About a year and a half ago I took part in a conference in Turin on culture in the post-Communist countries. Included on the agenda was publishing. Most of the participants came from Central Europe, and their contributions were like lamentations by the rivers of Babylon: the book market was flooded with trash; people had ceased to take an interest in worthwhile art; literature had lost its sense of mission; writers had lost their themes and their status which, until only recently, resembled in many respects the status of prophets.
I vehemently disagreed; such wailing seemed to me not only like cowardice in the face of new circumstances, but also like a blasphemous disregard for a barely attained and still insecure freedom. Nevertheless, I admit that in the post-Communist countries the material conditions for the flourishing of culture, and thus of literature, are not simple.
Let me cite an example from my own experience. In February 1990, after having been banned for twenty years, my first book came out in Prague. It was My Merry Mornings, and it was brought out by a practically unknown publisher who came to Prague immediately following the November revolution in 1989 from London, where he had published Czech literature in tiny editions. Although it was a book of short stories, he printed 100,000 copies and because the book quickly sold out he immediately printed another 50,000. At the same time, an established state publishing house brought out my novel Love and Garbage, also in an edition of 100,000. Later that year, three more of my books appeared, all of them written in the Seventies and Eighties: they too quickly sold out. Less than two years later the publisher who had brought out My Merry Mornings published my novel Judge on Trial in a print run of 15,000 and managed to sell only two thirds of the copies. My most recent novel, published before Christmas 1993, sold only 5,000 copies. Where had all my readers gone? Had I disappointed them? Or had the object of their interest changed completely? And is a sale of 5,000 copies of a novel really such a small number in a country of ten million?
I mention my own experience only to illustrate the dynamic process that took place, and is still taking place, in the book market in our country. The same fate was shared by most of the writers who, until recently, had been banned or unpublished, beginning with Franz Kafka and ending with Nobel prize laureates like Solzhenitsyn and Czeslaw Milosz.
There are many reasons for this change, some of them entirely nonliterary. The first is a declining interest in what might be called dissident or non-conformist culture. This decline has several causes. The initial postrevolutionary enthusiasm for that literature might be explained, for instance, by curiosity. What had all those forbidden works been about anyway? What taboos had they shattered? What message had they conveyed? The moment such curiosity was satisfied, interest naturally waned. Moreover, some dissident and nonconformist literature was critical of Communist society, and that was quickly losing its impact because it was now possible to criticize communism not only in literature but in the mass media as well.
The waning interest in dissident literature was also connected to the rapid decline in sympathy for the handful of people who had once openly dared to oppose the regime. In the prerevolutionary and early post-revolutionary days, such people were seen as heroes who, in difficult circumstances, had found the courage to express the truth, and in their actions and writings had expressed what ordinary citizens believed but were not brave enough to say aloud. These “heroes,” however, soon became an embarrassment. They continued to stress the importance of moral probity, and many found this threatening because it called into question not only the integrity they had strenuously maintained under communism, but also their careers. The transformation from heroes to irksome witnesses and then to the cowardice and frequently inexcusable conformity of most people took place quickly and found stark expression, among other places, in the parliamentary elections of 1992 in which many, if not all, former dissidents were defeated at the polls. Nevertheless, since most of the forbidden literature dealt neither with dissident nor with political themes, this shift in mood is insufficient to explain the marked shift in readers’ interests.
Readers were also affected by the very freedom of the book market, something that had not existed in the country for half a century. The free market brought not only new books but also genres that had not been offered for sale before. The Communist states had suppressed not only independent and nonconformist literature, but most philosophical, economic, historical, political, and religious literature as well. Popular commercial literature was almost entirely absent from the socialist market, which each year offered only a handful of crime novels (mostly work by the classical authors of the genre like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, or Erle Stanley Gardner), an even smaller number of science fiction titles, and several substandard spy novels written by local authors. Writers like Stephen King, Sidney Sheldon, John Grisham, and dozens of others were quite unknown; erotic literature was strictly forbidden. Numerous readers who sought no more from their reading than escape, suspense, or entertainment and who would have preferred love stories, thrillers, westerns, or erotica to serious literature, were thus left unsatisfied. As a result they often resorted to good books for the romantic intrigue, the excitement, or the sex. That helps to explain why authors like John Updike, William Styron, or Norman Mailer, insofar as they made it through the censor’s net, were published in editions of hundreds of thousands and sold out immediately.
Before the revolution there were roughly twenty publishing houses in Czechoslovakia, all of them state-owned, and only one of which was dedicated primarily to literature in translation. After the revolution, about two thousand publishers sprang up in very short order. Some began out of idealism, from a desire to bring onto the market what had been unavailable in Czech for almost half a century; others sensed the opportunity to get rich quick by putting out hitherto unavailable trash. Yet both groups had a lot in common: they had little experience in book publishing, they seldom had much capital, and they were generally ignorant of how market mechanisms worked.
