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Preview: the Literary Saloon

the Literary Saloon

opinionated commentary on literary matters

Copyright: Copyright 2017 the Complete Review

'Prix des Prix'
       The French 'Prix des Prix' -- 'prize of pizes' -- is a clever idea, pitting the winners of the eight biggest French literary prizes (Académie française, Décembre, Femina, Flore, Goncourt, Interallié, Médicis, and Renaudot) against one another -- and they've now announced this year's winner, the prix Renaudot-winning title, La disparition de Josef Mengele, by Olivier Guez; see, for example, the Livres Hebdo report.

       The (sales-)significance of the 'big' literary prizes in France is also reflected in the sales figures: Goncourt-winner L'ordre du jour (by Eric Vuillard) is tops among rentrée littéraire-titles, with 176,600 sold to date, while La disparition de Josef Mengele is third (98,600) -- with the latest Amélie Nothomb, the non-prize-winning Frappe-toi le cœur, slipping in between them (with 137,600 sold); see the Livres Hebdo infogram.

Han Kang Q & A
       In The Guardian Hannah Beckerman has a Q & A with The Vegetarian-author Han Kang.

Burning Deck
       The review copies arrived in July, accompanied by the letter announcing that: "here are the last two books published by Burning Deck Press" -- sad news indeed.
       It was a long -- over half a century -- and very good run, and at the Words without Borders Dispatches weblog Eric M.B. Becker now offers: Experimental Poetry Press Closes Shop: An Interview with Burning Deck's Rosmarie Waldrop.

       (Several -- though not nearly enough -- Burning Deck titles are under review at the complete review -- for example: Frédéric Forte's Minute-Operas.)

UK publishers hits and misses
       One of The Guardian's most-loved annual features is now out, as they get publishers to comment on the Best books of 2017: the hits and misses of the publishers' year.
       Always interesting to see which of their titles they believe: "deserved to do better" -- and which: "I wish I'd published".

Spanish 'best books of the year' list
       Now El País weighs in with their list of Los 20 mejores libros de 2017.
       Berta Isla, by Javier Marías, was named 'libro del año'; no doubt, this will be appearing in English (fairly) soon.
       Meanwhile, big collections by dead American authors also did very well: Robert Frost (3), Henry James (10), William Carlos Williams (13). And, aside from books originally written in Spanish, translations from the English dominated, with only one translation each from the Romanian and French slipping in.

US literary translator survey
       The (American) Authors Guild surveyed literary translators, and now reports on the results; see the overview-piece, A Glimpse into the World of U.S. Literary Translators, as well as 2017 Authors Guild Survey of Literary Translators' Working Conditions: A Summary (warning ! dreaded pdf format !).
       Note that: the survey "was distributed online ", and they received (only) 205 responses (out of: "approximately 1,200 total recipients" -- an underwhelming response-rate of one in six (which, of course, also means it's not clear whether or not these results are truly representative of the American translating scene -- but, hey, it's better than no information ...)).
       There are some strikingly skewed numbers, and the one that really jumped out at me is that an astonishing 43 per cent responded as holding "a Ph.D. or equivalent". Given that, in the general population, less than two per cent have Ph.Ds [the census report Educational Attainment in the United States: 2017 reports 1.66 per cent of Americans over 18 have a Ph.D. and 1.88 per cent of those over 25], this is an incredible disparity with the 'real world', and suggests that literary translation in the US is very 'academic' (though there is no obvious reason that it should/must be, beyond possibly that, like much creative writing in the US, it has become institutionalized: the academy is where translators can make a living, but they need the advanced degree (or at least it really helps to have it) in order to get a spot in the ivory tower). What that means, I leave for others to consider -- but I would suggest that this is something worth closer study. (I'd be curious how this rate compares with translators in other countries and cultures as well.)
       Disappointingly, only this summary of the results is on offer, not the detailed break-down -- e.g. we're told that: "Respondents translate from a total of 42 languages", but aren't provided a full break-down of those .....
       Among the more/most disappointing observations:
A worrying 41% of respondents report that payment of their fee has sometimes depended on the publisher receiving a grant.
       Worrying indeed -- and further proof (as if it were needed ...) how grant-reliance skews the market (and hurts languages for which fewer grants are available).
       Fairly shockingly, too:
66% of prose translators report that they always or usually retain copyright on their translations, while 17% sometimes do, and 17% usually do not.

