Archive March 2006
|Hong Kong Literary Scene: New Literary Price
The Hong Kong Literary scene now registers on the international literary radar
of publishers, editors and agents according to the International Herald Tribute.
A new international
literary prize has been announced for unpublished English language works and the
first award will be made in the autumn of 2007. Man Investments (they fund the
Booker Prize) are the financial muscle behind the new award.
Vittachi, a journalist and novelist, is quoted as saying, “Before the whole food
chain was missing. We didn’t have literary agents, literary magazines, literary
editors, or a literary festival. Now the pieces of the chain are coming
together. The Man literary prize was the last piece of the puzzle.”
Kong is riding the wave of worldwide interest in Chinese literature. They have
offices of major UK publishers in Hong Kong and are actively looking to find
those books, which will translate well for a larger market.
|STEAMY EAST: Tracking the literature of Asia
One of the best websites devoted to books set in Asia is Steamy East. Behind the
website are two expats, Mark Schreiber and William Wetherall. The content is
divided: race, perils, places, sex, exotic, and genres. I found the website
contents provides a good perceptive on the literature, writers, pitfalls, and
refreshing candor. The Steamy East is a super genre consisting of many
sub-genres, including action, adventure, erotica, fantasy, horror, mystery,
thrillers, war, romance, historical and crime novels. Between Mark and William
they have 5,000 English novels in their collection of Asian literature. Both are
long-term Japan residents, and serious book collectors, reviewers, and
commentators on novels set in the East.
A number of the categories promise more content is
In the section on Exotica, you will find William Wetherall’s
take on the importance of getting the details of a culture correct. In other
words, in fiction, accuracy does matter.
“Steamy East stories are full
of descriptions of places and peoples the reader, and often the writer, has
never been to or seen. Because they are fiction, they should be read as though
ever word were a lie intended merely to entertain. Many stories, though, are
also told to educate or even enlighten. In addition to being an entertainer, the
writer is also some mixture of tour guide, teacher, professor, counselor,
philosopher, politician, publicist, philosopher, brain washer and pimp.”
My favorite section is Who’s Who where many authors are listed along
with their books. The section is heavily weighed toward settings in Japan and
China. The authors mentioned include: contemporary authors such as Peter May,
Christopher West, Li Yan, Margaret Campbell, and Janwillem van de Wetering.
Authors from the past include, Richard Mason, Harry Stephen Keeler, and Onoto
For anyone interested in exploring the range of literature in
Asia, Steamy East is a must website and will introduce you to many books by
expats living in this part of the world.
|34th National Book Fair and 4th Bangkok International Book Fair
Today at Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, these two book fairs open.
390 Thai and international publishers are scheduled to attend. Publishers from
11 countries will participate in the international section. Britain is named the
country of the year. Most publishers offer books at discount during these fairs.
The convention centre is normally packed with people, and this weekend I would
expect many thousands to attend. If Siam Paragon pulls down the shutters to
avoid the demonstrations held outside, shopper may decide it is time to buy a
|Reading List for the Prime Minister
Bangkok Post today has an article about a Thai academic who has come up with
a required list of books that Caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra should
read. Assoc Prof Carina Chotirawe who has made the list is a lecturer in English
literature at Chulalongkorn University. In the past the prime minister has
recommended books to the public. Most of the recommendations according to
Professor Carina fall into the category of how to do business books. Her list
seeks to expand the Prime Minister’s reading horizon by including plays and
1) 1984 by George Orwell. It examines a society whose citizens
are controlled by a dictatorial regime _ Big Brother. Big Brother keeps citizens
under tight control and docile by feeding them movies, gambling and lotteries.
2) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, a story of a controlled state which
creates wealth and efficiency by using artificial reproduction to produce model
''This state is similar to one of our neighbouring
countries,'' Ms Carina said.
3) The Tragedy of Dr Faustus, a play by
English poet Christopher Marlowe about an able and ambitious man who sells his
soul to the devil to gain power, but then faces a tragic end.
Emperor's New Clothes, a classic fairy tale by Danish writer Hans Christian
Anderson, about an emperor who lacks grace, but is flattered by his advisers.
