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The Literary Saloon Archive

1 - 10 October 2009

1 October: Prose on Anne Frank | Nobel update | October German critics' favorites
2 October: Kafka (estate) trial | October issues | Son'Allah Ibrahim interview | Best of the National Book Awards Fiction poll | City Lights' 'No Method' contest
3 October: Nobel Prize countdown | Nothing to be Frightened of review
4 October: WELT-Literaturpreis to Philip Roth | Critical doubts in India | Profile: Richard Dawkins - Christopher Ondaatje - Gerald Murnane | Writing in ... Viet Nam | Savage review
5 October: Man Booker preview | Edward el-Kharrat interview | Spinning Tropics review
6 October: Nobel countdown (cont'd.) | On publishing Georges Perec | India's literary performance anxiety | Vietnamese fiction abroad | Forthcoming Jonathan Coe novel | HuffPost Books | The Greatest Show on Earth review-overview
7 October: Herta Müller - 2009 Nobel laureate ? | Wolf Hall takes Man Booker Prize | French prizes - second round selections | Book Reviewing Round Table
8 October: And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... Herta Müller | Sam Tanenhaus interview | Adam Kirsch on Leon de Winter | Harvard buys Updike papers | Song of Two Worlds review
9 October: Herta Müller's Nobel Prize: the reactions | The impossibility of full-time reviewing ? | Raymond Federman (1928-2009) | The Infinities review-overview
10 October: Nobel Prize in Literature 2009: The 'Herta who ?' attitude - Behind the scenes | Jacques Chessex (1934-2009) | Central-East European literature overview | Romanian literature | Premio Planeta shortlist

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10 October 2009 - Saturday

Nobel Prize in Literature 2009: The 'Herta who ?' attitude - Behind the scenes
Jacques Chessex (1934-2009) | Central-East European literature overview
Romanian literature | Premio Planeta shortlist

       Nobel Prize in Literature 2009: The 'Herta who ?' attitude

       As widely noted, the popular reaction (in the US, especially) to the announcement of who took the Nobel Prize in Literature is: 'Herta who ?' -- just like last year it was ... 'J.M.G. who ?' (?), etc. etc. A knee-jerk reaction that's so predictable and widespread that the European media even take note (and make fun): a dpa report gets the headline «Herta who?» - US-Medien klagen über Entscheidung ('US media complain about decision') in Die Zeit -- or, as De Morgen put it much more clearly in a Dutch translation of the same piece: Amerikaanse media: "Müller, who the f*** is Müller?".
       Surprisingly, the 'Herta who ?'-attitude extends to outlets who really should know better: there are many examples, but surely among the most outrageous is The Washington Post, with Mary Jordan's Author's Nobel Stirs Shock-and-'Bah' (note especially the choice of photograph to accompany the article). With what amounts to an indifferent wave (off) of the hand:
"Nothing to talk about because I have never heard of this writer," said prominent literary critic and Yale professor Harold Bloom.
       Well, if Harry -- Yale professor and a man who seems to have written more books than most have read, and read pretty much everything -- hasn't heard of her .....
       But I have to get back to a question I've raised before: what exactly do you people need in order not to be this dismissive ?
       I remind you:
  • This is an author who has had five books translated into English. You're familiar with how little is translated into English -- and yet five of her books have been translated. Okay, they're not (too) readily available (this week), but still .....
  • Three (three !) of her books were reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. How many authors-in-translation get that many reviews in the NYTBR ? (Okay, unfair question, since under the Tanenhaus administration it's unlikely any ever will, but even before then it was a rarity.) That's about as prominent as coverage gets in the US, isn't it ? (Well, it slipped past Harold Bloom, I guess ......)
  • One of those titles was also reviewed in the daily edition of The New York Times -- an even harder spot to land.
  • She won that International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award in 1998 -- a relatively big (name and cash) English-language book award
       So how much more prominent does an author have to be before the automatic reaction isn't: 'Herta who ?'
       The Nobel lends itself to this reaction because, since they don't issue a shortlist (as most literary prizes do), everyone is more or less unprepared when the name finally is announced. But still, even out of the blue, these names aren't too far out there -- and certainly Herta Müller's wasn't.
       I could understand some head-scratching if Luis Goytisolo had taken the prize (see my previous mention), but Müller ?
       Indeed, looking back over recent winners, almost all were at least modestly and most fairly well-represented in translation when they took the prize. Kertész Imre (2002) only had two volumes out, and only one major (though also some minor) work by 2000 winner Gao Xingjian was available when he took the prize, but the last one that seemed close to genuinely obscure (and even he had a few volumes available in translation) was 1984-winner Jaroslav Seifert (and, honestly, even he wasn't that obscure).
       What strikes me about the American attitude is this reaction that seems close to outrage -- sort of: if we haven't heard of him or her the winner can't really be worthy. Pretty much everywhere else in the world -- including many places where these authors really haven't yet been translated into the local language, etc. -- the reaction seems much more open-minded: it's seen as an opportunity to learn about a new author. (Of course, the feeling is not universal: my new favorite Nobel-related headline is the IANS report: Nepal Maoists disapprove of Nobel for German author (yes, the Swedish Academy will never be able to please everybody: "Nepal's former Maoist guerrillas have denounced the award of the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature to German author Herta Mueller by the Swedish Academy Thursday, saying it reflected the institution's growing bias towards the communists").)
       (Part of the knee-jerk reaction in the US is, of course, that many American commentators see the Swedish Academy as ultra-politicized, and the choice as a political (and purely 'Leftist' (don't ask me what they mean by that, but apparently Stalinism is the closest real-world approximation to the 'Leftism' they mean) one. I've never really seen the pattern here -- like I've mentioned: even in the past decade we've seen everything from Naipaul to Fo, Kertész to Jelinek -- but a vociferous American contingent thinks it's perfectly obvious: literary merit means little, politics ('Leftist' politics -- you, too, V.S., apparently) everything. (They really should get together with those Nepali Maoists and discuss this, shouldn't they ?) I'm sure they'll figure out a way to fit Müller into this scheme, too.)
       I have, however, found it somewhat heartening to see that some of the 'Herta who ?'-coverage is a bit more open-minded: at Salon's broadsheet Amy Benfer wonders The Nobel Prize for literature went to who? -- only to find a Müller volume on her bookshelves (and be glad she was finally pushed to pick it up). And at the VQR weblog Michael Lukas' Herta Who? concludes: "All I'm saying is that the best way to bolster literature in translation is to buy some. And maybe you'll get a jump on next year's Nobel Prize winner."
       Unfamiliarity (okay: ignorance) of an author and their work is no crime -- indeed should almost be expected; there's only so much we can read and be exposed to. And, yes, maybe the Swedish Academy isn't looking hard enough on this side of the Atlantic -- but why not welcome their choices as an opportunity to learn about authors who otherwise wouldn't come to your attention ? Don't you think that, other than for nationalist chest-beating validation-reasons, a Philip Roth win would have been ... boring ?

