Tuesday 28 October 2014

Small Portions

Two things from Germany for lovers of things in small packages:

German publisher Voland & Quist has just launched an app that delivers A Story A Day, in German. You pay a monthly fee for thirty stories - with variable font size! I think it costs €3.59 for a month and I also think it would be ideal for people looking to brush up their German reading skills on their morning commute. The writers are initially people from the V&Q catalogues, so humorous stuff and Eastern Europeans: Kirsten Fuchs, Ahne, Marc-Uwe Kling, Volker Strübing, Jochen Schmidt, Julius Fischer, Edo Popovic, Olja Savicevic are the examples they give. When they've run out and the demand is there they'll explore new avenues, apparently.

If you'd prefer to read in English, there's a start-up round the corner from me called The Pigeonhole, which sells serialized books delivered to your device on a weekly basis, with an added conversation function including discussions with the author - unless it's Charles Dickens. They call this part "the coolest book club on the internet". Going by their "meet the team" page, the ideas behind the company are things like reacquainting people with the lost pleasures of reading, challenging traditional publishing models, reaching out to audiences, and "making reading and publishing more exciting". I find it exciting enough already, but there you go. This one costs 50p per, erm, stave, which I assume is a chapter. Again, this might be a useful way to brush up reading and digital conversation skills if English isn't your native language.

Monday 27 October 2014

Teresa Präauer: Johnny und Jean

Imagine someone wrote a book in which they imagined they were a boy from the countryside who went to the second-biggest city to study art. And imagine that imagined boy met another boy there who he’d known in the countryside but who’d reinvented himself as Jean – not the kind of name people have in the countryside – and become a successful art student. Would the first boy get along with Jean or would he be forever in his shadow? There you have it: Teresa Präauer's Johnny and Jean.

Boy number one renames himself Johnny, “the quiet one”, and watches as Jean climbs the cliché ladder to art-world fame. At first he imagines a friendship between the two of them and after a while they really do become friends, or at least I think they do. But every now and then Teresa Präauer gives us a jab to remind us it’s all in someone’s imagination:
I say I have to brush my teeth, shave, trim the hair in my nostrils and between my legs. Careful, careful, call Marie and Valérie.
No, don’t forget, I’m a young man! A man never says between his legs of his penis or his testicles. That’s a phrase only girls use. I think I just leave the hair there as it is; it’s the late nineties after all, and people have a relaxed attitude to these matters.
And more and more as the book goes on, famous artists and fictional critics and even works of art walk into the room or stalk out of it, building on conversations with our imaginary narrator Johnny. Salvador Dalí tells him he’s a fool to dismiss his work just because it decorates a million provincial bedrooms, the New York art scholar Mary Schoenblum offers advice and Pippilotti Rist helps shy Johnny shed his virginity, although not in person.

There’s a lot of art and a lot of amusing pontificating and opinionating about art, as one might expect of a short novel about art students. There are some sweet side-stabs at practices and poses in the art world, from rich, bored wives opening galleries to poor, ambitious students working in them for free. Or white rooms with huge white lecterns at the entrance, at which ambitious art students’ heads hide behind open black laptops. Or performance art – performance art! – that fails to get videoed.

It’s hard, with Johnny telling the story, to dislike firebrand Jean with his mispronounced French and his gold tooth, the result of a punch-up between the two of them over a woman with two different names. When I was a teenager my neighbour told me never to trust a man with a gold tooth (and he should have known because he had one too and he styled himself a Trinidadian wide boy). I followed his advice here and sure enough, that Jean is not to be relied on, ultimately. But what fun there is to be had with him! Why not drink pastis in quayside bars, even if only in doubly imagined long nights? And why not let your art languish in a container while you tell stories in a New York pop-up exhibition space?

Präauer finishes her novel, which is not strictly plot-led but does have a plot, with a cryptic reference to a Cranach painting. It’s a delightful structural trick that made this already special book just that bit more special, to me. The writer is a visual artist herself, as you can judge by the cover, and I know the novel contains crumbs of authentic detail from her own time at art school. It also contains a great deal of fun with words and language, as did her debut Für den Herrscher aus Übersee. And it might just be a wonderful way of looking back at youth, that time of confusion, discovery and excitement, reinvention and imagination, with nostalgia but a good pinch of irony.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

A Lovely, Lovely Poetry Translation Film

I would have thought it might be impossible to make a film about something as intangible as poetry, and it might be boring to watch a film about something as desk-bound as translation. Luckily, Juliane Heinrich has proved me wrong and made a film of a poetry translation. It features the poets Odile Kennel and Anna Crowe, and me as supporting translator. And I've watched it about three times and it still makes me laugh. Such a pleasure!

Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize to Eleanor Collins

I must apologize – I've known this for ages and keep forgetting to share. The Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize goes to a translator under a certain age from a particular language who submits the most impressive version of a particular original. And this year it was awarded for a translation from German of a very tricky story by Julia Franck, and you can read winner Eleanor Collins' lovely version at the Granta website.

Collins receives a big fat cheque and a mentorship with top translator Shaun Whiteside and a pile of books. Belated congratulations!

Thursday 16 October 2014

New Competition for Emerging Non-Fiction Translators

One of the hurdles for publishers wanting to bring out translated books in English, particularly in the non-fiction sector, is finding someone to translate them well. We now have a number of training programmes, networks and awards for budding translators of novels, but non-fiction has proved trickier. For me, translating non-fiction is a slightly different challenge to translating prose – and a whole different ball-game to translating poetry.

A non-fiction translator needs to get the right register and thoroughly understand the original, has to either know about or research the field in question and particularly its terminology, and must be familiar with the traditions and expectations around non-fiction writing in their target language. While you could say fiction translators do that too, non-fiction translators do it all to a much greater extent. So how can publishers find people to do that well?

Geisteswissenschaften International is a body set up to encourage non-fiction translations from German to English, providing funding for selected books partly so that academics can continue to write about complex ideas in their native language and still find a large readership. They've now teamed up with the German Book Office in New York to sponsor a competition for emerging non-fiction translators. The details are all in this leaflet – anyone can enter, as long as you haven't published more than one book-length translation before. There are cash prizes and one of the judges is my award-winning translator friend Shelley Frish, so you know the winners will be pretty darn good. Deadline is the first of December. 

Monday 13 October 2014

Book Fair Prize Roundup

Frankfurt has a whole lotta prizes going on, and here are a few of them:

The Hotlist 2014 prize for indie publishers went to Lars Müller Publishers for Menschen am Cern, which the publisher (Lars Müller) called a novel in photos. It's a book of pictures of people who work in the otherwise rather secret nuclear research facility near Geneva. The indie publishers had a really great party with a fabulous award ceremony, presented by the extremely good Claudia Cosmo. She had the best outfit and the best jokes of the week. It could have been a weeny bit shorter though.

The Virenschleuder PR prizes went to the Lessing & Kompanie bookshop for their wonderful, wonderful Tumblr page, the Pinakotheken im Kunstareal München (I have no idea what this is and what it has to do with books) and to the writer, translator, publisher and personality Zoe Beck.

The Young Excellence Award went to writer, publisher and general mover & shaker Nikola Richter.

The Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis went to Claude K. Dubois/Tobias Scheffel for Akim rennt, Martina Wildner for Königin des Sprungturms, Inés Garland/Ilse Layer for Wie ein unsichtbares Band, Heidi Trpak/Laura Momo Aufderhaar for Gerda Gelse – and the young people's jury went for Wunder by Raquel J. Palacio/André Mumot.

Translator, lexicographer and bookseller Regine Elsässer is Bücherfrau des Jahres.

Katrin Lange from the Literaturhaus in Munich got the honorary thanks for being good to translators award, the Übersetzerbarke.

And the culture minister Monika Grütters presented something that looks interesting: a new award from the government to support bookshops. According to the press release:
The "German Booksellers' Prize" has a total prize fund of one million euro and will be awarded by the culture minister from 2015. The prize will benefit smaller, owner-operated bookshops in Germany that excel through innovative business models, particularly programmes supporting reading and literature or cultural events. The main awards have a prize of 25,000 euro each, with other prizes worth 15,000 euro and 7,000 euro each.
Grütters has previously criticized Amazon and sided with German writers who wrote an open letter to the online retail giant, and this award was teasered back in August in that context. Asked about Amazon's tax practices at that time ("Does it annoy you?"), Grütters (CDU) responded:
We all know that many companies look for ways to optimize profit. It would be populist to castigate Amazon for its economic success and its ideas. The discount negotiations, which are carried out on the backs of authors if they really are removed from Amazon's catalogues, are more relevant in terms of cultural policy in my view and are unacceptable in this form, in my opinion. In addition, the discounted sums benefit neither the publishers, nor the writers, nor the readers. This is the point where we have to be careful not to endanger our cultural diversity by acting unconsciously or uncritically as consumers.
In other words, don't blame the government for letting Amazon pay "next to no tax" in Germany, as she put it – blame yourselves for buying from them. But hey, she's helping small booksellers.
There'll also be an extra million for special conservative literary projects, such as buying up manuscripts by dead white men. That'll show Amazon, huh?