5) All My Sons by US playwright Arthur Miller, which examines morality
and profiteering in a story about a factory owner who sells faulty airplane
spare parts and later is tried in court with his honest and idealist son as the
6) Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, which examines the tragic
fate of a megalomaniac ruler.
''Macbeth is an arrogant leader but he
still has a chance to be a better man if he weds a nice and kind lady.
Unfortunately, Lady Macbeth is ruthless and would go to any length to achieve
power and save her husband,'' Ms Carina said, to applause and cheers from
7) Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelly, an English
poet. It portrays arrogance and transient power through a sonnet describing the
shattered statue of an arrogant ruler.
8) A Bend in the River by V.S
Naipaul, about the rise and fall of a third-world hero in a corrupt African
9) A Christmas Carol by British writer Charles Dickens. Scrooge
is an unhappy, cruel and wealthy old man who becomes a better person after being
haunted by four ghosts.
10) Don Quixote by Spanish writer Miguel de
Cervantes. This classic features idealist Don Quixote, who fights for principle
despite the odds against him.”
|Thai edition of Spirit House
On Wednesday 29th March Siam Inter will
release the Thai edition of Spirit House. This is the third Vincent Calvino
novel to be published in the Thai language, and the first one published by my
new publisher Siam Inter. You will notice the spirit house on the front cover is
the Erawan Shrine prior to the destruction of the statue of Brahma. There are
few moments of celebration for any author. One of those moments is when a new
book is finally released.
|The Japanese Edgar Allan Poe
One of the hidden treasures of Japanese
literature is found in the 67 novels and 76 short stories by Edogawa
Rampo. Most of his novels and short stories have not been translated into
Kurodahan Press has released The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows
A review of
The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows, the Daily Yomiuri draws comparisons with Stephen King and
Danielle Steele as well as Edgar Allan Poe. There is also an introduction by
Mark Schreiber, long-time Japan resident and author. Mark Schreiber is a
collector and reviewer of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia, or
involving Asian characters in the West. In Schreiber¹s introduction, he explains
how Edogawa Rampo got his start as a translator of English crime fiction and
went on to become the originator of Western-style crime stories in the Japanese
The Daily Yomiuri review goes on to say:
Lizard is a pulpy noir pleasure in which a haughty, beautiful villainess matches
wits with a humble yet brilliant sleuth. Ideally, this story should be read in a
cheap hotel room with cigarette smoke hanging in the air, a neon sign flickering
just outside the half-open window, and melancholy saxophone music drifting in
from the distance.
“Beast in the Shadows should be read at Starbucks. If
this story had been first published today rather than in 1928, "postmodern"
would be the only word for it. It's an absurd, ironic and self-referential hall
of mirrors in which the first-person protagonist is a novelist-cum-detective
trying to prevent a murder by a novelist-turned-criminal who seems to be acting
out scenes from his own book about yet another a novelist-turned-criminal. The
version of the story we are reading is presented in the form of notes the
narrator has written to himself in case, in the future, he ever decides to base
a novel on his weird experience. Beast is the much darker of the two stories,
and it has a jaw-dropper of an ending.”
|Erawan Shrine: One Day Later – Mental illness and politicians
According to AP, Thai police are investigating to determine whether
Thanakorn Pakdeepol, aged 27 years old, who used a hammer to destroy the statue
of Brahma, had links to extreme Muslim groups. Did he act alone or did someone
put him up to the act of vandalism, which cost him his life?
Bangkok Post covered the story of the visit to the shrine by Caretaker Prime
Thaksin Shinawatra and Bangkok Governor Apirak Kosayodhin. It did provide a good
photo op for both politicians.
