Albanians Writing Wrongs

Publishers might be living a life of luxury in Albania but writers are finding it hard to make ends meet

Albanians Writing Wrongs

Publishers might be living a life of luxury in Albania but writers are finding it hard to make ends meet

Friday, 14 September, 2001

Well-known Albanian author Bedri Dede is nostalgic about the communist era. Then, he said, the proceeds of novel could buy you a suit - while now you'd be lucky if you made enough for a pair of shoes.

Maybe just a couple of writers, like Ismail Kadare and Dritero Agolli, still live well - the rest are increasingly impoverished. But are Albanian authors just being forced to come to terms with the harsh realities of writing without state backing?

To a degree, but in the ten years since the collapse of communism little protection has been afforded authors - and the profits of their craft seem to be going straight into publishers' pockets. "Quite a few of them (publishers) have built three and four storey villas," complained writer Myftar Gjana.

Publishing houses take advantage both of public craving for the cheap and sensational and the government's failure to reform copyright law to benefit writers now bereft of state support.

"The writer today cannot earn his daily crust," said Dede. Over the last decade, he says, his profession has suffered because of the absence of protective legislation. Successful books are printed and reprinted without the consent of the writer - who, consequently, receives no loyalties. Agreements are set up between publishers and booksellers to bypass such inconveniences.

On top of this, as has happened in so many post-Soviet societies, publishers have seized on translations of foreign pulp fiction - the 'prohibited apples' of pre-democracy - at the expense of serious local authors. "I love to read Kadare, Agolli and many others. But we can't often buy their books," said pensioner Islam Baholli, poring over the shelves at a bookstore on Tirana's main Skenderbeg Square.

The turbulent post-communist era has deepened the feeling of moral and spiritual crisis among Albanians. Violent, action flicks and celluloid pornography - the staple of cheap television programming - have provided them an escapist outlet. "The young are now internet addicted. Then, at home, they're glued to the television," said Baholli.

In centre of Tirana, there are dozens of kiosks, in which cheap titles - mainly written by younger names who grind out sub-quality fiction - popular potboilers, steamy feuilletons vie for space. "I prefer 'giallo' (yellow) books with easily written love scenes, full of stuff taken from the Western world," said social science student Altin Raxhiku.

Suspicious of homegrown writers, Raxhiku has touched on a pervading feeling of cynicism about the domestic talent pool. But the truth is that over the last ten years Albanian literature has come to somewhat of a standstill.

Democracy may have brought in freedom of speech and freedom of the printed word, but readers seems attracted to the same sensationalism they witness on the political scene and, faced with the reality of being "Europe's poorest country", they yearn for pro-Western fodder.

Vath Koreshi, a well-known screenplay writer, sees this as a new form of censorship: writers being forced into adapting to the marketplace. "Just because you're free does not necessarily mean you write well," said Koreshi. " It's wrong to criticise everything under communism. The bigger names from that period have survived the transition years. The new era hasn't brought us any new writers of similar stature."

He looks to works of the quality of Kadare's "General of the Dead Army" which is accepted as a sophisticated snipe at the communist regime. Essentially, he feels, like so many in the literary community, that the quality of writing and editing has gone out the window.

So the literary field had been turned upside down. And once lauded writers are now scrabbling to make a living. "How is it possible that those who produce literature for the nation cannot afford to spend a week on the beach," lamented Dede. "Instead, we have to live as paupers."

Agim Kanani is a freelance journalist based in Tirana

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