July 10, 2009 / 11:24 AM / 10 years ago

Spain book fair battles econ crisis and snobbery

GIJON, Spain (Reuters Life!) - One of Europe’s biggest book fairs this week will have to contend with the economic crisis in Spain as well as its traditional battle to knock down the walls between high- and low-brow literature.

Every summer since 1988 the “Semana Negra” (Noir Week) in Gijon has staged a balancing act between a world-class book fair and a street party.

“For 22 years we’ve been resisting the temptations of show-business, but without being scared of embracing it,” said Mexican author and chief organizer Paco Ignacio Taibo II.

“We’ve been showing it’s no sin to have a book in one hand and cakes in the other,” added Taibo, who has made the New York Times books of the year list with his detective novels, but has also won awards in Mexico as a historian.

Spain is in the midst of its worst economic crisis in decades and has the highest level of unemployment in Europe, but Taibo said spaces set aside for 60 book stalls and 120 for handicrafts on the festival site were all sold out weeks ago.

This year organizers hope to further offset the impact of the crisis by moving the venue to a working-class district in the northern coastal town from a downtown resort area.

“The figures we have show that the book business hasn’t fallen off but grown in recent months, and the books on offer at the Semana Negra are cheap, so we are hopeful,” he said.

In keeping with its innovative side, this year’s edition of the fair got under way on board a chartered train from Madrid to Gijon, with a concert and the launching of a comic book about the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people.

“I think we had to do it on a train, to exorcise the demons,” Taibo said.

In Gijon itself, from July 10-19, 120 authors from 15 countries will award prizes to the best crime novels written in Spanish and hold workshops on photojournalism.

Crime writers defend themselves from charges they write inferior “genre” fiction by pointing out they are best-equipped to address thorny political and social issues.

This year the fair will hold talks on topics ranging from organized crime in contemporary Naples to the Crusades from a Muslim viewpoint.

“We will talk about state crimes and white collar crimes, dictatorships and torture,” Taibo said. “I’ve always wanted to be in a festival that encompasses legendary miners leaders, the conquest of the Amazon, Darwin and Modigliani.”

Top draws this year include Alberto Vazquez-Figeroa, one of the best-selling novelists in Spanish, U.S. historical novelist Jonathan Rabb and Pakistani-born Tariq Ali, a political activist, film-maker, essayist and novelist.

Veteran Spanish singers Joan Manuel Serrat, Ana Belen and Victor Hugo will accompany book readings in marquees on the festival site while a cinema club and funfair will run all week to add to the entertainment.

The program for the 10 day fest is so detailed that organizers print a free daily newspaper for festival-goers called “A Quemarropa” (At Point-Blank Range) and this year a digital diary will be published on social networking site Facebook.

For more information on the Semana Negra, please click on www.semananegra.org and www.facebook.com/silviapereztrejo.

Reporting by Martin Roberts, editing by Paul Casciato

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