All the tales of the fair

The literary industry reminds us why it matters at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, which features titles from around the world, an abundance of talent, a new poetry forum and the announcement of the coveted International Prize for Arabic fiction.

For the past three years, Yann Martel, the author of the Man Booker-winning novel The Life of Pi, has been mailing a book a fortnight to Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada. The idea, says Martel, is "to make suggestions to his stillness" and generally relieve the hysteria of high political office. Given the stated goal, some of the selections have been surprising. Book number 38 was Ayn Rand's hymn to radical selfishness, Anthem. Book 54 was The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, a short and unpleasant tale of murderous children written by the suicidal Japanese militiaman Yukio Mishima. Number 46 was a book of Paul McCartney lyrics. Martel claims that each of these titles "has been known to expand stillness", but looking down his list, the suspicion grows that he's just throwing wads of paper at a wall to see what sticks.

"Wall" is the word. So far, Harper has failed to respond in person to any of the novelist's overtures. In fact, it is doubtful whether he has so much as cracked the spine on book number one (Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, in case you were wondering). Appealing as the notion of a literary dialogue between the conservative politician and the tender-souled artist might be, it hasn't materialised. Harper isn't playing.

Perhaps Martel needs to cast his net more widely. His one nod in the direction of genre fiction has been an Agatha Christie. The influence of celebrity culture is confined to Read All About It!, a children's book about the pleasures of literacy written by Laura and Jenna Bush. Travel writing seems to have been passed over entirely. But here's the thing about books. No other art form is so cheap to practise. You don't need any unusual tools or training to get started, and people have been doing it for millennia. The world of literature is accordingly vast. If it doesn't quite cater to all possible tastes, it gets closer than any other creative field.

Why, then, suppose that Harper and Martel should find common ground? Harper has the air of being a Michael Crichton reader, which Martel would probably turn his nose up at. Maybe the whole project is a bust. Or who knows? One day a decade from now, some unlikely volume might hit its mark and Harper and Martel will find themselves bonding over Sylvia Plath or the fantasy fiction of Saddam Hussein. If you have a recommendation of your own to pass on to Harper, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is the place to be this week. Martel will be there, talking about his work on Saturday and then chatting to authors from the UAE on Sunday. Ahlam Mosteghanemi, the best-selling Algerian novelist, will be there. So will Amit Chaudhuri, the splendid Indian author of The Immortals. So will Gilbert Sinoué, the French-Egyptian crime writer. So will Pankaj Mishra. So will Alia Yunis, and numerous other terrific authors - none of whom have yet been held up to Stephen Harper's discriminating sensibility.

The show kitchen is back with more star chefs ready to demonstrate their best recipes. The antiquarian book fair returns with more covetable tomes from all over the world. There's a new poetry forum, in which poets from the many vigorous traditions in Arabic verse can lord it over their withered and irrelevant western colleagues. There is, in short, a very broad sense of what books can be. Most excitingly, there's the announcement of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. To my delight, the winner of the prize will be announced tomorrow, the first day of the fair, yet the authors won't get their public session until Thursday. That ought to give the inevitable resentments and conspiracy theories plenty of time to brew. The prize has already been the subject of rumours about clandestine deals, anti-Egyptian bias (a bit rich, seeing that Egyptians won it both previous times it has been awarded) and frayed tempers on the jury. This is all within the level of sniping from the margins to be expected with any book prize - it is, as the laureated Martel can probably confirm, the side of literary life least conducive to stillness. Just wait and see what happens if Martin Amis is "snubbed" by the British Booker for the umpteenth time this year. Literary journalists are born gossips, with a weakness for speculation verging on outright fabulism. To them, this timetable is a gift.

In fact the whole fair is a gift, in a different sense. Of all the cultural fields that Abu Dhabi has been throwing its weight behind lately, is any so deserving as the book trade? Literature, as you'll know if you've ever been to a publisher's year-end party, is the poor relation of the arts. There's no money in it and its practitioners are, in the main, lonely obsessives with thin skins. Compare the tanned, gregarious alphas of the art and film worlds. There's a saying that politics is show business for ugly people. The book business is politics for people who get twitchy in public spaces. A minority interest, in short, and a declining one.

