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Publishers launch Herculean “Myths” book series

October 21, 2005

By Jeffrey Goldfarb

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Publishers from around the world
unveiled the first titles from an open-ended series of books
that retell ancient myths, in one of the most far-reaching and
ambitious projects attempted by the industry.

The first five books of “The Myths,” including ones from
bestselling authors Margaret Atwood and Karen Armstrong, are
being issued simultaneously in 33 countries and 28 languages in
what publishers said was an unprecedented coordinated release.

“It’s been a Herculean project to pull together,” said
Canongate Books publisher Jamie Byng, who conceived the idea
six years ago. The project will officially launch at the
Frankfurt Book Fair with a reading on Friday night.

At least a dozen authors, including Booker prize winner
A.S. Byatt, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and Chinese writer
Su Tong already have confirmed they will write future titles.

Armstrong, who left a British convent to write such books
as “Buddha” and “Through the Narrow Gate,” is the author of the
first in the series, entitled “A Short History of Myth.”

Atwood’s volume re-examines the myth of Penelope and
Odysseus, while one by Whitbread prize winner Jeanette
Winterson tackles Atlas and Hercules.

Byng dismissed the suggestion that interpreting and
translating local myths, particularly religious ones, into
other languages could invite unwanted controversy, as befell
Salman Rushdie when he wrote “The Satanic Verses.”

“Just because something is dangerous doesn’t mean we
shouldn’t do it,” he said. “That’s part of the point.”

Atwood, who has written 35 works of fiction, poetry and
essays, said she almost pulled out of the project after she
failed in several attempts to write about different myths.

Ultimately, she said she realized the 12 hanged maids in
Homer’s epic had been haunting her, and only then did her
rendition come together.

“The story as told in The Odyssey doesn’t hold water,” she
said. “There are too many inconsistencies.”

“INTUITIVE PUBLISHING”

The books are being issued in English in five countries, as
well as in Portuguese, Chinese, Italian and other languages by
nearly three dozen publishers. Among them are Knopf in Canada,
Penguin in India and Berlin Verlag in Germany.

The project was a passionate one for Byng, who initiated it
without bothering to think about sales prospects, though he
knew the popularity of works on the subject by Joseph Campbell
and Robert Graves.

“You just have to publish intuitively,” Byng said. “It
wasn’t done in a big, calculated way. We did no research at all
into how myth sells, but that’s not the point.”

The authors and publishers involved consider myth a timely
and timeless subject that crosses boundaries at a time when
political and cultural clashes are the focus of daily life.

“I grew up thinking that history is the stuff that makes
newspaper headlines and gets analyzed by journalists, while
myth was something that primitive people swapped around the
campfire. The distinction seemed quite simple,” said author
Michael Faber.

“Recently I realized that the distinction is nonsense,” he
said. “We are living in a post-Enlightenment era of mythology,
a volcanic eruption of new legends. Savage, virile metaphors to
rival anything from the Bible or the Bhagavad-Gita hold sway in
our awed and anxious world.”




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