The Joy of Being Awake review
       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Héctor Abad's The Joy of Being Awake.

'Literary fiction in crisis' (again ...) ?
       I like the sensational headline -- Literary fiction in crisis as sale drop dramatically, Arts Council England reports reports Alison Flood in The Guardian -- but I hate this kind of article. Not for its ostensible conclusion, but the presentation.
       Most frustrating:
  • For the life of me, I can't find the report (or indeed any other mention of it) online. Great, The Guardian has 'the scoop' -- but I don't want their digest-summary, I want the actiual report. (Note: it may be somewhere on the Arts Council England site, but I'll be damned if I can find it (or pretty much anything ...) there. I'm sure the fancy site-design is 'tablet-friendly' (for some sort of tablet, in some sort of universe...), but....)

  • The report was: "Carried out by digital publisher Canelo". Huh ? What ? Why ? Canelo is an e-book publisher -- a publisher. What's their expertise ? (Also: no mention of the report at their site either .....)

  • There's a whole mess of dates in this article, and it's entirely unclear what period was covered -- "the report analysed sales data from Nielsen BookScan and found that between 2007 and 2011 [...]" at one point, while there's a 'Guardian graphic' going up to 2016. This is a grab-bag of numbers and time-spans -- no way can any conclusions from this mix-and-match mess be relied on.

  • The emphasis is on £, rather than unit-sales, e.g.: "the price of the average literary fiction book has fallen in real terms in the last 15 years" (arguably a positive -- certainly for consumers, who get a bigger literary bang for their buck); "between 2007 and 2011, hardback fiction sales slumped by £10m", etc. Yes, money matters, but surely the actual number of books sold is a better indicator of the health of 'literary' (and other) fiction. Not the market -- screw the market -- but the field.
       Of course, a little hysteria about the demise of fiction and the end of the novel and the collapse of serious reading and all that stuff is always good fun -- but can't we at least get some actual numbers (not cherry- or at least very selectively picked, as here, but rather all of them (yes, this mysterious report also apparently relies solely on Nielsen BookScan data -- a limited pool in the first place ...)) for our debates ?

Burmese Literary Conference
       At least it looks pretty ambitious: The Global New Light of Myanmar, for example, reports on the Literary Conference 2017 in Yangon "under the theme of 'Free Literature and Free Voice'", while the Straits Times reported that Aung San Suu Kyi stresses literary development for nation building.

       (Bonus titbit: not only is The Global New Light of Myanmar an impressive newspaper name, but it started out in 1964 as The Working People's Daily.)

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil review
       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Stephen Collins' graphic novel, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil.

German 'best books of the year' list
       Die Zeit has critics select Die besten Bücher des Jahres, in various categories.
       I'm not sure dividing things up by 'easy to read' and 'for advanced readers' is very helpful (and honestly, when you have critics putting the same book (e.g. Daniel Kehlmann Tyll) in both, that's just plain confusing ...). On the other hand, listing (among others) Robert Menasse's German Book Prize-winning Die Hauptstadt under 'Also for younger readers' (i.e. the YA section), suggests the general reading-standards expectations are pretty high.

Rabisankar Bal (1962-2017)
       Bangla-writing author Rabisankar Bal (1962-2017) has passed away; see, for example, the Times of India report
       His novel Dozakhnama is quite impressive, and I should really get a review up: how can one not be curious about a novel subtitled: Conversation in Hell -- with that conversation between leading literary lights Manto and Ghalib; see the Penguin publicity page, or get your copy at or

Prix Simone de Beauvoir
       They've announced that the 2018 prix Simone de Beauvoir pour la liberté des femmes will go to Turkish author (The City in Crimson Cloak, etc.) Aslı Erdoğan; see, for eample, the Livres Hebdo report.

