Thursday, June 30, 2011

HBW vs. BEA, or, Am I missing something?

Every year around the end of May, the book blogging world is abuzz with news about BEA: bloggers reporting that they're attending, bloggers reporting that they aren't, literary magazines condemning or praising the events, librarians excited, booksellers eager, publishers nervous... everyone is talking about this one single event: Book Expo America.

But for me, the end of May symbolizes the start of June, and thus the approaching Hebrew Book Week (HBW). Suddenly I realize that the publishers are getting ready. Suddenly I realize that it's been a while since I last purchased a book. Suddenly it's time to do my homework and figure out what I'm going to buy this year.

For the past three years, it's been difficult not to compare the two book-related events in my mind. Though I've never attended BEA, I've been able to build a pretty good image of what it must look like, based in part on blog posts and summaries. Meanwhile, I attend HBW with the enthusiasm and obsessiveness only a rare few can match. The comparison is difficult to make - the book cultures in Israel and the U.S. are completely different - but also somewhat necessary. Here is the difference. Here is the true literary world.

HBW is for everyone. BEA isn't. It doesn't matter if almost anyone who really wants to go and can afford it can find a way in. It's exclusive. It's a localized, exclusive event for a very specific group of people. HBW is wonderful in its diversity - children, teens, adults, the elderly, the religious, the secular, the foreigners, the techies, the nerds, the intellectuals, the bored... There is no clear definition of an HBW attendee because it's just an Israeli. While the prospect of attending BEA is mildly appealing (if only for the free books), the impression I get of the environment and the vibe is of a lot of industry insiders. Which isn't a bad thing. It's just not for me. HBW is.

I'm not trying to take away from the BEA experience by saying this, but the diversity thing has always been my problem with it. It's a publisher event in one location for one group of people. Part of the experience demands of the reader to a) live nearby or spend money to get into town, b) pay for registering, and c) be part of the culture BEA wants to maintain (one that supports publishers through indirect advertising). Not all of this is bad, but it's the complete opposite of HBW. Instead of bringing books to everyone, BEA wants everyone who helps publishers to come to them. Something about that rubs me the wrong way.

I've never been to BEA, but a lot of you have. Obviously there may be many things I'm missing. My impressions from HBW have always been positive, of this grand event that does something completely normal (bookselling), but in a way that not only profits all the publishers (small and large alike), but also consumers. It's an experience anyone and everyone can take part in (and close to half of the country does, so what does that say?) and it really is just fun. In my mind, HBW wins every year hands down but who knows? Maybe I'm missing something.

June 25th: You are now leaving HBW... see you next year!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Five conversations with booksellers at HBW, part 3

Parts 1 and 2.

But what of the smaller publishers? Was I only talking to the publishers who felt safe at Hebrew Book Week, those who knew they'd sell well no matter what? Did I forget those smaller booths, tucked away between the giants?

Nope. I didn't forget them.

Babel books
Babel is one of those publishers I only recently really discovered, once I noticed that they were Wolf Hall's publisher in Israel. I knew of them beforehand (my high school writing teacher published a poetry collection with them), but I'd never really paid attention. Suddenly, I became interested. Then I read Michel Houellebecq's Le Carte et le Territoire (not yet translated into English, but it's awesome). Suddenly I realized that maybe I should be paying them a little more mind.

It's somewhat cheap to include the Babel bookseller, because the conversation we had was exclusive. And pretentious. I pointed towards the books I'd liked, discussed Houellebecq's literary status, raved about Wolf Hall, dismissed The Patience Stone (one of those books I really disliked) and asked for advice regarding a few others. After a few moments, a middle-aged woman standing at the booth beside me turned and asked, "Excuse me, but did I hear you say earlier that you liked Wolf Hall?"

"Best book I've read in the last year, hands down," I told her. Together, the bookseller and I began to tell the woman about the brilliant storytelling, the wonderful characterization, the clever writing... As I turned to leave, the bookseller gave me a funny sort of look. "You're doing a lot of my job, you know?"

