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Life at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Following on his hilarious (and spot-on) piece on the MLA convention, Gideon Lewis-Kraus has an article in the new Harper’s on life and the Frankfurt Book Fair.

As is evident from the title—“The Last Book Party”—Gideon’s piece is more about the people, the social aspects, the scene of the Frankfurt Book Fair than anything else. (For anyone who doesn’t know, in October, thousands of publishing people descend on Frankfurt, Germany to spend five days buying and selling—or at least talking about buying and selling—rights to books. We usually come back with four-plus linear feet of catalogs, samples, promotional books, etc., that we slowly read through over the ensuing twelve months before the practice starts all over again . . .) And this plays to Gideon’s strengths as a writer—he’s great at depicting these sorts of events, making them make sense to a newcomer, and making the overly familiar step back and see these ritualized occurrences in a slightly odder light.

And he’s great at describing people and getting excellent quotes. Especially from the always on and always entertaining Ira Silverberg:

Ira, in a bracingly Windsor-knotted pink tie and smart blue sports jacket, just stepped off the red-eye from New York but looks as though he just stepped out of an extravagant shower. His gray curls, shot through with some black still, are swept back from his forehead in a way that seems both distinguished and boyish. Credited with looking like a Jewish Richard Gere, he is finer-hewn than that, his features sharper, more clever. [. . .]

“Our roots are in literary books,” Ira says. (When Ira was a teenager he went on a pilgrimage to see Burroughs.) “They’re not our day-to-day business; our day-to-day business is disgusting. You’ll be hearing a lot about vampire year. But here is where we can at least remember what we think differentiates us from widget salesmen.”

Thankfully the piece doesn’t devolve into a look at how publishing people spend all their time drinking, screwing around, and pretending they live glamorous lives once they get out from behind their desks. Instead he poignantly pokes fun at this:

It’s getting later and drunker, and one young foreign-rights agent pointedly asks me how the late-night scene at the Frankfurter Hof could possibly be relevant to my purposes. Motoko [Rich of the New York Times, I say, told me I should hang out here. The agent says it makes her and everyone else uncomfortable that I’m hanging around when everybody’s drunk, that maybe what I’m jotting down is that someone is flirting and then leaving with a married person. I’m pretty sure I know the flirtatious pair she’s referring to, from the previous evening, though I certainly didn’t know until now that they’d left together; I couldn’t care less. Her pointing this out seems less defensive than insistent, as if she wants to make sure I register that despite the crisis in the industry, married people in Frankfurt are still sleeping with people to whom they happen not to be married. I take out my notebook and write, “Motoko useful again.”

What Gideon starts to develop in the piece is an interesting model of the ultimate publisher/editor/agent: someone who has both aesthetic and commercial chops. A person who loves real literature, and knows how to pick a commercial success. It’s an interesting idea that shuffles aside a lot of the reasons why a particular book becomes a worldwide hit, but is useful way of looking at the big names in the publishing world.

One of the people Gideon centers on is Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie, who represents writers like Italo Calvino and (now) Robert Bolano, and is also known for his vicious nature and for creating nasty bidding wars. (The bit about Gideon hedging on translating the title of the German article for Wylie—the title refers to the super-agent as the “greediest” man at Frankfurt—is hysterical.)

The whole article is pretty entertaining, and worth checking out to get a sense of what the Frankfurt Book Fair is like.



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