THE WORLD MIRROR / SPECIAL CASES
Almost the entire world is affected by financial crisis. How does it influence the process of writing, literature, and publishing? Mostapha al-Hamdawy, a Moroccan writer now living in the Netherlands, Tawfika Khador who is fighting for freedom of speech in the Syrian capital Damascus, and Jyrki Vainonen who is questing after the faded rebellion in Finland, will tell us.
Shurouk Hammoud and Hanna Hirvonen, text
Milla Selin, translation from Finnish
Jyrki Vainonen is working on a new book. A text, which started out as short stories, but has lived on during a long period of time. The writer himself is unsure what will become of it. It is prose flowing from the subconscious with shades of surrealism, in any case, like the work of Vainonen tends to be. “Writers like myself, who aren’t top sellers, shouldn’t rush things. The publishing house is not counting on a pile of money that depends on my particular book”, says Vainonen.
A major part of Vainonen’s time – eating into time spent writing – is taken by the position as the Chairman of Suomen Kirjailijaliitto (the Union of Finnish Writers). The three-year-long post forces the artist to live according to the rules of the outside world. “As a chairman I have to react to what other people do, as well as politics. At the same time I must close the door to my inner world. I am constantly evaluating how much I want to expose myself to these outside influences. What kind of damage do they cause to the side of myself that writes peculiar stories?”
The writer Tawfika Khador, who lives in Damascus, the capital of Syria, has both a novel and a collection of short stories in the works. Both are about the deepest essence of humanity. In the short stories, Khador wants to challenge the set ideas people have about how life should go; the prerogative is to encourage people to act with humanity and achieve the kind of life they deserve. Reaching a higher spiritual level is the theme of the novel. Blackouts are plaguing the writer’s work. Electricity may be out for 16 consecutive hours, which prevents daily writing.
It would seem that throughout the world, there are various disturbances to a writer’s work. One toll is certainly common: ongoing financial insecurity, which is only aggravated during a financial crisis. Khador has a finished novel ready, but no funding to publish it.
In Syria, most writers publish their work by paying for it themselves. Publishers have backed out from that responsibility, and printing the books remains their only task. “Actually, there are practically only self-published books in Syria. Before you can publish a book, the text is sent to the censory committee. They decide whether the book is good enough. There is a world of taboos: religion, politics and sex. If the text passes through the censors, the writer then has to pay the costs of publishing”, Khador explains.
“There are practically only self-published books in Syria.”
Few writers can afford to publish as soon as the book is written. They have to save money for publishing, or wait to receive it from other sources. Tawfika Khador has had outside funding to publish a book twice. “Both books were successful in a contest, I came in second and the prize was funding to publish the book.”
Publishers in Syria do not market, sell, or distribute books. For example, delivering books to libraries is part of a writer’s work. Only a few large publishing houses make an exception, both funding the publishing and helping the writer to advertise their work. “To be creative and efficient, a writer needs all the time they can get”, Khador concludes.
The book publishing field is in turmoil in Finland also. The Chairman of the Union of Writers, Jyrki Vainonen, is observing it all from the hot seat. He assumes self-publishing will become more common in Finland, too, in the coming years. “Fewer and fewer books will be published by publishing houses”, he declares.
Vainonen sees how the publishers’ values have clearly shifted. Traditionally, Finnish publishers have had employees with degrees in Humanities. The focus has been on publishing high quality literature. During the past 15 years, they have been replaced by people with a commercial background. More and more books are getting printed on the premises of how well they will sell.
“Many of my colleagues have
gotten the boot.”
Poems, essays and short stories are rarely published, because the reader base is assumably smaller than for novels. “Small volumes are a burden for an economist, even if they have artistic importance. Many of my colleagues have gotten the boot”, Vainonen says. “I wish the publishers would view the entire years’ books as a whole – and start from having that whole lot making profit.”
Poems, essays and short stories are often published by smaller companies, which usually have no money to market the works. “Therefore, the chances of these books of ever reaching the reading public are getting smaller”, laments Vainonen.
Book sales and royalties make a living for approximately 15 to 20 writers in Finland. According to Vainonen, every writer dreams of this, but only a few can actually achieve it. “Not even when we are talking about mainstream or novel writers.”
“Writers give most of their
copies away as gifts.”
