When capitalism kills culture: Gentrified real estate puts squeeze on indie bookstores



Independent bookstores are places where culture is collected and disseminated. The gentrification of city centres makes their existence increasingly precarious.
Kévin Langlais on Unsplash, CC BY-NC

Julien Lefort-Favreau, Queen’s University, Ontario

The story is all too familiar – yet it should command more attention from Canadians.

Recently, the Globe and Mail reported the Ben McNally bookstore, located on Bay Street a stone’s throw from Union Station, would close in 2020. Two days later, Rupert McNally, the founder’s son, confirmed the news on the store’s website. It had been open since 2007.

The reason for the closure is simple: the store will be replaced by an alleyway linking Bay Street to the alley behind it. This redevelopment is part of a project that the owner calls (ironically?) “The Bay Street Village.”

It is therefore a stupid example of gentrification that pits a modest shopkeeper against a greedy landowner.

The increase in the value of Toronto’s real estate is not exactly new. But we can see here an example of a paradigm that is not reassuring for the future of large cities: the profitability of businesses devoted to cultural property is hardly compatible with the overbidding in real estate.

Montréal is facing the same problem, and it affects all independent businesses. In August, the City gave the Commission on Economic and Urban Development and Housing the mandate to conduct public consultations on vacant space on commercial arteries. Several of these areas have rates ranging from 10 to 15 per cent.

A “hygienization” of urban centres

It has already been demonstrated that gentrification is largely based on a city’s ability to offer an interesting and diversified cultural life. Some, such as Richard Florida, have linked this phenomenon to the emergence of a “creative class.”

Geographer Oli Mould, in his excellent book, Against Creativity, published in 2018, attacks the very notion of creativity. He criticizes Richard Florida with virulence by brilliantly showing how “creative” gentrification can also act as a form of hygienization in urban centres that, ironically, hinders spontaneous citizen initiatives. To put it bluntly, once gentrification is completed, culture is more or less eliminated from the central districts.

An Amazon bookseller opened its doors last February in New York. Will only multinationals or large chains be able to have a presence in city centres in the future?
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

We are interested in the case of the closure of the Ben McNally bookstore because it shows the consequences of real estate speculation on the vitality of a city and, ultimately, on culture on a national scale. Very quickly, after the announcement by the owners of the bookstore, many players in the Canadian publishing ecosystem expressed serious concerns.

That is because independent bookshops, Ben McNally in particular, do not belong to a large group or chain and aren’t limited to the sole function of selling books. They are truly a place of cultural mediation.

The purpose of booksellers is to introduce readers to more complex works that have received less media attention. In Kingston, Ont., the city where I live, the Novel Idea bookstore is part of the community life. It organizes meetings with local authors and federates a community of readers. In Montréal, bookstores such as Le port de tête, L’Écume des jours and Gallimard also have a clearly established cultural function.

Independent bookstores are places where demanding literature or radical essays can find readers. In short, the exact opposite of a virtual library where algorithms – certainly effective – guide readers’ tastes. There is no doubt that these algorithms favour books that are already selling well, regardless of the careful work of smaller publishers.

For a “bibliodiversity”

Why defend the independence of Canadian literature? Out of pure nationalism? Not exactly.

Rather, it is a question of how the bookstore can, in an era of advanced globalization, be a place of defence for the diversity of cultures, what some have referred to as bibliodiversity: a diversity of languages (in the case of Canada, English, French and Aboriginal literatures), but also socially equitable modes of production and dissemination. In this case, it ensures that cultural property produced with our public funds finds takers.

To put it simply, a book in Canada will sometimes be subsidized at the time of writing through creation grants, in its production through operating grants to publishers, and then sold by Amazon or, in the worst case, unsold due to a lack of suitable distribution locations. The Canadian book system provides a relatively good framework for its authors and publishers to deal with the horrors of the free market, in a spirit of cultural and economic protectionism. But in the current configuration, booksellers seem to be abandoned.

Make the less visible visible

But it is not simply a matter of defending a blurred Canadian identity. It is also a matter of making a diversity of identities visible. Think of the Racines bookstore in Montréal North, which highlights the culture and history of racialized authors. Or, the bookstore L’Euguélionne, which, by settling in the gay village in Montréal and adopting a cooperative structure, has made it its mission to offer a wide selection of literature on women and LGBPT2QIA groups.

An independent bookstore is therefore a meeting place for people from the neighbourhood but also, possibly, for affinity groups. Bookstores can be, in some contexts, sources of resistance. André Schiffrin states in L’argent et les mots – the third volume of a trilogy essential to understanding the effects of cultural globalization – that the number of New York bookstores has been divided by 10 since the post-war period.

Capitalism has its own rhythm, but also its own specific geography. Urban space is profoundly transformed by financial capitalism. Urban spaces are becoming expensive, and the closure of cultural spaces is, metaphorically and by extension, a reduction in the space for ideas and expression.