       (Updated - 13 October): See now also Dedi Felman's admirable (if ... familiarly titled) Herta Who ? at LitKicks.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Nobel Prize in Literature 2009: Behind the scenes

       There's a fascinating piece in the Sunday Times by Mike Wade on 'The strange world of the Nobel literature judges' with the (misleading) headline Why have we never heard of these Nobel authors?.
       Essentially a profile of the chairman of the Nobel Prize Literature Committee Per Wästberg, I highly recommend it for its look behind the scenes -- including the revelations that:
The list contracts, first to 25, then to 15. By May, only five writers remain, and the Academy convenes to approve the literature committee's shortlist, before retiring for a summer's intensive reading: the entire works of each of the nominees. That's a breeze for Wästberg, a "compulsive" reader, he says. "I don't have any other hobbies. I don't play golf. I don't collect stamps." When he travels, he carries his books in plain covers, just in case he's spotted.
       And it's particularly interesting to learn that, ever since the disastrous selection of Pearl Buck:
Now deemed unworthy, her sudden elevation led to a convention that no one should win the prize the first time they are shortlisted. In practice, since some, if not all, the five writers have been nominated before, the Academy has already chewed over their stuff.
       Of course, Wästberg is also allowed to get in some pompous stuff sure to grate in American ears:
"It is a great regret that the Anglo-Saxon world is so rich in itself but so insulated to the outer world," says Wästberg, most of whose 50 or so novels and poetry books are unavailable in English (though an English translation of Wästberg's latest novel will be published in the UK by Granta next spring). "Only detective stories cross borders. Nothing that is truly well-written and original counts. There are exceptions, but the poor British are often so astounded when it comes to a Nobel winner. They say, 'Who is that? We haven't heard of him.' "

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Jacques Chessex (1934-2009)

       French-writing Swiss author Jacques Chessex has passed away; see, for example, the (French) AFP report.
       The only book of his under review at the complete review is his The Vampire of Ropraz.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Central-East European literature overview

       Eurozine now offers an English translation of Katharina Raabe's Osteuropa-piece from earlier this year, As the fog lifted, a good look at: 'Literature in eastern central Europe since 1989'. (Raabe is editor for eastern European literature at Suhrkamp Verlag.)
       A lot of these authors and works (including several not yet available in English) are under review at the complete review; see the index of Eastern European literature under review.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Romanian literature

       A (somewhat limited) look at the State of Romanian literature in Spain, debated in Madrid is up at Financiarul.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Premio Planeta shortlist

       The incredibly rich (601,000 euro) Premio Planeta will be announced soon and, as for example The Independent reports, now: Shortlist for Premio Planeta, top Spanish language book prize, revealed.
       This is perhaps the most useless shortlist ever: six of the ten authors are still veiled behind pseudonyms .....
       Still the statistics are, as always, interesting:
A total of 492 novels from around the world were submitted: including 219 from Spain, 61 from South America (20 from Argentina alone), 51 from North America (25 from the US and Mexico apiece), 11 from Central America, 10 total from European countries France, Switzerland, the UK, Germany and Italy, one from Japan, for the first time in the award's history, and elsewhere.
       Someone explain to me again why the Man Booker folk can only be bothered to deal with roughly a hundred titles a year .....

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

9 October 2009 - Friday

Herta Müller's Nobel Prize: the reactions | The impossibility of full-time reviewing ?
Raymond Federman (1928-2009) | The Infinities review-overview

       Herta Müller's Nobel Prize: the reactions

       So the first reactions to Herta Müller winning this year's Nobel Prize are coming in -- and, of course, include many variations on 'Herta who ?' What's noteworthy about that is that, like Le Clézio last year, she's actually been fairly well published in English translation: five books (not four, as so many outlets claim: Nadirs, The Passport, Traveling on One Leg, The Land of Green Plums, and The Appointment) -- and reviewed in, for example, The New York Times Book Review (repeatedly). And she won that International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award in 1998. Not exactly low profile, I would have thought. [Updated: See now also the shocking but typical Author's Nobel Stirs Shock-and-'Bah' (with appropriate picture !) by Mary Jordan in The Washington Post.]
       (I do wonder what would happen if they ever selected a truly obscure, never-before-heard-of author, but I guess the answer is obvious: the same thing would happen as did this year, and last, and when Jelinek won it, etc. etc.)
       Admittedly, most of her stuff has been out of print for a while, and the rest has hardly been flying off the store shelves: as A.G.Sulzberger writes at one of The New York Times blogs, Herta Who? Nobel Winner Not on Booksellers’ Radar:
At the Strand bookstore on Broadway, piled high with reading options, the few copies of her books that came in took considerable time to sell. "Her sales have been dismal here, and very few of our employees even know who she is," said Nancy Bass, the owner. "She’s an obscure author."
       But now, of course, the publishers are rushing to get her back in print, and translate some of the other works; see, for example, Arifa Akbar reporting that: 'Publishing houses from around the world are scrabbling to translate work of Nobel winner, Herta Müller' in German writer wins Nobel literature prize, reporting that:
Pete Ayrton, at Serpent's Tail, the first English publisher to translate Müller's work, The Passport, in 1989, said up to only 20,000 copies of the book had been sold in 20 years, although he expected that number to rise substantially after the book was reissued on 19 October.
       Among the better introductions to the author are:        Among weblog mentions, discussions, and round-ups, see:        See also, for example, a collection of reactions (in German) at the FAZ and a (Swedish) profile of Müller by Kaj Schueler at Svenska Dagbladet.