The reader base and market for Finnish literature is small to begin with. In addition, book sales have steadily decreased for the past decade. In Syria, book selling is nearly non-existent. In a war-torn country, books – but also food and clothes – are insanely costly. To survive, one must naturally invest in edibles. Who would spend their money on books? “To be honest, writers give most of their copies away as gifts to friends and relatives – if they have managed to get a book published”, Tawfika Khador describes.
The Syrian government offers no support whatsoever to writers. Lack of financial support forces writers into other jobs; practically no one gets by just by writing books. One way to earn a living is to sell articles for media in other Arab countries. The alternative is to win contests, where the prize often is having the organizer publish the best works. On occasion the winners get money.
A Finnish writer can live on a combination of book sales and a grant. “This is why the grant system, which nowadays is viable in Finland and the Nordic countries, should remain so in the future”, Jyrki Vainonen points out. There are three state artist grants available for writers: for one, three or five years. Private organizations also provide grants. “Annually, there isn’t enough money to support all writers, the ones who receive a grant are the lucky ones. But we are talking about hundreds of writers who live off of this combination: state grant plus book sales.”
Jyrki Vainonen has himself earned money in all the ways typical to a Finnish writer. Aside from book sales, his income has consisted of grants, writing related work such as teaching, and translations. “A writer’s wages never make you rich. But to my understanding, many artists are not in it for the riches, instead they hope for a secure living. Some do indeed have completely different day jobs for regular pay, and write on the side.”
The word is an immense force, which is probably the main reason to protect the writers’ work. Literature is not just words, thoughts, or emotions written open. Literature is the most important keeper of our times; writers capture for posterity the contemporary stories, the culture and the current traditions, their weaknesses and strengths alike.
What is it that actually happens to literature during a financial crisis? Tawfika Khador mentioned earlier the lack of funds to publish a new book. In this, the writer is not alone. Publishers in Syria are of no help, not even to an artist who has won many important awards, with fresh work on offer. The impossibility of publishing inevitably narrows down the writer’s voice.
“Many colleagues have begun
to write detective stories.”
Khador thinks writers and literature should strive to change things for the better. “Only by reading can a person find the connection to their inner self; through literature an individual can resist evil and oppression, and focus on defending justice.” Due to the economic instability, the diminishing number of both published texts and their readers is a concern.
In Finland the financial crisis is driving writers away from less popular formats. “Surprisingly many colleagues, who used to write artistic prose – artistically ambitious works – have begun to write detective stories, which is a better selling genre”, Jyrki Vainonen ponders.
As was mentioned before, in Finland the financial crisis mostly affects poetry, short stories and essays. When poetry is at stake, the Finnish language is at stake, first and foremost. Poems maintain the traditions of language, while also breaking them and making our language more vivid. “The majority of language use is automatized, meaning we only use language as a tool without paying attention to the way we say things. If poems cease to be written, published or read, the Finnish language will be poorer.”
Literature has held many, completely different meanings in different countries and various societal phases. When we look at the history of literature, we notice how the wielder of the pen has always been seen as a threat in times of turmoil and crisis in society. “Especially when society is going through a change where old rulers lose their power. In times like those the written word is incredibly important. It is sad if those important words are never printed”, Jyrki Vainonen ruminates.
He continues that in Finland literature has, to make a sharper point, become a part of entertainment culture. “The upside is that Finnish literature is alive and well, considering how small the linguistic population is. Modern literature is also vital and strong, which can be considered a miracle! What kinds of themes and expression the living literature should contain is a matter of taste.”
Vainonen would like to see more artistic prose, and poems, essays and short stories published. He is also calling out for the rebellious spirit that is lacking in literature when money is what drives the writing. “A rebellious writer will not yield to the expectations of the publisher and the public, but writes in accordance to the inner world, just the way the text comes. And that can backfire in case the book doesn’t get published!”
Born 1963 in Anjalankoski, Finland
First book: Tutkimusmatkailija ja muita tarinoita (a collection of short stories), 1999, Loki-Kirjat.
Latest book: Naulankantakeitto ja muuta juustohöylättyä hengenravintoa (satirical cookbook), 2016, Atena.
Born 1963 in Masyaf, Syria
First book is : A Hug in the Draught time (a collection of short stories), 2004.
Latest book: The Male Bee Resurruction (a collection of short stories), 2015.
Born 1969 in Dareosh, Morocco
First book: The Body Seduction (a novel), 2010, Sendebad Publishing House.
Lastest book is: The Demon and the Roses (a novel), 2015, Efrikia Alsharq Publishing House.