The Than Tao Mahaprom Foundation will pay
the estimated cost of Baht 20M to have the Fine Arts Department create a
replacement statue, which will incorporate shattered fragments from the
destroyed original statue. The plan is to have the new statue in place within
The Bangkok Governor was quoted as saying, that “he had
ordered city-run hospitals to open more counselling units to help people with
mental illnesses.” Taking away hammers might be a good strart.
readers are confused about the nature of the Erawan Shrine. This is not a
Buddhist srhine. The statue of the deity is not based on Buddhism. The statue
represented a Hindu God called Brahma. The mixture of Hindu and animalistic
beliefs is often confusing for foreigners who believe they are part of Buddhism.
|Destruction of Hindu deity at Erawan Shrine
The big news today was the attack on Tuesday
21 March 2006 on Erawan Shrine located at the Rajprasong intersection. A
Thai man aged 27 years old with a history of mental history, entered the popular
shrine and used a hammer to smash the statue of the Hindu deity, Brahma. Shortly
after the act of vandalism, Thanakorn Pakdeepol was beaten to death by two of
the worshippers at the shrine. The two men, described as garbage collectors,
were arrested and charged with second-degree murder. In the Nation, an article ran predicting that the closing the shrine
until a new statue can be made could costs Thailand dearly, predicting one
million tourists would be lost. The government has
responded for a quick restoration of the famous deity, promising to have the
restored statue in two months. Fragments of the original statue will be used to
make the new one.
The Nation also reported on the “bad omen” nature of this
destruction, suggesting it is connected with “the Thaksin Era, characterized by
unfettered capitalism and greedy economic growth.”
There is a great deal
of international coverage to the destruction. With some describing the killing
of Thanakorn Pakdeepol as a lynching.
Shrine is a major setting for the first Calvino novel, Spirit
House. The Bangkok-based publisher, Siam Inter announced today that it would
released its Thai edition version of Spirit House by the end of March. Spirit
House has also be translated into Chinese, German, and Japanese. Early this
year, a German documentary film crew were in Bangkok and filmed me at Erawan
Shrine, and a couple of months later a French film crew from Quebec also film a
sequence about the Calvino novels at the shrine.
|PUBLISHING LITERARY FICTION IN AN AGE OF LITE READING
Publisher’s Lunch has an item about the diminishing market for fiction in
Australia. What is happening in Australia is not isolated. It is a worldwide
phenomenon: “The Australian is concerned about "three certainties about
Australian fiction today: fewer books are being published, sales are falling and
shelf-lives are shorter." The focus of their case study is novelist Brian
Castro, whose seventh novel SHANGHAI DANCING was turned down by a number of large
publishers before being issues by independent house Giramondo. ("Within months,
Castro had trumped respected rivals - including Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee - to
take out the main fiction prizes in the NSW and Victorian premiers' literary
|HBO Series: Big Love (the inside of polygamy)
At Slate, Daphne Merkin asks question about polygamy as the basis of an HBO
series in Boy meets
Girl, Then more Girls:
“The co-writers of Big Love—Mark V.
Olsen and Will Scheffer*—have tried, in their own words, to be "nonjudgmental
and humane" about the institution of polygamy, insisting that it is an "ideal
template to look at marriage and family." Can they possibly mean this? …For me,
the really disturbing aspect of the series is not that it soft-pedals the
lifestyle's darker sides—its reliance on a constant supply of young women, its
tolerance of incest and pedophilia under cover of God's law, its exiling of
younger men who might compete with the older males of the community for wives.
It's that the show's creators—who happen to be a gay couple—have written a
series that wears its values on its sleeve, albeit unwittingly, and those values
are, in a word, heterophobic.”
You have to wonder how commentators on well-known authors jazz up their copy
with statements such as this: “Sex, specifically sex with women far younger than
he, is the only thing that makes Houellebecq (and his surrogates) the least bit
happy, if happiness it be. (The Times profile quoted above claims that
Houellebecq sleeps with about two dozen women per year, with his wife’s
enthusiastic approval.)” The New Criterion. And in the same league of personal attacks,
“The man seems to have limited his interactions with women to bars, package
resorts, and sex clubs. This is, if true, more or less like basing one’s
judgment of mankind on life in a whorehouse.”
Platform is largely set in Thailand. But Stephan Beck dismisses Houellbecq
not on literary grounds. Instead his sex life and attitude toward sex is
sufficient to deprive him of any meaningful voice.