The kids at the Graph booth seemed genuinely pleased to see me. The younger, who was maybe ten or eleven, immediately said hello and stared up at me. The older, who was in his late teens (my guess would place him at sixteen or seventeen) likewise followed my movements closely. Despite publishing the translations of Rick Riordan's books, Graph is still relatively small, best known for its focus on sci-fi and fantasy.

Percy Jackson, on sale at Graph
I won't pretend that we had the most mind-blowing or witty conversation. It was mostly about the books on display, a few words about the popularity of Rick Riordan with kids and about the book I ultimately bought. What's worth noting is the use of kids as booksellers, a fairly common phenomenon at HBW. The younger was mostly just grinning at potential customers, while the older was a genuine lover of books. He opened up to talking quickly and easier, and this being a smaller publisher, had less of an agenda. We talked about sci-fi's status in Israel's book culture (completely sidelined) and about some of the authors Graph publish. A recent survey found that only 5% of HBW attendees are aged 14-17, implying, perhaps, that Israeli kids and teens don't read. It's always nice to see evidence to the contrary.

Even Hoshen
"I remember you from last year," the bookseller at Even Hoshen admitted. She handed me my purchase (adding several bookmarks and stickers with the awesome motto "I'm a bibliophile and I even know what that means" once she noted my enthusiasm for them). "Do you work for the publishers?" I asked her. "I'm the selector," she explained. "I pick which books we publish."

The whole booth
If there's one Israeli publisher I always want to tip my hat to, it's Even Hoshen. Literally one of the smallest booths in HBW, this small publisher sticks to its point: books for bibliophiles. Lovely editions, dedication and care make them different from most publishers, who seek blockbuster, bestselling titles. Furthermore, their focus on poetry make them, again, somewhat less standard.

"So what's it like?" I asked. "You guys are so small... isn't it hard?" The selector nodded. "Yeah. Well, Tsomet Sfarim [Book Juncture] is owned by [two of the biggest publishing companies in Israel], Steimatzky [the largest bookstore chain in Israel] works with the other major publishers. They push sales for those publishers. It's not that they don't sell us, but they're a lot more likely to move us to the back room and we're never part of the sales and the deals." She shrugged and smiled. "But it's okay, we make do."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Five conversations with booksellers at HBW, part 2

For part 1, see here.

Am Oved
Years ago, at a bookstore, my father saw me eying an Am Oved (Working People) novel. "Take it," he told me. "It's Am Oved. It's bound to be good."

Red, black and yellow
On Am Oved's website, I once saw the description that this publishers strives to be like the Penguin of the Hebrew world - Am Oved titles have a distinct (often red) symbol on their spine, often in a prominent and obvious location on the front cover as well. One of Israel's largest publishers, well known for its quality, I was looking forward to hitting the stacks.

Once I grabbed the first choice (Dubravka Ugrešić's The Museum of Unconditional Surrender), I started scavenging for further books - the deal being 2 for 1 (plus an additional gift book, it turned out). The bookseller noticed my search and came over to help me. "What kind of book are you looking for?" he asked politely.

The new reds
"Something different. Something weird." He began to toss out recommendations, showing me books translated from various languages - Spanish, Chinese*, Polish, Greek... As I began to flip through them, a somewhat older woman came to stand next to the bookseller

"That one's excellent," she told me, pointing at one of the books. Casually, we struck up a conversation, discussing some of the books in that particular booth (mostly foreign literature, with very little translated from English). She was quick to realize that I wasn't looking for anything translated from English (obviously preferring the originals) and seemed eager to help in my search for the "weird" and "different" books. Turns out she's the foreign literature selector** for the publishers. Once I told her that translations pretty much fascinate the heck out of me, she said, rather sincerely, "Well... it doesn't pay very well..."

The two Bolaños
After a few more minutes of talking, she pointed at the original bookseller I'd spoken to. "This guy here, he's a translator. He'd recommend Bolaño, obviously--" The bookseller began to grin emphatically and tapped the two Bolaños in front of him. "I've actually read him," I admitted. "Well, have you read By Night in Chile?" he asked. I nodded. "I've read both." His eyes widened. "What?! Seriously? You're my hero!"