       Finally, Svenska Dagbladet address something the Swedish Academy is going to have to look into more closely, as Elisabet Andersson and Tobias Brandel report that Spekulationer om läcka i Svenska Akademien -- noting also my own small (but flatteringly widely reported -- from continent to continent) part in all of this:
Engelskspråkiga bokbloggen The Literary Saloon skriver att de kunnat notera ovanligt många besök från Svenska Akademiens datorer sedan de i tisdags spekulerat i att Müller skulle få priset. Bloggen tolkar det som att någon som arbetar på Akademien mejlat länken till inlägget till sina kollegor.
       The e-mail trail was only added confirmation, of course -- it was the rapid shift in Müller's odds (and no one else's) that was the strongest indicator that she would get the prize. It's obvious that for the past two years someone has been using inside information -- and wagering on the outcome. (By the way: my guess -- and advice -- for next year is that the Swedish Academy have someone place large bets on four or five also-rans in the week before the Nobel announcement, to muddy the picture (well, the odds).)

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       The impossibility of full-time reviewing ?

       In the New Statesman D.J.Taylor 'mourns the slow death of the man of letters', finding it's impossible to make a living at book reviewing any longer, in The last writes.
       The article is of interest for a number of reasons -- including mention of the going rates at several outlets, and the finding that it doesn't add up to much:
A real top-notcher who cultivated his contacts, took on any work offered him, and reviewed for one daily newspaper, one Sunday and any weekly magazine that would have him might have earned £20,000 a year 20 years ago, but he (or she) couldn't do it now. Rates have been slashed; contracts are frowned on by vigilant managing editors; books pages struggle to retain their identity amid the annual encroachments of film and music. Meanwhile, the prestige commissions that writers habitually take on to keep their names before the public grow ever less viable. Now, a 2,000-word piece for the Times Literary Supplement, the country's leading literary journal, pays £200 -- even though it takes a couple of days to write and finesse.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Raymond Federman (1928-2009)

       As, for example, The Buffalo News reports, French-American author Raymond Federman has passed away.
       See also his Federman's Blog, and his official site.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       The Infinities review-overview

       The most recent addition to the complete review is a review-overview of John Banville's The Infinities -- available in the UK, but only coming out in the US in February (when I hope to review it properly).

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

8 October 2009 - Thursday

And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... Herta Müller
Sam Tanenhaus interview | Adam Kirsch on Leon de Winter
Harvard buys Updike papers | Song of Two Worlds review

       And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... Herta Müller

       The Nobel Prize in Literature 2009 has, indeed, been awarded to Herta Müller !
       I'll try not to crow too much about how I called the race in advance -- and, indeed, while I like the thought of having gained more literary prognostication street cred I was just the first to read the tea-leaves that were the betting patterns (and willing to admit to their significance). One lesson to be taken from this: the Swedish Academy has a big leak, and someone made a mint placing money on Müller at 50/1. That's two years in a row now (though since Le Clézio's odds started out much better not quite as much was won off his victory) -- and you can be sure everyone is going to follow the Ladbrokes odds very, very closely next year.
       I was amused by the general reluctance to hop on the Müller-bandwagon once the odds started dropping so fast -- and admired Swedish Academy frontman Peter Englund's last-ditch effort (quite a masterstroke) of pointing elsewhere by saying the prize had become too Eurocentric, which was lapped up all over the place, leading to pieces on Handicapping the Nobel Prize Announcement: Roth? Murakami? Dylan??? and claims that: "A general consensus has been forming that an American may be picked this year" (not hereabouts !). (I do think Englund's comments were a signal, however (and perhaps a criticism of how this year's voting went): I'd bet even money someone outside Europe takes the prize in 2010.)
       As with Le Clézio, getting one's hands on her books is going to be an issue: several have been translated into English, but not all are readily available (The Passport, anyone ? (probably the one I'd suggest people start out with, by the way)); information and links to the Amazon pages is up at the Herta Müller-page. (Way to go for the University of Nebraska Press, by the way: the second year in the row they have a book by the winning author .....). A translation of Atemschaukel is apparently forthcoming; more on that book later, but it certainly could ... well, appeal isn't the right word for a tortured work about post-WWII deportation and starvation in Eastern Europe (see an excerpt), but it will attract attention and readers (it's gotten, for the most part, incredibly good reviews from the German press (and Svenska Dagbladet ...) -- see the Herta Müller-page for links and quotes -- and is shortlisted for the German Book Prize (which will be announced next week).
       Having collected and posted so much Müller-information already -- see yesterday's post and the complete review Herta Müller-page -- I'm a bit at a loss what else to offer you (until the real reactions start poring in -- in the early hours all you get is the summary stuff (not everyone plans ahead (or puts all their eggs in one basket ...) as I did ...). But: more links and comments to follow later in the day.

