Readersforum's Blog

October 31, 2011

1Q84 is proof that literature matters

Haruki Murakami: "the only living writer who can sell a million copies in a month and still be in the running for the Nobel prize". Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

Haruki Murakami’s new book, a global event in itself, passionately defends the power of the novel.

By Douglas Haddow

Over the past week 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami’s whale of a novel – was released across the Anglosphere. With midnight openings, queues round the block, magazine covers and unprecedented pre-orders, it received a level of attention typically reserved for established cross-platform franchises.

Unlike the consumers who stayed up late waiting for their download notification, critics have remained cautious in their appraisal. On both sides of the Atlantic, the general consensus is that it is enjoyable and inventive, but not crucial or relevant. The most common slight levelled at Murakami is that he is a cult writer lost in his own hype, a position echoed by the Observer review, in which Tim Adams writes: “Murakami, now 62, has ceased being a novelist and has entered the dangerous world of literary phenomenon, a cult figure himself.”

If you happen to be party to this cult, you might start feeling the creeping sensation that Murakami has, much like he did 25 years ago in Japan, left the literary establishment in the proverbial dust.

To quote the oft-quoted Marshall McLuhan, one of the countless writers who makes an appearance in the book, the medium is the message. In the case of 1Q84, the medium is the “global event novel”, a rare form of literary commodity that allows us to derive as much meaning from its fallout as we do from the ink on the page. It’s a book whose jacket design, for better or worse, received more press than most books get during their entire print run. Its references to the Czech composer Leoš Janáček and Russian novelist Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn led to a spike in sales of books and records the market turned its back on long ago.

Read by schoolgirls and scholars, Murakami is the only living writer who can sell a million copies in a month and still be in the running for the Nobel prize. His unique ability to transcend high and low, east and west is a byproduct of a peculiar career trajectory. When setting out to write his debut novel in the late 1970s, he initially wrote the opening in English, then translated it back into Japanese, an experiment that led to the discovery of his voice. more

Occupy: the intellectual high ground

Star Books' library at the Occupy London protest. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Public intellectuals have often been prominent in protest politics, and the Occupy movement has attracted plenty of thinkers.

By John Dugdale

“Sartre: be brief, be clear”, was the disconcerting message Jean-Paul Sartre found on a lectern before he addressed angry French students in 1968. When Sartre had earlier interrupted work on his giant Flaubert biography to offer support to those occupying the Sorbonne, there were no such embarrassments. But Danny Cohn-Bendit, the uprising’s main spokesman, said he was neither inspiration nor mentor, and also dismissed as “a joke” claims that Herbert Marcuse, author of One-Dimensional Man, was their “intellectual leader” (“none of us had read him”). Revolts against fathers don’t need fathers.

More than 40 years later, Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs (including Occupy London) have been similarly backed and courted by intellectuals. Naomi Klein, Jeffrey Sachs, Cornel West and Slavoj Žižek are among those who have spoken to the New York or Boston protesters. Naomi Wolf was arrested while backing a related demo. Noam Chomsky delivered a public lecture in Boston. Writers, including Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, have signed the Occupy Writers online petition. There’s the same sense as in 1968, though, that the protest is its own thing and gurus are nice accessories but not necessary; the witticism about Marcuse saying “they are my followers, so I must follow them” sometimes seems applicable.

Nevertheless, some figures are credibly cited as influential, notably David Graeber, an American anthropology don at Goldsmiths in London, who helped organise what became the Wall Street occupation in its early weeks; his books include Direct Action: An Ethnography, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. And the initial spur for Occupy Wall Street came from Adbusters, an organisation that spoofs ads and runs anti-consumerist or anti-capitalist campaigns, and which does have a guru – looping back to May ’68, its tactics are modelled on Guy Debord’s Situationism.

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Literature Prize could coincide with LBF

Filed under: Literary Prizes — Tags: , , , , — Bookblurb @ 6:20 pm

Andrew Kidd

31.10.11 | Charlotte Williams

The Literature Prize is to be awarded in the spring of each year, with founder Andrew Kidd saying it will take place for the first time in 2012 if the necessary funding is secured by the end of this year.

Kidd said the prize would be awarded “after the Costa, before the Orange, and some distance from the Booker”. Since the Costa is usually awarded in January, and the Orange in May, this means the prize may be awarded close to London Book Fair, which takes place next year on 16th to 18th April.

Kidd said: “It had occurred to us that we might coincide [the award] with the London Book Fair, though of course it’s too early to make a decision on that. Ultimately, though, this is a prize for readers, and the book fair is an industry event.”

Books eligible for the prize must have been published in the UK in the 12 months of the calendar year prior to the spring ceremony, and must have been written initially in English. Therefore, if the prize were to take place in 2012, all six of this year’s Man Booker-shortlisted titles would be eligible.

