Tuesday, November 1, 2005
Gottedammerung at the Buchmesse
A suitable time has passed, a suitable distance has elapsed. I can finally talk about it. It started Wednesday 19th October when they threw open the doors of Frankfurt’s immense Messe Halle for the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair, admitting a world of freakish, champing publishers, editors, agents, scouts, successful, less successful and would-be authors, printers, publicists, students, irredeemably lost tourists and the great, literate unwashed. It began properly when HarperCollins threw a huge, champagne-swilling party (their first since 9/11), and someone on the Transworld stand asked Stephen Hawking if he’d read The Da Vinci Code (and he said (pause) “No”), possibly an even greater indignity than writing a brief history of one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, selling a million copies, and then being asked to make it even shorter in a tacit acknowledgement that noone actually read it the first time round. It was all downhill from there.
Frankfurt is a trade fair held in an exhibition hall, so on the one hand you’ve got international book professionals running all over the place (and I do mean all over the place: you cover miles and miles of corridor in your epic journeys around the Fair: think 20 Earl’s Courts bolted together), desperately trying to make deals, sell rights, and steal ideas, while on the other you’ve got 200,000 German day-trippers out for anything they can get: free books (ha!), free catalogues (yes, by the handful), free carrier bags to carry the free catalogues… The buzz among the former group tends to revolve around big deals and new signings, and heavily-trumpeted ‘surprises’ such as this year’s launch of Canongate’s Myths series, a retelling of various myths from history by various high-end authors. Essentially, it’s another brick in the wall of Jamie Byng’s monumental ego (remember the Pocket Canons?) – but if STML owned half of Scotland AND a publishing house, there’d definitely be a few crazy box sets floating around out there (Complete works of Ed McBain anyone? With introductions by Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie?), so we’d better shut up. And yes, the Margaret Atwood and the forthcoming Chinua Achebe do sound pretty good.
The other feeding frenzy going was the circus around Londonstani, the debut novel by Gautam Malkani, a journalist at the Financial Times. A story about Hounslow’s Heathrow diaspora written in the unique patois of West London’s Asian rudeboys, it provoked a bidding war just won by Fourth Estate, so will probably appear some time next year. Initially hopeful this would turn out to be an answer to STML’s prayer for a truly London novel, conversations with a couple of editors who’ve read it seem to suggest it’s more frivolous than that, poking fun at the wannabe Asian gangstas rather than saying anything too meaningful about London today. Even more amusing was the agonising debate among French and Spanish publishers who snapped up translation rights about whether it will be possible to translate ‘aaiiight’ and ‘innit’ into the Romance languages. Verlan, perhaps? The first chapter appears in the new issue of Prospect Magazine, so go take a peek.
But of course, the real deal with Frankfurt is the aforementioned parties, a chance to blow the hospitality account at the Frankfurter Hof and the Casablanca. To be fair, there’s not a lot else to do at Frankfurt, and after a few days it’s nothing but caffeine, nicotine (Smoking Allowed Throughout: is there a more glorious phrase?), vodka fumes and papercuts. By the weekend the last few publishers out are taking whatever they can get: Slovenian rights to The Da Vinci Spud: an Irish-American Parody? Gotcha. Massive advances for an unpublished novel by a Northamptonshire badger farmer, provisionally titled Brock And Roll? Done. Hours to go and those massive expenses from Kaiserstrasse’s ‘Neu Man Gay Shop World Of Sex’ have to be justified somehow.
The over-riding impression of Frankfurt was one of frenzy. One abiding memory: A German teenager having an all-out, fists in the air, bawling panic attack on the upper level of Hall 4, beneath a huge, exposed breast advertising Goliath fetish photography, while the crowd swarmed thickly around her, oblivious. Another: I never saw anyone, anywhere, reading a book.
Oh well, four months ‘til London.
[UPDATE 2/5/06: For the last word on Londonstani, see here.]