       (Updated): Among early reactions of some interest:
(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Sam Tanenhaus interview

       As widely noted, the Oxford American has an interview with Sam Tanenhaus, both about his new book (something about the 'conservative' movement in the US) and his job running The New York Times Book Review.
       Among the interesting quotes:
A big surprise to readers is that I seldom decide which books to review. The calls are made in almost every case by one or another of our four "preview editors," plus our senior editor, and our deputy editor.
       Since he also acknowledges not doing much line-editing (which I didn't really expect he was) this does sort of beg the question of what the hell his responsibilities are .....
       Having been taught that the buck stops with the boss, I still hold him accountable for the lack of coverage of fiction in translation (and, indeed, surely his 'vision' (whatever that might be) still shapes the content of each week's issue to a great extent).
       He also mentions:
I'm proud that we've been strong advocates of young novelists -- including Charles Bock, Benjamin Kunkel, Joshua Ferris, Tom McCarthy, Marisha Pessl. Literary fiction deserves all the support we can give it.
       While not too great a fan of all that advocacy (some, yes; others, less ...), it's good to hear that he thinks literary fiction (well, whatever that is ...) deserves all the support it can be given. Perhaps that's the problem re. foreign fiction coverage at the NYTBR -- it just ain't 'literary' enough (unlike, for example, Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics (though I thought that, while fine for a debut -- she might write a decent book some day, and is certainly worth paying attention to --, was sopping in pseudo-literaryness)).
       Note that Mr.Tanenhaus will be appearing at the Center for the Study of Books and Media's Round Table Discussion on Book Reviewing tomorrow (see my previous mention), in what sounds like it could be a great panel.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Adam Kirsch on Leon de Winter

       At Tablet (the former Nextbook) Adam Kirsch reviews Leon de Winter's God's Gym, a book whose publication has passed largely unnoticed. Even Kirsch admits:
Until I read Leon de Winter's God's Gym, a pulpy yet literary Dutch thriller just published in English, I had never heard of its author. It is only the second of de Winter's books to be translated here
       (Alas, that means that Kirsch is not a regular visitor to the complete review, where God's Gym was reviewed years before it was translated -- along with several other titles by de Winter, including the particularly commendable Hoffman's Hunger, the one previously translated work also available.)
       Kirsch also writes:
Yet de Winter, a Dutch Jew, seems like a natural for the American market, and especially for American Jewish readers.
       I am uncomfortable with this sort of recommendation (though given the forum -- Tablet is, after all, oriented towards a Jewish readership -- it's understandable that he might write this sort of thing); for what it's worth (not much, I think) I'll point out that I am neither truly American nor Jewish, and, as best I can tell, nowhere close to de Winter ideologically -- but I'll seek out and read any of his books I can get my hands on. (I do wonder why he has had such limited success even appearing on the market, given his close personal ties to the US -- you'd figure a publisher would take a chance on his work.)

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Harvard buys Updike papers

       Harvard University and its Houghton Library have purchased John Updike's papers (and books); see, for example, Tracy Jan's article in the Boston Globe, Harvard buys Updike archive, and the Harvard Gazette's Updike papers acquired by Houghton Library.
       Sounds like a good fit -- but outrageously they haven't revealed how much they shelled out for the papers.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Song of Two Worlds review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Alan Lightman's Song of Two Worlds -- yes, a work in verse by the physicist-author.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

7 October 2009 - Wednesday

Herta Müller - 2009 Nobel laureate ?
Wolf Hall takes Man Booker Prize | French prizes - second round selections
Book Reviewing Round Table

       Herta Müller - 2009 Nobel laureate ?

       So they're announcing the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature tomorrow, and while I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it's someone else I think there's a decent chance that the nod might go to Romanian-German author Herta Müller. There are enough indications that I even bothered putting up a Herta Müller-page offering some of the basic information about her and her work, and links (basically because I despair of journalists getting anything right when the name is announced and I want to help where I can ...).
       There are three reasons why I'm leaning towards Müller:
  • 1. Ladbrokes' odds have broken her way in a strong way: there's been almost no movement on the list -- and Amos Oz remains the 4/1 favorite -- but the odds on Müller have gone from 50/1 to 7/1. [Updated: And now she's up to 3/1 (as is Oz, who has moved slightly) -- though this final movement of the odds may be because of the sort of speculation I am spewing out .....]
       The odds rarely move a great deal -- except last year when there was a lot of last-minute action on eventual winner J.M.G. Le Clézio, suggesting inside knowledge. The Müller-betting isn't quite as last-minute (but close -- and stay tuned today), but the move about as dramatic (Le Clézio went from decent odds of about 14/1 to 2/1). Previously among the rare occasions when an author has managed to move up the odds-list was Yves Bonnefoy in 2007, when it was noted that he'd taken the Franz Kafka Prize (which had predicted the previous two prizes) -- but there's been no good reason for Müller to suddenly attract so much more attention. [Updated: Note also that the odds of Oz (now 3/1) and Pynchon (7/1, from 9/1) have improved slightly, and that a new name -- Shlomo Kalo, at 20/1 -- has been thrown into the (betting) mix.]
  • 2. The referrer logs for the Literary Saloon yesterday -- when I'd mentioned that the Müller-odds were worth paying attention to -- showed several visits from
       Visits from the Swedish Academy (who select the Nobel laureate) aren't that unusual, but more than one in close succession is -- and this indicates someone there was mailing around the (well, a) link. It's impossible to know whether they were just keeping track of Nobel coverage, laughing at how off-base my comments were -- or expressing irritation. Nevertheless, it seems noteworthy that at least some of what I've written here has proven to be of interest to the powers that be -- and the Müller-speculation seems the obvious thing that might have caught their eye.
  • 3. My instincts re. who-should-get-the-prize (and also, especially, who shouldn't) are consistently way, way off base for literary prizes, and since it wouldn't have occurred to me to seriously consider Herta Müller in the mix -- well, it's probably time to seriously consider her.
       Okay, that doesn't sound like a very sound reason, but since I'd normally dismiss Herta Müller (as, a few years ago, I did Orhan Pamuk -- for being too young) I find I now can't.

