Penman No. 223: Fantastic, Frenetic Frankfurt (1)

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Penman for Monday, October 31, 2016

 

I’VE BEEN to mammoth meetings before—the Modern Languages Association in Chicago, MacWorld in San Francisco, Comic-con in San Diego, for instance—but nothing comes close to the Frankfurt Book Fair in size and scope. Covering over ten hectares of exhibition space spread out over several buildings and many floors, it’s certainly the world’s biggest and best-known book fair, gathering participants from nearly 200 countries.

Unlike author-focused literary festivals, the vast majority of those participants are publishers, booksellers, editors, literary agents, and printing industry representatives, all looking to make a pitch and a sale of their wares across the globe. That globe may have been made much smaller by the Internet, but nothing still beats a face-to-face transaction with one’s possible partners, and that’s where a book fair like Frankfurt’s comes in, as a week-long physical marketplace where the world’s publishers, from the biggest to the smallest ones, all go.

Inevitably a few writers and artists stray into the mix (we spotted David Hockney through a crack in the wall being interviewed at the Taschen booth by German TV), and this year I was one of those lucky few, with some help from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the University of the Philippines. Spearheaded by the National Book Development Board and invaluably assisted by the prime advocate of culture and the arts in the Senate, Sen. Loren Legarda, the Philippines expanded and upgraded its representation at FBF 2016, with a much larger booth and an impressive array of books from all our major commercial and academic publishers. The NCCA also sponsored one of our top graphic artists, Manix Abrera, and it didn’t hurt that National Artist Virgilio Almario came along in his private capacity to accompany his wife Lyn and daughters Asa and Ani who were representing Adarna Books and the Book Developers Association of the Philippines.

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While Filipinos have attended the FBF in dribbles for some time now, it was only this year that we went all out, helped incalculably by our bigger booth. Last year, publishers had to chip in P100,000 each to rent a tiny plot of real estate at the fair, which starts at 400 euros per square meter. Sen. Legarda’s timely intervention meant that publishers could put their rental money into bringing more representatives and more books, and our 2016 delegation hit a historic high at over 40 members.

Though not yet quite the pavilion that countries like China and Singapore could afford, our corner booth was colorful and visually attractive—a plus in a fair with thousands of such offerings, all competing for the passing viewer’s eye. Through the Ateneo University Press (now headed by Karina Bolasco, formerly of Anvil Publishing), the Philippines also had another albeit smaller booth in another hall as part of the FBF’s invitational program, an affirmative-action project that brings in and sponsors selected publishers from developing countries. Predictably, China’s exhibit occupied a whole city block (for the price of which they could have gotten a better English editor for their signs, which proclaimed “Chinese Publication”).

On the other end of publishing pomp and circumstance, the FBF annually invites and celebrates a Guest of Honor, and this year it was the Netherlands and Flanders, which decked out an enormous hall as a haunting landscape reminiscent of the Dutch flatlands. The Guest of Honor status focuses attention not only on that country’s literature but its entire culture and society, providing an opportunity to put one’s best foot forward (Dutch royalty attended the opening ceremonies, lending a touch of glamor to the event—and ratcheting up security for everyone). The Guest of Honor also gets to choose a theme for its exhibit, which this year was “This Is What We Share” (last year, New Zealand—on the other side of the world, for Europeans—whimsically chose “While You Were Sleeping”). My fancy tickled, I asked what the Philippines needed to be named Guest of Honor—one can both apply or be invited—and received an unequivocal answer: “Millions of dollars.” I shut up.

Its cultural import aside, the book fair means big business for Frankfurt, which, in partnership with the private sector, leases out the fair grounds to such clients as the publishers’ association which directly runs the book fair; at other times the venue hosts other big events such as automotive fairs and a forthcoming Justin Bieber concert. Last year the FBF brought in 250,000 participants, a figure the organizers expect to rise to 280,000 in 2016.

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This year’s edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair is officially the 68th, but it traces its lineage much farther back to medieval times, when friars traded pages of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. There’s still a special section of the FBF devoted to the antiquarian trade, to which I gravitated naturally, being interested in all things ancient. Other than this parchment-heavy and leather-bound corner, the FBF dwells and thrives on nothing but new, newer, and newest—new books, new ideas, new authors, new media, new technologies, new markets, new connections, new networks.

Exhibits are grouped by geographic region, by language, and by theme, so one has to roam far and wide to get the full scale of things and to zero in on specific interests. Much of the business at Frankfurt, however, is pre-planned; with table space at a premium, publishers and agents would have emailed each other months or weeks in advance to set up meetings for specific dates and times in Frankfurt.

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The publishers of so-called “trade books”—novels, cookbooks, children’s books, etc. aimed at the general public—showcase their works to attract attention from international publishers and booksellers who may want to translate them into another language, or to sell the books on consignment in other countries. Academic publishers—this year we were represented by the UP Press, Ateneo de Manila University Press, and UST Press—negotiate among each other for reprint rights, which can make costly works more easily available to local readers.

Led by NBDB Chair Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz, the Philippines launched its exhibit with a reception at its booth on the fair’s formal opening on October 19, a well-attended event graced by Ambassador Melita Sta. Maria-Thomeczek (who was happy to recall that she had once been an employee in Rio Almario’s Adarna Books and had been a student of Rio’s wife Lyn at Maryknoll) and by First Secretary and Consul Cathy Rose Torres, who herself happens to be a prizewinning fictionist. The reception was catered by Maite Hontiveros, who laid out a scrumptious spread that featured lumpia, spoonfuls of adobo on rice, mango juice, and Philippine chocolate, which were clearly a hit among our foreign guests.

