The Literator: heroes and villains
The literary heroes and villains of a year marked by monoculture, monopolies - and money, of course
Friday 23 December 2005
Last week, the novelist Orhan Pamuk - winner of the 2003 Impac Award and a candidate this year for both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction - received a temporary reprieve in an Istanbul court, when the presiding judge ruled that the case against him could not proceed without the approval of the Ministry of Justice. Metin Aydin questioned whether the case against Pamuk, whose denunciation of the Ottoman massacres of Armenians 90 years ago has supposedly insulted Turkish national identity, was in line with judicial procedures. Pamuk is one of several intellectuals facing the possibility of three years in jail. The issue may damage Turkey's chances of joining the EU, which requires the country to allow the same freedoms of speech as other member states.
Except, of course, that freedom of speech is under threat elsewhere, notably in our own sceptic isle. Even before 7 July, the Government was trying to push its proposed new offence of "incitement to religious hatred" through Parliament. If passed, it would allow all sorts of genies out of bottles. English PEN has spearheaded the campaign against this so-called offence bill. Last month, Penguin published Freedom of Expression is No Offence, a collection of new writing by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi and Philip Pullman, which both highlights the issue and raises money for the cause. It makes a great stocking-filler.
The Office of Fair Trading
Defeatists that they are, many publishers thought the HMV/Waterstone's takeover bid for Ottakar's would be a shoo-in. But the OFT examined the evidence and decided the weight of concern about cultural impoverishment and lack of competition merited further scrutiny.
Beginning with Every Light in the House Burnin', each of Levy's novels has explored aspects of the Jamaican immigrant experience. But it was Small Island, the story of the Windrush generation, which finally brought her both acclaim and sales. It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Whitbread Novel of the Year, Whitbread Book of the Year, the Orange, and the Orange of Oranges Prize, marking the tenth anniversary of the women's fiction award, and was shortlisted for several others.
Now a few months into her role as Children's Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson has sold well over 20 million books in 30 languages around the world and, as of last year, is the most borrowed author from British libraries. Dealing always with challenging, real-life subjects, she is a wise elder sister to her young readers, or a cool aunt.
Philip Gwyn Jones
Within a year of receiving his marching orders from HarperCollins when it closed the Flamingo list, Gwyn Jones had set up his own Portobello Books, backed by the Rausings of Tetra Pak fame. "Activist non-fiction" and international literature are his goals now, the championing of culture over commercialism. Profile Books has proved it can be done.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2006, this indie too has enjoyed an annus mirabilis, with Jonathan Trigell's novel Boy A bringing in the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Earlier this year, Lionel Shriver won the Orange Prize while, last autumn, long-time Serpent's Tail author Elfriede Jelinek nabbed the Nobel.
Jordan and celebrity authors
The lessons of Naomi Campbell - whose novel, Swan, turned into an ugly duckling when the model admitted that, never mind not writing it, she'd never actually read it - have not been learnt. This year, Jordan became the latest celeb to sign up to an expensive deal for a brace of novels. It's not just novels: seemingly, it no longer requires even 15 minutes of fame to prompt some publisher to wave a chequebook. Anyone who's ever kicked a ball or who has triumphed in some star-making TV programme... all, it seems, must now write their memoirs.
To be sceptical of the motives of the seemingly goofy guys from California who provided us with our favourite search engine risks putting us firmly in the Luddite camp. But the Google Print scheme to digitise millions of books is a complicated proposal and its full implications remain unclear. A sensible pause for thought is required - if not, authors may once again be the losers.
The Book People
Taking books into the workplace, which was the Book People's original remit, is surely a good thing, for it opened up a world of inexpensive possibilities. But door-to-door catalogue delivery and inserts in newspapers further undermine independent booksellers who can't begin to compete on price.
Kate Swann of WHS
Smiths is cleaning up on the big books - that's the verdict this Christmas. But for most of the year, CEO Kate Swann and publishers eyeballed each other over terms. As autumn loomed, Swann blinked first but will surely now come back to press her claims. Will the conglomerates cave in in the face of uncertainty elsewhere in the high street? Possibly, leaving small, independent publishers out in the cold.
Much like Maggie, Waterstone's parent, HMV Group, has announced that it will fight on, hoping to prove to the Competition Commission that bookselling and publishing have nothing to fear from its takeover of Ottakar's. But publishers and authors agree that a one-bookseller nation would be detrimental to the literary health of Britain, and it's clear from the OFT statement that the public agrees. Many believe the deal will ultimately be blocked - after a vast amount of money and time has been wasted.
Crime Writers' Association
Naturally, the decision by the CWA to exclude translated fiction from its Gold Dagger deliberations had nothing to do with the new sponsor, the Duncan Lawrie private bank. The bank's involvement increases the purse by £17,000 to £20,000, making the "Duncan Lawrie Dagger" the world's richest crime-writing prize. But one suspects that many future winners will wish that they could be in contention with the likes of Peter Høeg or Henning Mankell. The CWA may well now find someone to sponsor a separate award for translated crime fiction. Doubtless, it will be a lot less lucrative.
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