Last week, the literary world seemed to revolve once more around the Frankfurt Book Fair. France was Guest of Honour, visitor numbers rose compared to 2016, over 4,000 events informed and entertained the visitors. Sandra van Lente discovered great authors, publishers and mediators at the fair, but some events left her with a bitter aftertaste.
I planned to start this post with the guest of honour and my favourite discoveries, but there were some other pictures I could not get out of my head, so I’ll address them first: right wing publishers, politicians and visitors yelling their slogans, attacking politicians, exhibitors and visitors; pouring out their hatred and frustration.
I did not attend the fair on Saturday, when the situation escalated, but I was there on Thursday, expressing my appreciation for the work of the Anne Frank Education Centre (link to website) and Amadeu Antonio Foundation (link to website) which promotes democracy and fights antiseminitism and xenophobia. And I witnessed the head of a notorious right-wing publisher (I’m not going to name them and give them a platform here) yelling at the staff of the Anne Frank House. While the Anne Frank staff member handled the situation with grace and admirable confidence, I have to admit that I felt scared and intimidated.
The justification for allowing openly racist publishers to display their books at the book fairs in Frankfurt and Leipzig is usually ‘freedom of expression’. These agents claim that they’re part of a diverse publishing scene – while at the same time defaming people and diversity in our societies and publishing. I’m sorry, but hatred is not an opinion. The second argument often brought forward by organisers is that they don’t want to inhibit the dialogue between the opposing camps. Well, sorry again, but have you ever tried to enter into a discussion about identities, diversity or human rights with people at a right-wing publishing house? From what I witnessed, their presence at the fair was pure provocation and there was no discernible sign of any interest in communication or a differentiated debate.
What was visible though was the feeling of entitlement the racist publishers and visitors showed after the last Bundestag election in Germany with a 13% vote for the racist, misogynist, homophobe and nationalist afd party – at least that’s my interpretation.
What made everything even worse was the appalling statement by the fair organisers: “The Frankfurt Book Fair witnessed provocations, property damage and assaults from left- and right-wing groups. […] We reject all forms of violence. It inhibits an exchange of political opinions.” (link to their statement, in German) Reminds you of a certain head of state? Me too.
Author and journalist Margarete Stokowski wrote an alternative statement that many of us might have liked to read instead (link to her article). Thuringia’s State Premier Bodo Ramelow commented on the events by quoting Umberto Eco: “In order to be tolerant, you need to define what is not tolerable.” Several people – among them journalists, activists, teachers, and bloggers – spoke up in print and online media and asked for a clear statement against right-wing agents who claim a place demanding their freedom of expression while at the same time denying human rights to others, sowing hatred and violence.
The publishing industry is no island. If we want a diverse and multi-faceted literary field, we have to create, support and defend it. Fortunately, there were also many examples of authors, publishers, disseminators and visitors who stood up for a peaceful, diverse and differentiated debate and publishing scene.
The staff at the Anne Frank Education Centre admitted that they were concerned about the “13%”, but that at the same time they want to address the 87%, remind them that they’re not alone and encourage them to speak up.
With the initiative #verlagegegenrechts (#publishersagainstracism), the author, translator and publisher Zoë Beck wanted to bring together people who stand up against racism, misogyny, and homophobia and make them more visible. The hashtag and the slogans were used in statements, buttons, and bookmarks – and, indeed, they made the many voices against racism and for respect and diversity more visible.
So I’d like to focus on the plurality and the admirable publishers, too. It was great to discover their programmes at the book fair! There are too many to name them all, but if you follow up on the #verlagegegenrechts hastag or the #LinkeVerlageFeiern hashtag initiated by author and activist Sharon Dodua Otoo, followed up by „Charlott“ (link), you might discover some great works. Let me name six of them briefly:
- AvivA Verlag (feminist indie publisher) www.aviva-verlag.de
- CulturBooks (indie publisher, print and ebooks) www.culturbooks.de
- Argument Verlag (left criticism, science) and Ariadne (feminist crime fiction) www.argument.de
- Edition Assemblage (critical, left publishing network) www.edition-assemblage.de
- avant verlag (political comics, graphic novels) www.avant-verlag.de
Women in Publishing
This year’s book fair provided some opportunities to have a closer look at women in the literary field.
