Dostoyevsky vs. Pulp Fiction in Russia

After a brief flirtation with foreign thrillers and romances, Russians cast their eyes once again toward more familiar heroes

In the land of Dostoyevsky, Harold Robbins is king.

Since the walls of Communist censorship crumbled in Russia, the country has been flooded by foreign pulp fiction. And Russian readers - whom cultural commissars once bragged about as the world's most voracious fans of serious literature - have been gorging themselves on bodice-rippers and action thrillers.

But now, publishers here say, they are beginning to detect tentative signs that the reading public is tiring of this diet, and showing a renewed interest in books of a more enduring nature.

Not that anybody is expecting a return to Soviet days, when a new translation of a William Faulkner novel would routinely be given a six-figure first edition print run, and people would still stand in lines outside bookstores to get a copy.

In those days books were cheap, plentiful (so long as they had been approved by the censors), and very widely read. "Literature in Russia was always a religion," says Alexei Kostanyan, senior editor at the Vagrius publishing house here. "We have a special respect for books and for the people who create them," and Russians have always taken pride in their rich literary past.

Today, as they order print runs 10 times smaller than they used to, some publishers wonder whether the old image of the nonstop Russian reader was not a bit of a myth. In retrospect, it seems, a lot of people bought books simply to put them on their walls as cultural status symbols that didn't cost much and never read them.

But there is no doubt the economic crisis that has smothered Russia for the past five years is mainly to blame for the disappearance of serious books, whether contemporary or classic, Russian or foreign, from most publishers' lists.

Market reforms - and market prices - "killed half of the reading public, if not two-thirds," says Igor Zakharov, a commentator on the publishing scene here. "All of a sudden they became poor, and they had to think how to make money, not how to spend it."

At the same time, reforms opened up new possibilities: Where once any educated Russian would define his social status and establish his credentials with books, today, a successful person has all sorts of criteria to choose from, such as his holiday destination or the sort of car he drives.

Life has been hard for most people, though, and many have had to work two jobs, or even three, to make ends meet.

"People have no free time, and no free brain, so serious prose and poetry are not popular now," Mr. Kostanyan explains.

Instead, people buy escapist books to take their minds off the hardships of their daily lives. So Raduga, once one of the most prestigious publishers in Moscow, which published all the foreign classics, now stays afloat by publishing Russian translations of Harlequin romance novels. And any publisher that still wants to publish serious books can afford to lose money doing so only by making money on blatantly commercial titles.

Interestingly, readers have already tired of the imported pulp they devoured so avidly in the first years of literary freedom. Today, publishers say, they are looking for more familiar backgrounds and heroes, and the hottest selling new genre is the locally written "Russky Triller."

In a society accustomed to high inflation this sort of book is the most popular with publishers and booksellers because it sells fast and offers a quick return on investment.

"I know I can sell 75,000 copies of the latest Joanne Lindsay novel, and sell them fast," says Nikolai Naumenko, chief editor of AST publishers, one of the largest in Russia, as he sat at his stand at the second Russian Book Fair earlier this month. "I'll be lucky to sell 10,000 copies of a book by Andrei Bitov (a contemporary novelist on AST's list) and it will take me a long time. We do it for pleasure, for ourselves."

A few other houses have continued to publish serious new books; Vagrius, for example, lives by its "Russian Rambo" series, but also publishes 10 to 15 "quality fiction" titles each year out of what vice president Gleb Uspensky calls "a sense of cultural responsibility."

As Russia's economic decline flattens out, however, some observers expect "quality fiction," as publishers call it, to pick up.

"It may be that the readership is still out there," says Mr. Uspensky. "People are still interested, but they can't afford to buy more yet."

"A market for serious literature is only just forming now," Mr. Naumenko adds. "The main consumers, as in the West, are university people, intellectuals, and so on, and when these people start getting decent salaries, serious literature will start to sell in decent quantities."

And if demand picks up, so will supply. At the moment, most books in Russia are sold from tables on the sidewalk.

But as the country continues to make the transition to a more normal economy, the more successful sidewalk sellers will start opening proper bookstores, and instead of the 50 or so best-selling titles that they now offer, they will need to have several hundred titles on their shelves. That, some publishers hope, will encourage them to order a broader range of books.

And hopes are running high. Space at this month's book fair was fully booked two months in advance, and all the big publishers have launched ambitious fall lists. "The industry thinks that serious literature is going to take off," Uspensky says. "We are all full of the energy of expectation."

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