Denisa’s Shelf (Raftul Denisei): A Great Selection of World Fiction
by Claudia Moscovici
The number of books published each year worldwide is astronomical. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) cites that roughly 2,200,000 books are published annually. Out of curiosity, I looked up the two countries I write about most which, not accidentally, are also those where I’ve lived: the U.S. and Romania. In 2010, 328,259 were published in the U.S. and in 2008 14, 984 books were published in Romania. Given this large number of books published in the U.S. alone, it’s difficult to believe how difficult and competitive the process of publishing can be (as I explain in an earlier article on the subject):
And yet publishing is only the beginning of the effort of rising to the surface in culture in an ocean of books. In fact, the UNESCO study probably doesn’t even count the number of self-published books via Amazon Kindle, Lulu and many other self-publishing options. Moreover, only a small fraction of these books have to do with what we’d loosely call “culture“: literature, art, philosophy, religion, film, etc. It is difficult to assess exactly how many, since the number is determined not only by their subject but also by the quality of their research and writing, which in turn are measured by highly debated standards. In fact, the difference between “high” culture and “pop” culture itself has been undermined long ago, by theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-François Lyotard. We may never be able to assess the practical effect of these anti-hierarchy cultural theories. However, what has become crystal clear during the past 20 years is that the age of mass media itself mixes everything in cyberspace–the latest celebrity gossip, political events, the latest trend in dance with poetry and literature of all kinds, to list just a few things–in a hodgepodge and constant overflow of information. For those of us (artists, writers, critics, philosophers, film directors, etc) invested in making a difference in the loosely defined field of “culture,” it is quite difficult to swim–or even stay afloat–in this vast and rapidly changing current of information.
On the one hand, the mass media makes sharing our cultural products easier in some ways, by facilitating access to an audience. For instance, anyone can self-publish and promote a novel nowadays, through blogs, twitter, youtube and other popular venues on the internet. But this democratization of culture also makes it tougher to stand out from the (enormous and growing) crowd. Each cultural product–be it a novel, a collection of poems, a song, a film or a painting–competes with millions of others. It’s hard to find or discern anymore what we value and what we don’t, or what we find meaningful and what we find meaningless, in this tidal wave of information that assails us from all directions on a daily basis. To draw another analogy, it’s as if we heard talented classical musicians playing their instruments at the same time as others howl, scream, talk and yell in various languages. Or, if you prefer to avoid making any value judgments, as if we heard them playing at the same time as other talented musicians practice other songs. Either way you look at it, what reaches our ears will sound like a maddening cacophony, to the point that we can no longer discern the music we prefer from the surrounding noise we’d like to ignore. And yet, it is still worth trying to hear the music we enjoy, as I argue in my previous article on the importance of culture for our contemporary cultures:
In previous articles, I’ve discussed aspects of Romanian culture that I found the most worthwhile and talented, including the world-class fiction of Razvan Petrescu and Dumitru Radu Popa, as well as the George Enescu Festival in classical music. Today I’d like to present another influential and talented Romanian author and editor, Denisa Comanescu, whose selection of world fiction, called Denisa’s Shelf (Raftul Denisei), features some of the best literature from around the world in Romanian translation.
A talented poet herself, who published verses in the prestigious Romania Literara (1975) and other literary journals from a very young age, Denisa Comanescu obtained a poetry prize from Revista Luceafarul in 1978 (named after a famous poem by the greatest Romanian poet, Mihai Eminescu). She also won the Young Author’s Prize (Premiul de debut) from the Union of Writers in 1979 for the volume The Chase from Paradise (Izgonirea din Paradis, Editura Cartea Romaneasca, 1979). In 1999, she was awarded the Prize of the Book Salon as well as of the Poetry Festival of Oradea. In her audiobook, The Obsession of Biography (Obsesia biografiei, Humanitas Multimedia), which is a collection of 72 poems recited by the author herself, Denisa states:
“For me, poetry is a kind of fight against forgetfulness, an attempt to decipher the puzzle of existence, when my life is constantly invaded by the fiction of others. It’s very difficult to arrive at the calm during which I can question myself; to work profoundly on loss (to paraphrase a verse by Valery). One needs time to oneself during which one can create connections with the significance of daily life. Only rarely do I have that time to myself.” Denisa Comanescu
„Pentru mine, poezia e un fel de lupta impotriva uitarii, o incercare de a descifra puzzle-ul existentei, cand existenta mea e invadata mai tot timpul de fictiunea altora. Este foarte greu sa ajung la calmul prin care sa ma interoghez pe mine insami, sa lucrez in adanc asupra pierderii (ca sa parafrazez un vers din Valery). Ai nevoie de un timp al tau in care sa poti taia conexiunile cu ceea ce inseamna cotidianul. Mi se intampla rar sa acced la acest timp al meu. ” Denisa Comanescu
As much as she struggles to find the time–and peace and quiet–for her own creative work, Denisa Comanescu also has to find it for the work of others in her collection of world fiction, called Denisa’s Shelf (Raftul Denisei). This is not an easy process. In this collection, she must choose among the tens of millions of books published in the world, selecting those that have cultural value and endurance and that will, at the same time, please the public and generate book sales. The two goals don’t always coincide, since as everyone knows, the books that sell most aren’t necessarily masterpieces of world literature.
The page Denisa’s Shelf describes the balancing act required in presenting some of the the best works in world fiction in an accessible and appealing manner for the general public:
“Inaugurated in the spring of 2006, Denisa’s Shelf–the first personalized collection in Romania–demonstrates that accessibility and literary value can be and actually are compatible. On Denisa’s Shelf you can find works by consecrated authors, winners or nominees for prestigious literary awards (Nobel, Booker, Pulitzer, Goncourt, Orange, Cervantes, etc.) alongside exceptional beginners. There’s a great emphasis placed upon the fiction of young authors who have already made a name for themselves in international fiction: in other words, tomorrow’s classics. In this manner, on Denisa’s Shelf Yasunari Kawabata meets Jonathan Sfran Foer, John Updike meets Jeanette Winterson, Anais Nin encounters Mo Yan, Naghib Mahfuz meets with Tash Aw, Gregor von Rezzori with James Frey, in a double public and critical success.”
“Inaugurată în primăvara anului 2006, Raftul Denisei – prima colecţie personalizată din România – demonstrează că accesibilitatea şi valoarea literară pot fi şi chiar sunt compatibile. Pe Raftul Denisei găsiţi operele unor scriitori consacraţi, laureaţi sau nominalizaţi ai unor prestigioase premii literare internaţionale (Nobel, Booker, Pulitzer, Goncourt, Orange, Cervantes etc.), alături de cele ale unor debutanţi de excepţie. O pondere importantă in selecţia titlurilor o ocupă ficţiunile scriitorilor tineri impuşi deja pe pieţele de carte din lume – de fapt, clasicii de mâine. Astfel, pe „Raftul Denisei“, Yasunari Kawabata se întâlneşte cu Jonathan Safran Foer, John Updike cu Jeanette Winterson, Anais Nin cu Mo Yan, Naghib Mahfuz cu Tash Aw, Gregor von Rezzori cu James Frey, într-un dublu standard al succesului de public şi de critică.”
Combining canonized works with rising stars in world literature, to return to my earlier analogy, Denisa’s Shelf (see link below), offers readers a quiet and peaceful cultural space where they can enjoy a great selection of literary classics.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon