Books: What needs to be done

These are exciting times for Maltese authors and publishers and the success of the recent Malta Book Festival is just one element which proves this.

Right now, there’s probably a Maltese translator in Brussels or Luxembourg writing the next big Maltese novel. Another youngster, as yet unknown, is probably mingling amongst us, observing society and reading classics and contemporaries whilst coming up with ideas for his or her debut novel.

Elsewhere, an immigrant child is probably on her way towards mastering the Maltese language to such an extent, that she’d make Walid Nabhan blush in 20 years’ time. Or maybe, there’s a publisher who has finally found the ‘X’ on the map of Maltese literature and is about to unveil the next big thing.

These are exciting times for Maltese authors and publishers and the success of the recent Malta Book Festival is just one element which proves this. New literary styles are emerging and are standing out, easily distinguishable from each other. We are a lucky audience receiving literature from more than one generation of authors and we may consider ourselves lucky for the selective editorial choices local publishers are making.

There are different kinds of writers and different kinds of publishers. The artsy pop publishers dealing in clever literature, the high-brow publishers, the popular publisher whose books go to stationeries and are read by, perhaps, slightly less discerning audiences. The authors from Brussels and Luxembourg, emerging female authors (unfortunately, still not very common in Maltese literature), young authors, the authors from the sixties and seventies who are still prolific and now even immigrant authors. As in everything else, there’s also the good, the bad and the ugly.

A sense of optimism is prevalent in the book scene – an overwhelming feeling that things are actually happening; in fact, a lot of things are. I’m not speaking about the dearth of new emerging vanity publishers which are flooding the market with books bearing tacky cover designs and texts you won’t even read as a last resort.

One need only check out the books in the recent National Book Prize shortlist to get an idea of the depth, creativity and diversity of the Maltese literary scene. There’s also a great sense of anticipation for the upcoming National Book Prize awards ceremony to be held on the 11th of December.

Still, there are things which still need to be addressed and we must not get too comfortable in our small little worlds. I’m sure that many would agree with me that a pressing problem in the local book scene is its infrastructural problem; mainly the lack of bookshops which act as cultural agents.

We have long been discussing and speaking about this problem, yet nothing concrete has been implemented to address it. The National Book Council (NBC) pressured the government to hand over the previous premises of Café Premier to the Ministry of Education so that it could partly be used by the National Library as an extension of its storage, and partly by the NBC to lease it to anyone who would be willing to open it as an excellent bookshop which would stock quality contemporary and classical texts and hold regular events.

It’s a tragedy that Valletta, our own capital city, lacks a bookshop which acts as a cultural agent, but it’s even more ludicrous when you consider that Valletta will be taking over the title of European Capital of Culture in 2018.

Once more, books slid down to the bottom of the political agenda as Café Premier was handed over to the Valletta Local Council; its administrative work being considered a priority over an issue of cultural and national importance. Hopefully, now that the Local Council has new premises fit for its standards, it will, as a council, be in a better position to successfully manage to arrange for the collection of the city’s refuse in the early hours of the morning instead of late in the evening when tourists and locals are happily dining in restaurants and on the streets.

During my first three years at the NBC, we have made sure to work on the administrative apparatus of the council to enhance our services and give a considerable boost to the book scene with the Malta Book Festival as well as via events, subsidies and prizes. Recently, we have started focusing on the legislative and more political nature of the council so as to be able to draft our first official legislation.

Discussions and debates, both internal and in consultation with other parties are taking place and will continue more extensively at the beginning of next year; but already, what seems clear to me in this process is that authors must find a way to solve their disagreements and come together, either informally or formally to discuss their priorities and produce a collective political agenda of their own. The same applies for the publishers.

This Labour government has been the first ever Maltese government to take the book industry seriously, to put it on its agenda and start contributing towards its support in the most tangible manner. Still, if writers don’t form a union, and if publishers don’t form their own collective, we at the NBC will keep finding it difficult to convince our superiors and private entities that authors and books actually do matter.

We are moving forward in the right direction, and we do not afford to move backwards from now on, but progress should not be taken for granted and we must all work for it in a spirit of good will.

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