Sunday 12 October 2014

A Thing I Hated at the Book Fair

You're at the Frankfurter Hof. The entire front garden and lobby of this large hotel are seething with publishers, scouts, agents and editors. You're not a publisher or a scout or an agent or even an editor. You're there with friends who are also none of the above. Most importantly – or at least it begins to feel increasingly important as the evening goes on – you're a woman. Here are the things that happen:

First your friends take a photo of your shoes, which are hot. You are a complicit party to this embarrassment because yes, your shoes are hot and you're proud you can walk in them. Next you get a ridiculously overpriced drink, avoiding the main bar at the back of the overheated lobby because you remember it being kind of creepy last time you were here. You stand outside the door in a crush of people, some of whom you know and like. You spot an internet phenomenon looking awkward and decide it would be just plain embarrassing to say hello like some kind of fangirl. You wonder why the internet phenomenon has made such a public fuss in advance about being here and then you notice he is flanked by aggressive-looking men with name-tags proclaiming them to be agents. It appears to be some kind of industry meet 'n' greet in advance of a rights auction. You wonder whether the internet phenomenon is complicit in his own moral bankruptcy – although aren't we all? – and whether he is deliberately here so he can tell stories about how morally bankrupt he and the publishing industry are. You wonder why you are here. Your braver/drunker friend does go over and tells you later that the internet phenomenon seemed genuinely nice and actually listened to what she had to say, which makes you feel happy and sad for the internet phenomenon at the same time.

You wander inside to get another overpriced drink and refuse to tip the bartender because you object to the hideous price policy of making everything cost one euro short of a banknote in a transparent attempt to wash more cash into the coffers of the Steigenberger hotel chain. Although of course if you were working here you'd want to fleece the punters for all you could get and probably the Steigenberger hotel chain is not paying these people all that well, so you probably ought to tip them because it's hardly their fault. You spot someone else you know and she introduces you to someone and you don't catch the name of his publishing house but he asks you to recommend something and you do but it has to be the blandest book you can think of because of course you have no idea what he's looking for, but that seems OK because it's not like he notes it down or anything. You head outside again once your new acquaintance starts talking about "good schools", which is a subject that instantly raises your hackles and you really don't want to punch anyone.

On your way through the crowd you pick up several glances that seem – to you, at least – to be saying: "I am an important man and have looked your body up and down and am herewith granting my official approval. You should be grateful." It's not the first time this has happened in your life and not the first time it's happened at this fair. You ignore the glances. What would be the desired response? How would you like to respond? You don't even know.

Back outside, a man with a very loud voice and a whisky large enough to have been very expensive indeed is telling the assembled company that the bar at the back of the overheated lobby is "actual hell". It is crowded with old men and young women and guess which ones have the money, he says. An old man stretched his arm around the shoulders of the man with the very loud voice in order to paw a young woman and ask her what she wanted to drink, and that was what convinced him the place was "actual hell". You realize – and remember from the last time you were here – that the man with the very loud voice is absolutely right but you hate him for scoring points by saying it, especially because he is over thirty and this seems to be the first time he's been pawed by an old man.

People you have genuinely liked in other situations are now beginning to morph into apparently odious human beings. There is the usual abandonment in favour of more important conversation partners. There is a young man telling you that having a baby is easy, which freaks you out because your hackles are well and truly up now and you can't countenance the idea that it may be a joke, and you respond with passive aggression by telling a third party that men who say things like that can fucking fuck off and come back to you when they're tried it out themselves. There is a suggestion to call a publisher whom you and presumably everyone else knows to be a horrible person so that he can buy a round of drinks. He doesn't answer his phone though and people joke that he's having a party in his hotel room with his unpaid interns.

You're beginning to positively despise everyone here with their stinking hypocrisy. You wonder whether any of them are actually enjoying themselves and why they are here in the first place. You begin to hate your friends. You wonder whether you are actually enjoying yourself. You clearly aren't. You begin to hate yourself for being here. You go to the ladies' for a little mental space because by now you really do want to punch someone. There's no toilet paper. Fourteen euros for a bland gin and tonic and no toilet paper in the ladies'. You stalk back out through the crowd of braying jackals in dark blue suits to a taxi. You do tip the taxi driver because no, none of it is his fault and you can't very well walk home in your hot shoes.  

Things I Loved at the Book Fair

There are some things I hate with a passion about book fairs, particularly at Frankfurt, which is so planet-sized it draws all sorts of satellites into its orbit. More on one particular personal horribleness in a moment. But there are also things that make me smile for half an hour at a time. Here are some of those things:

Walking around the German halls and spotting translators and writers and editors and publishers and bloggers you know and saying hello! how are you? haven't seen you since the last book fair! got to run though! and then trying to remember their names but failing and it doesn't matter.

Running into people who have run into other people and then they tell you they were talking about you and you feel somewhere between awkward and totally and utterly flattered. Telling other people you were talking about them and watching their faces.

Finding like-minded nerds at tiny teeny panels attended by the twenty people in the world interested in German literature in the Anglophone world, for instance.

Getting hugs from tall attractive successful writers. Twice. Getting compliments from small attractive successful writers. On your personality. Yeah baby.

