How the Velvet Revolution overturned the literary landscape

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

Writers were at the forefront of the Velvet Revolution. But when the dust settled on the political changes they found a fast changing publishing revolution underway that left some of them sidelined. We look at the changes in the publishing and literary world over the last two decades.

The Velvet Revolution was in many respects about authors and words. Of course there was the playwright dissident himself, Václav Havel, who came out of the shadows where he was put by the censors and persecution to lead the revolution that overthrew Communism.

Havel and other dissident writers were outside the state-controlled publishing system and had to rely on publication of their works abroad by publishing houses mostly run by exiled Czechs or at home as illegal samizdat versions.

Jan Kanzelsberger Jr.,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
So it was no surprise that the impact of the revolution in the publishing and the literary world was fast and far reaching. The carefully planned state system was ill equipped to meet the demand for new books on everything from guide books, to school textbooks and literary works not tainted by the recent past.

One of the first to see the new opportunities was Jan Kanzelsberger, a bookshop manager under the state system. He jumped at the chance to realise his dreams of launching his own chain of book shops that would adopt the best from the West. The family business has evolved into the biggest Czech chain of book shops with around 40 outlets across the country.

His son, Jan, now one of the top managers of the family firm, remembers the early days.

“In 1990 there was practically an overnight change to the whole system. Before 1990, there was a planned economy. So there was a strictly limited number of state-owned enterprises. There was a strictly limited number of titles planned for months in advance. And practically overnight there was a possibility to set up in business as a publishing house and publish any book you wanted and sell it any how you wanted. It means that probably within one year that the around 34 publishing houses in Czechoslovakia changed into up to 3,000 publishers”.

One of the first tasks of the new publishers was to meet the demand for those books that had been banned under Communism. As Jan Kanzelsberger recalls, it was difficult to keep pace with the freedom frenzy.

“There were huge amounts of copies sold. There were thousands and thousands sold because there was a big hunger for such literature because it was banned before 1990. Readers were hungry to read it and get the books. So it was a big change in a very short period to switch to the new economics. Some of the publishers, the former state companies were practically not able to survive in this new time and new conditions. They were too fixed on the planned economy and could not survive in the new style of free economics.”

The demand for the forbidden fruit of the former regime’s blacklisted authors continued for some time after the revolution with what now appear to be astronomic sales figures being achieved. Jan Kanzelsberger recalls one trip to meet market demand.

“I remember the first time my father — it was at the beginning of 1991 - took the van to travel to Germany and the exile publishers’ houses. He filled the van with books and stopped the van on the corner of Wenceslas Square and we were selling directly from the van. The van was sold out within a few hours. People were queueing and they were not even waiting to get the books into the bookshop. They were crazy to get their hands on these books.

Within this year Czech publishers started to make reprints of these exile publications. The exile publishers had quite small print runs of such books. They were not prepared for a big audience and big number of customers. So many publishers started to publish them, for example, Černí Baroni by Miloslav Švanderlík was one of the banned books. It was a humorous book. As I remember, the first Czech free edition of this time was 200,000 copies sold in the first month or first few weeks. It is the same amount of copies as Harry Potter in the Czech language. So in that time it was a kind of Harry Potter.”

Other changes were taking place as well. As well as the publishing business, the bookshops themselves began to be transformed. The Communist era sales counter operations where an assistant would suggest what you select from the inaccessible stockroom gave way to literary supermarkets where you filled your basket with the written word.

Translated works from the West also began to become big sellers and demanded a large part of the shelf length in the new look book shops. Under communism, foreign authors had been translated, even unlikely ones such as British author Evelyn Waugh, but not those who could represent an ideological challenge.

“In a regular bookshop we have one or two maximum bookshelves for Czech authors now and about four, five or six shelves for foreign authors translated into Czech. In the number of titles you can see this proportion but if you look at the top sellers you can see that maybe about half are Czech authors or books by Czech authors.

We have to say there are not so many Czech authors on the market because it is a small market with a limited number of inhabitants in the Czech Republic. And we have to translate books and absorb books from abroad. But Czech authors are still favourites and if he is well accepted and has a long tradition their own readers will always buy these books.”

If anything, Jan Kanzelsberger detects something of a dilution of the foreign invasion over recent years. He says that in the mid-1990’s almost any fairly well known Western author was almost guaranteed to notch up respectable sales on the Czech market. Now only the big names such as Dan Brown will get that star reception.

The biggest Czech grouping of writers, Obec Spisovatelů, or the Community of Writers, numbers around 650 members. Some of them are big names such as Ivan Klíma, but many less known and writing is something in addition to the day job.

From his perspective upstream in the literary production line, chairman Vladimír Křivánek does not doubt that the Velvet Revolution was the right step but still feels that the initial hopes for something different have been short changed.

“If I had to evaluate all this then I would have to say that the majority of us are convinced that the changes had to happen. Few of us would want to go back to the situation under the previous regime. The second thing is that we dreamed and imagined that this new world and state would be a bit different and from time to time we are affected by a certain disappointment and disillusion. But I think this is a normal path.”

Communist support for the literary world was generous, as long of course as you were willing to make compromises and toe the line. Mr Křivánek says he did not seek to get his poems published in the 1970’s because it was meaningless in the atmosphere of disillusion following the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. But he did get a collection of his work published at the end of the 1980’s when there was a thaw in the literary world and powerful party-backed writers’ guild.

While he does not regret the liquidation of the guild, Mr. Křivánek does feel that the removal of state support for writers went too far after the revolution.

“After 1989, perhaps we pointlessly gave up some of our economic benefits. Certainly, the guild had to be dissolved because it was immoral. But I think they could have transferred a bit of their property. Instead, here we are set up as a civic association so that we could not be tarnished. So now we are clean, but poor [laughs]”

Mr. Křivánek describes the contemporary set up in the Czech Republic as pretty uncultured. He points out that there is not even a law in place calling for the state to support culture.

Apart from that, he says the broader Czech literary scene is handicapped by serving a small local language market in which writers struggle to get noticed on a broader stage. He maintains there are a handful of contemporary Czech poets who would be global stars if they had had been born in an English speaking country.

As well as this, he says the massive worldwide publishing industry seeks to push foreign best sellers on the back of formidable marketing muscle.

“As for demanding, artistic literary work as a whole, there is not much of that left. It is often translations — we read translations and translate a lot. I have the impression sometimes that we often translate overrated best sellers. I sometimes have the feeling we feed ourselves with the waste of US culture. Unfortunately that is how it is.

Maybe it is not a popular thing to say but whatever is regarded as an interesting title in the US is translated here within a year and backed up with massive marketing. That is the best sellers. The overall choice is enormous but it is also a bit false. Ninety percent of the offer is low level literary rubbish, factual works or second rate historical novels and such like.”

With around 500 new titles appearing in Czech bookshops every day, the market has certainly turned a page in terms of quantity. But there are certainly those who would argue whether there has been a corresponding increase in quality.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 13, 2009.