The Márai Programme for supporting Hungarian literature and Hungarian quality book publishing

1. Long-range support for national book publishing and literature, increasing the budget for extending the holdings of libraries in Hungary and in the surrounding countries - the Scandinavian model

Under pure market conditions, Hungarian book publishing and bookselling can only maintain their present level of quality, continue to bring out contemporary and classic works of belles-lettres that can only be produced and marketed in small print runs due to the smallness of the market and continue to produce results in the fields of scientific and specialist book publishing that are also acknowledged internationally, if the state provides a multiple of the budget for book acquisition by major libraries, as European countries comparable to Hungary in size already do. In the Scandinavian countries, it has been a successful practice for decades that the state buys a certain number of works that are essential with regard to national culture for the libraries, thus ensuring that valuable works are available to everyone. Guaranteed purchases of quality works do not mean support of any single publisher and do not interfere with natural market selection, but ensure that books that are of particular importance with regard to preserving the Hungarian language and to communicating new values can be published without further subsidisation and at the same time ensure that Hungarian authors receive appropriate remuneration, i.e. a decent fee, for their work. Guaranteed state book purchases focussing on quality works, above all on belles-lettres and reference books also used in education would reach the desired scale and level if implemented as a three-year programme. In its first phase, the programme to be launched in 2007 would consist of 1,000 carefully selected titles, of which 500 copies each would be provided to the major collection centres in Hungary and in the surrounding countries: to state and municipal libraries, university and college libraries, and the libraries of church and secular institutions in the surrounding countries. In the following year, the number of titles would be increased to 1,500 and reach its optimum of 500 copies each of 2,000 titles to be provided to major libraries in 2009. According to data from 2005, the selection as described above among the nearly 13,000 different kinds of book titles published in Hungary would ensure equal opportunities of access to as well as publication and preservation of major values in the long run. The volumes would be purchased from publishers at a discounted price. The works would be selected by a commission consisting of the representatives of the supporting state (ministry) and of the delegates of writers, librarians, the book trade as well as the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Federation of Technical and Scientific Societies (MTESZ), naturally also taking into consideration the profiles and the tasks of the targeted libraries. The programme supporting quality literature and book publishing, authors and publishers through purchasing for libraries that would develop to the full within three years would require resources of about 1 billion forints in the first year and about 2 billion forints in the third year. (For comparison: With the programme, support for the book publishing trade that produced 40.9 million copies of 12,898 titles last year would still amount to only one third of subsidies for a single national institution such as the Hungarian State Opera.)

2. Support for authors of contemporary Hungarian literature - scholarship programme

Even in language areas of several times the size of Hungary, there are few authors who can make their living exclusively from the fees they receive for their works. The same applies to Hungary. With the exception of a few who are exceptionally successful here and abroad, writers, poets, scientists and intellectuals presenting their scholarly results are forced to pursue a variety of additional activities to support themselves and ensure that they have time for their quality creative work. The countries that are justly proud of their culture operate very effective scholarship programmes both at state and municipal level. Germany even strives to provide a decent subsistence to the best foreign authors. (German scholarship programmes have made a lasting contribution to the success of contemporary Hungarian literature in Europe!) On the one hand, NGOs, business and financial associations should be incited to support literature and culture by tax benefits, on the other hand, the extremely small-scale and rhapsodic scholarship-granting practice of the National Cultural Foundation and its two commissions, the Belles-lettres and the Popular Science and Environment Culture Commission, should be radically changed. The two Commissions that used to grant scholarships to literary and scientific authors spent a very small portion of the National Cultural Foundation's budget on this during the past three years; most of the resources for the competitions they announced were provided by the Society for the Reprographic Rights of Professional Non-Fiction, Fiction Authors and Publishers. It depends on the decision of the minister in charge of the Foundation, whether the Foundation provides a much larger-scale scholarship budget for the said two groups of authors. If 200 million forints each were available to contemporary literary and scientific authors each year, in a few years, the living conditions of Hungarian intellectuals would improve significantly, which is the prerequisite of concentrated creative work.