When I think of Am Oved's booths, I'm not thinking of the six books I purchased (while only paying for two and a half). I'm thinking of its staff and the wonderful book dialogue they encourage and engage in. Once again, the literary experience trumps the actual books acquired.

* Chinese is very rarely translated into Hebrew. Until recently, all translations of Chinese novels passed through English first, making them doubly translated. Even today, when you have a few translators out there, many Chinese books are translated to Hebrew through English. So are Icelandic books, as well as a few other languages...
** Is this the official English publishing phrase? Does this job fall under "editor" in the Anglo publishing world?

Five conversations with booksellers at HBW, part 1

If on Thursday I commented that Hebrew Book Week (HBW) is an event that's enjoyable even without purchasing books (enjoyable for the "literary experience"), my experience from last night stands on another end of the spectrum. For what now rests on my desk if not twelve books that I'm quite excited about? And a further eight or so that are officially "shared" and so will come to me after passing through yesterday's partner in book-purchasing crime?

It'll sound weird, but the fact is that buying books at HBW is actually completely in line with everything I've already said about the events. It's all about the experience. At every booth - whether this was a major publisher or one of the smallest - I struck up a conversation with the bookseller. Some were more forthcoming than others, yes, but at the end of the day, even the booksellers at the big publishers are readers. Once steered past the predictable titles, they offered some bizarre and awesome things.

Kineret, Zmora-Bitan
One of Israel's most prominent publishers (and part owners of its second largest bookstore chain, Tzomet Sfarim), it's not hard to find Kineret's representation at HBW. It's right there are the entrance, bold, bright and really big. So it was actually rather surprising to find myself entering a conversation with one of the booksellers - the big publishers typically just try to shove the new bestsellers down your throat and that's it.

I'd already determined that I was going to buy Sofi Oksanen's Purge (this was the deal-breaker review). As I scavenged around for the remaining books (3 for 100₪), one of the booksellers looked at me curiously. "Did you ask for Purge?" he asked. "Yeah," I responded. "I know it's supposed to be a difficult read, but I'm really curious..." I continued with my usual comment. He nodded. "Oh, it's brilliant. Really difficult, but brilliant. I have something to show you, though. If you think it's weird, then this book isn't for you." He pulled out his cell-phone and began to flip through his photos emphatically. Finally he showed me a photo of the author. "This is what she looks like."

I laughed. "If anything, that makes me want to read the book even more." The bookseller nodded, somewhat relieved, and turned to assist another reader. I meanwhile waited for my mother to finish picking her books. The bookseller suddenly reached over to the neighboring booth (still within the same publisher) and told the man next to me in a low voice, "Look, on the down-low, here's a brilliant book, not many people know about it, it wasn't a bestseller or anything, but it's really great." Nodding next to them I added, "Yeah, it's really interesting and I still think of it sometimes, a year and a half after reading it..." Excited, the bookseller turned back towards me. "Really? So, listen..." He looked around furtively. "This author has a great book sold over at another publisher. You have to read it." "So is that the secret?" I asked.

The bookseller grinned and nodded. "Yeah. But it's a really good book, who cares who's selling it?"

Thursday, June 16, 2011

On not buying anything today at the wonderful HBW

"I'm a bibliophile / and I also know what that means" - Even Hoshen

Hebrew Book Week or HBW (Hebrew site) is... awesome. Once a year, for a week and a half, my book-loving self finally gets to drag the others around me into the insanity of book-buying. There's nothing quite like it. A normally literate but unenthusiastic country turns into a gushing bibliophile within a few hours. Advertisements for the two leading bookstore chains line the bus stops. Signs point to the nearest fairground. Almost everyone in the street carries a plastic bag from either the bookstores or the publishers.

Instead of buying books, I collected catalogs
I could ramble about the many practical and beautiful aspects to HBW (and I will), but I want to focus on today's visit and that one, glorious fact: I did not purchase a single book.