The opportunity to wear three different daytime dresses and, theoretically, three different nighttime dresses, except you're so enamoured of one particular nighttime dress that you wear it twice in the hope that no one notices, because the fair is so big that there's only one person you run into every night.

Running into one person every night and her joking about you being at all the parties. Which is not true because you only got invited to two three actual parties and you feel uncomfortable about gatecrashing parties because you'd actually really like to be invited to every single one like she seems to be.

Complaining to a publisher about not being invited to their party and said publisher scribbling "invitation to our party" on his business card, but you don't quite dare to test it out because really, anyone could scribble anything on a business card and you can't decide whether it would be more embarrassing to get into a party on that basis or to get turned away at the door for the sheer cheek of it.

Taking part in a semi-virtual petition-signing campaign to rescue a super-top fair and entertaining critic who got bumped out of her role in an Austrian literary competition in favour of a male critic to whom you have a personal aversion, who is however decent enough to sign the petition although he doesn't attend the actual real-life signing event. Probably busy elsewhere.

Spotting amazing books that make you think instantly of a particular American editor who you know would love them with all her heart.

Arriving with a bad case of cynicism in the morning (see next post) and then talking to a German indie publisher whose mother has baked biscuits stamped with the name of the publishing house. They are delicious because they taste of love rather than commodity. And because they're just delicious buttery biscuits.

German indie publishers.

German medium-sized publishers.

That feeling of being ever so slightly rebellious because you do something not many other people at the book fair do. And also the similar feeling when you get free drinks to which you're probably not entitled.

When book things you have wanted to happen for ages, literally a year and a half, do seem to be slipping into place unexpectedly. And then you get a free drink and go rocking round the German indie publishers and buy a CD of soul versions of country songs because you're in the best mood you've been in for a year and a half. The CD turning out, once you get home, to be pure gold, figuratively speaking, and knowing that every time you listen to it you'll remember that time when everything seemed to slip into place.

Meeting people you hardly ever see because they live on another continent and getting much, much more than the standard half-hour meeting with them, including hugs and gossip and exchange of opinion, and advice and support and something pretty darn close to love.

Introducing people to each other who you think would get on and ought to work together. Them getting on and "moving forward".

The perfect book fair crush, in which an attractive man catches your eye on the first day and you have no idea who he is but just vaguely think about him every now and then and spot him occasionally in various places and smile and then on the last night you find out from someone else that he's married and lives miles and miles away from you and does a job you're not really into, which makes everything all right because you can never have him but you wouldn't want him anyway, and you're just happy to have had someone attractive to exchange naughty smiles with.

Coming home again and catching up on sleep.

Monday 6 October 2014

German Book Prize to Lutz Seiler

They just announced that my favourite won the big book prize, Lutz Seiler's first novel Kruso. Here's my review. Now buy the rights.

He's just giving a speech on the audio livestream. Sounds a bit tearful. Or maybe a bit sniffy.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

German Virus Slingers

Lovers of German words might take kindly to Virenschleuder, which denotes a kind of Typhoid Mary for computer viruses, literally a "virus catapult", people who merrily wend their way through the electronic world infecting others with all they pick up. I have no idea whether there's a word for this in English because I only know the term from the publishing world. The Virenschleuderpreis, you see, is an award for people and projects that spread the word about books online.

They've just announced their shortlists in three categories: strategy, idea and personality. I don't think you can win it exactly by being a nice person, but I do find the third section most interesting. This may be because I'm a bit funny about marketing, although I realize it makes sense. So the other categories include things like the gorgeous Tumblr from the Lessing & Kompanie bookshop and lots of things with new-fangled names like "content management", "OS" and "crowd-funded". Whereas the "most infectious personality" category, while perhaps inadvisably named – can you catch personality? – is a list of movers and shakers. OK, the list was drawn up by people sending in nominations followed by an online vote, so at this stage it's a popularity contest. But from this point on, the award has judges to pick the best online book-promoting person. And the judges are mainly women. Yes.

I'm a little bit troubled by the language in which the "personalities" are presented, because it's rather celebratory and not entirely cliché-free. But it's no great surprise that an award for PR would be couched in self-congratulatory marketing terms. What's interesting is the range of roles these "personalities" play: a writer who set up a publishing house to publish himself (and others), a writer who made it bigger with the aid of her fan community, e-publishers, self-publishers, an established publisher who finds a lot of time for the internet, a blogger, a bookseller, a writer who took an Afghan boy into her home so he could have an operation on his heart in Hamburg.

There's an awards ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair (where else?) but I think the reward for the winners is the huge amount of publicity generated by a prize for publicity, rather than financial. And they say you should go along for the networking opportunities and for the DJ, who also happens to run a promotion agency. I don't think I will, to be honest, because I don't feel overly comfortable with the PR side of publishing. But I'll be interested to find out who wins.