'World Literature' in the US
       An interesting piece by Norton Anthology of World Literature-general editor Martin Puchner at Inside Higher Ed, Learning From World Literature in the South.
       Fascinating to learn that:
Our next lesson came when we learned where the anthology would be taught: world literature was a North American phenomenon. Even though the United States is famously provincial in that only about 2 percent of books sold are translations from abroad, it is the world leader in world literature courses. The most important reason is structural: the looseness of the American-style liberal arts education accommodates broad survey courses more easily than the more specialized systems dominant in the rest of the world.

More to the point, world literature is a phenomenon of the southern United States. The 11 southern states contained only 14 percent of the nation’s population, but they accounted for half of our adopters.
       (But, still, great though it is to see Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz gaining readers, it's hard to imagine Goethe being plausibly/reasonably crowded out -- he's woefully under-read and -appreciated in English as is.)

WLT's '75 Notable Translations of 2017'
       At World Literature Today Michelle Johnson lists their '75 Notable Translations of 2017' -- certainly useful, as a quick reference, covering many (but not all ...) of the most significant translations published in 2017.
       (Quite a few -- but far from all, around a quarter or so -- of these are under review at the complete review.)

9mobile Prize for Literature longlist
       What used to be the Etisalat Prize for Literature -- "the first ever pan-African prize celebrating first time writers of published fiction books" -- has been re-branded as the 9mobile Prize for Literature, and they've now announced the longlist for the 2018 prize; the list at Ventures Africa is slightly easier to read .....
       The nine-title-strong longlist is dominated by titles from Nigeria and South Africa. Yes, they're all by authors from either Nigeria (4) or South Africa (5) .....
       The shortlist will be announced next month.

Corridors of Shadow review
       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Galician autor Agustín Fernández Paz's Corridors of Shadow.

       Small Stations Press -- who specialize in translations-from-the-Galician -- brought this out last year, and it's the third of their Fernández Paz-titles reviewed at the complete review. (The author passed away last year.) These aren't hidden treasures or anything, but they're nice little books -- basically YA, but solid through and through; not exceptional, but definitely a cut above average, and with enough to them to stand out in small ways; as a teen I would have wolfed them down; you can see why he was so successful (locally). This is exactly the sort of 'international fiction' that we see (and buy ...) far too little of !

Anne Garréta Q & A
       At The Paris Review's The Daily weblog Sarah Gerard has a lengthy Q & A with French (and Oulipo) author Anne Garréta -- great to see, because she's generally neither garrulous nor particularly public.
       Lots of interesting stuff, including about the reception of her work in France and now, much later, in English.
       Both her novels available in translation are under review at the complete review: Sphinx and Not One Day.

Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature
       They've announced that this year's Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature goes to مُخمَل ('Velvet'), by Huzama Habayeb; see, for example, Mohammed Saad's report at ahramonline, Palestinian writer Huzama Habayeb wins 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, as well as coverage at Arabic Literature (in English), Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature to Huzama Habayeb for 'A New Kind of Palestinian Novel'.
       This prize from the American University in Cairo Press includes the promise of translation and publication of the work into English, so it will be available to English-reading audiences eventually too.

Icelandic Literary Prize shortlists
       At the Icelandic Literature Center they report on the recently announced Nominations for the 2017 Icelandic Literary Prize, in the three categories (fiction, non, and kids' stuff)

New Quarterly Conversation
       Issue 50, the winter 2018 issue of the Quarterly Conversation, is now up online, with a variety of reviews and Q & As.
       As always, well worth your while.

Secularism review
       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Andrew Copson on Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom, just out from Oxford University Press.

