Love and Courage, or On Being a Literary Editor in Today’s Istanbul: A Conversation with Mustafa Çevikdoğan and Mehmet Erte

By Iclal VanwesenbeeckAugust 26, 2020

Love and Courage, or On Being a Literary Editor in Today’s Istanbul: A Conversation with Mustafa Çevikdoğan and Mehmet Erte
ISTANBUL HAS BEEN a hub for literary publishing since the late-19th-century Tanzimat era. But what does it mean to be a literary editor in Istanbul today? I sat down with Mustafa Çevikdoğan and Mehmet Erte to address this question, among others.

Erte is the editor-in-chief of the oldest and finest Turkish literary journal, Varlık. Trained as a physicist, Erte is an award-winning poet, a painter, and the author of a novel, Sahte, and two short story collections, Arzuda Bir Sapma and Bakışın Kirlettiği Ayna. Under his editorship, Varlık continues its cultural mission to publish significant works of fiction and poetry while also expanding its remit to cover modern art and interdisciplinary studies. Erte’s latest special issue, dedicated to the coronavirus, was entitled “Is it possible to have a New Beginning?”

For the last seven years, Çevikdoğan has worked as a literary editor for one of Turkey’s most prestigious publishing houses, Can Publishing, for whom he has edited numerous best-selling books. (Full disclosure: Can is scheduled to publish my co-translation of Halide Edib Adivar’s early-20th-century novel Seviyye Talip this summer.) His short story collection Temiz Kagidi came out in 2017, and his stories continue to appear in various literary magazines. Since 2018, he has worked as the series editor of Can’s Legacy” project dedicated to early Turkish fiction.


ICLAL VANWESENBEECK: Do you think a literary editor in today’s Istanbul needs to be both creative and courageous?

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: Anyone who chooses a career in literary publishing, knowing s/he will hardly make ends meet doing what s/he does, is courageous. In today’s world, publishing a text solely because it is beautifully written is, in and of itself, an act of courage, too.

MEHMET ERTE: Varlık, as the oldest literary journal in Turkey, also carries a cultural mission. As an editor, I gather experts to create special issues that tackle cultural issues bravely. We’ve had special issues on Post-Kemalism, Post-Humanism, etc. In 2017, President Erdoğan said that even though AKP has accomplished a radical change in the country, they still didn’t have full cultural hegemony. That September, Nilgün Tutal, a professor at Galatasaray University, published an essay in Varlık on “AKP and Cultural Hegemony.” In 2019, she followed up with a piece called “Potato: The Old Friend of Resistance,” which looked at inflation and poverty from the perspective of a potato, with a focus on art. Her piece was inspired by Brecht’s poem “Traum von einer grossen Miesmacherin,” in which a potato publicly defies Hitler. Varlık has been and continues to be a home for courageous thinkers, writers, and poets.

What defines the limits of a literary editor’s freedom in Turkey?

MEHMET ERTE: I see capitalism and a profit-hungry boss as more of a threat to literary publishing than a conservative government.

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: In Turkey, most editors are writers themselves and stand with the writers. Though there are exceptions, in most cases it is still the editor who decides if a book gets published in Turkey. In terms of our freedom to resist market trends and financial pressure, I think we may still be above the world average.

Is Istanbul the center for literary publishing? How many manuscripts or submissions do you receive every month?

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: The Turkish literary circle is a small one, and its center is Istanbul (except for the government, Istanbul is the center of everything in Turkey). We have popular writers whose books sell 200,000 copies, but most books sell 2,000 to 3,000 copies. I’d say that independent publishers still constitute the majority, but Turkish banks and big corporations also have publishing houses. In 2019, about 70,000 new titles were published and over 400 million copies were printed. Literature, art, nonfiction books make up about 35 percent of this total, and the largest subgroup is educational books, books that students read in schools. Can Publishing received about 2,500 manuscripts in 2019, about half of which were novels, 40 percent were short stories. We publish about 150 books a year. Can Publishing has historically been home to big names in Turkish literature, such as Kemal Tahir, Orhan Pamuk, and Halide Edib Adivar, as well as major world authors, but we have always been equally committed to publishing new writers. I should mention that there is also a deep appreciation for poetry in Turkey but not enough publishing houses and even fewer distributors for poetry books.