Few of them realized that if too many entrepreneurs threw themselves into the marketplace with the same goal, only a fraction would succeed, or that freedom of expression meant that they would face competition from the mass media. Boring television suddenly became interesting and the market was flooded by a steady stream of new daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers and magazines, from serious literary reviews and family magazines to pornography. Readers and viewers who, until a few months before, had nothing to choose from were inundated with new publications, and they began to exercise choice, guided as never before by their own taste, or lack of it.
Another factor that had a strong impact on the situation was the collapse of the book market. As I’ve said, under communism there were roughly twenty big publishers, and only a single wholesaler which supplied the network of retail bookstores. They were all, of course, state-owned and practically speaking could ignore the laws of the marketplace. A publisher could, or was even compelled to, issue a certain number of books by prominent writers favored by the regime, political tracts and brochures which libraries, schools, and various organizations were then compelled to acquire but which were otherwise unsalable. A large portion of these books were sent straight from the printer to scrap-paper depots.
Under such circumstances, no one could expect publishing houses to be efficiently run; these mammoth firms, like most socialist enterprises, were overstaffed, with too many editors and an inflated administrative sector. They produced roughly one book per year for each employee. The publishing houses could survive only because there was no competition and because the prices of paper and printing were regulated and therefore low, enabling them to produce books cheaply despite their inefficiencies. In turn, the book market was also dominated by non-market factors. With virtually no competition, a bookseller could easily meet his assigned profit quota (his bonus depended on it) and was thus able to keep less salable books in his inventory.
Shortly after the revolution the situation changed to an extent that would probably confound even those who have grown up in a market environment. Editions of tens of thousands appeared, not only in fiction but also in history and philosophy. (Paul Johnson’s History of the Twentieth Century, though expensive, went through three printings and sold 25,000 copies in one year simply because it was the first non-Marxist interpretation of history available in fifty years.) The lines of people outside bookstores and the enthusiastic response of readers astonished not only experienced publishers but wholesalers and retailers as well. While state-owned bookstores went under, new private booksellers, often former employees of state-owned stores, set up businesses. These people had experience in selling books, but under entirely different circumstances, and they probably had no idea what large sums of money could be tied up in books lying idle in warehouses.
At the same time, the deregulated price of books, along with the cost of paper and printing, doubled or tripled so that the hunger to buy books rapidly faded. All this happened almost overnight. Previously popular authors sold scarcely a tenth of their large print runs. Hundreds of thousands of books remained both in the wholesale warehouses and in the bookstores. Booksellers were unable to pay their suppliers, wholesalers were unable to pay the publishers. Thus many of the idealistic new publishers could not survive; hundreds of booksellers went out of business, leaving entire cities without a single retail book outlet.
Publishers suddenly became afraid to bring out risky titles. Newly established wholesalers were afraid to buy large numbers of uncertain titles or, at most, would take them only on commission, which made publishers even more cautious, because they feared, justifiably, that even if they could sell their books, they might not be paid for them. Moreover, because the legal system, hitherto entirely in the hands of the Communists, was on the verge of collapse as well, creditors had almost no hope of seeking redress through the courts, and many unscrupulous wholesalers got rich simply by not paying their bills.
Booksellers were more cautious still. Often deeply in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy themselves, they could not afford to order books they were not certain of selling quickly. For this reason, they bought only very small quantities of the more demanding books, and if such books sold out, they seldom re-ordered. In other cases, publishers were reluctant to release books on commission for fear that they would never see their money. Thus a reader could search in vain for a book that was lying in the warehouse of a publisher who was trying in vain to sell it. The book market went through these extreme changes in a short period of time. Excellent works of contemporary and classical literature, both in Czech and in translation, and good specialist literature as well were pushed out of the market by imported commercial trash.
I have not yet mentioned those who will, in the end, determine the fate of books in my country: the readers. Literature has always enjoyed high status in the modern history of the Czechs. Writers were among the leaders of the Czech national revival two hundred years ago, and although Czech literature in the last century was only of local interest it was almost unbelievably popular. (At the end of the last century a mediocre collection of patriotic poetry by Svatopluk Cech went through twenty-three printings in eight months, and even in recent times collections of poetry were published in editions of ten to twenty thousand and often went through several printings.) The exceptional interest in forbidden works immediately after the revolution was an expression not only of curiosity but also of a love of literature cultivated over many years.
The sudden change in the book market did not occur simply because readers were satiated, or because society had turned its back on formerly banned artists, or because of complications in the book trade brought about by the economic transformation; there was also a factor which apparently had nothing to do with the book market—the economic situation of the Czech intelligentsia.