Kidd, an agent at Aitken Alexander, said it would be “absolutely fine” if the prize ever shared a winner with the Booker, saying it “inevitably might happen”.

Prize money is still to be confirmed, but Kidd said it would be in the same league as other major literary prizes. The Booker Prize awards £50,000 to its winner, the Orange Prize awards £30,000 and the Costa Prize gives £35,000. more

The Carnal Critic

The new biography of Pauline Kael, the influential longtime film critic of The New Yorker

Pauline Kael and the primacy of pleasure.

By Dana Stevens

Pauline Kael stood only 4 feet 9 inches tall, but a decade after her death (and two decades after she published her last New Yorker review), her shadow still towers over the landscape of film criticism. Like it or lump it, if you write about movies in America today (and in the age of the Internet, who doesn’t?), you define yourself at least in part in relation to Kael. In fact, you probably channel her from time to time without realizing it. Even the second-person “you” in those sentences echoes Kael’s chummy yet bullying voice: To read her is to be grabbed by the lapels and yanked down into the theater seat next to her. “She’d have liked you,” a colleague said to me, shortly after Kael’s death and my start as a critic. It was a curiously heady, almost hubristic thought to entertain. For the nearly quarter of a century that she reigned as the New Yorker’s doyenne of film criticism and one of the country’s most visible public intellectuals, there were few cultural dispensations that conferred as much power as being liked by Pauline Kael. Her approbation could make a director’s or writer’s career, and her antipathy could sink it.

Only now, after reading Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow’s new biography of this movie-mad daughter of an immigrant Jewish chicken farmer from Petaluma, Calif., do I realize what a double-edged sword it would have been to be liked by Pauline Kael. Maybe it’s just as well we never met, though she does sound like wonderfully lively company. The woman whose 82-year-long life Kellow chronicles in this meticulously researched, sympathetic book was a real piece of work: self-assured to the point of arrogance, boundlessly energetic and brashly combative, capable of generously nurturing talent in the filmmakers and journalists she admired and then, just as brusquely, abandoning or betraying them.

In her personal life Kael could wear heavy armor; one friend describes her as a lover of vigorous debate who almost never changed her mind about anything. On the page, though, she was capable of extraordinary self-exposure. Her diaristic asides, for which there was ample room in reviews that sometimes ran up to 9,000 words, became a trademark beloved by her fans and mocked by her detractors. Kael’s deepest self seems to have poured out in her film criticism, as she acknowledged late in life when asked why she didn’t write a memoir: “I think I have.” In her review of the 1963 Paul Newman Western Hud, a semiautobiographical description of the long summer nights on Western ranches segues into a vivid childhood memory of playing alone in a barn while her father paid a visit to his mistress. Kael’s sudden bursts of self-revelation, the way she moves seamlessly from a discussion of the images onscreen to a glimpse of her internal life, recall a performer who only truly comes alive on stage. (Judy Garland, another pop artist with an uncanny ability to connect with her public, comes to mind.)

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October 30, 2011

Occupy the Book: Is It Author Spring?

By Brenda Peterson

In the 1970s, when I was an editorial assistant at The New Yorker magazine — and getting many rejections — I used to fanaticize about being my own publisher. “Give yourself ten years to finish a book,” one of the revered New Yorker editors advised me. “Think of it as an author’s apprenticeship.”

After five years, I left the magazine to publish my first novel, River of Light with Knopf. To support my writing, I took a lowly job as a typesetter, so I could complete my working knowledge of books — from creation to production. My second novel, Becoming the Enemy, was even set at a fictional publishing house. I worked for decades as an editor and taught writing.

After publishing 16 books with traditional houses — from Norton to HarperCollins to Penguin — I believed I was finally ready to become my own publisher. But there was still a stigma against the “vanity press” of self-publishing, no distribution, and little consumer demand.

I would have to wait until the 21st century when digital technology, direct distribution channels like Amazon, iBooks, and Nook, plus the popularity of inexpensive e-readers have finally made it possible for authors to become publishers. My first task was to bring my backlist into print as e-books. The journey into self-publishing is like discovering a new territory with evolving rules and a swiftly tilting culture. This is one of the most exciting and innovative times to be an author. Everything is in flux.

An esteemed editor said recently at a national conference of Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), “It’s the Wild West out there for e-books. And publishers should not be afraid to embrace them.”

With the proliferation of e-books and self-publishing will the book business become more sustainable and egalitarian? Will we finally see an end to the bloated advances for celebrity memoirs — those non-books for non-readers written by non-writers? Will we see the re-education of the bottom-liners who turned this once genteel profession of publishing into corporate Raiders of the Lost Authors?

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Alexandra Fuller’s top 10 African memoirs

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From JM Coetzee to Nelson Mandela, the author chooses her favourite ‘performances of courage and honesty’ that have come out of the continent.