'Gained in Translation'
       At The New York Review of Books' NYR Daily Tim Parks writes about what's Gained in Translation -- and observes:
Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language.
       He's not wrong, of course -- but then this is also one of the difficulties/frustrations I have with translation: I don't want someone else to do the reading/interpretation for me .....

Republic of Consciousness longlist
       The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses has announced its longlist, and at the TLS site founder Neil Griffiths runs down this year's titles.
       Yet again, Mathias Énard's Compass is the only one that is under review at the complete review.

Sapir Prize shortlist
       The Israeli National Lottery-sponsored Sapir Prize -- one of the leading Israeli book prizes -- has announced its five-title shortlist; see, for example, The Jerusalem Post report by Amy Spiro.

Internet Literature in China review
       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Michel Hockx's Internet Literature in China.

Literary prize: Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding
       They've announced that One of Us-author Åsne Seierstad will receive the 2018 Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung.
       This prize has a fine list of previous honorees -- with Compass-author Mathias Énard taking the prize last year.

Literary prize: Prix Victor Rossel
       The prix Victor Rossel is, sadly, known as the 'Belgian Goncourt', having also had the added misfortune of being founded in 1938, only to soon be interrupted by the inconvenience of the war.
       They've announced this year's winner, and it is Robinson, by Laurent Demoulin; see the Le Soir report, and the Gallimard publicity page for the book.

Literary prize: Taiwan Literature Awards
       They've announced the winners of this year's Taiwan Literature Awards, with 青蚨子, by Lien Ming-wei, winning for best novel; see, for example, the Taiwan News report by Teng Pei-ju.

Algorithm-assisted writing
       Interesting story and presentation at Wired, where Stephen Marche 'enlisted software to tell him how to optimize his tale', and shows and explains: What Happens When an Algorithm Helps Write Science Fiction.
       Nice to see that Wired had two unsuspecting publishing professionals -- Random House editor in chief Andy Ward and The New Yorker's Deborah Treisman -- assess the resulting piece (scroll down to the bottom of the page).

Mekong Review profile
       The Mekong Review -- "a quarterly literary journal publishing fiction, essays, reviews and poetry from Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia" -- gets a nice write-up in The New York Times from Mike Ives, Eluding Censors, a Magazine Covers Southeast Asia's Literary Scene.
       As I've often complained, this part of the (literary) world is woefully under-represented/appreciated abroad, so it's good to see a publication like this spread the word(s) (and The New York Times, in turn, spread the word about it).

       See also the far-too-few Southeast Asian titles under review at the complete review.

Military Literature Festival
       While generally welcoming the proliferation of literary festivals in India, I'm not too sure about the latest one, the on-going inaugural Military Literature Festival.
       The programme does seem rather ... militarized, rather than literature-focused, but maybe the panels and discussions were/are more bookish .....

Dandelions review
       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari's unfinished-at-his-death novel, Dandelions, just (about) out in English, from New Directions.

William H. Gass (1924-2017)
       The great American author, William H. Gass, has passed away; see, for example, the obituary by Dee Wedemeyer in The New York Times.
       The site for the 2013 exhibition, William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence, offers a good amount of information, and see also this lengthy Q & A by Stephen Schenkenberg.
       Several of his books are under review at the complete review:        And, yes, The Tunnel is one of the towering works of post-war American fiction.

Nobel lecture
       Kazuo Ishiguro delivered his Nobel Prize lecture yesterday, and the full 6,000-word text of his My Twentieth Century Evening -- and Other Small Breakthroughs is now available online.
       If you prefer video, you can re-view it at YouTube.

Doris Lessing's Nobel medal for sale
       Doris Lessing's estate is flogging her Nobel medal, putting it up for auction at Christie's.
       Alison Flood reports in The Guardian that apparently only one literature Nobel medal has been previously sold -- André Gide's, last year, for €300,000. (Apparently they tried to unload William Faulkner's in 2013, but did not find a buyer.)