The Frankfurt Book Mess

On China Beat, Nicolai Volland reviews and analyzes the controversy over Chinese invitees to the Frankfurt Book Fair:

By revoking the invitation to Dai and Bei, the organizers of the event invited controversy. In fact, the choice of China as “guest of honor” was controversial to begin with. The Frankfurt Book Fair has a history of selecting news-making (headline grabbing) countries as “guests” (the 2008 “guest of honor” was Turkey; in 2004 the focus was on literature from the Arabic world). But the invitation of China may have been especially prone to evoke emotions on radically different ends of the spectrum of political imagination. Perhaps even more so than in the U.S., the public in Europe is torn between the image of China’s economic juggernaut and that of the nation as the last bastion of Communism. Press voices continue to hail China as the “white knight” who is going to save the world from the fallout of American’s reckless financial binge with its massive stimulus program. At the same time, 2009 marks the twentieth anniversary of both the Tiananmen Square massacre and the collapse of those repressive Communist regimes that had cast a shadow over Europe for four decades.

The clash of these two distinct images of China also reveals the schizophrenic nature of the Frankfurt Book Fair. On the one hand, the Buchmesse is the largest trade fair worldwide, attracting more than 7,000 publishers and booksellers worldwide. The Book Fair is a crucial venue of copyright trading and deal making, an industry event that few important players in the industry can afford to miss. During the first three days, admittance is restricted to industry insiders; it is only during the last two days that the Book Fair opens its doors to the general public. Then, however, the fair presents itself in a radically different light: From a multi-billion dollar industry, publishing then becomes a bastion of culture and entertainment; publishers compete with each other to present their stable of writers, by organizing book signing event and public readings. The Book Fair styles itself as the celebration of High Culture, drawing the attention of the German intelligentsia with innumerable discussion forums, many of which are carried in the press and on television.

China, the “guest of honor” 2009, has been torn between these two identities of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

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