MEHMET ERTE: At Varlık, we are receiving about 10 stories and 20 poems per day during the coronavirus crisis. Normally, the numbers would be half as many. Literary journals had a precipitous decline in the last 20 years; most of them closed down. Varlık, as a premier literary journal, prints about 6,000 copies a month. We have about 400 subscribers; some are academic and research institutions, of course. But our biggest challenge is distribution. In the past, there were government incentives and support to distribute Varlık and other literary journals to the furthest corners of the country. Right now, there is a national monopoly in distribution and it’s getting tougher to have your literary journals in bookstores, unless they sell 30,000 copies a month.

There is a growing right-wing monopoly over journalism in Turkey. How about in literary publishing?

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: For the last 20 years, there has been a powerful right-wing government in Turkey. Previous governments were also mostly right-wing, but the dominant voice in the arts has traditionally been from the left. I am skeptical, however, about what this voice has transformed into over the last two decades in the world of art or literature. I am afraid that the dissenters may have become as conservative as those they oppose.

MEHMET ERTE: TV channels and newspapers are becoming monotypes while literary journals maintain their diversity. But due to the increased cost of paper and print materials, most of the journals, both Islamic and liberal, have had to quit, and now we have had to endure another blow with the pandemic. Still, when it comes to literature, we can say that there is still some kind of dialogue between factions.

Is the Turkish literary world divided between Islamic, secular, and nationalist?

MEHMET ERTE: We do see political divisions in the world of literature. In the early 2000s, there was much more dialogue between these sections, but after the Gezi Park protests in 2013, sharper lines have been drawn. In recent years, the political right is all about “cultural hegemony,” but what we see is that cultural hegemony doesn’t change hands as quickly as political hegemony. According to the government, cultural hegemony in Turkey is still in the hands of a pro-Western elite (leftists or White Kemalists) and it needs to be toppled. Their shared values are anti-Westernization and regionalism. What we call modernization in this country is basically Westernization. Literary history in Turkey is written in line with social modernization — i.e., Westernization. We cannot ignore the fact that, in the past, some poets, writers, and artists were neglected because they were Islamists, and we cannot pretend that literary journals and books published by Islamist writers don’t exist, but there must be an explanation for being in power and still saying you want cultural hegemony.

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: The Turkish intellectual landscape has been fragmented for a very long time now. Each side has its preferred publishing houses, with their preferred writers. Even though it might look like the cultural hegemony is with the left in Turkey, big corporate right-wing publishers have recently gained increasing visibility and recognition.

Is there anything unique or different about the world of literary publishing in Turkey?

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: Our biggest and oldest literary prizes are for short stories, and that’s a beloved and popular genre, and we continue to see great collections published every year. I’d also say translation is important. Our market is saturated with translations, amounting to almost half of the books released. From Chinese to Norwegian to African languages, a wide range of world literature is translated into Turkish. That means we have more translation series editors and Turkish literature editors than academic editors, for example. 

How about Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew translations? Perhaps they are linguistically distant, but Turkey is geographically close to these cultures.

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: There are translations from Israel. Eshkol Nevo and Amos Oz are popular, but the most beloved Israeli writer in Turkey is probably Etgar Keret. Perhaps because of the general love for the short story genre in Turkey, his books have enjoyed many reprintings. On the other hand, it’s hard to find literary translators who can translate from Arabic to Turkish, and I think our editing world still keeps its distance from the Middle East. Some Arabic writers get translated from French or English.

MEHMET ERTE: We receive short stories and poems from Baku or Iran, but in Turkish. I know there are also some Iranian translators who work out of Istanbul.

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: It might be worth noting, since that’s partly what I do in the Can’s “Legacy” series, that translation in Turkey also happens when we translate our own classical literature from Ottoman script to Latin script (Modern Turkish), or revise esoteric texts for the modern Turkish reader by adapting them. In fact, when I started working as the series editor, I realized how many past editions of seminal Ottoman novels like September, Blue and Black, Forbidden Love, were printed with missing parts and mistakes.

Despite common assumptions, the late Ottoman publishing world was an exciting and cosmopolitan one, with Armenian, Jewish, Levantine, and Turkish entrepreneurs publishing anything from Fortuné du Boisgobey novels and opera librettos to bilingual newspapers, feminist journals, and illustrations. As editors, do you see that kind of an entrepreneurial spirit and cosmopolitanism in today’s Turkey?

MEHMET ERTE: We don’t have the cosmopolitan spirit or multilingual publishing tradition of the Ottoman world. For example, in the Ottoman Empire, there were close to 50 newspapers and journals published in Armenian alone. Today, there are only nine, and just two newspapers: Jamanak and Nor Marmara. There is also Agos, but that’s printed in Turkish script. You can check out the whole list on the website of the Patriarchate of Turkish Armenians. On the other hand, the publishing world in Turkey exhibits a growing appetite for world literature. I guess, as we lose our interest in our own diverse heritage, we have begun to reach to the far corners of the globe.