“The memoirs that have come out of Africa are sometimes startlingly beautiful, often urgent, and essentially life-affirming, but they are all performances of courage and honesty. Far from the tell-all confessionals more usual in western memoirs, the African memoir lays bare the bones of what it is to be a child, survivor, or perpetrator of oppression and conflict.

“What is often shocking, but very effective, is the humour evident in so many of these works, laughter being an essential survival technique for so many Africans (and of her writers). The act of writing is also a defiant way of asserting, “I was born. I am here. I will remain.” In places of chronic instability, the memoir is an anchor of words to an experience and place and a way to bear witness; to expose and perhaps even explain the atrocities of war, racism, tribalism and cronyism. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, my own memoirs of Africa, are written from a white African point of view, but explore the ways in which the land possesses all of us who love it – regardless of ethnicity – and the ways in which laughter can make palatable life’s unendurable losses.”

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Our literary disgrace

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On the face of it, it seems an outrage: JM Coetzee, South Africa’s most prominent author of the past few decades, selling out to an American institution, which will henceforth be the repository of some of the most avidly discussed and researched ­literary works in recent South ­African history.

Where were our local institutions? Why could Coetzee’s papers not have found a home where they belong — in the matrix that gave them birth? And where people can pronounce his name?

Will local scholars now be placed at a severe disadvantage in not having ready access to this trove? Is this another form of exploitation of the developing world by the rich West?

There are no clear answers to these questions.
The first thing to say, perhaps, is that Coetzee is by no means the first South African writer to lodge his papers with the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas in Austin. The following writers all have significant holdings at the research centre: HC Bosman, Roy Campbell, Jack Cope, Stephen Gray, Uys Krige, ­William Plomer and Olive Schreiner.

But is this not precisely the point — that some of our most prominent writers have been bought off by the wealthy Americans?

There are arguments for and against. First, perhaps the best thing about this is that some of South Africa’s finest literary talent gets to rub shoulders with the likes of Byron, the Brownings, Joyce, Lawrence, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing, another writer with Southern African connections, and John Fowles — among many, many others. In other words, instead of keeping it local and parochial ­­– each writer to his or her own region — “our” writers are placed in a much larger cultural context, in which comparative studies and greater exposure in general can occur.

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Finalists for the World Fantasy Best Novel Award

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By Yvonne Zipp

Say “World Fantasy Awards,” and the uninitiated may imagine fans dressed in homemade chain mail and fake pointy ears. In fact, there’s not an elf, dwarf or fairy to be seen in this year’s nominees for best novel. (Past winners include Susanna Clarke for “ Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell ” and China Mieville for “ The City and the City .”) Instead, the judges are considering a hard-boiled crime novel, a retelling of a Senegalese folk tale, and stories set in an alternate Sudan and a Tang dynasty that never was. The winner, who will receive an H.P. Lovecraft bust, will be announced at the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego on Sunday. American author Peter S. Beagle and Argentine author Angelica Gorodischer will receive lifetime achievement awards. Here’s a rundown of the six finalists for best novel: more

Will Amazon Kill Off Publishers?

What happens when more writers have the option of a one-stop shop: agent, publisher and bookseller.

Monopoly vs. Diversity

By Dennis Johnson

Are publishers still needed? Or, as Amazon’s self-published authors would put it, are legacy publishers still needed? Well, they must be, or why would Amazon go to such lengths to build a publishing program — down to the detail of buying expensive retirees who used to run big houses to lend it an air of legitimacy.

But that means writers and readers are dealing with a company that’s imitating the thing it says they don’t need anymore. A thing that it actively denigrates, like calling publishers legacy or traditional publishers — i.e., casting everything as old versus new, and, of course, old is bad. But it’s not about old versus new, or for that matter, print versus digital. It’s man versus machine, and diversity versus monopoly.

Can Amazon sell a lot of books? You bet. They really do know how to develop algorithms that can move just about anything. Good books, bad books. Beautifully edited, completely unedited, edited by chimpanzees – it doesn’t matter. The numbers, they brag, speak for themselves.

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Occupy Wall Street: The Book

Photo: OR Books

By: Joe Coscarelli

Progressive publishing house OR Books will release a 200-page first draft of a history entitled Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action That Changed America as soon as December 17, using volunteers from the movement’s Education and Empowerment Committee, and including work by both “sympathetic writers and people who are active in the occupation,” OR co-founder Colin Robinson told New York. The book’s release date will mark the protest’s three-month anniversary — assuming it survives the onset of winter. By then, the demonstrations will have already have been the subject of an MTV special and plenty of news coverage, but Robinson hopes his “interventionist book” will provide the most extensive chronicling so far. “Although you can’t deliver definitive opinions at the moment or set out a course of action, you can record the details of what has happened so far in Zuccotti Park,” he said.

The publisher — whose anti-Sarah Palin essay collection Going Rouge wound up a New York Times bestseller — will release Occupying Wall Street as a print-on-demand product and independent e-book, with all profits going back to the occupation.

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