Beijing Book Fair Post-Mortem

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

So that's over with. I have no hard figures or statistical summaries to offer, as I'm more of a "soft sciences" guy and spent most of the fair moderating/participating in/eavesdropping on various talks and conversations, so I'll just leave a few impressions here.

  1. There wasn't an enormous foreign presence. Domestic and foreign exhibitors were in separate halls (except for the booth showcasing Spain, the Guest of Honor), and the foreign hall was decidedly sleepy. I had spoken with several foreign publishers who had threatened to come but didn't – by far the most common reason was money, and the fact that five weeks hence China will be the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Festival. Why come all the way to Beijing when you can get the best of China next month, whilst attending the world's biggest book fair? Can't say I can argue with this logic.

  2. Despite this, the BIBF organizers made a special effort to bring international exhibitors together. This year was the second in which they held "Ten-plus-Ten" events, where ten Chinese publishing houses get together with ten publishers from one other country and get to know each other. There was even talk of a speed-dating format. I moderated the China-Spain Ten-plus-Ten, and it struck me as something worth pursuing. The two sides are generally so completely lacking in understanding of the other that it can be next to impossible to build relationships or even get a conversation going – this calls for a heavier hand. At first I felt a bit like a chaperone trying to organize a play date between reluctant participants, but things did warm up after a bit, and by the end there was plenty of swapping of name cards and catalogues. More of the same is called for.

  3. There is a fierce curiosity here about what foreigners think of Chinese culture. The little talks I was running were mostly related to the translation of Chinese literature into foreign languages, and there were many, many questions about how Chinese writers are received abroad, and palpable anxiety about why they're not more popular. It was suggested by one audience member that foreign readers who couldn't tell their Wang Meng from their Wang Shuo could be asked to read a short overview of Chinese literature in advance. There were some seriously crestfallen faces in the crowd when Cindy clarified that the three percent problem wasn't that Chinese literature made up a mere three percent of books published in the US, but that literature from all countries around the world had to share that measly percentage among them. I had difficulty handling such questions as "Do you think the anti-corruption genre of Chinese literature would be popular abroad?" and "Do foreign readers only want to read about the Cultural Revolution?" and "I wrote a new version of the Daodejing, do you want to translate it for me?" All in all it was nice to be able to talk about these issues in front of a large crowd. People seemed interested when Barbara Wang (a German translator of children's literature) said that the overbearing didacticism of Chinese children's literature went over like a lead balloon in Germany, and the guy who asked why China hasn't won a Nobel Prize in literature seemed genuinely thoughtful when I said that for one thing, it has, and besides, they give the prize to a writer, not a country.

Good times all around!


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