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.]
Again, 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.]