According to a survey by the US National Endowment for the Arts, the number of Americans who read at least one novel, play or poetry book a year fell by seven per cent between 1992 and 2002. In a couple of years we're due another audit so we'll see how far Web 2.0 has seduced readers from the slopes of Parnassus. America, by the way, isn't merely a representative case: it's one of the only markets that count. For most of the world's inhabitants, a hit novel in one's home country would barely be worth mentioning on the tax return.

The problem for Arabic writers is more severe. Piracy is widespread in the Arab world, diminishing the chances that an author will be paid even in the rare event that someone buys his or her book. Since last year, the ADIBF has been working to change things. The Spotlight on Rights initiatives subsidises rights deals to the tune of $1,000 (Dh3,670) apiece. In a business with very narrow margins, this provides an incentive for publishers to obtain texts legitimately. In 2009, the initiative found more than 200 takers. Hopes are high for 2010.

The IPAF supplies another important fillip to a struggling industry. Such prizes nominally exist to reward excellence; occasionally they even go to the most deserving book. But we all know their real function is to get publicity for authors, to build buzz and drive sales. The six shortlisted authors - Abdo Khal, Jamal Naji, Mansoura Ez Eldin, Muhammad al Mansi Qindeel, Raba'i Madhoun and Rabee Jabir - all stand a greatly improved chance of translation into European languages, which in turn increases the likelihood that they will see decent royalties for their labours. It's easy to be cynical. Yes, the publishing industry is the most obvious beneficiary of such exercises. Yet readers are hardly passive victims. We live in a noisy world. Books, as Martel suggests, speak in a quiet voice. Anything that can direct our attention to the kind of thing we might enjoy but wouldn't normally notice has to be a good thing. Some marketing stunts are benign.

Perhaps the most quixotic of Abu Dhabi's book initiatives is the Kalima translation project. Every year, Kalima selects 100 titles from the vastness of world literature and arranges to have them translated into Arabic. Looking down the list of items that Kalima has picked so far, that Martelian sense of high-minded randomness is pronounced. A volume on the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas rubs shoulders with a work on physiognomy (Rose Rosetree's The Power of Face Reading). Edna O'Brien's soupy memoir Mother Ireland shares shelf space with the ferocious, glittering Fragments, by Elias Canetti. There's Eckhart Tolle's new-age tract A New Earth, and Stephen Hawking's A Briefer History of Time. Who could be interested in all of them? Well, exactly. They aren't for any individual. They're meant to edify and enlighten a global language community. Each book is not for everyone (though it's tempting to think one or two of them might strike a chord with Stephen Harper).

It's gratifying to see Abu Dhabi investing in work such as this. After all, literature matters. Leave aside the ponderous Matthew Arnold stuff about "the best that has been thought and said". Never mind the school board line about learning to grasp and assess sustained argument, or the soppy pieties about imaginative empathy and seeing the other fellow's point of view. It matters because it's cheap to make, hard to consume, and so tells us more about ourselves than any other taste we might profess. Stendhal thought the novel held a mirror up to reality. It does, and the reality it reflects is the reality of what we want.

Very often we learn to tolerate art we don't like. We snore through atonal operas and laugh at B-movies. We push ourselves around museums wearing a contemplative frown and reach the cafe before our foreheads are aching too badly. Uniquely among the arts, you can't do that with books. A book means a commitment of hours, and if it isn't working for you, it probably isn't working at all. The page becomes a grey sea and your eyes roll in your head. You make excuses not to pick the thing up again. Bedtime feels like a punishment. Some books let you in. Others bounce you at the door. You can hide it or lie about it, but the book knows who you are. And after a few such experiences, so do you.

The moral of all this, unlikely as it might seem, is that there's a kind of value in Martel's correspondence with Harper. The Canadian prime minister gains even from the books that miss their mark. As do we all, moving through a sea of things we don't want to read, and occasionally - happy day! - stumbling on something that we really, really do want to. It's a wasteful process in some ways, this way of coming to know ourselves, and one that has never done much for the bank balances of the majority of its servants. How laudable, then, that Adach supports it through initiatives like ADIBF and Kalima. You might not feel terribly still in the booming vastness of the Adnec exhibition centre this week. But you should, in a sense that has nothing to do with bank balances, feel rich.

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs from tomorrow until March 7 at Adnec. For more information, visit