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A Mixed Review From the Moscow Book Fair

September 20, 1987|Ashbel Green | Ashbel Green is an editor at Alfred A. Knopf.

MOSCOW — The Moscow International Book Fair this month reminded a visitor that the Soviet Union is a bundle of paradoxes. American publishers attending the fair expected that, in the era of glasnost , or openness, it would be strikingly different from other such occasions, and it was. But they also had more than one taste of the repression that still permeates the Soviet system.

The book fair attracts publishers from about 100 countries, who hope that Soviet libraries will purchase their titles in bulk, or that Soviet publishers will license their books for Russian-language editions. The potential market is vast--more than 2 billion copies of books are published each year, or 10 for every man, woman and child in the Soviet Union.

Some of these books would not have been published as recently as two years ago. Since the ascension of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, film-makers and playwrights, poets and novelists have experienced what they see as an era of relatively free expression. Thus books by Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Nabokov (but not "Lolita") will soon be published; an American film will be made, on locations, about the Chernobyl disaster; the Soviets have released a movie, "Repentence," that focuses on the brutalities of Stalin's times. There have been significant shake-ups in the leadership of the film and writers' unions.

Among the novels that will soon see Moscow's light of day are Anatoly Rybakov's "Children of the Arbat" and Anatoly Pristavkin's "A Golden Cloud Spent the Night." Both have been hailed in advance by Soviet critics and will appear in the United States within the next two years under the imprints of Little, Brown and Knopf. Vladimir Dudintsev, author of a famous World War II novel, "Not by Bread Alone," is publishing once more. Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago" will finally be brought out next year.

The publishing process in Moscow and other Soviet regions is long and arduous, often lasting two years or more. First a writer must publish stories or excerpts from a novel in a magazine, almost as a test run. Book publication may then be offered, but the system is rife with favoritism. Authors are paid royalties based on the length of the work--a typical contract provides for 300 rubles (approximately $480 at the official exchange rate) for each 24 pages on the first 50,000 copies printed and then descends to 250 rubles per section. A first printing might be 65,000 copies of a 55-kopeck (80) paperback. Books are rarely reprinted and in fact the printing plates are usually destroyed a few months after publication and recycled. "There is a paper shortage," explained one Soviet publishing official, "and if we printed more copies then another writer might not be published." But the books of popular--some say favored--writers are printed in the hundreds of thousands.

It's not easy to find worthwhile books in Soviet bookstores. Large quantities are reserved for libraries, overseas shipments and the bureaucracy. Rumors of the shipment of a new book by a popular writer like Chinghiz Aitmatov can result in a long line before a bookstore.

Selling foreign rights of Soviet authors is becoming more and more controversial. All official writers must be represented by the copyright agency, VAAP, which is a sizeable bureaucracy that takes between 65% and 95% of foreign royalties according to thriller writer Julian Semyonov during a recent publicity tour in London.

Yet such men--that there are almost no first-rank women writers of fiction is a story for another time--are in the process of rehabilitation. Their new works were written as long as 20 years ago. Little has been heard of Soviet writers in their 20s and 30s. Only Tatiana Tolstaya, 36, a descendant of the great Tolstoy family, has achieved any renown; her collection of short stories, "The Golden Porch," was just published this month and is presently being translated into English.

American publishers who met with Soviet writers and editors were struck by the pleas for help in supporting glasnost , perestroika (restructuring) and other features of the Gorbachev regime. "It's like spring," said one official. "But we are worried that it may not last. If glasnost fails, things will be worse than before."

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