko: a 'man built of lies' who told a savage truth.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       One less inchoate literature

       In the Philippine Daily Inquirer Christine Godinez-Ortega reports Miguel Anselmo Azcona Bernad has decided, after forty years, that: "Philippine literature is no longer inchoate. We've advanced in many ways. The future of Philippine literature is assured"

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       ZIBF round-up

       The Zimbabwe International Book Fair has run its course. The Herald reports that ZIBF a success -- organisers. But: "Business was low at this year’s Zimbabwe International Book Fair".
       They did finally get around to announcing the Zimbabwe's 75 Best Books of the 20th Century, and the five best in each of three languages -- though the official site doesn't seem to list those top three-times-five (see The Herald article for those). The only one of all these titles we have under review is Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning (which we had our reservations about). (The other top English-language titles: One Day Long Ago by Charles Mungoshi, Bones by Chenjerai Hove, House Of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera, and Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga.)

       (Updated - 10 August): See also additional top-75 coverage here.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

8 August 2004 - Sunday

Gloria Emerson | Out of print, out of luck ? | Wieseltier reactions | Robert Silvers profile

       Gloria Emerson

       Gloria Emerson died on Wednesday, which we've been remiss in reporting. We have her novel, Loving Graham Greene, under review (though note that we were less impressed than most).
       Obituaries include Craig R. Whitney's for The New York Times (here at the non-registration requiring IHT) and Patricia Sullivan's at The Washington Post.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Out of print, out of luck ?

       In the (South African) Sunday Times Leon de Kock writes about Getting onto the A-list, about what it takes for authors whose works have gone out print to be rescued from oblivion (mainly, it seems to us: luck). A South African focus here, but a wide-spread problem. (We do our tiny part by reviewing some out-of-print work, but there are vast numbers of worthy titles that remain not readily available.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Wieseltier reactions

       As we mentioned, we've just reviewed Nicholson Baker's much-discussed novella, Checkpoint. So did Leon Wieseltier, for today's issue of The New York Times Book Review, and no sooner had his review hit the internet yesterday than the reactions started appearing. The early literary weblog-consensus is an overwhelming: poor job, wrong place. (NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus, who commissioned the piece -- and got exactly what he wanted -- also comes in for considerable criticism.)
       See commentary at:        We take this opportunity to mention: we told you so (repeatedly, actually, and for quite some time now): Tanenhaus' interest is not literary, and his ambitions for the NYTBR clearly lie elsewhere. (And he'll probably argue: when did a fiction review in the NYTBR last elicit such a passionate response ? (Never mind that much of the criticism points out that the piece isn't much of a fiction review .....))
       ((Updated - 9 August): Actually, the 8 August issue of the NYTBR does feature not only prominent but also (relatively) extensive fiction coverage -- at least compared to what we've been seing for the past few months.)
       As to the Wieseltier review: we disagree with his interpretation of the novella itself, and we disagree with the uses he puts it to (a springboard to jump considerably beyond anything one can attribute to Baker).
       But we have to say that, except for the Beatrice-reaction, we hardly recognise the book people are ostensibly discussing.

       (Updated - 10 August): See also Reality check at About Last Night -- and see also the excellent, continuing coverage at Rake's Progress on all things Checkpoint, for example here.

       (Updated - 11 August): See also The Wieseltier Fallout Continues (With Afterthoughts) at Beatrice.

       (Updated - 11 August): See also Some yin, others yang at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind and Check yourself before you wreck yourself at

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Robert Silvers profile

       In the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (and thus, yes, in German) Andrea Köhler profiles New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

7 August 2004 - Saturday

Checkpoint review | Zola review | Gordimer gets biography dumped
Bestseller list effects ? | Gotham Book Mart | Apologies for writing in English

       Checkpoint review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Nicholson Baker's much-discussed novella, Checkpoint.
       All the talk did make us curious, and the good folk at Knopf kindly (and speedily) got us a copy. We're glad we had a look: like few books we've come across it was nothing like what we expected. We're not quite sure what we expected -- but it certainly wasn't this.
       Checkpoint notoriously (so the pre-publication consensus) features a character who expresses the ambition to assassinate current American president George jr. Bush. But Americans really have a peculiar take on writing political fiction: yes, there's a lot of criticism (of sorts) of the jr. Bush administration in the book, but it's mostly talk, not real criticism. Far from being a radical, subversive text it struck us as being deeply conservative -- echoing the frustrations of the common man but ultimately siding with the idea of muffling (or 'working through') them, rather than tackling the actual root of the problem.
       Checkpoint is outrageous, but not in the way that those who haven't read the book have claimed. The outrage is in the moral of the tale -- a deeply disappointing one. Supporters of the president, and all those who have been spouting off about this liberal-intellectual attack should be particularly dismayed: it is, in fact, anything but. Baker may have been a Clinton-Lewinsky favourite, but this is fiction that is scared of politics, and ultimately decides to walk away from it.

       Other Checkpoint notes: get this: the German edition (!) will be published the same day as the US one (10 August); see the Rowohlt publicity page (meanwhile the British edition is only coming out in September). It's certainly less substantial than Clinton's My Life (another Knopf title recently and quickly translated) -- maybe 20,000 words -- but it's still pretty impressive they managed so quickly. It'll be interesting to see what the Germans -- who seem to prefer their Bush-bashing to be at Michael Moore-level (his books do phenomenally well there) -- make of it.
       Also: Knopf has announced a first printing of 75,000.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Zola review

       The second most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Arthur Goldhammer's new translation of Emile Zola's 1871 novel The Kill, the long-unavailable second volume in his Rougon-Macquart series.
       Like Checkpoint, it's also coming out 10 August -- a tough choice if you're going to the bookstore that day. But you could do worse than pick them both up.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Gordimer gets biography dumped

       Nobel laureate Nadime Gordimer apparently had the final say on whether or not the biography Ronald Suresh Roberts was working on would be the authorised one, and has now decided against it. In The Guardian Rory Carroll reports on the result:
The 80-year-old's objections led to publishers in the United States and Britain dumping the manuscript. "She is supposed to represent freedom of speech but she wanted complete control, tsar-like, which would have turned the manuscript into pious crap."

He supplied letters from Bloomsbury Publishing in London and the New York-based Farrar, Straus and Giroux which lavished praise on his book but made publication conditional on the approval of Ms Gordimer, whose novels and short story collections they publish.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Bestseller list effects ?

       In The Economist this week there's an article On entering the lists (link will only be freely accessible on or after 13 August). They report on a study by Alan T. Sorensen at the Stanford Graduate School of Business on what effect making the bestseller list has on book sales (i.e. do book sales really take off once a book makes the list, or is there no effect).
       Marina Krakovsky also discusses the study, summarising:
Sorensen estimates that previously best-selling authors got the least benefit from being on the New York Times list, while unknowns had the greatest jump in sales. On average, he estimates, appearing on the Times list might increase a book's first-year sales by 13 to 14 percent, but for first-time authors sales probably would increase by an impressive 57 percent. And for established authors like Danielle Steel or John Grisham whose every novel seems to become a bestseller, "the list has no discernible impact on sales," writes Sorensen.
       The study itself, Bestseller Lists and Product Variety: The Case of Book Sales, is also available online -- but only in the dreaded pdf format. But it does have nice charts.
       One semi-conclusion Sorensen makes:
Although the data are less than ideal for addressing this question, I present indirect evidence suggesting the business-stealing effects of bestseller lists are unimportant: if anything, bestseller lists appear to increase sales for both bestsellers and non-bestsellers in similar genres.
       I.e. bestsellers don't cannibalise sales from other books, which, if true, would certainly be comforting.
       Also interesting: actual hard numbers -- including the reminder that fiction titles (which dominate book-sales) are only a tiny fraction of the total:
over 100,000 titles were published in the year 2000 alone. In adult fiction, the number of new books published (called “title output” within the industry) has increased dramatically over the past decade. The industry’s trade publication, Bowker Annual, reports that title output for hardcover fiction more than doubled from 1,962 in 1990 to 4,250 in 2000. In contrast, the rate of increase was much more gradual prior to 1990. In fact, Bowker reports that the number of fiction titles in 1890 was over 1100, so title output had less than doubled in the 100 years prior to 1990
       Note: a) the big increase (compare this to Sam Tanenhaus recent comments (see our coverage) that one reason the NYTBR is reviewing so much more non-fiction than fiction is that: "There's a lot more nonfiction published these days than there used to be": -- as he remains oblivious to the fact that the same applies to fiction), and: b) the total is still tiny (less than 5 per cent of all titles in 2000).
       For additional bestseller discussions, see also our reviews of Michael Korda's Making the List and Jason Epstein's Book Business.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Gotham Book Mart

       New York City bookstore institution the Gotham Book Mart has finally moved into new (and more spacious) quarters, and Chekhov's Mistress offers a nice homage (with link to The New York Times' article on the move and the new quarters).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Apologies for writing in English

       In The Daily Star there's an editorial asking Why do some of us write poetry in English ? and Kaiser Haq's more detailed explanation, An apology for Bangladeshi poetry in English.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

6 August 2004 - Friday

Abdel Haleem's Qur'an translation | Kermode on Coe and B.S.Johnson
Arab authors approaching Frankfurt

       Abdel Haleem's Qur'an translation

       The Qur'an poses many translation-problems, and now there's another interesting review of M.A.S. Abdel Haleem's recent translation which discusses some of these, Ziauddin Sardar's in the New Statesman.
       Hard to convey, surely, a text which:
has a specific lattice structure that connects every word and every verse with every other word and verse by rhythm, rhyme and meaning.
       But Sardar reports:
For those interested in getting to the heart of the holy text, the good news is that there is now a much more accurate translation available. Muhammad A S Abdel Haleem, professor of Islamic studies at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, has set out not only to translate the text faithfully, but also to make it accessible to ordinary English readers. He achieves this by offering a purely linguistic reading of the Qur'an. He transforms the Holy Book's complex grammar and structure into smooth, contemporary English mercifully free from archaisms, anachronisms and incoherence. The result is both accessible and compelling.
       The Economist also reviewed it, a couple of months back. Also of interest; an interview with translator Soha El Saman at IslamOnline.

       See also the Oxford University Press publicity page, or get your own copy of this new edition at or

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Kermode on Coe and B.S.Johnson

       Frank Kermode's London Review of Books piece on B.S.Johnson and Jonathan Coe's recent biography, Like a Fiery Elephant, is now available.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Arab authors approaching Frankfurt

       Al-Ahram Weekly continues its good coverage of the Arabic preparations for being the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair this fall. In this week's issue they have Four young writers assess the prospect of the Arab world guest of honour presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
       The four are: Iman Mersal ("the Arab League's official representative for 'young writers' " -- though he's already 37), Ibrahim Farghali, Ahmed El-Aidi, and Zahra Yousri.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

5 August 2004 - Thursday

Grünbein in translation | Not such a gay old time at ZIBF

       Grünbein in translation

       We have eight volumes by German poet Durs Grünbein under review, but so far no book-length collections have been published in English translation. Yesterday we received the Winter 2005 catalogue from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and were thrilled to see that they have scheduled Ashes for Breakfast, an apparently generous selection of Grünbein's poetry (272 pages worth) translated by (who else ?) Michael Hofmann, for publication in February 2005. (See their publicity page, or pre-order at; there doesn't seem to to be a British publisher yet.)
       It's about time !
       There's a decent sampling of Grünbein's poetry, in the original and Hofmann's translation, here, at the excellent Poetry International Web site.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Not such a gay old time at ZIBF

       Keeping the focus on books is always a problem, even at literary fairs. We figured other issues might cause more trouble at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (like the extraordinary misrule of Robert Mugabe), but no, it's that good old stand-by, worries about homosexuals undermining ... well, whatever can still be undermined in Zimbabwe (not much, that's for sure), that seem to have caused the biggest fuss.
       New Zimbabwe reported that Gays flee exhibition after mob attack at book fair. As they express it: "Zimbabwe's gays and lesbians partially aborted their exhibition at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) on Monday after they were attacked by people opposed to their cause."
       There was apparently a "baying mob" involved; it does not sound like it was pleasant.
       This isn't the first time this issue has caused problems at ZIBF (or in Zimbabwe generally). But it's impressive that the organisation got a stand at the fair in the first place -- the judiciary showing some independence (which suggests there's some hope for the country after all):
Homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe but the ZIBF allowed Galz to participate at this year’s event after the High Court ruled that the association had the right to exhibit.
       Not entirely reassuring the official ZIBF position:
ZIBF executive director, Samuel Matsangaise told weekend papers that his organisation found nothing wrong with Galz's participation. "If they were an illegal entity the police would have arrested them by now," Matsangaise said.
       Unfortunately, Mr. Matsangaise doesn't seem to have expressed much outrage or disappointment about the actions of the baying mob; presumably the same logic applies.
       The Herald also reported on these events, in Galz members beaten up, chased from ZIBF -- and the somewhat more agreeable follow-up, Galz back at fair. The publicity has apparently led to an odd sort of success:
The Galz stand was the busiest yesterday as many people visited the stand to register their discontent on the organisation’s participation in the exhibition.
       Dialogue is always good, but we suspect that's not what was going on; there was probably still a lot of baying in the background. How nice it would be if the focus were on the books, though.

       For a more general look at what's been happening at ZIBF, see another article from The Herald, ZIBF gains momentum.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

4 August 2004 - Wednesday

Library of Unwritten Books | Tanenhaus interview | Enemies of Promise review

       Library of Unwritten Books

       Lots of literary weblog mentions for this story already, but we think it's worth another: at the BBC Ian Youngs reports on The art of not writing books (link first seen at ArtsJournal, but everyone seems to have it by now):
Imaginary novels and incredible stories are being collected for posterity in an unconventional UK arts project, the Library of Unwritten Books.
       The actual Library of Unwritten Books site is also worth a visit. They explain:
The concept was inspired by a fictional book repository created by American writer, Richard Brautigan, in The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. The main character is the caretaker of a library in San Francisco where anyone who writes a book can bring it to be added to the shelves. After Brautigan’s suicide, fans started real libraries inspired by his concept.
       We think this is a grand idea. Far too many people like to think they have a book in them and then toil away, producing ... less than impressive results. This way, they can still get credit for having a book in them, without actually inflicting a completed work on the world. Everyone is better off !
       Alas, this alternative library may not have all the desired effects. Among the visitors' comments is the disappointingly enthusiastic:
Makes you want to write a book. Inspirational.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Tanenhaus interview

       At Mediabistro David S. Hirschman asks the new editor of The New York Times Book Review So What Do You Do, Sam Tanenhaus ? (link first seen at PoynterOnline). Since we recently (and again) ranted about the paucity of fiction-coverage at the NYTBR we were naturally curious to read what Tanenhaus had to say.
       It's a decent little piece -- a good introduction to the man and office. But, of course, we weren't satisfied by the answers (or questions, come to think of it). Not that we're too bothered: Tanenhaus can talk and protest and defend until he's blue in the face, but the proof is in the pudding -- i.e. the NYTBR itself -- and until we see something there we won't be impressed by anything anyone says.
       Certainly, he proves himself to continue to be adept at the craft of spin (or diplomacy). You gotta love answers like:
How have you dealt with the history of the section ? How are you making it your own ?
I don't know that it's my own. It still feels like there's an institutional history that I don't want to necessarily disrupt. (...)
The biggest changes will probably be in appearance and presentation, though. This will be more evident in the fall when we launch our redesign, in early October. This won't be dramatically different; it's just mainly a matter of making the section more contemporary and incorporating new elements into the page.
       He deflects taking responsibility adeptly enough to make the junior Bush proud ("I don't know that it's my own."). And then the concluding emphasis: the biggest difference is that it is going to look different -- but that's practically inconsequential ("This won't be dramatically different"), so don't let it scare you.
       (To his credit, we must acknowledge that Tanenhaus is correct in saying that he's just carrying on the tradition of the NYTBR: the McGrath-era similarly over-emphasised non-fiction, and he certainly hasn't done a thing to change that.)
       Addressing the many various reproaches hurled against him (none too neatly not quite summed up in a lengthy doubled-up all-in-one-question), Tanenhaus does at least explain what he meant by the upcoming prominent fiction coverage he promised recently:
You've been criticized lately by some writers for giving too much space to mass-market books and nonfiction, and not enough to young writers or serious fiction in general. Is this on purpose ? How does this relate to Bill Keller's comment about moving toward more mass-market and genre books ?
There's a lot more nonfiction published these days than there used to be. We do our best to do fiction; our cover review for this Sunday is a novel and it is for the next week after that as well.
       Sorry, we can't help but giggle (as we wipe away the tears). Even he can't manage to spin this convincingly (and you'd figure he'd have had enough practise by now). A lot more non-fiction is being published ? Everybody keeps telling us there's a lot more fiction being published too. (The message ? Yet again: fiction simply, literally doesn't count.)
       Why is it we once again suspect that what he really means is that there's a lot of (or, possibly, a lot more) non-fiction being published which Sam Tanenhaus thinks is far more important than almost any works of fiction currently being published. Hey, it's a valid opinion -- we just happen to vehemently (and noisily and frequently) disagree. It seems to us Tanenhaus is deluding either himself or his readers. (We thought, at first, that it was a plain old con job on his part, but we're beginning to believe he actually believes what he's saying, and just can't process the facts -- i.e. that they're doing a lousy job of covering serious fiction at the NYTBR.)
       And: at the NYTBR they do their best "to do fiction" ? Well, maybe we'll just have to take his word for it. Unfortunately, that best is pretty damn miserable.
       When he has to bring out cover-coverage ("our cover review for this Sunday is a novel and it is for the next week after that as well") to suggest he gives much of a damn about fiction -- prominence substituting for substance -- well, what more need be said ? Except that, as we understand it, the forthcoming (8 August) cover-review is of Nicholson Baker's controversial Checkpoint (updated (11 August): which we now also have under review -- and see also our coverage of the Wieseltier reactions). Which, we suspect, gets its prominent place not because it's a worthy work of fiction (though it very well might be), but because it's already stirred such a controversy, and just happens to deal with current events (George jr. Bush ! the invasion of Iraq !). Timely, perhaps, but again: not necessarily the right way of considering fiction.

       Among the most interesting responses -- though this might have resulted from him mishearing the question -- is:
What do you think were some of the most important novels to come out in the past year ?
Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow is really a substantial book. Also stuff by a lot of major novelists: Philip Roth, John Updike, Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, Cynthia Ozick, E. L. Doctorow. The new book from David Foster Wallace. Also, particularly, Colm Toibin's The Master, which we ran a substantial review of.
       Hirschman asks about novels that came out "in the past year"; Tanenhaus responds with a list of authors (tellingly, he only mentions two titles -- authors count more than books in his non-fiction fixated world -- and refers to the authors' work itself as "stuff" (okay, we do that sometimes too)), at least a third of whose books have not yet come out. Among the books we recognise, the Pamuk, Roth, and Ozick haven't appeared yet, and in some cases won't for a while. Either Tanenhaus misheard the question, or he's living in that fantasy-review land where advanced review copies circulate many months before the public sees the books. (We live, in part, in that world too -- that's why you can already read a review of Ozick's forthcoming Heir to the Glimmering World here.) But for someone so on top of current events it's an odd disconnect from the reading public, who won't be able to get their hands on these books for a while, and for whom they are therefore definitely not novels that came out "in the past year" -- or, in a way (at least for now), at all. (Possibly he thinks that readers couldn't possibly be much interested in fiction, so who cares if a book is available or not ?)
       And, just to be obnoxiously pedantic, the E.L.Doctorow (Sweet Land Stories) and the David Foster Wallace (Oblivion) -- and the Updike ? (we're not sure what book he means) -- are all story-collections, not novels. But somehow it just doesn't come as a surprise any more that Tanenhaus can't name a dozen novels worth reading published in the last year. We're tempted to say (so we will): the only surprise is that he can name any at all.
       (He's right about the Toibin-review, by the way: that really was substantial fiction coverage -- but it's proven to be among the exceptions. But, just to rub it in, note that Toibin's novel is almost documentary in its composition, fiction that in many ways resembles non-fiction (in both subject-matter and how it is written). Not surprisingly, this is something Tanenhaus can approve of, and consider worthy of attention.)

       Finally, note the next-to-final answer, meant, no doubt, to again reassure:
Do you get to read a lot yourself ?
I try to read a lot, particularly fiction.
       Well, he tries. A for effort, eh ? And maybe he really does read a lot of fiction. We'd much rather he didn't read any -- but gave it extensive review-coverage.

       We sort of feel bad for Mr. Tanenhaus, who seems like a decent enough guy. But he's doomed to find his every utterance get parsed to pieces by fanatics who have very strong feelings on the subject(s) (like us). No doubt, if he suddenly gave fiction its due space in the NYTBR a whole other gang of protesters would crawl out of the woodwork, complaining that too much space has been taken from non-fiction coverage, etc. etc. It's pretty much a no-win situation.
       What bothers us -- aside from the fact that we think we're right (fiction coverage should be the top priority at the NYTBR -- and almost everywhere else in the world (okay, that's going a bit overboard, but he's really gotten our fanatical juices flowing)) -- is that Tanenahus tries too hard to please all sides with his words, and doesn't back it up with action. Admittedly, the answers he gives here and elsewhere are carefully spun -- he claims he likes fiction, but that of course shouldn't be taken to suggest he'll actually cover it much; he speaks of prominent fiction coverage (a cover or two !) but not extensive coverage, etc. -- so he's hardly being dishonest. But the impression one gets is that maybe there is some hope for fiction coverage at the NYTBR after all, and that looks more and more like a very empty promise (though he's careful never to actually promise it). In a way, we'd prefer Tanenhaus just to plunge the knife in and tell us that, since fiction, with a few exceptions -- if he can remember the titles --, is essentially worthless (and certainly not worth the time of day, much less a few paragraphs in the NYTBR) we should go shove it and leave the NYTBR to do the job he sees it should be doing: covering the non-fiction titles of the day, and a few pop fiction books people might want to pick up when they're at the airport or supermarket if they really have to waste some time on mere fiction.

       (Updated - 6 August): See also the commentary at The Reading Experience.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Enemies of Promise review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of yet another of those neat little Prickly Paradigm Press polemics, Lindsay Waters on Publishing, Perishing and the Eclipse of Scholarship in Enemies of Promise.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

3 August 2004 - Tuesday

Gombrowicz centenary | Ginzburg review | Writers’ Museum ?