The platform OrbanismSpace, run by Leander Wattig and Christiane Frohmann, hosted a panel discussion that asked about publishers’ responsibility in the representation of women. Zoë Beck (CulturBooks), Daniela Seel (Kookbooks), and Iris Bohnet (Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge) discussed with chair Valeska Henze how we need to keep fighting against stereotypes on the page, e.g. when it comes to characterisation, editing, covers, and marketing, as well as against imbalances in the institutions and programmes. The idea of orchestra auditions during which applicants play behind a curtain was well received by the audience as it would be an interesting idea to counteract acquisitions based on sex, gender, race, age etc.
So are female publishers better off in France? The network Women in Publishing (BücherFrauen, link) organised a panel with French publishers to find out more about women in leading positions. The three publishers Hedwig Pasquet (Gallimard Jeunesse), Claire Stavaux (Arche) and Joëlle Losfeld (Éditions Joëlle Losfeld) discussed with chair Meiken Endruweit how our industries differ. Apparently there are fewer (feminist) networks and feminist action in France is even more frowned upon than here. The narrative of “work hard and you’ll do well” still seems to be quite dominant, leaving the blame with those who don’t make it to the high ranks. Problematic cultures and structural barriers? Must be a myth. The fact that childcare is available from the age of two months onwards seems to serve as a justification for the claim that there are no structural barriers. Sorry, but I don’t buy that this is only about childcare – not all women want to be mothers, not all mothers want to bring their children to a crêche this young, not everything can be answered with childcare options (although I wouldn’t mind better alternatives here in Germany). When Claire Stavaux took over Arche, people told her: “C’est assez courageux – pour une jeune femme.” (“This is rather courageous – for a young woman.”) I think this is closer to the problem. Men and women aren’t judged by the same standards and age is another factor. That Stavaux and others are doing well might slowly help to change these standards, but I think both our countries and cultures still have a long way to go and one of the ways to initiate this kind of change is to go out there and be part of the transformation. It was indeed inspiring to meet these three publishers.
Nina George, Woman in Publishing of the Year
On Thursday, the Women in Publishing honoured their “BücherFrau des Jahres”, the Woman in Publishing of the Year. This year, the network chose the multitalented author and activist Nina George. She is very active for PEN Germany, she is a copyright activist (Initiative “Fairer Buchmarkt“), and started a team that brought together politicians such as Monika Grütters with practicioners from the field to discuss gender equality measures – to name just a few of her achievements. Author and PEN Germany President Regula Venske summed up what makes Nina George so special in her entertaining laudatory speech (link to the award speech, in German).
Nina George’s address can also be accessed online (link to the speech, in German), but I would like to mention two important points she made. She said that her assessment of the problems within our field was not about blaming one side or the other, it’s about recognizing limiting structures and socialisation and dismantling them – for the benefit of the entire literary field. And she closed: “Now is not the time to sit back and relax. […] Committing to diversity is the antidote against the fear of ‘the other’. The precise representation, reception and mediation of a diverse world is the most important tool against anti-pluralism, right-wing populism, misogyny and xenophobia.”
“Francfort en Français”
I just realised that I haven’t written about the Guest of Honour yet. I was very excited when France, my second home, was announced to be this year’s honorary guest – and maybe my high expectations were the reason for my initial slight disappointment. What was I expecting? Maybe more surprises and/or an immersive experience similar to the one the Indonesian or Dutch/Flemish Guests of Honour created in the previous years. The design of the pavilion was quite an understatement for French publishing, but then again, the organisers tried to emphasise that it was less about France than about literature in French. (Maybe I’m wrong, but my impression is that the ‘legacy’ of the French colonial empire still has a huge effect on contemporary publishing in French and most things still happen only if you have a Parisian address. )
But at a second glance, I encountered many books, events, projects and people that made the visit worth the while. I enjoyed two events in particular: the presentation of a Franco-German crime novel school project (link to a short article about the project) and the “Incipit!” panel, a session about first sentences (the pressure, inspiration and potential) with seven authors who write in French.