Houellbecq quote came when he was tried in Paris for inciting hatred against
Muslims, and he was asked whether he’d ever read the French Criminal Code.
Houellbecq replied that he hadn’t read it: “It is excessively long,” he said,
“and I suspect that there are many boring passages.” Ultimately he was acquitted
of the charges. The same quote could easily be said about Stephan Beck’s hatchet
job on Houellbecq.
|Colin Cotterill Wins The Dilys Award
The winner of the 2006 Dilys award
has been awarded to the novel Thirty three Teeth by Colin Cotterill.
This is an
important award. The Dilys Award is selected by independent bookstore owners.
These are the people who read and love books. They see many titles every year.
When they find a title they really love, it is good to let the rest of the world
know about it. In 2005 the Dilys Award was won by Jeff Lindsay for Darkly Dreaming Dexter.
Congrats to Colin for bringing
this distinguished award to Chiang Mai.
|Putting “Selflish” into a book Title: How to make a best seller
Getting the title of a book right is never easy. The perfect title makes picking
up the book irresistible. Publishers shy away from titles that are negative. Or
that is the conventional wisdom.
Thirty years ago Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene was published. One publisher didn’t like the
word “selfish” advising the author it was a downer and suggested “immoral” gene
instead. The author admits another good title would have been the “cooperative”
In the thirty years since it was published, The Selfish Gene has had an impact on the life of readers.
Sometimes causing depression.
Dawkin is quoted in The Times, “A teacher reproachfully wrote that a pupil had
come to him in tears after reading the same book, because it had persuaded her
that life was empty and purposeless. But if something is true, no amount of
wishful thinking can undo it. As I went on to write, ‘Presumably there is indeed
no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our
life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don’t; not
if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human
ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that
makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite
to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to
the despair of which I am wrongly suspected.’”
I wonder what Dawkin’s
publisher would have made of the title of my novel A Killing
Smile? An Immortal Smile or A Cooperative Smile would have failed to capture
the narrative of the book.
|Demonstrators again marching Bangkok
May, 1992: I went to Sanam Luang that May. 80,000 people had
gathered to bring down the government. Police and soldiers surrounded the area.
Barbed-wire barricades across key streets. The violence that swiftly followed
has never been fully examined. I remember the pickups with gunmen in the back
racing down Asoke. I heard gun shots in the night. The police kiosk throughout
the Sukhumvit Road area had been burnt out.
third novel of the Land of Smiles trilogy, A
Haunting Smile, the narrative is driven by the events of May 1992. The
novel recounts the nature and scope of the violent social changes that erupted
that May. A Haunting Smile spotlights the social tensions that came to
the surface in 1992 and once again have bubbled to the top in 2006. And I would
like to think that A Haunting Smile is as relevant today as when it was
published in 1993.
|Freedom of Speech includes the Right to Ridicule
When I was a student at Oxford, I sat in on lectures by Professor Ronald
Dworkin. He is the foremost legal philosopher in the English-speaking world.
In a recent article titled the Right to Ridicule
in the New York Review of Books, Professor Dworkin wrote:
is a condition of legitimate government. Laws and policies are not legitimate
unless they have been adopted through a democratic process, and a process is not
democratic if government has prevented anyone from expressing his convictions
about what those laws and policies should be.”
And further, he says, “So
in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be
insulted or offended. That principle is of particular importance in a nation
that strives for racial and ethnic fairness.”
This from the recent issue of U.S NEWS: “Long before the National Endowment for the Arts
released its 2004 report "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in
America," book publishers had become keenly aware of growing competition from
the expanding universe of Internet, computer, and video-based leisure
enthrallments. But the survey sounded a public alarm: Fewer than half of all
American adults now read "literature" (loosely defined as fiction or poetry).
The numbers showed a 10 percent decline in literary readers for all age groups
from 1982 to 2002 and a whopping 28 percent decrease in young adults ages 18 to
24. In total, the study calculated, 20 million potential readers had been lost.
"Never in my career have I seen a report where there is no good news," NEA
Chairman Dana Gioia declared at the time.”
|Second Hand Bookshops in Chiang Mai
It seems anytime there is a convergence of three
like things in Thailand, then that place becomes a “hub”. The latest candidate
for hub status is Chiang Mai for its second hand bookshops.