       Gombrowicz centenary

       Witold Gombrowicz would have turned 100 tomorrow. At least in some places they are celebrating in proper style -- see, for example, The Witold Gombrowicz Birthday Week. Elsewhere ... well, as Benjamin Paloff wrote in Witold Gombrowicz, and to Hell with Culture:
Witold Gombrowicz is probably the most important twentieth-century novelist most Western readers have never heard of
       (Well, German readers can enjoy an Adam Zagajewski essay, Warum Gombrowicz ?, in the 31 July issue of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Maybe some English-language publication will reprint it .....)

       Despite being fans, we actually haven't done a good job spreading the Gombrowicz-word either: the only one of his books we have under review is Trans-Atlantyk -- one of our less than useful reviews (translation can bring out the worst in us and it sure did here: we were with John Bayley on this one: "the English of Trans-Atlantyk is simply not tolerable, as English or as anything else").
       But among the books we've recently received from archipelago books (more about them at a later date -- though it's hard not to gush about their impressive programme) is the Gombrowicz story-collection Bacacay. It's only due out in October (see their publicity page, or pre-order at or but we're already itching to review it. Maybe along with Ferdydurke (always worth revisiting). Or even the Diaries.)

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       Ginzburg review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of a book containing a series of Italian radio-interviews with Natalia Ginzburg (another author we'd like to cover in more depth), It's Hard to Talk About Yourself.

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       Writers’ Museum ?

       Edinburgh wants to be recognised by UNESCO as a World City of Literature, and in The Scotsman Paul Scott maintains: Edinburgh should celebrate its proud literary tradition.
       Talk (and, presumably, actual writing) are well and good:
But declarations and recognitions are not enough. We have to produce accessible and visible evidence so that anyone can see what we are talking about. That means a comprehensive Writers’ Museum.
       Maybe they could name some more streets after writers, too -- that makes it sound like they really care about literature too, and keeps the names in circulation.

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2 August 2004 - Monday

More NYTBR ranting | Checkpoint talk | Harry Stephen Keeler

       More NYTBR ranting

       We were impressed to see that The New York Times Book Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, responded to a recent open letter at The Elegant Variation; it's (slightly) reassuring to see that he is aware of some of the concerns readers of the NYTBR have and is willing to (sort of) address them.
       TEV specifically complained about the last page in last week's issue, which had nothing to do with books in any form, and suggested there was a lot of fiction worthy of attention -- and that (or any) space. (We registered a similar complaint, protesting more generally that fiction was still being ignored at the NYTBR.)
       We've pretty much given up on the back page of the NYTBR; this week it is an essay the Teller-half of Penn and Teller wrote about a book by the Penn half -- no doubt another different aspect "of the literary-intellectual life" apparently traditionally explored on this page (so Tanenhaus maintains in his TEV-response). It's worth arguing over -- but it's just the one page; the real problems at the NYTBR seem much more deeply rooted.
       We refer, of course, to their fiction coverage.
       Tanenhaus' TEV-response plays neat rhetorical tricks in trying to convey a true concern for fiction (emphasis added):
an issue in which prime space went to four short-story collections. We also recently published a "Chronicle" on first novels (and then singled out two of those novels for our Bear in Mind feature). And stay tuned: you’ll see fiction prominently reviewed in the weeks to come.
       The Bear in Mind feature ? Is that a big deal ? Do readers even look at that column, unless they've missed an issue, or need a gift-idea ?
       And: "Stay tuned" ? Why the TV-lingo referring to a book publication ?
       But never mind the subtle wordplay: what about the promises ? We can expect prominent fiction coverage ! But can we expect more coverage ? Or even just a decent amount ?

