Pulp fiction makes Russia a literary gulag
THE nation which gave the world Pushkin, Tolstoy, Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, and which survived decades of creativity-suppressing Communism, now finds itself pilloried as a land of pulp fiction - a literary also-ran.
Publishing experts admit Russian literature is in a state of crisis and up-and-coming authors have been reduced to asking would-be readers to pay for books in advance in order to make sure they get published.
The crisis in Russian publishing has seen the country's own authors squeezed while publishing companies rely on cheap-and-cheerful detective and war novels and translations of foreign books.
The list of bestsellers at the online bookstore Ozon.ru, the nation's equivalent of Amazon, showed six of the top 10 and all of the top three were translations of foreign authors.
Would-be authors are resorting to desperate measures to get themselves into print. Some put appeals for buyers on websites, selling as-yet unpublished books on a subscription basis: once enough people have signed up for the latest volume, the book is printed and sent to the customers.
In a survey commissioned by Russia's National Library, 37% of Russians said they never read books, only 23% considered themselves active readers and 52% never bought books. The studies also showed readers prefer detective novels and Mills and Boon-style romantic books to the classics of Russian literature by such greats as Leo Tolstoy or Anton Chekhov.
While the rise of TV and the PlayStation generation are blamed for battering the book trade in the West, hard-pressed Russian authors point to a series of causes. They include the high cost of paper, Moscow's decision to levy VAT on books, poor distribution across the vast country, and the shaky post-Soviet economy which means many are more concerned with the bare necessities of life rather than reading.
In order to insure their companies against going under if a new book fails to sell, publishers are insisting new writers come up with the money in advance to finance the publication, or saying they will not touch new writers unless they have at least two books ready which they can serialise, so as to maximise profits.
In addition, rampant piracy means up-and-coming authors who do get published struggle to make a living from their books. Many companies go for the safe options of cheap detective potboilers and action adventure where gun-toting Russian Spetsnaz commandos cheerfully turn guns on Muslim terrorists in unnamed central Asian countries which seem to be clones of Chechnya.
Victor Sonkin, literature correspondent with the Moscow Times, said: "It is excruciatingly hard to establish anything new on the Russian market. A while ago, I toyed with the idea of setting up a small publishing house specialising in high-quality non-fiction.
"I felt that the relative lack of such books, compared with the West, was more than evident, so the demand should be quite high. But it turned out the cost of producing good books, without skimping on expenses for design, proofreading and paper, was almost prohibitive, and the investment return rate would be so slow as to scare off any potential Russian investor."
Alexei Gordin, the executive director of Azbuka Publishers, a leading publisher of fiction, said gloomily: "Young people now read almost no books or fiction."
A spokesman for the Russian National Library said the rot had set in during the 1990s in the anarchic post-Soviet period when people needed light relief as opposed to harrowing psychological reads. He said: "In the 1990s the prestige of education and the general cultural level of the population decreased, which led to the gradual disappearance of books from people's everyday lives."
Dr Andrei Rogatchevski, a specialist in Russian literature at Glasgow University, said: "Russian publishing is in a mess right now. One of the reasons is that towards the end of the Communist era the government restricted the supply of paper - some said for political reasons, to stop other opinions being published.
"Whatever the reason, the effect was that the price of paper went up, and that means it costs a lot to get books printed and published. A typical print-run nowadays is about 10,000 copies, which is much smaller than it used to be. It is very difficult for some of the newer authors to even get into print."
But Rogatchevski insisted not all was bad in the world of Russian writing.
He said: "Not all of the so-called trash fiction and novels should be dismissed. Some of the authors do make an effort to reach back to the literary heritage and they are worth studying as literature.
"And there is a new range which rewrites some of the classics - such as Anna Karenina, Turgenev's Fathers And Children, and Dostoyevsky's The Idiot - and brings them up to date. They are very skilfully done and are good literature in their own right."
BRIDGET Jones's Diary has been transplanted to modern-day Moscow in the form of the Diary of Luisa Lozhkina, a 30-something Russian who dreams of finding the perfect man and whose life is a permanent battle against the horrors of cellulite and the temptation to have just one more glass of wine.
Lozhkina has the same obsessions as her London-based counterpart, but the Russian context sees her as the mother of a young son, and making her money on the edges of the law via the unauthorised renting out of expensive flats.
She and her friends agonise over the lack of decent men, diet, having the nicest mobile phone and their appearance - over far too many glasses of wine.
Written by Katya Metelitsa, the book was, just like its Western counterpart, serialised in the press. The chapters in the press were regarded as being so convincing that many readers believed it was about real people.
However, the Bridget "Joneskaya" books are criticised by some as being lowbrow and using a format borrowed from the West.
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