       So what are the more solid reasons (including the literary ones -- though, of course, some would argue its ideology that matters much more to the Swedish Academicians) why she might (or might not) take the prize ?
  • Pro:
    • Bicultural/ethnic minority background (German in Romania -- a pretty exotic/unusual one, at least from some foreign perspectives) -- not a literary reason, but nationality and language always seem to matter
    • Anti-totalitarian writing -- and how: much of her writing deals with life under Ceauşescu, in horrific detail
    • Writes both poetry and prose
    • Keen sense of language, but her German colored by Romanian background -- i.e. has a different feel and texture than what's being written in Germany otherwise (she only came to Germany in her 30s)
    • Distinctive styles, critically widely acclaimed (especially in German -- hasn't fared that well in English, but that never stopped the Swedish Academy)
    • Has won bucketloads of prizes -- i.e. prize committees think she's worth honoring

  • Contra:
    • Another German-writing woman with a difficult style ? (Jelinek took the prize a few years ago)
    • Another Eastern European who writes in German ? (Okay, Canetti's prize came a while back (1981), and he -- as Galician Jew who left the region before the Second World War -- is a very different case ... -- but anti-totalitarian writer Kertész Imre also has a close Germanic connection (translator from the German, lives in Germany))
    • Another European writer ?
    • Limited repertoire (enough already with the horrible Romanian conditions ...)
    • Not that accessible (yeah, that never stopped the Swedish Academy, either)
       (I note also that, though not that much of her work has been translated -- though a translation of her widely-hailed just released Atemschaukel is in the works --, her work has repeatedly been reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (and once even in The New York Times daily edition) -- unthinkable in the anti-translation-era that is the Tanenhaus administration (unless, of course, she wins the Nobel, in which case even he will feel obligated).)

       I'm hoping for a surprise when they announce who gets the prize -- there are lots of worthies out there -- but I could see her taking it.

       Meanwhile, there have been a few more articles wondering who might get the prize, such as Igor Gedilaghine's AFP-piece, Nobel Literature Prize could go to a poet this year, with lots of very unfounded speculation (which is pretty much as good as any ...), including:
One thing is for sure, according to Bjoerkholm: "It will definitely be (someone from) outside Europe."
       Since Nicklas Bjoerkholm's authority rests on nothing more than that he is "manager of the Hedengrens bookstore in central Stockholm" ... well, I wouldn't mind someone from elsewhere winning either, but none of the 'information' in this piece has changed my mind. Meanwhile, see also my previous discussion (with links to the more extensive and interesting earlier discussions ...).

       So, check in tomorrow, when I'll have all the information on the winner shortly after they announce who it is (or when I'll simply refer you to the complete review Herta Müller-page ...).

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Wolf Hall takes Man Booker Prize

       As widely reported, they've announced that Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel has taken this year's Man Booker Prize. (I haven't read it, so I withhold judgment; I've enjoyed Mantel's books but have my doubts about this one.)
       For reactions, see, for example:
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       French prizes - second round selections

       As Prix-Litteraires: Le Blog reports, they've announced the second round of pared-back longlists for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis.
       David Foenkinos had gone four-for-four in making the first longlists of the major literary prizes with La délicatesse, but fell short in both of these second rounds. More stunningly to me: Justine Levy's Mauvaise Fille did make both cuts. I haven't read it, but I have read both her her previous works (see reviews here and here) and can't imagine that this is really a ... necessary book (but, as I've noted, my prize-predictive talents are extremely limited).

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       Book Reviewing Round Table

       Sounds interesting: the Center for the Study of Books and Media in Princeton, New Jersey, is having a Round Table Discussion on Book Reviewing on Friday, 9 October, from 13:30 to 18:00 (very ambitious).
       Quite the line-up, including: Washington Post-man Michael Dirda, TLS-head Peter Stothard, the Bookslut herself, Jessa Crispin, and The New York Times Book Review's own Sam Tanenhaus (who, I hope, will be called on to explain why he displays such antipathy to fiction-in-translation in the selection of books to be reviewed).
       I look forward to first-hand reports from the participants at Bookslut, Peter Stothard's weblog, Paper Cuts, etc. -- and, I hope, from other bloggers in attendance.

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6 October 2009 - Tuesday

Nobel countdown (cont'd.) | On publishing Georges Perec
India's literary performance anxiety | Vietnamese fiction abroad
Forthcoming Jonathan Coe novel | HuffPost Books
The Greatest Show on Earth review-overview

       Nobel countdown (cont'd.)

       Only two more days until this year's Nobel Prize in Literature is announced -- and there's been surprisingly little speculation and discussion (see my previous mention for the bulk of it).
       The Ladbrokes odds are among the few straws to grasp at (or tea-leaves to read ...) -- and while there's been very little movement in the past few days there have been two notable developments:
  • Ismail Kadare, previously not listed, is now listed at 10/1. Presumably it was an oversight that they forgot him; 10/1 sounds about right (given their inflated odds).

  • Herta Müller has soared, from 50/1 to 9/1 [updated: and just a few hours later this morning she's up to 7/1 ...] -- the only really big leap to date. Romanian-born but German-speaking I wouldn't have figured her in the circle of contenders (also because German-writing Jelinek recently won it, and similarly Eastern European-but-German-writing Canetti did not all that long ago), but she's long been highly esteemed (and is, for example, shortlisted for this year's German Book Prize, with Atemschaukel; see also an excerpt at
       (The only other bigger mover on the odds-list has been Don DeLillo , falling from 16/1 to 25/1.)

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       On publishing Georges Perec

       At his Conversational Reading Scott Esposito talks to Susan Barba of Godine about Georges Perec, as Godine has just brought out a new, corrected edition of Perec's classic, Life A User's Manual, and the first-ever complete English translation of Thoughts of Sorts.

