Why Literary Publishing Still Matters

Interview with Jaume Vallcorba

Mention Jaume Vallcorba to anyone in Spain’s publishing community, and you’re likely to hear a sustained murmur of appreciation. Vallcorba, who was born in Barcelona in 1949, is the owner of the three-year-old publishing enterprise El Acantilado [The Cliff], an imprint of his acclaimed Catalan-language press Quaderns Crema. Although El Acantilado releases only 35 titles a year, against all odds it has become a highly profitable and respected imprint, publishing authors as diverse as 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes and 2002 Nobel Prize winner Imre Kértesz, as well as many contemporary and classic authors from Europe and beyond. According to Vallcorba, what El Acantilado’s authors all share is their literary excellence and a capacity to express complex ideas that are relevant to societies and individuals everywhere.

Soon after his friend Imre Kértesz won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, Vallcorba’s own contribution to publishing was recognized when he was awarded Spain’s prestigious Premio Nacional a la Mejor Labor Editorial, a prize traditionally granted to larger publishing groups. In this interview, he tells WPR correspondent Carmen Font about his selection criteria, his relationship with Kértesz, and his views on the place of literary publishing in a media-saturated world.

What do you specially look for when considering a book for publication?
I think that literature is eminently made up of words. That’s what I look for first. Then, ideas. When I publish an author, it’s because I truly find him/her interesting.

So it’s a purely subjective decision?
Exactly. Not everything published, however, needs to be highly intense. Sometimes, it’s just fun to release books such as Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: Adventures of the Great Detective in India and Tibet by Jamyang Norbu. It is certainly lighter than the work of [Hungarian author and 2002 Nobel prize winner Imre] Kertész, but personally I enjoy good detective stories. I offer readers the books I like. I always say that readers are friends of mine, albeit unknown ones. Typically, in European publishing the relationship between publisher, author, and reader is closer than it is on other continents. There’s a certain complicity.

You publish many relatively unknown German authors. Why is that?
Basically, because German literature is a kind of bridge between Eastern and Western European literature. Besides, because of diverse historical reasons, German literature was not receiving enough attention. So I took authors like Stefan Zweig, for example, who needed to be given a new release. But I also publish Portuguese literature, like the works of Fernando Pessoa (to my mind one of the greatest writers of the 20th century), or Vergilio Ferreira. Portugal has an exquisite literary tradition that is largely unknown. There are also first-rate Hungarian, Danish, Swedish, Greek, Russian, and Serbian authors, for instance. I love this job of discovering talents from different countries and languages. Publishing is like exploring untrodden territory. And all of a sudden, you discover a most interesting voice, a most enthralling pen.

One widespread comment among readers is: “Such and such a book is entertaining, but it didn’t say anything to me.”
Yes, that’s a common reaction. I like to think that the books I publish strike readers a bit differently. That they make them think. That doesn’t always happen, of course, because every reader reacts differently to a book. What I’m interested in is that, at least, when the reader finishes the book, something has happened. This is very important. Fiction shouldn’t be incompatible with thinking and reflection.

Do you think that publishers, readers, or authors are to blame for this lack of thought in literature?
I think it’s a strictly commercial question. I mean, it’s always easier to switch on the TV than opening a book to read. Television and cinema entertainment is more commercial than thought. And it requires less effort on the part of the receiver than a book.

The shortage of translations also affects literature in different languages, even those coexisting in the same country, such as Catalan, Basque, and Galician in Spain.
Yes, in this sense Catalan literature has suffered more than Portuguese. Traditionally, there has been a notable lack of awareness of Catalan literature among the Spanish public, not to mention abroad. However, in France, Germany, and Italy—countries with a great sensibility towards foreign literature—contemporary Catalan authors such as Quim Monzó have received a lot of attention. English translations, though, either American or British, have been scant because English readers show a sort of impervious attitude toward contemporary authors in foreign languages.

What do you mean by impervious?
English and American readers tend toward local writers. This doesn’t mean that publishers don’t translate foreign authors or that some aren’t successful. But I sometimes speak to American publishers about translating foreign authors, and many prefer not to risk an unknown foreign name when original English-language authors sell relatively well.

Although you weren’t the first to publish Hungarian writer and 2002 Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész in Spain, you decided to give him one more chance after other publishers pulled the plug on him.
That’s right. The large publishing conglomerate Plaza and Janes released Fateless in 1996, but since it was published at the same time as many other books and failed commercially, it was taken out of their catalogue and destroyed soon after. I understand the publisher’s job differently. In the first place, I like to publish authors of specific books, not bestsellers. When I began to publish Kertész, sales were meager, and, since he was virtually an unknown author here, I tried to promote him, make him visible in magazines and bookshops. Obviously, without visibility, you cannot sell anything. Then I published I, Another [not yet released in English], which the press reviewed favorably but which sold poorly until Kertész won the Nobel Prize. After that, sales shot up.

If you knew, then, that Kertész wasn’t going to be a commercial success, why did you publish him before he won the Nobel? What do you like most about his work?
It’s very clear to me that publishing means betting on an author you can explore deeply, it means translating him (or her) very well, and it means believing in his work. And it doesn’t really matter whether we sell 1,200 books or 15,000. As I see it, the publisher’s role is precisely to propose substantive names. I wanted to create a publishing house that is also a space to think. I don’t despise sales—the more a title is sold, so much the better for the author’s contribution to culture. But I truly don’t believe sales are the most important part. What do I like most about Kertész? Above all, his capacity to think, to reflect, also his vivifying capacity. He has gone through desperately hard experiences in his life, not only during his stay in a concentration camp, but also in Hungary under Stalinism. But confronted with such extreme situations, he set himself an almost impossible goal, and it saved his life: To objectify reality through art and words. To objectify his experiences in order to control them. In fact, I think Kertész is a person who has worked deeply on intensely hidden aspects of the human soul. This is evident in Kaddish for a Child not Born.

Kertész is also reputed for his sense of humor.
I prefer to call it an ironic distance. The Failure, for example, a novel in which he finally explains his story, is highly humorous. There, he presents himself as writing in a small and dark room [Kertész spent many years living with his family in an undersized apartment], and he finishes books, but there’s no way he can publish even one. He talks about overcoming the limitations of the human spirit from different perspectives.

The way Kertész looks at the Holocaust is not conventional, either. I love his sentence from I, Another: “We cannot live in freedom where we have lived in slavery.”
Yes. In Fateless, for instance, I like that he talks about the Holocaust with so little sentimentality. He approaches a painful experience as an automaton, as if he was observing it. That impressed me a lot. You won’t find in his books customary ideas about the Holocaust. He analyses and scans his experience. To me, this is fascinating. Holocaust writers such as Elie Wiesel or Anne Frank are much more conventional.

According to the American critic Harold Bloom, J.V. Foix (1894-1987) is one of the best poets, if not the best, of Catalan literature. You have studied Foix’s work extensively, and have published his complete poetry.
I did it because I believe J.V. Foix is an extraordinary poet. It relates to what we talked a minute ago: What should we find in literature? Language and ideas, obviously. But in poetry, we also have to look for a certain linguistic wealth. Foix gathers these three pillars of poetry—in particular, his wealth of language is terrific. That’s why even Catalan readers have to look up in a dictionary much of his vocabulary! His poetry is complex, but precise and full of ideas.

We could talk for hours, Mr. Vallcorba, and we would realize how much work is pending in the publishing arena. If writers are the engines of culture, publishers seem to be the fuel.
Yes! Many voices say we have reached the end of literature, of fiction. I don’t think so. For publishers around the globe, still much remains to be done.