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Julien Lefort-Favreau, Assistant Professor, French Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Brexit Britain: was Jane Austen an original little Englander?



Jane Austen based on a portrait by her sister Cassandra.
Wikimedia Commons

Thomas McLean, University of Otago

In revealing the charms and follies of genteel English society, Jane Austen has few competitors. Yet as Britain limps towards Brexit, I can’t help wondering why there are no foreigners in her major fiction. Many thousands of continental Europeans settled in Britain after the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic wars. Couldn’t just one of the Bennet sisters have fallen in love with a charming Belgian or a wealthy German? Wouldn’t the well-travelled Frederick Wentworth of Persuasion have a dear friend from Spain or Italy?

Such questions may seem trivial, but they gain significance at a time when we expect a lot from Austen. In the past few decades, scholars have regularly turned to her novels for insights into the larger issues of her era (women’s education, slavery, war) and our own (climate change). Some even want to see her as a radical.

I’m not so convinced by this progressive – or even subversive – Austen. She was unquestionably sensitive to the epoch-defining events taking place around her. Two of her brothers were officers in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars; another was a banker who was ruined in the post-war financial crisis. Certainly, there are moments in the novels when these larger events make an appearance. How could they not?




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But are such moments enough to make Austen’s works a source of great insight into the social issues of her era? In matters of love, friendship and the societal expectations of the landed gentry, Austen is always astute and entertaining. But consider all the elements of her society that Austen left out.

Are there, for instance, any Catholics in Austen’s novels? Any Jews? Mark Twain wrote that Austen’s novels made him feel like a “barkeeper” surrounded by “ultra-good Presbyterians” – but are there any actual Presbyterians in her novels? So far as I can tell, all of her principal characters are Anglican.

Are there any foreigners – a Frenchman, say, or a visiting Spaniard? Nope. Northanger Abbey mocks the English affection for gothic novels set on the continent, but no one from the continent appears in the novel. In a scene from Emma that Priti Patel might applaud, Frank Churchill rescues Harriet Smith from a group of “loud and insolent” Romany children.

How about representatives from other parts of the UK? In Austen’s novels, Scotland is mainly a place to which giddy young women elope. As for Wales, well, there’s a “Welch cow” in Emma. Ireland does a little better: in Pride and Prejudice, Mary Bennet annoys her sister by playing Irish songs on the piano; and in Emma, an honest to goodness Irishman, one Mr Dixon, plays a minor role – though, like so many other male characters in Austen’s novels, he isn’t important enough to earn a first name.

Home and away

Austen is deservedly recognised for bringing greater realism to the Anglophone novel and for presenting a new psychological depth in her characters. Yet this position should not be confused with the idea that Austen somehow tells us more about Regency England than any of her contemporaries – or that her works contain all the complexities of her era if only we look closely enough. They tell us very little about the way the English looked on their British and European neighbours.

Jane Austen could hardly be more English.
Ben Sutherland via Flickr, CC BY-SA

I hear you ask, well come now, you don’t really expect a Regency-era author to include foreigners, revolutionaries and exiles in her novel, do you? Well, yes, actually I do. Many of Austen’s forgotten contemporaries – writers like Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth – did just that. Another more famous contemporary, Mary Shelley, created the era’s greatest study of an outsider ostracised by society, Frankenstein. If we imagine that Austen provides a complete picture of Regency life, these authors prove us wrong with their more international and political perspectives.

This is not to say that they are better writers than Austen. Reading Austen’s contemporaries illuminates what makes Austen a great (in many ways superior) writer. Austen is utterly in command of the order and organisation of her best narratives – every character, every encounter, every character foible is there for a well-planned purpose.

Similarly, Austen’s protagonists are true to themselves. It is rare indeed for a reader to feel that her characters act in ways that were not foreseeable from the start. Her narrators keep a respectable distance from the action of the story: they provide enough information to leave readers feeling secure, but they rarely call attention to themselves or comment at length on the unfolding action. In all of these aspects, Austen has no Regency-era peer.

Doing the continental

Nevertheless, some of these forgotten works illustrate the storytelling pathways that Austen never attempted. If I were to choose one work from Austen’s time that speaks most clearly to our own moment and showcases all that Jane left out, it would be Jane Porter’s novel from 1803, Thaddeus of Warsaw. Porter’s novel was a great success when it first appeared, and it remained in print for most of the 19th century.

Thaddeus of Warsaw, by Austen’s contemporary, Jane Porter.
Worthopedia

Thaddeus – an early 19th-century forerunner to Walter Scott’s Waverley and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair – tells the story of Count Thaddeus Sobieski, who escapes to Britain after his homeland falls to Russian invaders. Penniless, he hides his identity and makes his way among the rich and poor of London, finding work where he can, and coming to the aid of those less fortunate than he. He is befriended by a group of women, who assist or punish him, according to their impulses.

Imagine a Jane Austen novel with a Polish protagonist. Imagine an Austen novel where British women welcome an immigrant into their lives. Imagine an Austen novel where a character goes looking for work.