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: Yes, you are right, there was such a cultural richness in 19th-century Istanbul but not for the common people and not for those who lived outside the city. Paris was closer to the Ottoman intellectuals than Ankara ever was. Istanbul high society knew that reading novels and newspapers was one of the conditions of being European, but alas there were no novels to read. That’s why they were hastily translating whatever popular novels they could find in France. The Ottoman publishing world didn’t really care to reach the common people, and even if it did, it didn’t succeed much. For the Ottoman Empire, the only place that mattered was Istanbul. The rest were places to be taxed or to recruit soldiers from. A genuine course of enlightenment occurred in Anatolia only after the declaration of the Republic. Today, this endeavor either gets too much praise or is heavily criticized, but the Republican reformers tried to bring books and literacy to cities swept by sickness and hunger; places that had no roads, no hotels, etc. Still, I wouldn’t want to be unfair. Women’s emancipation, freedom of expression, art criticism all date back to the late Ottoman era. Besides, it is the Istanbulites of the Ottoman Empire who gave us the most beautiful works of Turkish literature. Whether we like it or not, we cannot think of our publishing world or tradition as being separate from the Ottoman tradition. The saddest part is that we no longer have the cosmopolitanism of those times. Even though there was an increase in publishing in Kurdish after 2000, I can say that, in recent years, that’s unfortunately gotten harder. Once, even mainstream publishers published in Kurdish, but now there is not even mention of it. Aras Publishing publishes in Armenian and Turkish, Istos publishes in Turkish and Greek today. They remind us of the once-cosmopolitan Istanbul of the past.

Turkey has a very large refugee population. Do either of you receive manuscripts or submissions from refugees?

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: Strangely, we haven’t so far. As far as I know, other publishers I have talked to haven’t either.

MEHMET ERTE: Varlık received a proposal back in the day to have a special issue on Arab poets exiled to Turkey, but it never materialized.

It’s impossible not to fall in love with the landscape of secondhand bookstores, modern bookstores, museums, and archives in Istanbul. Looking at the bookshelves, book titles, and translations, the literary world seems to be full of artistic and intellectual energy.

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: You are more optimistic than we are. Most of those bookstores are struggling to survive, even though you are right that literary productivity and energy is there.

MEHMET ERTE: Yes, Istanbul is home to a lot of bookstores. As a nation, we haven’t yet warmed up to the idea of ebooks; even ordering books online is new — most have had to learn it in the coronavirus days — and I believe that a book is still a magical object for the happy minority in Turkey. But there is pressure on the literary publishing world in Turkey, just not as much as you might think. Perhaps we are still outside the control range of the government. I also don’t see the ruling party supporting their own writers and poets. They might care about what they say on social media, but they don’t seem to care for or support their literary productions. 

In Turkey during the ’80s, some books were bowdlerized. I remember seeing lines smeared with black paint. Censorship was explicit. There is censorship in today’s Turkey, too, but perhaps less visible. What do you think? Do people use pen names nowadays? Is more auto-censorship in play? Are you being asked to change stories, or remove words, etc.? How many people have to say yes before a book gets published in Turkey?

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: Perhaps the question implies that editors in general might function as censors. I don’t think I agree, but even if it were so, there aren’t very many texts to censor. By the time the manuscript reaches us, the thorny details of recent history have been eliminated. Some controversial content exists, but within limits. The writer doesn’t necessarily say, “Let me get rid of this part, it’ll give me a headache,” but it’s probably ingrained in his/her mind, and there is some auto-censorship that even they are not aware of.

Back in the day, the censors of the Abdulhamid II era [1876–1909], for instance, were foreign to the world of narrative fiction and so they could be ticked off by any word. For instance, the word “son-in-law” was censored in Halid Ziya’s 1901 novel Kirik Hayatlar because of a dispute between the sultan’s sons-in-laws (Ziya abandoned the novel halfway through because of the censorship). Another word censored in his novel was “transformation.” Of course, today, we are not in that situation, but we are not progressing either. On the other hand, art wants to move forward and raise the scale higher, and subvert. I personally have not observed such subversive literary endeavors yet. Our generation is still in a slumber on the steps that the previous generations of writers have climbed.

