“Muscles and sex” at the Frankfurt book fair

The e-book seems to small a concept to me sometimes. My writer’s heart refuses to beat in the new pithy rhythm dictated by the digital. Likewise, the Frankfurt book fair, the largest event of its kind in the world, seems too large an event to me. Even from a distance I cower. The low-key announcement of the Swedish Nobel prize for literature serves as an anti-dote: there’s very little marketing in Stockholm. They’ve got a dynamite king, they don’t need billboards. Swedes don’t even need muscles: the guy who reads the announcement looks like a bureaucrat who feels guilty to cause such a fuss. He’s only giving one million dollars away to a Chinese writer that I’ve never heard of, but who is said to have been born in a small, poor Chinese village. I’m grateful that such a story surrounds the prize, not just fruit flies.

I’m reading an article in a German newspaper about the book fair. The author complains about the whiny self-involved Frankfurt scene and mentions New Zealand, too. («Maori. Sheep. Dugouts. Falls. More sheep.») She identifies “muscles and sex” as the lowest common thematic denominator of this fair. She begins with the sentence: “The book fair is a sadomasochistic game.” I don’t understand half of what the journalist is trying to say. I do understand this, however:

“You take your books so incredibly seriously,” says the young editor from Manhattan: he thinks it’s charming. Writer Richard Ford adds that the readers who wanted his books autographed tracked him down almost brutally. Obviously, the people [in Germany] are “fanatical” when it comes to books. “No wonder,” he says, “I suppose intellectuals and artists are a lot more influential here than in American society.”

[From an article by Mara Delius in the German newspaper “Die Welt”, October 13, 2012, my translation.]

Wolves in NorwayAgain, there’s a story here, and politics, too, but the story is in the foreground: a famous writer is hunted down by his European fans. He’s ambivalent, tickled in his narcissism, too, but there’s something of the wolf in these German fans and their fangs. The Manhattan editor on the other hand is obviously just a fool. For the sake of his clients, one hopes that he will be able to muster up some seriousness when it comes to their work. Both statements do indeed reveal a degree of anti-intellectualism for which the US is known, alas. But the brutish fans and the journalists hungry for a story surrounding the fair are not really pro-intellectual either: they don’t attend to literature, they attend to the marketplace. Everybody talks about the money, few talk about the morals. As a commodity, digital or print, the book is as successful as ever, if not more. By comparison, the writer is a lousy commodity. A cynical observer might infer that the best writer is a dead writer as far as the market is concerned: maximum control at minimum cost.

But we’re not being cynical in this venue, of course not. The cynical observer, the serious writer, the young editor, the hunted best-selling author, they all are wonderful protagonists in a story, any story. Writing is maximum control at minimum cost, too.


[German version of this article][See also my talk “Community is King” at the 2010 Publishers Forum: early thoughts on the impact of e-books.]

9 thoughts on ““Muscles and sex” at the Frankfurt book fair

  1. In New Zealand the grumbling has been that the book fair has become a kind of advertising base for New Zealand Tourism — the books chosen this year were (apparently) heavily loaded with cooking and travel themes, not the high lit one would want to represent one’s country at the largest book fair in the world. There has been some serious authorial grumbling about this — for good reason, too.

    • Well, I suppose you have to do what one always does in such situations: count your blessings; the fact surely generates interest for the country some of which will come to its writers, too. However, it is not so much a literary event as a commercial hullabaloo… it still is too bad that I couldn’t go. I think you and Dorothee showed incredible foresight in organizing your splendid “Aotearoa Affair“, thereby tipping the scale a little more in the direction of the writers.

  2. I’ve never been to a book fair, but from listening to the buzz I do get the impression that Frankfurt and London are mostly about concluding business, whereas the Paris Salon du Livre is much more focused on the authors themselves.
    One book fair I do go to every year is this one. I can recommend it. http://livreenherbes.blogspot.fr/

