On the same page: Flanders joint guest of honour at top book fair

Summary

Flanders and the Netherlands have teamed up as guest of honour at the world’s most important professional book fair, held in Frankfurt this month

This is what we share

The Frankfurter Buchmesse, the publishing industry’s biggest international trade fair, has welcomed a country as guest of honour since 1976. It began as a biannual thematic focus, and since 1988 it’s been a yearly showcase of a region’s book market, literature and culture. This year, the honour goes jointly to Flanders and the Netherlands.

“This is the pinnacle of several years of hard work,” says Koen Van Bockstal, director of the Flemish Literature Fund (VFL), which is organising the guest of honour programme with the Dutch Foundation for Literature. “The seeds were sown by VFL president Jos Geysels more than five years ago. He thought it would be great to reteam the same places that had already been guest of honour together in 1993. We immediately found support from our Dutch colleagues and from the political factions.”

To be selected, a region has to apply well in advance. Years of intense lobbying, nationally and internationally, culminate in a five-day book fair in Frankfurt and a year-long cultural programme in cities throughout Germany. All this is largely funded by the guest of honour.

Joke Schauvliege, predecessor of current Flemish culture minister Sven Gatz, gave the official assignment to prepare the candidacy. “When we submitted our bid, we were in a pretty fierce competition with France, Canada and Mexico,” says Van Bockstal. “We eventually made it because the Buchmesse felt we had a very innovative plan.”

This kind of opportunity only comes around once in a generation, if you’re lucky, he says. “After China, India and Turkey, we are only the fourth guest to be invited twice, so we really had to come up with a strong narrative.”

Sharing is caring

That story is captured by the slogan “This is what we share”. Financially as well as with regard to the literary programme, there’s a 50-50 split between Flanders and the Netherlands.

“Obviously, there are differences between us, and between our literature,” says Van Bockstal, “but we have chosen to focus on what’s most interesting, which is what we have in common, and what makes us stronger together.”

It will be a magnificent firework display, but we don’t intend to leave everything dark and silent once the fireworks have landed

- Koen Van Bockstal

With Antwerp children’s book writer Bart Moeyaert as its artistic director, the literary programme plays on each partner’s strong suits. “In Flanders, the graphic novel and comics are a bit more developed than in the Netherlands,” says Van Bockstal. “Dutch authors and publishers, on the other hand, are slightly stronger in non-fiction, because the Flemish Literature Fund has only recently built a policy around that.

“We weren’t squeamish about who would ‘dominate’ which category, as long as there was a global balance catering to the strengths of each partner.”

Gatz also stresses the diversity in the line-up. “Of course, famous literary fiction writers such as Tom Lanoye or Stefan Hertmans carry the load in Frankfurt, but it’s also about young talents and non-classical genres.”

Two years ago when he visited the Buchmesse, he was positively surprised by the Flemish children’s books. He found that publications from other countries were often dutifully pedagogical, or more adventurous only for older children. Flemish books, he says, are very good at “an intuitive, emotional approach that combines text and drawings. For which we’re internationally renowned.”

One of the young talents at the Buchmesse this year, working in a field of literature that often struggles to cross language borders, is poet Charlotte Van den Broeck. She will deliver the opening speech in Frankfurt alongside Dutch writer and columnist Arnon Grunberg.

“We will tackle the guest theme in a playful dialogue based on the correspondence we’ve had,” she explains. “We have been chosen as each other’s counterbalances. Arnon is an experienced author, writing prose, whereas I’m a debutante writing poetry. That combination will be the strength of our speech.”

B2B on a global scale

With political delegations, including royalty, attending a string of formal activities at a business-to-business event, being guest of honour has all the hallmarks of a trade mission.

“It’s a borderline case,” says Gatz. “It’s a cultural fair, but with huge economic implications. The word ‘product’ is too reductive with regard to literature, but Flemish culture is very valuable. Culture is the incubator of the trade missions, adding warmth to the promotion of Flanders as a society that focuses on innovation, creativity and the Burgundian lifestyle.”

The financial effort of being the focus at the world’s biggest book fair can’t be repeated every year. “Nor should it,” Van Bockstal says. “The attention from international press and publishers for Flemish literature this year is exceptional. It’s our job to build on that over the coming years.”

For both the culture ministry and the VFL, the Buchmesse is of the utmost importance. “It’s one of the highlights of my legislature,” says Gatz, “and it’s embedded in the international policy that we want to implement.”

And internationalisation has been a buzzword. “It’s a mind shift similar to the export by Flemish brewers, who until 20 years ago would usually have brewed their beer near the town’s church and limited distribution to their own province,” says Gatz.

“Artists obviously work with their own talents, addressing the audience they want. But we’d like to help those who see it bigger – and which artist doesn’t want to be heard, seen, read, admired. It’s a way to give our writers more comfort. Given that in Flanders, 1,000 copies of a novel might be printed on average, properly positioning your book in Germany or France could mean a big difference.”

Bigger budget

Bigger budget

This year’s Buchmesse is the culmination of VFL’s international policy, Van Bockstal says. “It will be a magnificent firework display, but we don’t intend to leave everything dark and silent once the fireworks have landed. We see the Buchmesse not as an end, but as a new start.”

There’s already been a strong boost to translations into German. Gatz: “Dutch and Flemish books combined, the number of translations has climbed to 474; 300 of those are literary books, but there are also cookbooks, poetry, comic books and theatre texts. It might encourage translations into other languages too, because the entire world will be there in Frankfurt.”

The new translations include a collection of Paul van Ostaijen’s poetry and prose, Mieke Maaike’s obscene jeugd by Louis Paul Boon, comic book Cowboy Henk (Kamagurka and Herr Seele), and work by novelists Yves Petry and Saskia De Coster. There’s also work from non-fiction writers Mark Schaevers and David Van Reybrouck, poet Els Moors, theatre writer Arne Sierens, graphic novelist Brecht Evens and more.

“We’ll most likely need a bigger translation budget in the future,” says Van Bockstal, “but that really is a luxury problem. We’ve always predicted this would happen. I trust our plea for additional resources will not be in vain.”

Photo: Frankfurt Book Fair/Alexander Heimann