I don’t know to what extent one can statistically determine how many people read good, serious, or difficult literature, because it is hard to establish precise criteria by which such literature can be defined. Nevertheless it is clear that a significant number of readers belong to the intelligentsia, chiefly in the humanities. In Communist countries, and particularly in Czechoslovakia, such people always received below average salaries. Every tradesman, mason, or waiter made more than a doctor, a judge, a high-school teacher, or even a university professor. Not only did this imbalance remain after the revolution, in many cases it grew. With inflation, books paradoxically became unaffordable luxuries for most educated people. (It is only during the last year that their material situation has begun to improve, at least slightly.)
Taking all these factors into consideration, we may ask what are the prospects for worthwhile literature reaching the reader who wants it?
The present situation has caused some people to panic, or has at least provided them with an excuse to attack the democratic evolution of the country. Two years ago a Committee for National Culture was created, with the aim of preventing the “ongoing de-nationalization of artists and the soulless dictatorship of the marketplace.” The members of this committee were all prominent artists in the former regime and the writers belonging to it are the same ones who had taken an active part in setting up an index of authors (domestic and foreign) who were not allowed to publish a line. This fact alone throws considerable doubt on the claim made by one influential committee member who said that “the present political and economic development is having an almost genocidal effect on Czech culture.” What makes this claim even more dubious, however, is the present state of Czech culture, which, for all its difficulties, is more in a renaissance than in a dark age.
The present state of Czech culture, in fact, confirms that cultural genocide, or the “Biafra of the spirit” as Louis Aragon once characterized culture here after the Soviet occupation, is not something caused by a free market, but can only be brought about by the censor, by the intervention of some all-powerful committee serving the totalitarian system.
Most of the discouraging factors I have mentioned were, and still are, only temporary. Many of the publishers who could not find their feet quickly enough have withdrawn from the market. Talented publishers, on the contrary, have been quick to grasp not just the laws of the market but the particular problems involved in the transition from a planned to a market economy. They have understood that it is not enough just to publish a book, it must be published cheaply and, above all, delivered to the reader.
Most state publishing houses failed to adjust to the new conditions by laying off redundant employees and reacting flexibly to the demands of the market, and while they were wasting time bemoaning the precariousness of the situation, some private publishers, often working with only two or three employees, were diligently building themselves market niches with well-defined publishing programs. For example, the young photographer Viktor Stoilov started a small publishing venture called Torst immediately after the revolution. He concentrated exclusively on beautifully designed books of literary criticism, philosophy, and poetry. (He also published works in translation, including Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism.) Another publisher that concentrates on new Czech literature is the Brno house Atlantis, originally founded right after the collapse of the old regime by a group of dissidents that included Václav Havel and the current chairman of the Czech Parliament, Milan Uhde, who ran the company for a while. (The most recent novel by the young poet Jáchym Topol, Sestra (Sister), published by Atlantis, attracted a great deal of interest because it was the first long work of fiction to respond in a highly original way to the postrevolutionary situation in our country.)
Banks and savings institutions have been willing to “sponsor” expensive books of high quality by underwriting their costs. Some publishers have successfully specialized in Hermeticism, others in books of Oriental philosophy, Judaica, or in fine literature of a very specific type; and though they may have seemed doomed to failure, they have found sponsors and, very quickly, readers as well. Booksellers have also begun to specialize. Although most of them base their business strategy on selling trash, the opposite strategy has frequently turned out to be more appropriate, especially in the large cities: to try, despite the obstacles, to satisfy the demands of sophisticated readers. The number of booksellers in Prague grew this spring to 106, more than there were under the former regime, and that, in turn, is influencing the publishers who no longer need fear that a good book won’t find a buyer.
Finally, even politicians who in the early years of the economic reforms attributed almost magical powers to the marketplace have begun to understand that literature is of vital importance to a small nation, and that in the transitional period it needs at least a minimum of support. Modest amounts have been set aside in the state budget to support important book publishing projects. (I sit on a committee which disperses these funds and I would guess that this support will help to get about thirty original books published and save at least ten literary magazines.) Not only do banks sponsor a considerable number of books but embassies or foreign cultural organizations contribute to translations of literature from their country.
Nonprofit publishers have also come into existence, publishing literary series in small print runs. Authors often forgo royalties. One small publisher has, significantly, called itself Liberated Samizdat and another, Favia, has for two years now been publishing beautifully produced bibliophile editions of modern Czech prose and poetry in editions of a thousand copies. Favia publishes both writers who had published under the former regime (Raz, Danek) and whose share of the market has sharply decreased, and young, unknown authors (Macura, Martoek). I could give many more examples. In the third quarter of last year alone, the Ministry of Culture supported the publication of twenty-one original books by fifteen different publishers.
Far from being flooded only with pulp, the market now offers hundreds of titles for sophisticated readers. Authors, of course, will not get rich from such publications. They must all work in television, for newspapers or publishers, or in other professions, but they do not have to wash windows or work as stokers, as they did under the former regime.
Recalling the lamentations of my foreign colleagues in Turin, I can say that, unlike in the past, I don’t know of a single book worth printing that can’t be published in the Czech Republic.
—translated by Paul Wilson
October 20, 1994