“Why Read?” – report of an Athens symposium

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Why Read? The role of writers and books in the 21st century” was the overall theme of an international symposium sponsored by the Hellenic Authors’ Society in cooperation with the Columbia University Institute of Comparative Literature & Society and the Athens University Faculty of English Language & Literature, held in Athens on October 18 and 19, 2018.

You can find full details of the symposium here:

http://www.authors.gr/posts/view/why-read-the-role-of-writers-books-in-the-21st- century/home

C.20 asked Yiorgos Chouliaras, president of the Hellenic Authors’ Society, to tell us about the expectations and the outcomes.

C.20: The “Why Read?” event in Athens focussed on the role of writers and books in the twenty-first century. Who were the main participants and how were they chosen?

YCh.: Symposium panellists and discussants were distinguished writers, critics, translators, and scholars involved in such discussions in the context of sponsoring institutions, especially the Hellenic Authors’ Society, which is the principal association in Greece of poets, prose writers, translators, and critics writing in Greek. Participants included individuals whose focus is outside Greece, such as Christopher Bakken, Christopher Merrill, Stathis Gourgouris and A.E. Stallings, as well as individuals for whom Greek is their focus, such as Titos Patrikios, Jina Politi, Thanassis Valtinos, and Vassilis Vassilikos, to cite a few of them.

C.20: The event was divided into four distinct sessions: “Writers & Readers”, “Language & Translation”, “Writers & Books”, and “The Future of Writing”. What were the main ideas discussed in each session?

YCh.: Why & how do we read? Why write? Why translate? Why publish? Aspects of these questions were addressed in four panels and a round table. Without writers there are no books. Without books there are no readers. Without readers there is hardly anything. These matrices define what I call a “triangle of reading” that is upheld by translation from and into each language in question, which, like any language and irrespective of the number of readers involved, is limited by the borders of its comprehension. There can be no (world) literature without translation. At the same time, writers keep pushing against these borders, often pretending they are not there. This goes beyond writers in restricted linguistic communities. This goes beyond writers wishing to revive languages under threat of joining tongues in extinction. Consider, for instance, those writing in a lingua franca, such as English today or Greek in Hellenistic times. Consider the context of dislocations, such as pidgin English, in which they write. Writing in the Hellenic diaspora, Cavafy had many choice verses for imagined Hellenistic authors versifying.

C.20: Did each of these sessions have an “outcome”? And if so, what were the main conclusions?

YCh: Outcome may be too dedicated a word for any gathering of writers, even if they converge on particular rules of thumb. There is an element of constancy in the variety of motives that mobilise authors in different periods, which comports well with any vision of the future of writing. In conditions of electronic speech and speechlessness, reading and writing appear threatened. Yet, a threat always seemed extant. Times before Hesiod were always better. Books as we know them today are the complex result of several revolutions: the revolution of printing that goes hand in hand with literacy, the revolution of writing that makes it all possible. Is the current digital revolution more ground-breaking than previous ones? The jury is still out.

C.20: How important is translation in the context of Greek writing and publishing?

YCh.: It has already been said that literature is inconceivable without translation, even if translators are not given their due. In the clamour to see everything translated into English we forget that translations hover around only 3 per cent of English-language publications. Book markets with far fewer readers, including Greek, are blessed by a higher percentage of translations into that language, although at the same time bedevilled by a dearth of translations from Greek into languages with a mass audience. The reputation of literatures written in different languages hangs on this imbalance in the international cultural division of labour. Moreover, to the extent there is a limited number of places on global book shelves, the Greek shelf is already crowded with ancient authors

C.20: Is the Greek publishing industry under threat from either international market forces or domestic austerity?

YCh.: Publishing in Greek perennially feels the pressure of a small internal market with very limited export potential, considering the number of diaspora readers of books in Greek or of Greek speakers in general, even without domestic austerity. This precedes any sectoral pressure on publishing from international market forces, as it is hard to imagine conglomerates focusing on book production in Greek. Yet, during these years of crisis new quality literature publishers have been added to the rosters, while older ones held on.

C.20: How dependent is a Greek writer on the publishing industry in Greece?

YCh.: A Greek writer is dependent on the publishing industry in the sense that self-publication is equated with the products of vanity presses and does not include her or him in critical discourse. This makes it particularly difficult for younger authors. Nevertheless, there are counter instances as well as prizes for first books. Moreover, innovations such as print on demand and quality online periodicals make it possible for emerging authors to break into the Greek literary scene.

C.20: How dependent is a Greek writer on the state as a source of encouragement? Or of subsidy?

YCh.: Greek writers are not dependent on the state to the extent subventions or other forms of encouragement for emerging authors are not there. There is a constant struggle to validate writing as a “professionally” creative engagement that can be distinguished from a generic wish to express oneself. I recall I was asked a very long time ago, after the collapse of the military dictatorship, about the “ideal” relation between a writer and the state. My response was: “To be persecuted ineffectively.” If persecution is effective, the writer is muzzled or worse. If it is ineffective, however, this may provide that extra-literary motivation that brings readers to literature, making it possible for them to get hooked.

C.20: Did the event discuss the viability of bookshops and distribution?

YCh.: Although only briefly discussed in the context of the symposium, alongside libraries and other modes of encouragement of reading, bookshops represent a critical component in the world of books. In and outside Athens, independent quality bookshops are especially important and new ones were established during the crisis years. Of particular significance for their support is the restoration of the Europe-wide practice of a “uniform price” (eniaia timi in Greek) for the first two years after a literary publication comes out. This prevents book chains, which are short on stocking quality books, from undercutting their small competitors through aggressive discounts only they can afford.

C.20: What, in the discussion, was considered to be “The Future of Writing”?

YCh.: The future is something that is still to be written.

C.20: Do you have any comments that are not included in the above questions?

YCh.: In the beginning is the word. But to remain there, it must be read. Reading is the best advice for writers as well.

Yiorgos Chouliaras is a Greek poet, essayist, fiction writer, and translator. In 2014, he was awarded an Academy of Athens prize for his work in its entirety. Born in Thessaloniki and US-educated, he worked mostly in New York, before returning to Athens, as a university lecturer, advisor to cultural institutions, correspondent, and press counsellor at Greek Embassies. A co-founder and editor of literary and scholarly reviews, he was elected twice President of the Hellenic Authors’ Society.

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