AS editors and publishers packed into Frankfurt, Germany, last week for the latest edition of the world's biggest and busiest book fair, Israel enjoyed a little of the limelight with the award of the Frankfurt Peace Prize to author Amos Oz yesterday.
Israel's best-known writer both at home and abroad, Mr. Oz well illustrates the oddity of the Israeli publishing and literary scene. A serious author, whose works address deep moral and philosophical issues, he is also a bestseller (for example, "Black Box," 1988, and "In the Land of Israel," 1984).
"This is a phenomenon not common to any other place in the world," says Jon Feder, an editor at Keter, one of the country's largest publishing houses. "In Israel, good literature sells well."
And the sales figures can be extraordinary. A new book by a well-known serious writer such as Oz, David Grossman, author of "The Yellow Wind" (1988), or Meir Shalev, author of "The Carmel Shakedown & Other Tales from the Bible" (1990), will likely sell between 50,000 and 100,000 copies. Equivalent sales in the United States would be 3 million to 6 million copies, unheard of even for popular thrillers, let alone important literary works.
The market for books in Hebrew is limited by any standards in a country with a population of just over 5 million. But Israeli publishers put out more than 2,000 new titles every year, ranking Israel among the world leaders in terms of books published per head of population.
The Jews call themselves "the people of the book," and although that sobriquet refers to the Torah, the tradition has lived on even among secular Jews.
"The `people of the book' label is not an empty expression," insists Meir Shalev, whose first novel, "Blue Mountain," a saga of Israeli immigrants, sold 100,000 copies. "It is very meaningful and comes from a long tradition of reading and writing and dealing with words."
"The cultural tradition here has to do with deeper roots," agrees Mr. Feder. "You have to look at the relationship between the Jewish people and written words and texts to explain the way we look at books."
The market for Hebrew books is small, since nearly 1 million Israelis are Arabs, another half million are immigrants not yet comfortable enough with their new language to read a book in it, and well over 1 million are children.
"Maybe only a few people read," says Beth Elon, a partner in the Harris/Elon literary agency, "but those who do read are very demanding; it's a very high-class readership."
Which may explain why Tom Clancy thrillers that break records in the US or Britain sell only moderately well in Israel. And a book by Milan Kundera, such as "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (1984), on the other hand, is almost guaranteed a place on the bestseller list.
Unexpectedly, in a country built by people who came from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, original books in Hebrew easily outsell translations from foreign languages, even if they are outnumbered on the shelves in bookshops.
Some attribute that to the "insularity and chauvinism" of the average Israeli reader, as one official in the Book Publishers' Association put it. And Deborah Harris, of the Harris/Elon agency, suggests that "Israelis are turning inward, and whatever an Israeli writes is bought."
At the same time, Ms. Harris adds, Hebrew editors have grown more adventurous over the past decade, spawning a renaissance in Hebrew writing that has led to what she calls "several unbelievable years of publishing ecstasy."
Mr. Shalev, a leading figure in the renaissance, explains the recent "astonishing flowering of prose" in another way. After centuries of use only in prayers or for reading the Torah, Hebrew was reinvented as a modern language just 100 years ago, he points out. And "only in the last 10 or 15 years has Hebrew become a language that can be used in daily life and in literature, now that it has lost some of its connotations of holiness.
"Today we have a complete language," Shalev says, "and we have the sense of having a great language."
The interest that Israeli readers show in new Hebrew fiction is intensified, it seems, by their lack of numbers. "The market is so small, and the number of first-class writers so small that every newspaper reviews every book that comes out, all the TV programs interview the authors, and people buy their books," explains Asher Weill, a publisher of political memoirs.
As in Europe and the US, publishing is in a slump in Israel that puts it "on the edge of being totally uneconomic," in Feder's words. But if sales at home are down after the boom of the 1980s, the number of Hebrew books published abroad has more than doubled in the past four years, according to Rina Hocherman of the government-sponsored Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
"Publishers abroad want to know who the next David Grossman is going to be," Ms. Hocherman says.