       Looking at yesterday's issue (1 August) of the NYTBR one might think things aren't too bad. There are five full-length reviews of five non-fiction titles, and four full-length reviews of four fiction titles. It almost looks like parity. (Okay, there's a Books in Brief section too -- they haven't gotten rid of it entirely -- and that's devoted entirely to non-fiction titles (six of them), but everyone knows those reviews don't count. There are no other reviews -- no Crime or Science Fiction shorts, etc.)
       So: there are nine full-length reviews. Put them in order by length (word-count) and a funny thing happens. The longest reviews -- 1 through 5, by length -- are the non-fiction reviews. Reviews 6 through 9 by length: the fiction reviews.
       In fact the three shortest full-length reviews (of the books by M.J. Hyland (573 words), Jonathan Ames (590), and Jay Rayner (807)) put together contain less words (1970) than the longest review (of Deborah Jowett's Jerome Robbins (1989 words)).

       Total word-count of the non-fiction reviews: 6752
       Total word-count of the fiction reviews: 2884

       That means that over 70 per cent of the review space is taken up by non-fiction coverage. Throw in the 1260 words of the Books in Brief reviews, and non-fiction coverage amounts to almost three-quarters of the entire issue. So much for parity, and any appearance thereof.

       Maybe Tanenhaus can rationalise this by telling himself that non-fiction books require more words of explication. (But an average of 1350 words per non-fiction review versus 721 for the fiction reviews ?) Maybe he doesn't even realise what he's doing (though one of the ambitions he has expressed has been to vary review-length, which used to be limited to two standard lengths -- something he has clearly put into practise).
       To us it seems clear: for Tanenhaus, non-fiction is what counts. Non-fiction is more important. It deserves to be considered more closely (hence the longer reviews). And more of it has to be considered -- more than fiction, anyway (hence almost always more -- and often far more -- non-fiction titles reviewed than fiction titles).
       Sure, there's some fiction coverage. Maybe there will even occasionally be prominent fiction coverage. But it sure as hell doesn't look like there will ever be an adequate amount of it.

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       Checkpoint talk

       At Newsweek David Gates talks with Nicholson Baker about Checkpoint.
       Gates warns:
Checkpoint provides even fewer conventional satisfactions -- anybody looking for a postmodern Manchurian Candidate will be really, really disappointed.
       And surely no one will be pleased to hear:
Despite what you hear from critics on the right, Baker is too ambivalent and too politically unreliable to be the Michael Moore of literature. And now that he's got the book off his chest, he actually feels better about Bush.

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       Harry Stephen Keeler

       At NPR they talk about The Case of the Horrifying Mystery Writer, Harry Stephen Keeler.
       We'd like to have a look at some of his stuff sometime; it does sound fun.
       Additional information can be found at:
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1 August 2004 - Sunday

More literary prizes ! | Indian consolidation ? | Literature in translation under review

       More literary prizes !

       At the Mail & Guardian Maggie Davey gives A vote of confidence to literary prizes, which keep sprouting in South Africa: "There is no finite number of literary awards that a country can have. The more the better !" She emphasises: "a national book trust for South Africa is urgently needed", but thinks literary prizes are also a wonderful thing:
An increase in the number of literary prizes in South Africa will have a knock-on effect on the kinds of writing we will produce and publish. Writers will be less afraid to try different genres. We can look forward to more transgressive and dissenting writing.
       For a description of one of the new prizes -- supported by her publishing house and the European Union (we have no idea why they're involved), among others -- see New award for SA writing.

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       Indian consolidation ?

       Do they have to start worrying about the consolidation of publishing in India already ? At OutLook India Bibliofile wonders:
Is it the death knell for small publishers ? IndiaInk, the publishing imprint launched expressly to bring out Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things in India in 1996, has sold out to Roli Books. The deal, reportedly for half a crore of rupees, was signed in Delhi on July 28.
       See also Meenakshi Kumar's report, Plum deal, at Hindustan Times.
       Roli Books -- "Celebrating 25 Years of Establishment" ! -- has the decidedly less literary list, so this doesn't sound too promising. But one-man operations like IndiaInk have it tough regardless of the market.

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       Literature in translation under review

       More self-analysis, as we wonder: How international are we ? Literature in translation at the complete review.

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