This is, of course, a bizarre and unheard of notion. What's the point, one might ask, of a week and a half of book fairs and sales (3 for the price of 2! Buy 1 get 2 free! Buy 2 get 2 free! All books half price!*) if I didn't buy anything now?

I recently read an article about HBW that asked how relevant it is now that the bookstores offer year-round sales and deals (in response to a statistic that showed that only** 44% of Israelis plan to attend the events). My answer is simple: you don't go to HBW just to get cheap books. You go for the experience. You go for the crick in your neck from bending down to stare at so many books. You go to chat up the teens and adults who try to push you the popular bestsellers but after a few moments break down and recommend the really good books. You go to see authors signing books one minute and patiently listening to their kids' excited gush about a book they just discovered the next. You go for the joy of finding like-minded folk - people who love books, love literature and love this culture of reading we're working so hard to maintain.
"Reserved for HBW 2011" ad as mentioned here

Only after all these do you actually go to buy books. The books are the cookies on top of the ice-cream sundae. And boy, do I want those cookies.

Today I walked around with a small notepad. Because I went with a friend, I didn't have quite as many opportunities to talk to authors and the booksellers*** but I managed to scribble down a long and thorough list of books that interest me. Do they all fall in line with the deals? Probably not. But I'll buy more books than I really want and at the end of the day, I'll probably find some gems hidden in the stacks of bestselling thrillers, religious texts and wonderfully nostalgic kids books.

Really heavy, but the back ache was worth it...
By not buying anything today, all I had "going for me" was the experience. And you know what? It was worth it. Even though I didn't get that author signature I was hoping for, even though I didn't make it to all the publisher booths (my friend isn't quite as obsessive as me and after a long day, grew rather tired), even though I didn't get into any in-depth conversations with booksellers, even though I didn't buy anything... there's no doubt about it. HBW isn't about the sales. It's about the literary experience. Isn't that just wonderful?

* Real sales
** "Only" being, of course, a relative term. I'm sure if 44% of Americans attended such events, it would be considered monumental. Israel prides itself in HBW's influence and wide-spread appeal - 44% attendance is a somewhat embarrassing decrease, apparently.
*** I don't like using the term "bookseller" because the association is of a seller in a bookstore, but that's the most accurate description of these guys. They're sellers... of books.

The start of a good week (and a half)

Yesterday marked the launch of one of my favorite yearly events - Hebrew Book Week. The morning opened with the now-familiar writers/poet takeover of Ha'aretz's news pages and continued onto... well, nothing. I didn't attend any events yesterday. But you know what one of the greatest things about Hebrew Book Week is? It lasts a week and a half.

So I turn to my shelves (reminded of a great ad I saw that showed packed bookshelves and a small gap, with a sign that read "Reserved for Hebrew Book Week!"), thinking about these past months. I've decreased my book-buying incredibly, only purchasing two books in eight months. Meanwhile, I've knocked several titles off my guilt list, making my shelves look a lot less threatening.

All that is going down the drain this week. And I'm so very excited.

Friday, June 10, 2011

On author power and influence

I started reading this Forbes post about "the 10 most powerful women authors" and my first reaction was surprise. This is because based on the first few names, it appears as though Avril David mistakes "powerful" with "bestselling".

Perhaps my issue is with the use of the word "powerful". David meant influential - but use of the word powerful alters the meaning. Regardless, reading over this list, I'm somewhat disappointed from a strictly literary perspective. Influence has a lot of forms, but how exactly does Danielle Steel challenge her readers? Does the fact that Stephenie Meyer can capture an audience mean that her message has necessarily resonated with readers? J.K. Rowling, even as author of one of my favorite series ever, isn't exactly my first choice when it comes to influence perhaps because her incredible ability to tell a story doesn't mean that I'll jump at her every word.

David's list becomes a little more interesting once we get to the award-winners. Once she stops focuses on the monetary value of the author (and more on the accolades), there's a little more... weight. But even so, I'm still left somewhat unsatisfied. True, authors like Maya Angelou, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Walker and the rest deal with interesting issues and broaden readers' minds. That is clearly influence. But would I choose these women?