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Filipino books, of course, remained on top of the menu, and for the next week, we took turns at the booth to entertain visitors and book buyers from other countries, while occasionally slipping out to survey the vast array of exhibits and inevitably to marvel at the scope, vitality, and quality of global publishing in the 21st century. I came away even more convinced that culture is a global battleground, and that books are weapons—of mass instruction, if you will.

Next week, I’ll share the highlights of my conversations with key people at the book fair, and report on retracing Rizal’s footsteps in Heidelberg.

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Penman No. 165: Going for the Bestseller

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Penman for Monday, September 7, 2015

AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER are usually busy months in the cultural calendar, and this year’s been no exception. UMPIL—the Writers Union of the Philippines—held its annual conference toward the end of August, with the economist and columnist Solita “Winnie” Monsod delivering the customary Adrian Cristobal Lecture. On September 1st—perhaps the most important date on many a young Filipino writer’s calendar—the 65th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature were given out, with poetry titan Gemino “Jimmy” Abad arguing eloquently for the power of literary language to create its own reality.

In that same week, National Book Store, among other sponsors, put on the Philippine Literary Festival at the Raffles Hotel in Makati, headlined by visiting authors Matthew Quick and Meg Wolitzer. I went on a panel at that festival with my friends Krip Yuson and Jing Hidalgo, with Marivi Soliven as moderator, to talk about writing the novel. I was surprised to walk into a packed room at the Raffles, despite the fact that Meg Wolitzer was holding forth in another session at the same time.

Now, I’ll admit that I’d never read Meg before, although I’d read about her recent novel Belzhar. She was advertised as a bestselling author, as was Matthew Quick, who wrote The Silver Linings Playbook.

I overheard a mild complaint in the hallway to the effect that the NBDB should have invited the powerhouse cast of Pulitzer prizewinners that Manila festivalgoers have been used to seeing (I remember hosting a chat with the wonderfully encouraging Junot Diaz a few years ago). I didn’t have the time to stop and respond to that comment, but I would’ve said, ”Hey, no problem! There’s a lot we can learn about producing bestsellers! And bestsellers can and should be well-written, too!”

Indeed, in our panel on the novel, one of the recurrent themes that came up was that we Filipinos don’t write enough novels (“We’re world-class sprinters,” I noted, “but not marathoners”), at a time when the only thing international publishers are looking for are novels, which can lead to fat Hollywood contracts and all kinds of other spin-offs.

Toward the end of that discussion, in the Q&A, a young lady in the audience asked about what we (presumably the literary Establishment, going by our senior-citizen cards) thought of newer and less traditional routes to literary fame like Wattpad. Thankfully, I’d heard of Wattpad, and had even actually registered on the site a few months earlier out of curiosity, so I could peek into what was going on there. I knew that Wattpad was generating stories that were already being adapted into commercial movies, so it was more than another digital pastime. (For my fellow 60-somethings, Wattpad’s a website where people—usually very young people—upload stories of all kinds, typically love stories, vampire stories, science fiction, and fantasy.)

I told the questioner that while it was likely that much of the material on Wattpad wouldn’t come up to conventional literary standards, I didn’t see that as a problem. What was important was that—at some level and with little or no intervention from their elders—young people were writing and reading, and that can’t ever be a bad thing. Tastes mature and change, and even within those young-adult genres, truly good work is bound to emerge and be recognized and rewarded. And even mainstream literature itself would ultimately benefit from the spillover; as Shakespeare put it, “When the tide comes in, all the ships in the harbor rise.”

But beyond supporting what younger writers were doing, I brought up another pet theme of mine, which is that we older writers write way too serious (if not sometimes inaccessible) stuff, and have thereby separated ourselves from our potential readers. Creative writing has become way too academicized—produced in, for, and by formal writing programs, with little regard for what ordinary readers are really concerned about in their daily lives. In other words, while we seek to develop our readership, or work on the demand side, we should also work on the supply side by writing material of more popular appeal, with little or no reduction in quality.

This train of conversation ran on a couple of nights later at the Palancas, where I had a chance to chat at the sidelines with Graphic fiction editor Alma Anonas-Carpio and essayist Ferdie Pisigan-Jarin. (I don’t smoke—and I would urge everyone not to—but I happen to find people who smoke usually more interesting to chat with than those who don’t, so I usually join the smokers out on the patio of the Rigodon Ballroom at these Palanca dinners, especially when the program—with my apologies to the gracious hosts and the contest winners—goes on for too long.)

I told Ferdie that I suspected that, outside of school, young readers these days didn’t really care much about author’s reputations, or about what critics or other old people say about a work. Ferdie agreed. “We undertook a survey,” he said, “and we found out that what makes young readers decide to buy a book is what they can get of the story from the back cover. They can’t even leaf through the pages, because most books these days are shrink-wrapped.”

From Alma came the astounding news that one young Filipino writer, Marian Tee, was making a regular six-figure income from the Amazon sales of her e-book novels. Though based here, Marian writes dreamy romantic comedies set in places like Greece, with titles like The Werewolf Prince and How Not to Be Seduced by Billionaires, and with covers displaying a surfeit of naked male muscle. The female protagonist may be blond, swears Alma, but she’s really Sarah Geronimo in disguise.

I’m not saying that we should all write like Marian, because we probably couldn’t even if we wanted to. But it’s good to know that there’s someone among us who knows the market and can play the global game, because there’s a lot we can learn from her—in adaptability, in audacity, in humility, and in plain hard work.

I don’t think that literature as a fine art will ever be threatened (any more than it already is); there will always be authors who won’t mind being read by a precious few, and thankfully so, because these are the writers who will keep pushing the envelope of language and exploring uncommon sensibilities. For most other writers, or most other times, it’s worth keeping in mind that “bestseller” isn’t necessarily a bad word.