I really enjoyed watching the authors print the first and last pages of their books on an old printing press – and they seemed to enjoy the process, too. In the picture you see Zeina Abirached and her graphic novel Le Piano Oriental (Casterman; in Germany published by avant, translated by Annika Wisniewski). But one of my most exciting discoveries was the “Shapereader” installation and its “tactile novel” with elaborately encoded tiles (see picture). Do have a look at the project’s website: www.shapereader.org (in English) – the artists’ ideas about our (museum) cultures, privilege, accessibility and the role of art in producing new social realities really impressed me.
There were, of course, also many books available on the pavilion shelves – however there were hardly any places to sit and read. Although I caused two little avalanches while trying to take books out of the shelves, I discovered some books I might not have picked up otherwise. One of them was the graphic novel La Légèreté (Dargaud) by Catherine Meurisse, who survived the Charlie Hebdo attack and wrote about her struggle to continue life and the role of art in the process of healing. I had spotted it in the review section before, but for some reason it did not ‘speak to me’ before. When holding it in my hand in Frankfurt, though, I discovered a poetic, charming and at the same time sad and upbeat piece of work. The German version was (wonderfully) translated by Ulrich Pröfrock (Die Leichtigkeit, Carlsen) and I found an excerpt of an English translation by James Hogan (via the French publisher’s website, not sure it has been published yet).
As every year, a number of prizes were awarded during the Frankfurt Book Fair. I will not go into much detail, but added some links for further reading. And as the Peace Prize – awarded to Margaret Atwood (link to an English article on DW) – and the “Deutscher Buchpreis” – awarded to the Austrian author Robert Menasse for his “European novel” Die Hauptstadt (Suhrkamp) – and all the other mainstream ones receive enough coverage elsewhere, I would like to draw your attention to some of the less known ones:
The LiBeraturpreis was introduced in 2013 by the association Litprom in order to promote literature by women from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Arab world. To quote their website: “In the struggle for recognition on the international book market, female writers from Africa, Asia and Latin America are highly underrepresented. Litprom addresses this problem by awarding the LiBeraturpreis to a woman writer every year“ (link). In 2017, the Iranian author Fariba Vafi received the LiBeraturpreis for her novel Tarlan, in which she writes about gender roles, family constructs, freedom, violence and resistance (link to a DW article, in German).
The German eBook Award was awarded for the fourth time. In 2017, a special prize for the barrier-free accessibility was introduced – and there is still a lot to be done in this field… (link to prize’s website) In the category „fiction“, Tibor Rode won with his thriller The Message (oolipo AG), the non-fiction prize went to the Institut für digitales Lernen and their mbook “russlanddeutsche Kulturgeschichte” (Germano-Russian cultural history). The German publisher Oetinger won in the category children and YA with their series “Zuletzt online”. The new prize for best barrier-free accessibility went to the British company Bristol Braille Technology and their “Canute“, an ereader which transforms ebooks into Braille script.
Even the German literary institutions have come to acknowledge that bloggers have become an integral part of the literary field. The Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels created a “Blogger of the Year” Award with a public vote and an expert jury. This year’s prize went to two men: “Kaffeehaussitzer” (link to the blog) and @literarischernerd (link to his instagram account). A critical appraisal of the new award and the result can be found here: link to Boersenblatt article (in German).
And another one to watch out for is the Orbanism Award (former “Virenschleuder Preis”, link). The organisers award creative on- and offline campaigns, events and ideas that bring people together. The overview of past winners is a list of good practice examples in the literary field that never lose sight of what it is about: bringing together people and books.
After the Book Fair is before the next Book Fair…
Leipzig Book Fair in March is “just” around the corner and the next Guest of Honour for Frankfurt Book Fair, Georgia, has already introduced itself (link to the press release, in English).
As much as many things have angered me, I’m sure I’ll attend again next time – to explore indie publishing, meet old and new friends and colleagues from the literary fields all over the world, protest the normalisation of extremist publishers and join forces with those who want to create a fair and diverse literary field.