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       India's literary performance anxiety

       A few days ago Aditya Sudarshan mused on A critical failure in Indian literature, and now in the Business Standard Nilanjana S Roy offers her thoughts, in The Indian literary bazaar, noting that:
As a country, we suffer from massive performance anxiety on the literary front, as on most other fronts. Each Booker winner of Indian origin is hailed as an A+ on the report card some invisible committee is keeping on us.
       She points out:
What do we really want to read, though? A Chetan Bhagat who says he's in the entertainment, not the literary, business, is far closer to the pulse of the Indian reader than his more feted literary peers; and writers like Amit Varma now pay attention to the demand from Indian readers that they be entertained, but not condescended to.
       (See, for example, the complete review review of Bhagat's One night @ the call centre.)
       And she has a point when she argues:
The real question is not why we haven't produced more Rushdies, but why we haven't produced more Chetan Bhagats. The answer might lie in the fact that we're not just a post-colonial market -- we are an evolving, under-developed literary market, where the supporting infrastructure (creative writing courses, literary magazines, demanding editorial standards) is only just coming into being.
       Interesting also that she finds:
India has a thriving but deeply insular smorgasbord of regional markets, where cross-translation exists but is not the norm, and where most writers do not produce works for export. (This doesn't mean that they don't produce quality writing. It's just not export-oriented.)
       How I wish this export-unoriented work were more readily available hereabouts .....

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       Vietnamese fiction abroad

       SGGP -- everyone's favorite 'Organ of the Party Committee the Communist Party of Viet Nam' -- has two articles by Tuong Vy and Bao Lam about Vietnamese literature abroad -- or rather the lack thereof.
       They argue that Vietnamese literature needs more encouragement -- as Little Vietnamese literature read overseas.
       Their solution ?
The Government should issue policies and long-term plans for the export of Vietnamese literature.

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       Forthcoming Jonathan Coe novel

       In The Telegraph's Diary: the week's literary gossip Joe Allston makes the first mention I've seen of Jonathan Coe's next novel -- at least the title: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. (Confirmed at Coe's agent's site.)

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       HuffPost Books

       Always good to see more book coverage, and at The Huffington Post they now offer HuffPost Books .
       I tend to avoid The Huffington Post -- largely because the site never seems to stop downloading and is way too busy (visually) for me -- but, like the Book Beast at The Daily Beast, it has potential.

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       The Greatest Show on Earth review-overview

       The most recent addition to the complete review is a review-overview of Richard Dawkins offering The Evidence for Evolution in The Greatest Show on Earth.

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5 October 2009 - Monday

Man Booker preview | Edward el-Kharrat interview | Spinning Tropics review

       Man Booker preview

       So they're handing out the Man Booker Prize tomorrow.
       I won't even hazard a guess as to who might or should win: the only shortlisted book I've even managed to lay my hands on is J.M.Coetzee's Summertime, and though I admired it I don't think its in the same league as his last few novels. (There are also review-overviews of A.S.Byatt's The Children's Book and the betting-favorite, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, at the complete review; I hope to at least review the Byatt, once I get a copy.)

       Among the many pre-prize articles of interest are:

        - Confessions of Booker Prize judge Michael Prodger, by the literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph -- who makes the interesting observation:
There have been some unexpected similarities of theme, too. There were a lot of twins in this year's submissions, a lot of rape and numerous ghosts. Hampstead, for all its clichéd status, remains a favoured setting, Rupert Brooke turned out to be a favoured character and the destruction wrought by art a favoured strand. Such coincidences mean nothing but it is curious to watch patterns appear before your eyes.
        - I absolutely love books. That's why I hate the Booker, in which Jenny Colgan offers the predictable arguments in the Independent on Sunday (and neglects to note that it's the publishers who shape the prize by selecting which books to submit for it ...)
        - Why Hilary Mantel won't win the Booker Prize at The Betfair Contrarian weblog, which offers some interesting titbits.

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       Edward el-Kharrat interview

       Another interesting interview at AlMasry AlYoum by Mohamed el-Kafrawy, with Edward el-Kharrat: El-Kharrat: public as censor.
       Among el-Kharrat's books translated into English is Rama and the Dragon, which I should be getting to eventually; see also the American University in Cairo Press publicity page, and get your copy at or
       About the rise of the novel (among Arabic-writing writers recently) el-Kharrat says:
This is because novels are by nature malleable and flexible. Novels can accommodate various techniques and can fit within several fields. That is why novels have occupied an important position in literary media lately. However, some people are too eager to write novels because they are driven by the belief that novels have a better chance of publication or of winning awards than other genres of art. I believe that this is not a healthy phenomenon, because those who write novels for purposes other than art itself are harming the field rather than contributing to it.
       And he also thinks that:
Now, there is a public censorship which is more dangerous than official censorship. However, the writer who believes in his message and the sincerity of what he says is not much deterred by such obstacles and ignores them in favor of his creative project.

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       Spinning Tropics review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Mochizuki Aska's forthcoming Spinning Tropics. Not a highlight of contemporary Japanese fiction, I hope -- but at least the rare work translated into English only a few years after it was published in Japanese.

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4 October 2009 - Sunday

WELT-Literaturpreis to Philip Roth | Critical doubts in India
Profile: Richard Dawkins - Christopher Ondaatje - Gerald Murnane
Writing in ... Viet Nam | Savage review

       WELT-Literaturpreis to Philip Roth

       Yet another international author-prize, announced conveniently a week before the Nobel: German newspaper Die Welt has announced that Philip Roth erhält WELT-Literaturpreis 2009.
       He's only the eleventh winner; previous winners include Daniel Kehlmann (2007), Yasmina Reza (2005), Amos Oz (2004), Kertész Imre (2000), as well as others extensively reviewed at the complete review (Jeffrey Eugenides (2003) (despite his very limited body of work), Leon de Winter (2002)) -- as well as the likes of Hans Keilson (2008) and Rüdiger Safranski (2006). I.e. a very mixed bag.
       See also the Roth-profile by Hannes Stein.

