Frankfurt Book Fair: Germany awakens to Neuseeland

by Guy Somerset / 27 October, 2012
Guy Somerset reports from the While You Were Sleeping guest of honour programme at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Frankfurt Book Fair - The pavilion

It’s a Monday night in Bonn and Ramona Bittger is at the formidably sized and no less formidably named Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland to listen to New Zealand writers Lloyd Jones, Witi Ihimaera, Eleanor Catton and Carl Nixon. The event, in the cultural centre’s 500-seat auditorium, has been organised by the city’s Literaturhaus, part of a national network that acts as a hub for Germany’s writers and readers. Bittger’s book club chooses its reading list according to the programme of the Literatur haus, and the Literaturhaus in turn each year holds an event featuring authors from the Frankfurt Book Fair’s guest of honour country – this year New Zealand. So the club has been reading Nixon’s novel Rocking Horse Road. “I think it’s an interesting event,” she says of the Literaturhaus’s annual book fair reading. “I enjoy hearing something new.” And her verdict on Rocking Horse Road? “It was quite good. Not too complicated.”

Book blogger Gunnar Sohn is another of the 100 or so people at the event. He, too, has been reading New Zealanders in preparation for the book fair. Has he been taken with any of them? “No,” he says – although he declines to name names. Sohn hadn’t read any New Zealanders before the country was named guest of honour. “It was the same with Iceland [last year’s guest of honour],” he says. “Now, it’s very interesting. I have learnt a lot about the literature scene in Iceland. And after the book fair, I had a lot of interviews with interesting people from Iceland.” He may yet find New Zealanders he likes and wants to interview, I suggest. “Maybe.” A couple of days later in the central public library in Frankfurt, on the first day of the book fair, Karin Eiler has brought her friend visiting from Mauritius along to listen to Paula Morris and Sarah Quigley. Eiler was “just curious”, she says. “I have decided to go just to New Zealand lectures, not what the rest of the fair does, because New Zealand is the guest of honour.” She did the same last year with Iceland. She and her friend have also been to a screening of In My Father’s Den. “A very heavy film,” she says.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world’s largest and most important. With over 7380 exhibitors from 100 countries, it attracts some 280,000 visitors (led by booksellers and publishers) from nearly 130 countries. Of those visitors, 9000 are journalists from more than 60 countries. The fair is not, as Quigley wondered if some in the New Zealand media might have thought beforehand, “a few books and a carton and a trestle table or something”. Even reading the figures doesn’t quite convey the scale of it – housed in 20 exhibition areas, many the size of a small stadium. The overall space these exhibition areas cover is bigger than some town centres, and with more foot traffic. At stands throughout – from the large ones of the big global companies to the small ones of the one-man operations – publishers huddle over tiny tables, pitching rights to prospective buyers. This is very much the business end of the book world.

Wandering through – after having your rucksack searched by security and being careful not to bump into the packs of polizei with their holstered pistols – sales talk drifts across the air (“It’s a story of a young lady, who dreams …”) and the latest trends in publishing take shape – surprise, surprise: e-books and erotica. For the latter, we can thank EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey series – which has also boosted another trend: self-publishing. (There is even a Happy Hour with EL James event. The mind boggles.) Among the buzzwords, the cloud has replaced “blue sky thinking” – confusingly, because I keep thinking people are talking about the venue on Auckland’s Queens Wharf, which sometimes, because there are so many Kiwis around, they are.

Frankfurt Book Fair - Guest of Honour New Zealand

Amid all this – in row M of exhibition area 8.0, home to the English language publishers – is the prominently positioned stand that 35 of New Zealand’s publishers are on as part of being the guest of honour country. Row M? Surely it should be row A, I say to Sam Elworthy, director of Auckland University Press and a council member of the Publishers Association of New Zealand (Panz), which was instrumental in New Zealand securing guest of honour status. “But it’s actually a prime location,” says Elworthy. “Central like this, on a main aisle and next to where people are sitting around [at a cafe], you get a lot of foot traffic.” At 160sq m, the stand is also nearly three times the size the one the New Zealand contingent usually pays for.

A few aisles across, less prominently positioned but nonetheless happy with its lot, is the New Zealand Society of Authors. The NZSA wasn’t so happy before the fair. It wanted to bring a dozen of the nearly 40 authors whose books – mostly self-published or with small presses – it is representing with it and for them to be present on the main New Zealand stand. Panz said there was no room for authors. Looking at the stand now, you can see its point, and looking around the fair it’s clearly not protocol for authors to be present anyway. The organ grinder doesn’t want the monkey present when he is trying to sell it. Fortunately for all, not least the NZSA, a solution arose when a couple of spots became available elsewhere. Already, on the first day of the fair, there have been nibbles. “Apart from appointments authors have made, there’s been just a lot of blow-ins. It’s quite extraordinary,” says Adrian Blackburn, one of three NZSA representatives at the fair. A French publisher has just been in after crime novels and looked at Jennifer Mortimer’s Knock the Bastard Off. “Jennifer was just sitting down here, preparing her pitch …” “And had to give it,” she says.