9 March 2006 edition of Thai Day in an article titled “Stacking Up North,” says,
“the best place to buy used English and other foreign language used books in
Southeast Asia is Chiang Mai.” Unfortunately there is no link to this article on
the Thai Day website. At least I couldn’t find it.
The three places to
visit are: The Lost Book Shop, 34/3 Ratchamanka Road; Backstreet
Books, 2/8 Chang Moi Kao Road, and Gecko Books, 2/6 Chang Moi Kao
The Lost Book Shop is ten
years old, and is a Thai/American joint venture. The owners Patrick Monnin and
Narumol Pochanasrichai claim to understand the book needs of backpackers.
Backstreet Books is run by an Irishman named George O’Brien, who
says Thais make up 15% of the customers for his store. O’Brien explains how he
runs his business, “He personally evaluates each book and most go through a
preparation stage before they’ve put on the shelf, which includes erasing
markings, straightening pages, pressing books under weights to straighten the
spines and make them tighter, and finally wrapping most books in plastic to
preserve their quality.”
Gecko Books is run by American-born
George Goldberg whose dream was to open a second hand bookstore. His three
stores carry 60,000 books.
There has been an on going discussion in the book business
about how the second hand book market has threatened the paperback publishing
print runs. In pre-Internet days, after the hardback edition came out, a year
later the paperback edition would appear, and how little competition as the
hardback editions had ended its run. Of course, hardback editions could be found
in second hand bookstores. But you had to find them and pre-ebay that wasn’t
easy. Now the hardback editions are everywhere for sale at a fraction of the
price of the paperback edition. One click away.
The instant access and
cheap pricing offered by the Internet not only hurts the author and publishers,
ultimately it means that second hand bookshops are on the endangered list. The
owners have to invest in a large inventory. They never know for certain whether
some of the books they’ve paid for simply won’t sell. The online guys keep the
inventory and price to a minimum. That makes the second hand bookstores
vulnerable. Whether such stores will be around in ten to twenty years is an open
Meanwhile, these three second hand bookshops in Chiang Mai
continue the tradition of high quality second hand books at a reasonable price.
If you find yourself in Chiang Mai, and buy a book or two from these stores.
|The Uncertainty Principle of Physics: Writing Books and Investing in Shares
Hiesenberg discovered the uncertainty principle rest on the wave-particle duality of
nature. In effect the uncertainty principle states the relationship between
position and momentum of a subatomic particle. Until measurement is made of
either the position or the momentum, both position and momentum are
indeterminate. And you can’t measure both position and momentum. You choose the
position of the subatomic particle or its speed, but you can’t measure both. By
choosing one measurement what was indeterminate becomes fixed.
can learn a great deal from Hiesenberg’s insight in the fundamental laws of
nature. The same uncertainty principle applies to writing. An idea inside your
brain remains indeterminate. An idea is like a wave. It has speed and velocity.
They drift in and out of consciousness. But until you find a way to express that
idea in narrative form, it will remain indeterminate. A book is the particle
part of the physics of writing. You need to fix the position of your ideas in
words, on a page, and only then can you say that your idea is determinate. A lot
of people go through life, processing wave after wave of thought. None of these
waves ever have any position. They are always in motion. If you wish to write,
then you need to find a way to convert the waves of thought into the particle of
written language. That only happens if you take the step to take a position.
How many writers have heard friends, relatives, colleagues say they have
a great idea for a book. Sometimes they will approach you and suggest that you
collaborate on the book. They promise to give you the idea, and all that you
have to do is write it down. In the reality of book writing, ideas are often the
easy part. The mental sky of any age is filled with thick, moving clouds of
ideas. Everyone has an idea for a book. Or so it seems. But it is the execution
of the ideas, positioning them into an effective, compelling narrative, which is
what makes writing so difficult and competitive.
It is all not that
different for investors in various markets. You buy 1,000 shares of Microsoft.
