Letter from Frankfurt: Gold and itchy fingers

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The Independent Culture
WHAT ON earth would Bond have made of it? Live and Let Die is one of the recent successes in Moscow, with a first print run of 100,000 copies. With the disappearance of the Evil Empire, Russian readers and market-orientated publishers cannot get enough of Western fantasy: spy thrillers, crime, science fiction.

Russian publishers are among more than 6,000 stand-holders at the 44th Frankfurt book fair. They are hoping to buy more rights for crime or science fiction - even though they have no fists full of dollars to offer. 'But we can guarantee the authors a fantastic free holiday in Russia,' said one new publisher.

She was also optimistic that publishing would continue to be one of the few bright spots in the catastrophic Russian economy: 'People are desperate to read everything they were unable to get for so many years' - although this appeared to mean Robert Ludlum and Philip K Dick rather than any Western literary heavyweights.

The Russians were among the few expressing confidence at this year's book fair. Most Western publishers and agents tried to put a brave face on the fact that advances were down, and few people were buying. The number of trade visitors to the fair over the first three days fell by over 5 per cent, the first fall in more than two decades. Everyone was trying to work out what their currency was worth against the mark, with quite a few pubishers deciding the whole exercise was too expensive. Despite the strength of their currency, Germany publishers and agents were also extremely cautious, only too aware that their enthusiasm for flooding eastern Germany with books since reunification has merely meant warehouses stuffed with expensively produced books no one has been able to afford to buy.

The only other nation as confident as the Russians were the Mexicans, whose country provided the central theme at the fair. Mexico was chosen to replace the Soviet Union, which disintegrated before it could take its place in the literary spotlight.

The Mexican national council for culture sent 40 writers to Frankfurt, including the Nobel Prize winner for literature, Octavio Paz. In his opening speech, he was at pains to point out that this did not mean there was an official literature in Mexico. He also used this most strident example of the commercial face of the book world to appeal to writers to say no to the pressures of the market or to literature as an offshoot of the entertainment industry. Recalling the great literature of the early 20th century, Paz asserted that writers should not automatically 'cater to the tastes, the prejudices, or the morality of readers; their purpose was not to reassure them, but to disturb them and wake them up. A literature of writers who were not afraid of being left far outside the mainstream by themselves and who never ran, tongue hanging out, after the 'bitch-goddess success'.'

This appeal in the midst of Frankfurt's frenzy of selling was repeated by Amos Oz, the Israeli writer who this year was awarded the fair's peace prize by the German Publishers' Association. Oz said he felt the prize was an international recognition of the Israeli peace movement rather than a tribute to his own individual literary achievement.

In private Oz said that for an Israeli writer it was hard not to be seen as always presenting a political point of view. Yet he felt that his true aim was 'to bring the reader comfort, to show him or her that we all share more or less the same secrets, the same contradictory urges, to relieve them of some of their sense of guilt'. Could this be the new mission for the heirs of 007?