Doing justice to a writer or a book that I consider unique and valuable, and at the same time pitching the book as sellable on a market that tends to favour what Tim Parks has called the "dull new global novel" is not always an easy task. – Our interview with Ágnes Orzóy, foreign rights director of Magvető after London Book Fair.
This was the first time you represented Magvető at the London Book Fair as foreign rights director. How can a visitor take in the monumentality of the fair? This is one of the biggest book fairs in the world with thousands of people and exhibitors, rights agents, editors... Did you have a strict schedule?
My first book fair was in Frankfurt last autumn, so I already had an idea about what to expect. The venue in London (Olympia) is smaller than the one in Frankfurt, and it feels more crowded and chaotic. You can easily get lost in the beginning, especially if you have no sense of orientation (as is the case with me). I had a very tight schedule, so it was only towards the end of the first day that I had time to compare the map with reality – and then I realized it was fairly well-organized after all, with the staircases painted in bright colours to help orientation.
What was the atmosphere like?
Though the fair is loud and tumultuous, the atmosphere is rather laid-back. As there are very few chairs for visitors outside the stands, people are sitting all around on the floor, eating and relaxing. There are some cosy spots, like the PEN Salon and the Literary Translation Centre where you can listen to roundtable talks and readings. My favourite spot was the Frazzled Café where people can have some peace and quiet in the midst of the fair.
Where did you spend most of your time? At the Rights Centre, or at the translators' centre? How do things go at the Rights Centre, how do these people meet and pitch their titles and authors?
I spent a lot of time at the Rights Centre which is actually the least appealing place at the fair – endless rows of tables and chairs, and constant noise. As for the meetings, they range from businesslike presentations of titles, plots and prizes to lively, spirited meetings of like minds – these latter are certainly among the things that make our job so rewarding. Whenever I had some free time, I walked around and looked at the books and the stands, some of which were very cheerful and creative, and I also spent some time at the Translation Centre, listening to talks and discussions. From these discussions, I had the impression that although the percentage of translated literature is notoriously low in the UK, the number of publishers who are committed to translated literature is growing. And I was very glad to hear about a new prize for women in translation, founded by the University of Warwick – especially as Magvető has so many wonderful female authors.
Which authors do you represent? Can you see any trends going on at this year's fair – what are the themes and genres foreign publishers are interested in?
I represent most Magvető authors, except some internationally known ones whose rights are with German and American agents and publishers. Ours is a great list which includes major writers, great talents of the mid-generation and promising young authors, so I find it quite easy to talk enthusiastically about them. It would be really hard and unfair to name just a few authors; you can find our catalogue here.
As for literary themes and genres, the novel continues to dominate the market – the mention of short stories keeps raising eyebrows, and poetry is all but impossible to sell, except perhaps if the poet is already known as a prose writer. As for themes, it helps if the book has a specifically Hungarian theme to it, though it must be something that the foreign audience can relate to. And I must say that I often have the feeling that some foreign publishers like their Hungarians dark and depressed. (Actually, it is more than just a feeling – some of the feedback I get strongly indicates that.) That said, many of the publishers I talk to are quite simply passionate about good literature, wherever it comes from and whatever it is about. In other words, it is not necessarily a straightforward and exotic (yet not too exotic and recognizably Hungarian) plot that they are after, but simply good literature. However, they have their costs and revenue to consider, which means that if they are hesitating between a Flemish and a Hungarian writer, they are likely to choose the former as there are far more options for translation support and grants for inviting the author, organizing events, etc. At present, the translation support that the Hungarian state gives to foreign publishers is quite meagre – hopefully, this will change soon. It must; it is absolutely essential if we want our great authors to be read in translation.
How do you usually pitch your authors? Are there differences among nations – do you talk about a book differently with an Italian and a Scandinavian publisher/editor/scout?
Well, yes, in a way. Making references to books, authors, or facts that I presume my partner will have some knowledge about as an Italian or a Swede can definitely be helpful. And I try to use my knowledge of the country that my partner comes from and its literature (including translated literature) in making comparisons, or in emphasizing certain elements in a book. But one has to be careful with those references and praises as they may eventually cause the foreign publisher and reader to be disappointed with a book. Saying that a writer is the next Krasznahorkai just because he writes long sentences, or that someone is an East European García Márquez when there are uncanny things happening in a book may bring short-term success, but I'm not sure it is helpful in the long run. Doing justice to a writer or a book that I consider unique and valuable, and at the same time pitching the book as sellable on a market that tends to favour what Tim Parks has called the "dull new global novel" is not always an easy task. But we must (and do) believe in our writers – and in readers as well.