Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Kiepenheuer & Witsch: "Why Shouldn't We?"

Amanda DeMarco has a piece in today's Publishing Perspectives on the German publishing house Kiepenheuer & Witsch and their success with Ulrich Blumenbach's Infinite Jest translation. Apparently they've sold 50,000 copies. I like this bit:

When asked why KiWi felt it could successfully publish a book that posed so many challenges to translate, (publisher Helge) Malchow emphasized the house’s long history of successfully publishing difficult American writers: “Why shouldn’t we?”

Ha! An object lesson to all those cowardly US/UK publishers.

But I do object to this quote:

Malchow explained KiWi’s philosophy behind building its German literature list: “We are looking for narrative fiction. German fiction sometimes tends to be experimental. It tends to be very self-referential in terms of language, and there is a certain distance in German writing…from the narrative quality of fiction.”

Why? Because I disagree. Experimental stuff does exist out there in German-language writing, but it's not what gets published - and read - for the most part. What we're getting at the moment is excellent young storytellers like Julia Franck, Daniel Kehlmann, Tilmann Rammstedt, or the older generation like Siegfried Lenz and Günter Grass, who haven't run out of narratives either. Even the tiny independent publishers mainly do less earth-shattering experimentation than good honest stories like the work of Artur Becker, Alexander Schimmelbusch and Finn-Ole Heinrich.

The experiments are in the way writers tell these stories - just like KiWi's own Kathrin Schmidt plays with memory in her award-winning Du stirbst nicht. I think Malchow may not be being quite honest with himself here, claiming his house publishes daring English literature while acting as a pillar of conservative tradition on the German side.

Meanwhile, trade mag Buchreport (don't you love those innovative names?) has a wee interview with KiWi's internet guru Marco Verhülsdonk about marketing the German Infinite Jest via the "community" In case you were wondering, they won't be doing the same for every book. And no, Mr. V. doesn't think you always need "experts" on the case for these things.

Having watched the project from afar, I'd say it worked well but almost inevitably petered out towards the end of the 100 days of joint reading. I've spoken to a couple of people who were involved on the margins, and I think it was a lot to ask of them - hey, why don't we all read the same really long book and spend 100 days of our lives writing about it for free?! So it's great that one or two of them stuck with it rather than the project degenerating entirely into a full-frontal pedagogical exercise. And as Mr. V. points out, all that content is still out there, the perfect resource for anyone who gets Unendlicher Spass for Christmas.

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