The Frankfurt Book Fair has been home to spirited discussions featuring some of the biggest names on the literary scene.
During the five-day event, which ended on Sunday, panel and In Conversation sessions mostly focused on the need to cultivate a more diverse range of authors and viewpoints within the publishing industry. The main point taken away from the week is that publishing various points of views is not only a necessity to keep readers interested, but a moral responsibility, of authors and publishers alike.
Women authors deserve more than lip service
It was Nigeria's Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of award-winning novels Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, who set the tone for the discussions, with an expansive speech to open the festival last Wednesday.
In her passionate address, Adichie urged consumers to widen their palette when it comes to buying books. “It is time for us to pay more than lip service to the fact that women’s stories are for everyone,” she said. “We know from studies that women read books by men and women. But men read books by men. It is time for men to read women.”
Adichie stated that there is a connection between the lack of female voices in literature and the lack of acknowledgement of women’s struggles in society. The end result, she said, are situations such as the controversial appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court, despite accusations of sexual misconduct made by three women. “This, to me, is why we seem to live in a world where many people believe that large numbers of women simply wake up one day and make up stories about having been assaulted,” she said. “I know many women who want to be famous; I don’t know one single woman who wants to be famous for having been assaulted. To believe this is to think very lowly of women.”
Men and women authors are read differently
The topic was also discussed by South-East Asian authors a day later in a panel session featuring Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie and Indonesian essayist Laksmi Pamuntjak.
“The greatest challenge for a writer in my country is to be heard,” Pamuntjak said. “Indonesia is such a big country, yet not much of our literature has travelled. To be recognised as women authors from there would be fantastic, but on the other hand, I don’t think women want to be in some way encumbered by just being a woman.
“I don’t think any male would be likely to answer the question of how it would feel to be part of a panel with fellow males.”
Shamsie, who this year won the Women's Prize for Fiction for her novel Home Fire, said part of the challenge is how we perceive works by women and men.
“This is something I see a lot in regards to writers in Pakistan. To give three examples of authors, there is Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam and myself. They are both my friends and I love their work. They are both novelists who have a very strong, romantic storyline in their novels. And someone asked me recently, if I noticed the way we all get talked about,” she said.
“No one talks about the romantic stories of Mohsin’s and Nadeem’s work but, instead, the political part. While with me, they are more likely to talk up the romance. As if to say the serious political stories are best left to the men. There is a different level of seriousness assigned to us as women authors.”
Saying no to president Trump
When it comes to political stories, perhaps the biggest book to have came out this year is Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury, the bestselling account of dysfunction in the administration of United States President Donald Trump.
The controversy surrounding it was such that Trump sent a cease and desist letter to its publishers, Macmillan, to halt its release. Explaining the decision to defy the president’s legal team, Macmillan’s chief executive, John Sargent, said he was driven by his responsibility as a publisher more than just book sales. “There was an element of commercial instinct at first, but then it very quickly struck me that this was an extremely serious matter,” he said.
“If you think what happens in the world when a dictatorship comes in, or a democracy fails, often the very first step is the government suppressing the press on any topic negative to that government. So I thought a lot about that and wondered if I was overreacting and I concluded that I wasn’t.”
However, Sargent said a publisher’s role shouldn’t be reduced to publishing controversial material, but to “tell both sides of the story”.
“It is not our function to tear down president Trump, but to also publish books that look at the other side, that is 50 per cent of Americans,” he said.
“There is a danger in what we call the US East Coast liberal media elite publishing only for the audience who think like them and the other side of the story is left behind. They will say, ‘I am not heard. They are not publishing books for me, why should I pay attention to them?’”
Martin Amis dim view of Philip Roth’s later work
One author who unsurprisingly commanded the attention of a large audience was Martin Amis. The 69-year-old British writer's trademark dry wit and cutting observations were in full display as he discussed the German translation of his essay collection The Rub of Time.
When asked about his essays on the late, celebrated US author Philip Roth, Amis said that he was not a fan and that Roth eventually ran out creative steam.
"I admire him less than most people do. His greatest book by far is Portnoy's Complaint. It was full of that transgressive energy that is his imitable gift," he said.
“But Roth lost the basic ability to infuse his characters with light. He was brave and decisive enough to give up fiction by the age of 80, but I always thought he should have given up a little bit earlier.”
Go to The National’s Arts and Culture page for more coverage from the Frankfurt Book Fair
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