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       Critical doubts in India

       In The Hindu's Literary Review Aditya Sudarshan thinks: 'Winning literary prizes abroad is a habit with Indian writers; one we need to view with scepticism rather than naively accept as a sign of superior standards', in A critical failure, finding:
The extent of foreign acclaim, non-fictional content, and trendiness -- what do these spurious standards of criticism have in common? They are each proof of a cultural insecurity.
       Sudarshan argues:
So when a book by an Indian writer wins a foreign prize, it makes more sense to be suspicious than thrilled. It may well be that the book is not really Indian writing, not really an Indian mind on paper, but a more or less foreign one. Perhaps that is why it won. At any rate, the inquiry must be made, and to shirk the inquiry, to focus on the fact of the prize, and to declare on its basis a triumph for Indian writing in English, is to leave the critical job undone. It is to continue to accept other people's opinions, without looking for one's own.
So if Indian English fiction today seems a disjointed cacophony of voices, with no discernible shared themes or values to lend some shape to its burgeoning mass, the ultimate fault is of our critical imaginations. They have not clarified the standards, by which writers may know their material, and readers may know their books. What standards we have got, are superficial and misleading, and the products of insecurity.
       You won't get much argument from me.

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       Profile: Richard Dawkins

       In the Independent on Sunday Emma Townshend profiles Richard Dawkins, whose evolution-defense book, The Greatest Show on Earth, has just come out; see the Simon & Schuster publicity page, or get your copy at or
       Dawkins complains:
"Well, I'm nothing like as aggressive as I'm portrayed. And I'm always being labelled 'strident'. In the bestseller lists it always has a little one-line summary of the book, and for my new one it says 'strident academic Richard Dawkins'. I'm forever saddled with this wretched adjective. I think I'm one of the most unstrident people in the world. I'd like to think my books are humorous at points," he adds, pensively. "I'd like to think people laugh when they read them."

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       Profile: Christopher Ondaatje

       Also in the Independent on Sunday, Emily Dugan profiles Michael's brother, Chris Ondaatje -- who makes the most pathetic admission:
"It's taken me a long time, more than 20 years, to get the name in literature that I have always craved, but I think I'm finally there," says Sir Christopher Ondaatje. The multi-millionaire philanthropist and financier has written an impressive stack of books, but he is still touchingly desperate to prove his literary worth. And, more importantly, to step out of the shadow of his younger, more successful, brother.
       I guess it's admirable that he's honest about it, but come on -- craving a 'name in literature' ? What could be sadder than that ? (And not to be unduly cruel or anything, but I'm failing to see how he might have come even close to realizing this particular ambition. But with the cash he has surely he shouldn't care.)
       Anyway, his The Man-Eater of Punanai is out -- yet again -- in the UK; get your copy at, or the older edition at See also his official site.

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       Profile: Gerald Murnane

       In The Australian Simon Caterson profiles Gerald Murnane, who certainly deserves more attention.

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       Writing in ... Viet Nam

       In Thanh Nien News Nguyen Le Chi offers an interesting overview of Broadband literature in Viet Nam, as:
They are still finding their way, but sure-footed e-authors have made a major impact on Vietnamese literature over the past three years.

More Vietnamese in their twenties and thirties are taking to writing online, and they’re hitting the spots with readers.
"Though online readers now make up an insignificant portion of the population and mostly live in cities, e-literature is playing an increasingly important role with the boom in Internet use," says Le Thanh Huy, director of Bach Viet Book Co.

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       Savage review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Jacques Jouet's Paul Gauguin-inspired short novel, Savage.

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3 October 2009 - Saturday

Nobel Prize countdown | Nothing to be Frightened of review

       Nobel Prize countdown

       So, like last year, the Swedish Academy reached a decision quickly and they've now announced that they'll announce this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature next Thursday, 8 October. Makes for a big literary week, since the Man Booker Prize announcement comes on Tuesday. The lucky publisher(s) are no doubt also pleased, as the announcement comes pre-Frankfurt Book Fair (14 to 18 October), simplifying the whole inevitable rights-frenzy that will ensue.
       It leaves little time, however, for the usual pre-Nobel pieces -- though this week we'll no doubt get our fill of them. With no shortlist (well, not one that's made public) it's all a guessing game, and the bookies' sheets are what most are relying on in making their headlines and arguments; this year, Ladbrokes appears to be the only shop offering odds (and, as I've mentioned, there hasn't been much movement there -- meaning, presumably, little heavy wagering). So far the speculation as to whether or not Luis Goytisolo is in the running for the prize (see my previous mention) has been about as exciting as speculation has gotten. (Look for late-breaking movement at Ladbrokes however: remember that last year J.M.G. Le Clézio shot up in the closing days from 14/1/ to 2/1, as the selection had obviously leaked pre-announcement.)

       The World Literature Forum discussion seems to be the most active one online (though there have been quite a few ... digressions there), though the Words without Borders office pool has also seen some activity. And there's the market at HubDub, 2009 The Nobel Prize in Literature: who will be the laureate? where action has also been fairly limited.

       At Htmlgiant Michael Schaub has served up some of the inevitable humorous (well ...) takes on the prize, with pieces offering A Very Brief History of the Nobel Prize in Literature and The 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature: Let’s Bet Cash Money on This; expect more along these lines from any number of other publications in the coming days.
       Among the few longer posts about the upcoming prize is D.G.Myers' commentary at his A Commonplace Blog. Myers seems prone to the knee/jerk (over)reaction (but then I speak from experience, which surely colors my readings slightly), but at least he ... engages with the subject matter -- and at least he has thought this through, and no one else has taken quite as firm (or imaginative) a stand:
Five months ago I predicted that the Peruvian poet Carmen Ollé would be given the nod, and I am standing by that prediction.
       I have my doubts Ollé (and his methodology), but I do agree with him that, head to head, it's no contest between Amos Oz and Assia Djebar ... oh, wait, he's being facetious, isn't he ? He's suggesting that, head to head, the Swedish Academy would pick Djebar over Oz. I find it hard to imagine that anyone would .....
       In the comments to his post Myers takes the popular (in America) line on the Nobel Prize:
I don’t know about other literary prizes, but the point of the Nobel Prize in Literature is to celebrate the international literary Left.
       Given that, this decade alone, writers such as V.S.Naipaul and Kertész Imre have been awarded the prize that seems an ... overstatement. Or a peculiar way to celebrate this 'international literary Left', whatever that is. But I guess that's one of the things that's fun about the Nobel Prize, that the focus isn't on the writing (who wants to bother reading this stuff anyway ?) but on the nutty personalities (Coetzee ! Fo ! Jelinek and Pinter, neither of whom even showed up to pick up the thing !) and what are perceived to be their politics. (And in contemporary America apparently it has become mandatory to see everything through a 'political' prism that somehow magically divides everyone and -thing into either 'left/liberal' or 'right/conservative' (baffling though these labels -- as used in the US -- are to me).)