The better question is: would I choose anyone? The more I think about it, the more I realize that the answer is no. I can't think of very many authors - male or female - who I would call powerful or influential, perhaps because these are some pretty strong words by themselves. Maybe there are authors who are fairly influential within a specific field - literary criticism, for instance - but to say that they're powerful... I can't do it. I can't put that kind of label on authors.

David doesn't pretend that the list is anything other than her personal opinion - a mix of bestselling authors, award-winners and familiar literary names. She doesn't shy away from the fact that this, furthermore, a very limited list. Similarly, my opinion is that a list like this doesn't say very much. It doesn't sit well with me. I'm not even certain why.

What do you guys think? Do you like David's list? Are there authors (male or female) who you think are, indeed, clearly powerful or obviously influential?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

5. The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years - Unexpected displacement

I first encountered Chingiz Aitmatov's The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years thanks to a few great posts by the Amateur Reader. In it, I didn't even notice this sentence: "The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years has, intermixed with Yedigei's story, a genuine science fiction plot, about alien contact." So basically, when I finally got around to reading this great book, the sci-fi story came as a complete surprise.

The camel get center stage on my edition
To call The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years a sci-fi novel would be... wrong. It's not. It has a sci-fi story that, as the Amateur Reader explains much more eloquently than I ever could, serves as more of a metaphor than anything else. It's a book that could easily fall into that annoyingly titled "literary fiction" category - full of stories, vivid characters and strong writing. But it does, at the same time, carry within it, some curious sci-fi. Not particularly original, a little unrelated to the rest of the book and not quite enough of it, but it's there.

What is SAFL if not literature that incorporates science fiction or fantasy? Because that's precisely what The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years does - it slips in this small sci-fi story without blinking an eye, without really letting it take over the story. And the rest of it? Wonderful. It's an interesting and different book, quite unlike just about every other book I've ever read. So deeply rooted in its setting (Kazakhstan), it completely displaced me. And isn't that what the greatest SAFL titles do?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Stupidity! Misogyny!

I wrote about various forms of sexism in literature and the literary world a few months back, thinking that would cover most of the potential and existing issues in literature. And then... then I read this.
[T]he winner of the Nobel prize for literature [V. S. Naipaul] has lashed out at female authors, saying there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal – and singling out Jane Austen for particular criticism. [...] He felt that women writers were "quite different". He said: "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me." The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women's "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world". "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too," he said.
He added: "My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don't mean this in any unkind way."
Oh! He doesn't mean in any unkind way. That's okay then.

Look. People are subject to their opinion. That's fine. But suggesting that every female writer is inherently different than every male writer is possibly the dumbest thing I've ever heard of. Even if Naipaul's comments stem from pure egotism (perhaps he also believes no male writer is his literary equal?), these comments are completely, completely effing stupid.

Take, for instance, the opinion that all women writers have some obvious sentimentality. Naipaul's assumption is that sentimentality is the default mode for women writers. It's an always apparent component to their writing, if I understood him correctly. Then he proceeds to imply that sentimentality is somehow inherently flawed - it provides a "narrow view of the world". How, exactly, does a sentimental approach provide any kind of view of the world at all? Is Naipaul suggesting that sentiments don't exist? That they shouldn't be included in literature? Or how about the "fact" that he can recognize a female author within a few sentences of her writing. On this count, I find myself struggling to understand what the [****] Naipaul is trying to say. Seriously. No. Flipping. Clue. (also: check out this Guardian response quiz)

Really, I have no idea what he's trying to say here. In fact, I'm loath to label this as an article about sexism because it's even more pathetic and ridiculous than that. Naipaul's comments are just stupid and if anyone can figure them out, good on them. Maybe you can explain it to me. All I've understood is that Naipaul has a giant ego and doesn't understand the concept of generalizations. Or the concept of avoiding making noise just for the sake of making noise.