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ANDREY KURKOV: UKRAINE’S LITERARY SUCCESS
Writing about literature and the book market in Ukraine is like writing about an oddity, rarity or curio. Currently, the market is more than 90 percent supplied by books published in Russia. Published Ukrainian writers can be counted, as the saying goes, “on one hand.” The very phrase “a Ukrainian writer,” sounds unusual or out of place. Though the country can boast several men of letters known by readers in Ukraine and abroad, These cannot yet be called commercial writers, in the sense that they don’t respond to the market of readers hungry for the unusual, exciting or topical.
But among the total chaos of the shelves of Ukrainian book stores and the disorder created by writers desperately trying to somehow shake up the reading public, there is one Ukrainian author who has reached the heights of international recognition. Forty-four-year old Andrei Kurkov has achieved the most commercial success abroad than any other writer from Ukraine in the post-Soviet period. As of today, three to four million copies of his 25 books have been published in most European languages abroad. Around 150,000 copies of his most popular work, A Picnic on the Ice, were sold in Ukraine alone. This is more than any other book by any other contemporary Ukrainian writer in recent history.
Kurkov mostly writes detective stories and thrillers. From the eastern city of Kharkiv, his language of choice is Russian, for which he says he takes flack at home and in Moscow: some of his countrymen apparently think he should write in Ukrainian, while a few Russians challenge his right to publish in their language. In addition to his prose, Kurkov also writes film scripts and articles for various foreign publications. He is the only former Soviet writer whose works have made the top-10 list of European bestsellers.
So, the Ukrainian Observer could not have found a better person to comment on the current state of Ukraine’s book market. What is it like being a well-known Ukrainian writer and what has to be done to elevate the profession at home?
Kurkov’s literary success did not take off right away. For the first fifteen years of his career, neither Russian nor Ukrainian publishing houses would publish his works. He would send in his manuscripts and wait for the refusal by mail. His collection of rejections totaled 500 before he got his first break. Kurkov recalls how one British publishing house sent him a letter stating that they only published serious literature, only to later buy the rights to one of his books through his Swiss agent.
It was only after he had written seven or eight novels that he finally got a positive response. To this day, two of his very first books have still not seen the public light, and Kurkov is in no hurry to publish them. “They were written at a certain time and should be touched only at the end of my life,” he says.
Despite his commercial success, Kurkov believes that a writer should be judged not by the amount of money he earns, but by the number of readers he has. The Ukrainian author is also opposed to dividing books into those that are commercially successful and those that aren’t. “There are writers whose books are bought and read, and there are writers whose works are not bought and not read,” he says plainly.
According to Kurkov, for success, there has to be “many ingredients,” whose presence nevertheless does not guarantee that the writer will be published. Sometimes an author never gets public recognition, at least not in his lifetime or in his home country. As an example, Kurkov recalls Oleksandr Khurgin, a writer from Dnepropetrovsk, who left Ukraine and now lives in Germany. Khurgin is recognized as a creator of good literature and has received several prizes in Russia, but so far commercial success has remained illusive.
Unlike Kurkov, most post-Soviet writers have to have another source of income. Ukraine does not have a “civilized book market, because there is no developed distribution system,” he laments “and people mostly read the books that come rolling in like a wave from Russia. The common belief is that a Ukrainian writer can’t be interesting.”
Nevertheless, Kurkov is optimistic, as a new generation of writers and readers is appearing “who will change the situation in the next several years.” Right now there is an age gap among writers. For example, Ukraine has no 30-something authors, he points out. There is the 40-something generation and a new group in its twenties. It’s this younger generation that is currently the most active. Among them are writers like Irena Karpa, Taras Prokhasko, Lubko Deresh and Serhiy Zhadan.
They are “driven” personalities, Kurkov says, and these personalities attract attention and thus readers. This new wave of writers understands that besides writing literature, it’s also necessary to sell and promote it publicly, “to stir up public opinion.” To popularize his work, an author needs to gain access to all types of available media. Everything that he or she does becomes a promotion of his/her books.
Still, Ukrainian publishing houses do not actively invest resources in PR or advertise authors’ literary creations – much less the authors themselves. Another big problem hindering the development of the Ukrainian book market is the fact that book shops and book sellers do not even engage in the simple essentials like checking the number of copies sold or placement of books on store shelves.
Kurkov says that a far more important task now is to restore interest in literature in the country’s regions. This is what he has been doing for the last two years, along with other writers. A group of them goes to a regional town to promote their books in the bookstores themselves, signing copies for the readers, answering their questions and thus promoting their products. Kurkov notes that the success of such trips is immense. Within one or two days of a writer’s visit, the bookshop sells as many books as it normally would in two months.
So what’s Kurkov’s advice for future, fledgling authors? One of the most important things is to objectively view your own work and continue writing and working in the face of the harshest of criticism and flattest of refusals from publishers. If an author is confident of his own work and gets some kind of positive feedback, then he should keep striving until he reaches success. Nevertheless, Kurkov confesses, it’s practically impossible to become financially independent just by writing, so a person who wants to become a writer should also consider finding a source of supplementary income. After years of hard work and continual rejection, Kurkov has achieved this.
Bron: The Ukrainian Observer – 22 februari 2008