       I'm still looking forward to the announcement, and think the chances are about even that it will be a decent selection (i.e. someone whose work I enjoy, or would enjoy reading). I'm still hedging my bets, but maybe I'll give in and list who I think should/will win .....

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       Nothing to be Frightened of review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Julian Barnes' Nothing to be Frightened of.

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2 October 2009 - Friday

Kafka (estate) trial | October issues | Son'Allah Ibrahim interview
Best of the National Book Awards Fiction poll | City Lights' 'No Method' contest

       Kafka (estate) trial

       A few days ago Christoph Schult reported that Fight for Kafka's Papers Winds through Israeli Courts in Der Spiegel, and now that the proceedings have begun Ofer Aderet is reporting on them at Haaretz. A friend of Kafka offers another introduction to this fascinating mess about the squirreled-away Kafka papers, and Secret protocols from Kafka estate revealed in court case gets us into the actual proceedings, where:
It was revealed during the proceedings that Eva Hoffe had prevented the court-appointed estate executor from accessing the safety deposit boxes and apartment containing the materials she controls. "I've been administering estates for decades and I've never had anything like this," said attorney Amoz Eliash, a former executive of the estate. He noted that Hoffe had threatened suicide if she was forced to give the National Library her Kafka items
       The proceedings sound like good entertainment:
The courtroom atmosphere was tense, with occasional shouting and swearing, but eventually Kupelman managed to appoint two new executors in the hope that they could do what their three predecessors had not: to access the safety deposit boxes and the apartment where Eva Hoffe was hiding the remainder of Kafka's estate, and then to tell the court what was actually there.
       The Hoffe-broads sound like a lot of fun, but I blame everything -- everything ! -- on Max Brod.

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       October issues

       Among October issues of online periodicals now available is Open Letters Monthly -- 'The Bestseller Issue', where, among many other things, they "dig into the ten bestselling novels in the land as of September 6, 2009" -- and Words without Borders, offering 'eyewitness accounts from around the world' in their issue devoted to "Foreign Correspondents: International Reporting".

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       Son'Allah Ibrahim interview

       At AlMasry AlYoum Mohamed el-Kafrawy interviews Son'Allah Ibrahim: the edge of literary experimentation.
       See also the complete review reviews of his Zaat and The Committee.

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       Best of the National Book Awards Fiction poll

       So they've narrowed down the seventy-seven fiction winners of the (American) National Book Awards, and you can now vote for 'The Best of the National Book Awards Fiction'.
       It seems a bit feeble that four of the six volumes are (more or less complete) story collections -- and that the most recent winner under consideration won a quarter of a century ago. Interestingly, The Millions' Best of the Millennium-winner, The Corrections, did not make the cut -- though neither did (as I would have been inclined to vote for) any William Gaddis or Saul Bellow title.
       Last I checked, Flannery O'Connor was running away with the vote.

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       City Lights' 'No Method' contest

       Beauty Salon author Mario Bellatín was recently interviewed at PRI, and explained his 'No Method'-method -- which has now lead City Lights to launch The City Lights No Contest (warning ! dreaded pdf format !):
Our challenge to you: use Bellatin's No Method -- no adjectives, no dialogue, no space, no time, no omniscience, no names -- to write a short piece of fiction (under 200 words), and send your entry to under the subject line "No Contest." The person with the best entry will receive a free copy of Beauty Salon and a choice of four other books from our City Lights Publishers Literature in Translation list.
       Submissions are due by 15 October -- but it's only 200 words .....

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1 October 2009 - Thursday

Prose on Anne Frank | Nobel update | October German critics' favorites

       Prose on Anne Frank

       I probably won't get around to Francine Prose's Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife , but it sounds like a fairly interesting book about a book. (See also the HarperCollins publicity page, or get your copy at or
       Cynthia Crossen had a Q & A with Prose in the Wall Street Journal, and Janet Maslin reviews it in The New York Times today -- as did Tova Mirvis in Forward.

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       Nobel update

       It's the first Thursday in October and no word on the Nobel Prize in Literature yet (they announce the prize on a Thursday in October -- but don't worry, they (and hence I will) give advance warning of which one; the 15th still seems like the likeliest date). [Updated - 2 October: They've now announced that the award will be announced next Thursday, 8 October.]
       There's been very little movement as far as the Ladbrokes odds: Luis Goytisolo has slipped from 4/1 to 9/1, Joyce Carol Oates has moved up from 7/1 to 5/1, and perennial name-in-the-mix Ko Un has moved up from 16/1 to 12/1. (It's been a week, and this little movement to the odds suggests there isn't a lot of betting go on.)
       Meanwhile there's also a market at HubDub, with Amos Oz the favorite (at 27%) and Murakami Haruki at 10% (almost exactly the Ladbrokes odds on them ...); as you can see, there's been very little activity there as well. (The obvious position to take there is: 'Other' -- an option you don't have at Ladbrokes.)

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       October German critics' favorites

       The SWR-Bestenliste of German critics' favorites for October is out. The new Per Petterson (not yet available in English) takes the top spot, while Roberto Bolaño's 2666 only comes in at number three, and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest only makes it to number five.

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