Each day you check the stock price and assume that is the value of your
investment. Unless you have sold at that price on that day, the price may be
fixed, but the value of your shares remain indeterminate. The only way to change
a wave into a particle, in the context of the stock market, is to sell the
shares. Then you can measure your position i.e., your wealth. To hear someone
say what they are “worth on paper” suggests certainty when indeed paper wealth
is an indeterminate number.
As an author whose literary agents attended the London Book Fair (March 5-7)
this year, I have an interest in learning more about the nature of this book
fair. In the past, I’ve been to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Every author should
visit Frankfurt once. There will be no greater lesson in humility.
a sobering experience, a humbling one, too, as you walk through many kilometers
of booths stacked with books, and realize this is the output for one year. And
not every publisher attends Frankfurt.
For authors, the Frankfurt Book
Fair is a reality check. The same is true for the London Book Fair.
London Book Fair appears to be catching up with the Frankfurt Book Fair in the
area of selling rights to books.
The New York Times has noted “But book fairs are still about
selling rights, and the London fair is beginning to rival the pre-eminent
Frankfurt fair, in October. Diane Spivey, rights and contracts director of the
Time Warner Book Group, which was recently acquired by Lagardère, the French
media and defense conglomerate, said: ‘We sell perhaps 40 percent of rights in
London compared to 60 percent in Frankfurt, but five years ago London was 10
|Bangkok World Book Capital 2008
The Thai Publishing and Bookselling Association had a stand at this London Book
Fair (March 5-7). They were in London under the support of the Depart of Export
Thanachai Santchaikul, President of PUBAT, said:
working with the Governor of Bangkok and the Government to drive Bangkok’s
efforts to become World Book Capital 2008. This is being made because all those
involved are cooperating in a strong programme of ideas to enhance reading among
the Thai people. We also have freedom to express ideas, to publish and to
Some interesting statistics:
value of trade book sales increased 12% in 2005
-11,680 titles were published
in Thailand in 2004
-12.65% of the titles published in 2004 were translations
– a 38% increase over the previous year
-Fiction accounted for 62% of the
Here’s a startling fact: in 2004 when 195,000 books were published in the United
States only 891 on that number were translations of adult literature. In other
words, translations aren’t a big part of the publishing business in America. In
non-English speaking countries, translations from English into the local
language is common. The books sell. The translated books appear on the
bestseller lists and win prizes in Germany, France, Spain, and Italy.
Observer has it right: “Translators are like priests who mediate our
relationship with the literary gods. We depend on them even as we wish for
My German translator Peter Friedlich turned Zero Hour
in Phnom Penh into an award-winning book in Germany. Finding the right
translator is plain hard and when such a person is discovered, it is a lifetime
bond between author and translator. The translator provides not just access but
recreates the language and images seamlessly into another language. That is art.
|Getting the Cultural Details right
Any author writing about another culture is
aware that many ordinary day-to-day rituals and habits often rest on invisible
premises that local instinctively share. Unless the writer has become emerged in
the culture; attending wedding, funerals, village fairs, schools, police
stations, prisons, markets, and private homes, the chances of failing to see a
significant detail can be lost. A good example is Karin Muller’s Japanland : A Year in Search of Wa The author is an early 30s
documentary filmmaker who spent one year in Japan. The book is the record of her
Publisher’s Weekly said of the book, “A keen listener, Muller
lets an ensemble of voices speak, among them a swordmaker and a crab fisherman.
She's also a participatory learner, taking on tasks like harvesting rice. The
diverse activities and excursions to far-flung places make this a fine travel
memoir, but it's the backbone of Muller's voyage that gives her book resonance
In other words, though in Japan for a short period,
Muller did manage to process an incredible number of obscure details about
Japanese life, culture, and history. The cultural error – and a substantial one
– is the cover chosen by the publisher shows a woman with the kimono folded
right over left. That may not mean much to most Western readers. But only a
corpse dressed for burial wears the kimono right over left. For a Japanese
reader, the image would have been immediate and direct. The woman on the cover
If there is a lesson to be learnt, publishers should work with
the hard to make certain novels and non-fiction with foreign settings are not
sending the wrong message.