Argentina: A Nation of Offbeat Writers, Exquisite Publishers

In English Language by Emily Williams

• This year’s Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair as seen through the eyes of one of its top literary editors

• Photo: Argentina Guest of Honour presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2010

By Alejandra Rodríguez Ballester (translated from the Spanish by Emily Williams)

“If there is one writer that readers outside of Argentina shouldn’t miss, it’s Juan José Saer. And they’re missing him because they went for Roberto Bolaño instead. I think Saer could open their minds: after Borges, he revolutionized the language.”

The speaker is Alberto Díaz, who in his 40 years as an editor has published both Borges and Saer, the only two writers who are revered beyond debate in Argentina today. He began his career at the end of the 1960s, during the Latin American literary boom. In the mid-1970s at Siglo XXI, a house that specialized in nonfiction, he published two of the three classic novels about dictators: Yo el supremo (I, the Supreme) by Augusto Roa Bastos and El recurso del método (Reasons of State) by Alejo Carpentier. The third book, El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch) by Gabriel García Márquez, was published by Sudamericana. Like many Argentine intellectuals, Díaz went into exile in 1976 following the military coup, first to Colombia and later to Mexico. He returned to Argentina with the return of democracy in 1983.

Today he runs the Emecé, Seix Barral, and Destino imprints in Argentina for Planeta, the biggest Spanish-language publishing group. Named “Editor of the Year” in 2009, Díaz is recognized by his peers as that rare kind of book professional: erudite, devoted to the authors he publishes, and an unrivaled cognoscente of the market and literary scene in Argentina and the region.

“The ‘60s boom was a publishing phenomenon and Argentina, which had been the center of Spanish-language publishing from 1940 to 1960, still played a dominant part, though we had already started to be displaced. At that time, Spain started to take on a central role and now it has absolute hegemony.” The Spanish market is bigger, with a consumption of ten books per person per year, while in Argentina, the second largest Spanish-language market, that number is three books per year.

Today, Argentina’s industry is concentrated in just six major publishing groups, all of them foreign: Planeta, Santillana, Random House, Ediciones B, Norma and Larousse,” says Díaz. He is speaking in the confines of his office at Planeta, where he sits under the watchful eyes of Ricardo Piglia, Manuel Puig, Saer and Borges, photos of whom adorn the walls.

This panorama, however, leaves out the liveliest element in Argentina’s publishing scene today. “Starting in 2001, after the economic crisis that put an end to the local currency’s parity with the dollar, there was an explosion in publishing and more than 40 new publishing houses sprang up,” explains Díaz. “They are intellectual undertakings, more cultural than commercial, led by editors who are energetic and modern. They attend the book fairs, go to Frankfurt. They’ve reestablished the ecological balance of the book.”

Díaz’s own son Carlos, an editor at Siglo XXI, is part of that generation of restless and efficient young editors. Publishers like Libros del Zorzal; Adrian Hidalgo, with its exquisite list; La Bestia Equilátera, headed by the formidable Luis Chitarroni, who came out of Sudamericana and Random House; and Eterna Cadencia, under Leonora Djament, formerly an editor at Norma — all exemplify a strong literary vocation. Going back to an older vintage, publishers like De la Flor sustain the independent tradition.

When describing what is pushing the Argentinian book market, which is now responsible for publishing some 20,300 new titles, totaling 75 million copies in 2009, Díaz points to the Act to Promote Books and Reading — a law that established subsidies to promote publishing and reading. This, plus exemption of books from taxes, reduced shipping rates for books, and the wide network of more than 600 booksellers,
has helped bolster the market.

Asked if there are any publishing phenomena of note? He replies: “Women as readers of fiction, and the women writers who are taking over as top sellers from male writers and US bestsellers — María Esther de Miguel, for instance, with her historical novels, or Claudia Piñeiro in the crime genre.”

The writer who sells the most books abroad? “Guillermo Martínez. His novel Crímenes de Oxford (The Oxford Murders), an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, spent months on the bestseller lists.”

How about the current state of literature in Argentina? “The legacy of Borges has spoiled this country. Argentinian writers are very pretentious, they have this huge superego, their point of reference are the elites that didn’t need to write to earn a living such as Borges, Bioy, Silvina Ocampo. I know the markets and the writers in Spain, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, and Colombia. The most complex, the ones who demand the most of themselves, are the Argentinians. They’re the most sophisticated, offbeat, least commercial writers in the Spanish language.”

The telephone rings. As if summoned by our words, the heiress is on the line. It is María Kodama, Borges’s widow. He goes back to work.

(This story originally appeared in the Publishing Perspectives show daily at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 6 October 2010. Download the complete, 32-page show daily here or click on the image to view the online version.)

About the Author

Emily Williams

Emily Williams as Manager of International Digital Content at Barnes & Before that, she worked as digital content producer for Publishers Marketplace, contributor to Digital Book World and Publishing Perspectives, and also held a senior scout position with Maria B. Campbell & Associates.