Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May - June 1983.

THERE must be many readers who ask themselves, as at least one editor does: Just what is the Frankfurt Book Fair? What purpose does it serve? And what are its claims upon us that we should respectfully, year after year, report on it? The latest such report, in PNR 30, tells us that it 'of course produces the familiar best-ever statistics: over 5,500 publishers from 86 countries exhibiting nearly 300,000 books'. But this is 'best-ever' in what competition? What brought those 5,500 publishers to Frankfurt? To whom were those 300,000 books exhibited? To the citizens of Frankfurt, or to 5,500 publishers? And what was the point of it all, in any case? To these questions, answers may be forthcoming. But they can only have to do with the merchandising of literature; whereas PNR, it may be thought, is concerned with the writing of literature, and the reading of it, not with how it is marketed.

It is the more or less radical Leftists among our readers who will at this point protest. For them, if they hold consistently to their convictions, the machinery of the marketing of literature ultimately determines who reads that literature, and how; indeed who writes that literature, and how they write it. Accordingly to them, as not to the rest of us, it will be of absorbing interest to know that 'Karin Reschke and Helga Novak are both strong contributors to the field of women's fiction': and to them, as not to the rest of us, 'it will be interesting to see . . . whether the temper of next year's fair is as confidently neutral' as this year's has been. The rest of us, I dare say, can think of any number of questions that will set the blood racing as this one doesn't. But plainly we respond like this only out of ignorance or culpable innocence. After all, Yevtushenko and James Clavell (whoever he is), and Margaret Atwood and Mario Vargas Llosa, graced Frankfurt with their several presences; and surely these supposedly distinguished writers were there for some other purpose than to be mascots for their publishers. There was more going on in Frankfurt than meets the eye; though what that was, I am at a loss to understand after reading and re-reading several times our reporter on that occasion, Michael Hulse. Hulse for instance introduces us in passing to 'book trade spokesmen Günther Christiansen and Peter Czerwonka'. What is a book trade spokesman? Who appoints him, and what is he paid to do? If we don't have such officers (perhaps we do), does this show once again that compared with the Germans we lag behind the times?

Mind you, he is a wag, our Mr Hulse, and for straight-faced drollery has few equals: 'The Book Fair's special theme this year, religion, came off poorly in the event. Although five afternoons of well-attended discussions tackled central problems of belief and of church attitudes to the peace movement, and although the Dalai Lama and two Hopi Indians pleaded for tolerance and understanding, the atmosphere was one of apathy and intellectual low gear . . .'. Among 5,500 publishers and an unspecified number of 'book trade spokesmen', even Jeremy Taylor or William Law, whom C. H. Sisson discussed in the same issue, might well have felt an 'atmosphere . . . of intellectual low gear', though that to be sure is not how either of them would have expressed it. For them of course, as I suspect for Sisson also, religion cannot be a 'special theme', at Book Fairs or anywhere else.

Michael Hulse, it may well be, found reporting on the Book Fair a dreary assignment. Certainly his 'Letter from Germany', dated a month earlier, was a great deal more sprightly and interesting; and he did well to make us confront the veteran Ernst Junger who, while espousing political and other values that most of us find reprehensible, none the less seems to have behaved with unusual dignity in a world of high-powered sales promotions and national or international literary prizes. All the same, we surely ask the impossible of Michael Hulse and our other correspondents from foreign places. Our 'Reports' section is important symbolically, as a standing reproach to our insularity. But we all of us know, if we have any savvy at all, that those of our writers who win prizes or who go as 'our' delegates to international conferences and congresses are, virtually without exception, not to be taken seriously. If this is true of London, why should it not be true of Bonn and Paris, Rome and Oslo? And yet from our correspondents in such cities we expect reports on just the ephemera that we know better than to take seriously at home. Cannot we all imagine the 'Letters from London' that, at this very moment perhaps, are telling magazine-readers in Ankara or Lisbon how Craig Raine and Christopher Reid are the biggest things in English poetry since Auden and MacNeice? An international outlook is doubtless a very good thing: but it is something quite different from knowing what are the currently fashionable topics at publishers' parties in foreign capitals.

Whatever the tongue in which such conversations are conducted-French, German, Norwegian, whatever-the idiom used will not be what Sue Finlay asks for when she talks of 'the common sense of language'. I don't understand what so much riled Mrs Finlay in the Editorial to PNR 29, unless it was that the Editorial showed too little respect for Wordsworth's notions about the proper language for poetry. However that may be, Sue Finlay's short letter made points that are surely very cogent. Notably, this:

Is it not the case that the 'peasants', or ordinary literate folk today, have been completely abandoned by writers to the absolute official abuse of language employed by the bureaucratic state? Surely it is for this reason that people are so frequently obliged to abandon reasoned argument and make their point of view known by marching with slogans and demonstrating with primitive chants?

It is because there is no way to report the Frankfurt Book Fair except by the 'official abuse of language employed by the bureaucratic state', that we surely ought to release our friends like Michael Hulse from the obligation to report on such occasions. In such a refusal to accord significance to this sort of capitalists' mart or clearing-house, there would be nothing politically partisan. For as Mrs Finlay says elsewhere in her letter, 'The fact that a social system is not egalitarian does not invalidate the understanding its members may have has of certain basic values.' Until some one persuades us otherwise, an institution like the Frankfurt Book Fair will seem, to some of us, to exist by virtue of denying just those 'certain basic values'.

This item is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May - June 1983.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image