3. The Year of Literature - 2008

After nearly 100 years, contemporary Hungarian literature, above all the Hungarian novel has again reached a peak. It can be established without exaggeration that during the past 10 years, Hungarian novelists have been successful both abroad and with the Hungarian readers. They created works the poetic innovations of which enriched European literature just as the new Latin American novel of the 1960s and 1970s had a major impact on prose worldwide. There were no major literary awards lately that were not granted to Hungarian writers. And every month we see that apart from already established writers authors of the new generation are discovered. Despite all this, the number of learned readers continuously decreases and students are taught literary history at school, but hardly know the contemporary Hungarian writers of international reputation and their works. Just as the Great Book programme implemented with great enthusiasm and effort only resulted in "rediscovering" the classics. There is an urgent need to launch an effective campaign making use of all resources of the cultural institutions to make known and popularise the values and novelties of contemporary Hungarian literature. Similar campaigns in the past have shown that Hungarian libraries and librarians are ready to take a very active part in achieving this purpose. Just as the most-visited Hungarian cultural institutions, the network of bookshops that has developed very dynamically over the past decade (being visited by 1.7 million people every year) is also suitable as a site for readings of contemporary literature and literature-promoting events. Most Hungarian writers would welcome the opportunity to win potential young readers by holding literature classes and readings for them. A well-organised and well-funded campaign could result in quality TV and radio plays of the best works of prose, the success of which seems certain in view of the popularity of audio books. As part of the Year of Literature, country-wide quizzes could be organised for the general public - with today's public media being able to provide the required quality. As the target audience for making known and popularising new literature and its authors are young people, the relevant information could be provided primarily via the Internet. As part of the overall international Internet strategy for contemporary Hungarian literature, a programme should be announced to enable writers to have their own websites, by which readers would not only get to know their oeuvres, but also have the opportunity to enter into an interactive dialogue with them. IT development based on the database of Hungarian writers and the creation of an online electronic library and bookshop network supporting and completing traditional book publishing could also be implemented on the Internet within two years.

4. The expansion of Hungarian literature and quality book publishing abroad

Nearly all widely-spoken languages maintain a network of institutions for supporting the publication of their major cultural values and books in foreign languages - despite a much larger number of recipients than in Hungary. This is the purpose of the Goethe Institutes, the Cervantes Institutes and the French Institutes operating in many countries. They grant significant amounts of subsidies to foreign publishers for translations. Hungary, too, has an institution of this kind, the translation grant programme of the Hungarian Book Foundation, but its budget is only slightly more than 20 million forints per year. Since the great success of Imre Kertész and Sándor Márai, Péter Esterházy and Magda Szabó in Europe, there is a great demand for publishing abroad contemporary and classic Hungarian literature as a part of world literature that is worth discovering. It is our vital interest to satisfy this international interest we have been waiting for so long with the instruments of cultural policy. To enable us to take this opportunity, the translation grant budget of the Hungarian Book Foundation should be increased tenfold. Hungarian literature may never have had as good a chance as today to present its values to the world. In the past decade, a number of cultural event series presenting Hungarian culture as a whole have taken place or were started in numerous European countries. Just like Hungarian film in the 1960s and 1970s and later on Hungarian music, today it is mainly Hungarian literature that is internationally recognised and known. It would be appropriate to put a special emphasis on the creators and publisher of Hungarian literature and science within the Hungarian cultural event series. A suitable instrument for achieving this would be to provide state support for the participation of the largest area of intellectual activities, book publishing, with its products and authors at the book fairs setting the world's cultural trends that receive a huge media coverage, above all in the regions and language areas that are most important to us, i.e. Germany, France, Italy, Russia and the Spanish language area. The Hungarian Publishers' and Booksellers' Association recently signed an agreement with the organisers of the book fairs in the Visegrád Four on participating by using common stands and sharing costs at the most important book industry events of the world and to publish a catalogue presenting the works of the top and the young authors of our literatures. Within this cooperation, one writer from each country is presented in a joint programme at each book fair.

5. Developing reading culture

The four elements of the Márai Programme described so far are connected by the goal of developing reading culture. A number of international studies have shown that Hungary is one of the countries where the reading and creative problem-solving skills of the coming generation have dramatically worsened. The problem goes far beyond the justified concerns of authors and publishers that they might not have learned readers in the future - this trend is jeopardising the country's competitiveness. The deterioration of reading skills questions the effectiveness of public education; not mastering one's mother tongue makes it impossible to learn foreign languages and to find one's way through the masses of information of our modern age. The now common ministry of public education and culture should take a leading role in stopping or rather reversing the said trend, as the popularisation of reading and the promotion of enjoying it cannot be restricted to popularising literature and books. Those primarily in charge are public and family education. In Germany, the dramatic results of the 2000 Pisa tests made experts realise the complexity of the problem, and as a consequence they launched a large-scale country-wide programme enjoying great public and political support and established its coordinating organisation Stiftung Lesen (Reading Foundation), the importance and status of which is also emphasised by the fact that it is operated under the patronage of the President of Germany.

We recommend that by making use of the experience of the successful German model the Ministry of Public Education and Culture initiate the establishment of the Hungarian Public Foundation for Reading within the framework of the Márai Programme with the objectives and tasks outlined below:

  • development of training for teaching reading in elementary and secondary schools;
  • enhancement of skills in creative reading, writing and self-expression;
  • development of a new methodology for teaching reading;
  • furthering sociological research on reading and using the results for strategic purposes;
  • supporting instruction in the mother tongue in Hungary and in the surrounding countries;
  • make known and popularise contemporary literature and quality Hungarian culture etc.