By the way, one of the most striking examples of bowdlerization in Turkey took place in 1988 at Can Publishing. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, translated and published by Can in 1985, was banned by court order on the grounds of obscenity. The translator, Aylin Sagtur, and the publisher, Erdal Oz, were prosecuted. After that, 39 publishing houses in Turkey came together and prepared the second edition of Tropic of Capricorn using Can Publishing’s cover. Censored sections remained censored, but the court ruling was included in that edition, because it actually contained the censored parts. Because a court ruling could not be prosecuted for obscenity, the book was eventually sold and read as a whole. Today, the novel is published freely.

MEHMET ERTE: In the past, everything that contradicted formal historical narratives, especially the ones about minorities, would be redacted, even in translation. Today, because it is easier for everyone to access the original documents, I’m guessing, optimistically, that publishers would not want to embarrass themselves. Besides, we live in an age where, despite the regime, the official history is up for debate. But we know that publishers owned by the religious congregations in Turkey censor sex scenes and Islamicize certain parts of world classics, but you can find the same world classics in excellent and complete translations from other publishers. I never had to or was asked to censor anything in Varlık, but I know that state-employed teachers and military personnel who send their work to us use pen names and have reservations about writing on certain issues. It’s obvious that they are right in their reservations. But despite all this, there are some great things happening in our literary world. In 2011, the Board for the Protection of Minors from Obscene Publications wrote a report on the Turkish translation of William S. Burroughs’s Soft Machine and sued the publisher and the translator. The case was overturned by the Constitutional Court of Turkey. Sel Publishing published the council’s report on the back cover of the novel.

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: The criteria used by this board and the Ministry of Education are becoming more and more strict. For instance, booksellers for high schools look for and prefer books with no sexuality in them.

I checked out some of the books that the Board has declared obscene and a vast majority seem to be about sexuality or LGBTQ themes. There seems to be a persistent moral policing of literature under the pretext of protecting children. Are stories with explicit sexuality and especially LGBTQ literature a no-no for publishers? What’s your attitude when you receive such stories?

MEHMET ERTE: There is the Kaos GL journal, and Sel Publishing has two series, “The LGBTQ Library” and “The Queer Dream.” A few books come to mind: I’d like to mention Kıvanç Tanrıyar’s seminal book Sexual Orientation and Sexual Identity in Turkish Literature (2018), the edited volume The Paradox of Sexuality: Queer Culture and Opposition in Turkey (2012), and the short story collection Woman to Woman (2014), edited by Murathan Mungan — who, together with Ahmet Güntan and the late poet Küçük İskender, are the big literary names who write about homoerotic desire. I published Buğra Giritlioğlu’s love story “Bir Yaz Hüsranı” (“A Summer Disillusionment”) in our October 2017 issue. We receive very few literary submissions at Varlık on homoeroticism, but both in academia and in literary circles, there is a very strong new generation coming along.

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: To be honest, that’s not how we think when we decide to publish a book. Our priority is the overall quality of the work, but I understand your question, and the answer is that lots of LGBTQ-related books are published in Turkish and in translation. Queer theory books are translated; there are actually publishing houses that have created book series for these titles. Not all publishers are like that, of course. Some entirely bypass this topic for religious or political reasons. There is no government mandate not to publish LGBTQ literature, but publishers may feel uneasy nevertheless. A complaint letter from a reader might easily lead to a court case that could drag on for years. That said, there is a very strong feminist movement in Turkey, and people read feminist literature of the past and present.

What do you think is excessive or lacking in the world of literary publishing in Turkey today?

MUSTAFA ÇEVİKDOĞAN: Calmness. Turkish novelist Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar [1901–’62] once said that “Turkey doesn’t give its children a chance to occupy themselves with anything other than itself.” I think everyone who lives in Turkey would agree with that. Perhaps, if we were to calm down, stop regurgitating outdated, formulaic discourses, and approach our socio-cultural issues with genuine emotion, we might get a better grip on what’s happening around us.

MEHMET ERTE: I can say that, today, the Turkish literary world is governed by politics or political correctness. Books are being marketed according to the problems they discuss. Writers discuss social issues rather than aesthetics. And yet, literature is as much about the problems of the subject as it is about how the subject problematizes the world, because that after all is what determines the aesthetics.


Iclal Vanwesenbeeck is an associate professor at the State University of New York in Fredonia, where she teaches courses in world literature, global citizenship, and a study-abroad course in Iceland.

LARB Contributor

Iclal Vanwesenbeeck is an associate professor at the State University of New York in Fredonia, where she teaches courses in world literature, global citizenship, and a study-abroad course in Iceland.


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