These are pretty weird days, and I have some difficulty in finding some coherent thoughts about what that means in a perspective of books.
The Nobel prize was given to the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. This was a surprise, for sure, but I thought at first: “Hein, c’est interessant”. I had read “Le désert” many years ago, a novel in praise of the clarity of desert life and the virtues of Tuareg nomads, perhaps a bit too thick in descriptions of that sound of nothingness, but not only did I like it and, decades later, still have the flavor of the book, and a few images. It was obvious – and even none of those nasty instant critics of the past 2 days contested this point -: Le Clézio knows what he is talking about. He talks about many countries, many people, many flavors, and this is, I suppose, something important and valuable which writers can bring us, provided their language is up to the job – and this is the other quality that hardly anyone questions. And yet, in Germany at least, several of the “grands pontifs”, or the big wigs of literary criticism, instantly threw at Le Clézio: The fact that they had never read one of his books. How weird! Critics who blame their ignorance on the writer whom they did not bother to read.
Earlier today, I also read a few quotes from European publishing executives about how the global financial crisis might affect books. And I learned a cute thing: It won’t affect books a lot, someone remarked, because people will eventually re-consider buying a new TV set, or a car, but not a trade paperback for 5 Euros. However, this does not mean that publishing *companies* would not be affected. And even very much so they are already, I learned from today’s Publishers’ Lunch newsletter where Michael Cader posted the losses of various US publishers’ and retailers’ losses (including some 31 percent for Amazon since September 19 – details for subscribers only).
Two thoughts slowly emerged in my mind, and I write them down at the risk of being wrong once again, in the short term: For e-Books, this crisis is a huge opportunity, because in the end, they offer publishers (and writers) possibilities to cut down on their costs, in terms of production and distribution, but even more so in communication with the readers. That can open doors, specifically in difficult (and in soul searching) times. And it can do so for very specific writers, who, like Le Clézio, at the same time, are both main stream (in their rather traditional approach to story telling and to humanity and their generic values) and marginal, or peripheral (in the choice of their topics, and their following), but who can find great significance by exactly their stubborn ways.
Since reading “Le désert”, I had, time and again, said to myself that I should read a few more books of this writer. I never did – nor did I ever meet him, despite of a certain, if unspecific desire to try.
Over time, I had been friends with two other writers who, as unexpectedly as Le Clézio, had ended up winning the Nobel: Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese, yet naturalized French, and Elfriede Jelinek, my Austrian compatriot. Each has a very strong sense of telling an unwanted story which, even later on, as the topic itself at some point becomes wildly welcome and prized, remains, in their specific telling, too violent, or too personal, or too awkward, or all of this, to make the writers really popular. Gao turned the catastrophic Cultural Revolution in China into a personal tale of such subtlety that, despite of all the cruelties mirrored, remained so private, that most of the critics turned it down. Jelinek does the reverse thing as she turns violence against normal, middle class girls and women and, probably more importantly, men’s fantasies into such public nightmares that they remain utterly indigestible, or unconsumeable, even against all of today’s movie and game fantasies.
Le Clézio, in my memories, has much milder things to say; perhaps he could be blamed for being the backpacker’s ultimate poet and soul mate. But this does not only explain why he is hated by capital literary honoraries – who always dislike those stray dogs who just drop their borrowed and torn paperbacks for the next traveling peer, instead of accumulating their private little library fortress in a middle class home. In fact, this stray dog’s writing can, perhaps, be very much what we may want to read now, after all those capital fund dogs got rid of much of our savings, plus our future tax payments, and that of our kids as well.