Tui Allen – for reasons she can’t quite fathom – has been given a spot on the fair’s Sparks stage, where she gets to give a five-minute pitch for her novel, Ripple. “So that was a stroke of luck,” she says. A couple of days later, I wander past and there are more “drop-ins”. It’s all very Kiwi do-it-yourself. The fair has three criteria when considering a country as guest of honour, according to its director, Jürgen Boos. “It’s cultural interest: is there something we have to discover? Is there economic interest from the publishing world? And because I do believe a book is always political as well – the novel is political, since the novel is actually mirroring the life of the people, so it is by definition political – we always have political discussions and we try to give these discussions a status in Frankfurt.” Boos is alert to countries’ motives – “if they just want to get the publicity because they have touristic interest, that’s not what we are about.”

Which isn’t to say he is entirely against touristic interest. This year’s fair features a new Travel Gallery, and Boos cheerfully cites the tourism gains made by Iceland. He is also keen for countries to embrace their wider culture – not just literature – as part of the programme, outside the pavilion if not in it: “Music, theatre, film, everything.” One thing that “made all the difference when we discussed whether to have New Zealand or not is what’s happening in the [country’s] film industry” – the fair being interested in “media convergence” because “the way we tell stories is changing”. Sir Richard Taylor and others from Weta Workshop are the leading draw-cards in the fair’s StoryDrive programme. The really prime location for the guest of honour country is not its stand in 8.0 but at the other end of the fair, away from the selling of books, in a pavilion intended for celebrating books – New Zealand’s books, that is. It’s the attention given to this location and to New Zealand’s guest of honour status that is helping attract fresh interest in the country’s publishers back in 8.0, as well as in its writers and other artists beyond the fair and indeed beyond Frankfurt altogether.

This year’s pavilion is designed by architect Andrew Patterson and is a big hit, attracting an estimated 90,000 people queues on the Saturday and Sunday the general public are allowed to attend the fair. It’s a large space – bigger than the Cloud, says Patterson. That’s the Cloud on Queens Wharf. (See what I mean about the confusion?) Dark with big pools of water under hundreds of tiny roof lights, “it’s an island in an ocean under a starry sky”, says Patterson. It’s New Zealand – at a cost of some $1.8 million of the estimated $6 million spent on the entire guest of honour programme. All the pools prompt New Zealand’s guest of honour project director, Tanea Heke, to caution opening ceremony visitors: “It is not a mirror, it is water, so be very, very careful where you step. We don’t want you to drown.” Afterwards, Patterson jokes: “We wanted people to roll up their trousers and wade in the water in a good New Zealand way and look for pipis, but it hasn’t happened so far.”

During the week, an audio-visual presentation of New Zealand literary history (with a few films thrown in) screens on a loop, augmented by two alternating actors in the pools, at one point beneath a rain-like downpour of water. Simultaneously, on the other side of a curtain, the pavilion stage hosts half-hourly solo and panel events in which authors give a sense of just how heterogeneous New Zealand literature, culture and society are. “When we talked about messages, right from the beginning it was actually about breaking through the stereotypes,” says Panz president Kevin Chapman. “And that’s true for publishing as well as everything else. In the past 15 months, one of the questions I’ve been most often asked by the German media is ‘What does New Zealand specialise in in publishing?’ And I go, ‘Everything. We just publish. And we’re good at lots of things.’ “So there were a lot of misconceptions about our society, the thought that maybe there was a Maori society and a Pakeha society, and not just a society with different elements. There were misconceptions about our publishing. So we’ve actually gone a long way to fixing a lot of those things.”

This side of the guest of honour programme is nicely crystallised by Bill Manhire in his speech at the fair’s opening ceremony, where he quotes a Janet Frame poem: “‘Before I get into sleep with you/I want to have been into wakefulness, too.’ And that seems to me to be a wonderful small modest piece of wisdom about how good relationships work, about how they involve intelligence and thoughtfulness and attentiveness, as well as other things.” Culture and Heritage Minister Christopher Finlayson says the primary aim is to talk about New Zealand literature: “That word unique is totally overused but our country has a unique contribution to make in the field of literature and that’s to the forefront. But the other thing you have to emphasise is that literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it’s dependent on place, history, people, circumstances. And those sorts of things are also manifested here and that’s a good thing.”

Frankfurt Book Fair - opening ceremony

Asked what a good outcome from the fair would be, he says: “The obvious answer would be an increased awareness of New Zealand literature and New Zealand’s intellectual life in Europe, which in turn would flow on, I think, to greater benefits; for example, over the years we’ve had quite a large number of German students come down and study at our universities. I’d like to see that come back again … There are a number of flow-on effects. But this is primarily about increasing awareness of New Zealand literature in the heart of the strongest economy.” Sales made during this year’s fair are “small beer compared with some of these longer-term aims”, says Finlayson.