  3. Pingback: Blog Carnival 6: All About Frankfurt | An Aotearoa Affair

  4. another thought provoking post. I am merely a first time/aspiring writer (completed two books, one is now going out to publishers, the second, even after 4.5 years :( I’m still not satisfied with!) So, like Claire above, I’ve never been to a book fair either. But the atmosphere at Frankfurt you describe so well above sounds pretty ghastly. I enjoyed the image of the Nobel announcement too, and the image of low-key, almost shy scandinavian modesty, very attractive by contrast. We have some literary prizes in Ireland, including a fairly Bling-y monster (at least the cash prize is very big, perhaps by way of compensation) called the Impact Literary Award. No idea what the surrounding ambiance is like. However there is or was until very recently a beautiful little festival of literature (with some music and live theatre too) called the Flat Lake Festival, up in County Monaghan, mostly organized by the super Irish writer Pat McCabe, who is the anti-bling. They had an incredible reading, 3 years ago of a stunning essay by Harold Pinter, very soon after he had died, It was about his old Theatre manager, ( a a man called “Mac”) and it was one of the best things I’ve heard. Also had the pleasure of listening to Sam Shepard read from his own terrific collection of short stories, and briefly meeting him too, which although I am not generally impressed with the idea of “celebrities” was somehow, (am I am allowed say this?) something of a thrill. Anyway it is all very relaxed and convivial among the lakes and lawns and trees and the organic food. The organizers are creative people rather than business people, in fact they are terrible business types, so naturally the festival got into so much debt it had to be cancelled last summer. Extremely sad. It had become the anual highlight of my summers. But with luck it will be revived soon. If so, you must come over and do a reading from your books. Gosh, I am burbling I fear, quite badly. Time for a swift exit. But a lovely post, thank you.

    • My pleasure! As a matter of fact, my first collection will only come out this spring—of course I would love to come and read to the Irish; it would make me feel rich and bard-like to do so. Of course, I’m not sure if the book’s title (“Thank you for your sperm”) will be a boost or a hindrance in Catholic Ireland… it could go either way. … what you say about festivals and fairs certainly resonates with me though I must confess that I have hardly any experience; a couple of years ago I decided that I should do reading performances, and I did a bunch, culminating in a reading at the International Literature Festival here in Berlin. But I didn’t have a book out then and I found that performing on behalf of, or using my fiction took more energy out of me than it restored and so I stopped. To be entirely honest (and why shouldn’t I be, since you went ahead already), I somewhat dread the launch of my book, even though I like performing in principle (I’m a lecturer, too, so not exactly an alien to public speaking)…perhaps the muse does not relish too much direct attention, akin to getting a sun burn? Or perhaps it’s because I wrote the stories in the book a couple of years ago and have moved on physically, mentally, emotionally, and literarily…I just don’t know. I hope I’ll get over it. I like your description of intimate readings on the other hand, but I can’t imagine it’ll be like that. Berlin’s too trendy right now for intimate encounters, I’m afraid. Swamped by gawking strangers. Hey, I can burble too, it seems! On that issue of rubbing shoulders with celebrities: fun, by all means! When I was 15, I sought out a great, famous writer whom I admired and it was a wonderful initiation into the craft. Today, I’ve unfortunately lost a lot of that youthful ardour: it was first replaced by cool and then by carelessness (toward stars), and now I’m way too turned in on myself to bother. Writing has made me conceited, alas. As for the 4.5 years of slaving away on your second book: time is irrelevant, and as Henry James says (in “Roderick Hudson“): «Don’t play [...] dangerous games with your facility. If you have got facility, revere it, respect it, adore it, treasure it—don’t speculate on it.» — thinking that time’s running short (which I often do) surely is speculation and must offend the muse. —Thanks for coming all the way from Dublin to see me and for your wonderful comment(s)!

  5. what a fabulous title for your book! Would it be help or hinderance here? – I’ don’t know. Certainly, 25 years ago, when Ireland was even more repressed than at present, and indeed was still a de facto theocracy, they they would have impounded your books at customs, and quite possibly incinerated them, like anti-intellectuals and zealous philistines through history & the world over. Of course you would have been in excellent company -along with Joyce & most other 20th century writers worth mentioning) Today i’d say your title would be an asset if anything. We are all lining up to outrage and to kick the church and -with a few honorable and brave exceptional individuals- after their despicable conduct, they most certainly deserve it.
    Interesting too your changing attitudes as towards celebrities and even more the stance towards public readings. I’m sure you are right and it depends a lot on the context (that rural setting up in sleepy Monaghan is about the nicest I’ve ever seen) Berlin may be too cool as you say, but at least it actually still is cool. At least i thought it so. Maybe I am too impressionable. but it certainly worked for me. :) very nice to make your acquaintance. -A.

    • I suppose I care less about the Berlin cool and more about the Berlin architecture whose eclecticism I really love and about the fabulous Berlin sky, which is just as open still (despite millions of new buildings) as it appeared in Wim Wenders’ 1987 movie “Wings of Desire” (screenplay by Austrian novelist Peter Handke otherwise not the most translucent of writers but here he found his form…I must blog about Handke. In the meantime, there is Sebald’s “Beschreibung des Unglücks” — “Silent Catastrophes“, to appear 2014)…how easy it is to lose oneself in references…cheers!

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