In any case, sales at Frankfurt are usually achieved over several years and after many discussions with potential buyers. Nonetheless, Chapman says: “Almost everybody I talk to has either started really good conversations or in some cases have actually finalised conversations.” He adds: “From the publishers’ view, we just said, ‘We want to put 80 author visits into Germany’, and we’ve done that. We want to see 100 books translated between October last year and the end of next year, and we’re going to blow that away easily. We’ve changed the base. Germany is a serious country in terms of the European market, so that’s going to change the way the French and the Italians and the Spanish see us. So from a publishing point of view I have no doubt that we have achieved more than we set out to do.”

Lewis Holden, chief executive of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, has been talking to a representative from Iceland. “And they were saying what had surprised them is that 2011 was great because they got a huge increase in translations; they said 2012 has been better. Because they got the German translations last year; this year all of those that have gone okay others have picked up. And that’s the importance of Frankfurt as the jumping off point.” On the subject of the promotions for tourism, food and wine, education and business that are piggy-backing on the guest of honour programme – something criticised before the fair – Holden says: “My view on this is that the Germans take culture really seriously. As far as they are concerned, this is a content fair, this is a book fair. They are deeply intellectual … so you have to deal with integrity. You have to recognise that this starts with books and literature and culture. Then more gently build on that. And I think people have got that. I think people have understood this is not the Cloud, it’s not a trade expo, a tourism push and everything else. It’s got to be more subtle. But will it have benefits for those things? Absolutely.”

That damned Cloud again. Aside from a slip at the reopening ceremony for the Rauru meeting house at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, which took place in front of two cardboard stands crassly emblazoned with “newzealand. com/business”, the non-literary elements of the programme have indeed been subtle. And it should be added that authors are slippery customers and are not about to become PR poodles. Certainly not Alan Duff. One of his contributions to the session on literature and the city: “They’re going to hate me for this, the tourism board, but I can’t imagine any city in New Zealand that I would strongly recommend for people to visit. Our architecture is all new, there are no old towns, we just bowl it and build new. And furthermore we don’t have any architectural taste.”

Frankfurt Book Fair - Guest of Honour New Zealand

Annabel Langbein is more on message with her pavilion session, for which the curtain is drawn back and she is given the entire space – with multiple Langbeins appearing on the screens, as well as alluring shots of New Zealand scenery from her TV series. For the food in the pavilion, Langbein has sourced local produce, she says, but she did nab a miniature bottle of olive oil from her Air New Zealand flight. Anyone who does head to New Zealand on the back of this session may be disappointed to discover you only get miniature bottles of olive oil to drizzle over your meals on certain classes of flight. ‘This is a very, very, very surreal experience in a way,” says Chapman. “So it will be a bit strange to go back to a normal Frankfurt [next year].” That surreal experience extends far beyond the fair itself. To be in Germany this year – but especially in the past couple of weeks – is like being in some alternative reality where New Zealand is part of the centre of European culture. “It was interesting,” says Quigley, who lives in Berlin, “that as soon as New Zealand was announced as guest of honour last year, I heard about it from so many people who are not writers or connected with the book world. The book fair – it has such a high profile in Germany.”

Christoph Mücher, former director of the Goethe-Institut New Zealand, tells me to go into a Frankfurt bookshop and look at all the New Zealand books – and then to multiply that by 3000 for all the other bookshops around Germany. “Oh, there’s Lloyd. Oh, there’s Witi.” If you walk across the bridge to Frankfurt’s renowned Städel Museum and at the end look down, there is a poem by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell engraved in a flagstone, part of a recreated Wellington Writers Walk. At one of the city’s other museums, the Frankfurter Kunstverein, is a group exhibition of New Zealand artists. Catching the S-Bahn train back to the fair, I spot a poster for Bill Manhire, Norman Meehan and Hannah Griffin’s Making Baby Float jazz concert. All over the city are posters for the guest of honour programme incorporating the distinctive “While You Were Sleeping” branding.

There are events in other cities, too, and New Zealand writers are in the newspapers and on the radio and TV. The latter is especially important, says Nixon’s German publisher, Stefan Weidle, with a review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung once putting on hundreds of sales for his authors, but now sometimes as few as 10. Nixon, however, is doing better than that, helped along by Rocking Horse Road being included on this month’s Die Welt list of the Top 10 crime novels. (Neither Nixon nor Weidle had previously thought of Rocking Horse Road as being a crime novel, but they are not about to complain.) Paula Morris says she has done more interviews with German media in the past week than with New Zealand media in her entire career. A good newspaper review for her novel Rangatira saw it sold out on the next day. Hell, even the drunks are joining the party. One, on being evicted from Morris and Quigley’s event at the central library, in the middle of a reading from Quigley’s The Conductor, shouts: “Shostakovich und Neuseeland!”

However, it’s good to be brought back down to earth. During a discussion of New Zealand theatre, amid the drinkers who provided the rowdy backdrop to that Kim Hill show from Frankfurt, the audience is invited to welcome the panel. The panel “from Australia”. Oh well, it’s been a start.

Guy Somerset visited Germany and the Frankfurt Book Fair, October 10-14, courtesy of the Goethe-Institut.
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