The passages in Thaddeus that resonate the most today, however, are the commentaries by British characters who are troubled by the presence of Polish exiles, like Thaddeus, among them. One character announces, “it is our duty to befriend the unfortunate; but charity begins at home … and, you know, the people of Poland have no claims upon us”. Another declares, “Would any man be mad enough to take the meat from his children’s mouths, and throw it to a swarm of wolves just landed on the coast?” No question that these characters would have voted “Leave”.

Today there are almost one million people living in the UK who were born in Poland. No matter what happens with regard to Brexit, these people have already changed their adopted homeland. While writers like Agnieszka Dale and Wioletta Greg create a new body of Anglo-Polish literature, Thaddeus of Warsaw reminds readers of the long links between the two countries.

It also reminds us that a satisfying romance, whether it concerns Emma Woodhouse or Thaddeus Sobieski, needs to please its readers. It won’t be giving too much away to note that, at the conclusion of Thaddeus of Warsaw, the meeting of wealth and love allows for a happy ending. That was one lesson that Jane Austen taught us a long time ago.The Conversation

Thomas McLean, Associate Professor, English and Linguistics, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Love, laughter, adventure and fantasy: a summer reading list for teens



Summer is a great time to catch up on some reading.
from shutterstock.com

Margot Hillel, Australian Catholic University

An Australian summer can be a holiday by the beach, recovering from exams, or anticipating the next stage of schooling. The summer break can also offer a wonderful opportunity to catch up on some reading.

Award-winning author and illustrator Shaun Tan wrote the

lessons we learn from […] stories are best applied to a similar study of life in general […] At its most successful, fiction offers us devices for interpreting reality.

(If you aren’t familiar with Tan’s work, look out for The Arrival, Cicada and Tales from the Inner City, among others).

Research from New Zealand suggests young adults like to read books which make them laugh, “let them use their imagination, have a mystery or problem to solve, have characters they wish they could be like”.

Based on this, here are some recommendations your teen could read this summer.

For teens in years 10-12

Living on Hope Street (2017)

Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton said:

When I was a young adult I cherished those books that took me seriously, that acknowledged the world was a complicated and often troubled place.


Allen & Unwin

Living on Hope Street by Demet Divaroren does just that. Hope Street is a fictional Australian street with a diverse population.

This diversity is replicated in the book’s multiple-voice narrative structure.

The voices are initially separate but come together in a way that reflects the development of the community.

The characters range in age from school children to a Vietnam war veteran and include a refugee family. Hope Street has messages of tolerance, love, courage, friendship and the importance of family.




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The Things That Will Not Stand (2018)

Novels invite the reader to imagine themselves as the characters and understand other people’s situations.


Readings

In The Things That Will Not Stand, by Michael Gerard Bauer, two teenagers, Sebastian and Tolly, attend a university open day together.

They meet a girl who is not quite what she seems but who so intrigues Sebastian, he stays on long after Tolly has gone home and the open day activities have finished, just so he can see her again.

There are some very funny scenes throughout the book, usually involving Tolly.

The action takes place on just one day, a day which both boys will remember for ever.

This book will particularly appeal to readers at the upper levels of secondary school, inviting them to imagine themselves in the place of the characters.

All the Crooked Saints (2017)


Scholastic

Maggie Stiefvater sets this book in a remote Colorado town, Bicho Raro, where a most unusual family lives – a family that appears to perform miracles. Into this tiny town comes Pete, whose application to join the army has been rejected and he is seeking to come to terms with that disappointment by hitchhiking.

He has been picked up by Tony, a DJ trying to escape fame and heading to Bicho Raro because he has heard about the family that can perform miracles.

Their visit changes both of them for the better. There is a lot here for older teenage readers as the book involves romance and humour, and has touches of magic and fantasy.

Stiefvaster also explores concepts of good and bad and the importance of knowing ourselves.




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Pan Macmillan

Words in Deep Blue (2016)

This novel by Cath Crowley is largely set in the delightfully-named secondhand bookshop, Howling Books.

It is a paean of praise to books, the important part they can play in our lives and helping us come to terms with grief.

This is also a celebration of words and friendship, with characters older readers will relate to.


For teens in years 7-9

Dragonfly Song (2016)


Allen & Unwin

Ancient Crete is the setting for Wendy Orr’s Dragonfly Song. The book tells of those chosen to be the tribute to the Bull King (he chooses a tribute every year).

The outcast girl, called No-Name by everyone, seizes the opportunity to become one of the tributes, a task she knows to be demanding and often dangerous. She will have to brave the bloody bull dances in his royal court.

Will she actually survive the test?

The book is inspired by the legend of the Minotaur. It is thoroughly researched, lyrically written and invites readers to imagine themselves in No-name’s place.


Harper Collins

His Name was Walter (2018)

A group of students and their teacher, separated from the others on a school excursion, find an odd-looking book in a deserted house. Emily Rodda beautifully uses the device of a story within a story in His Name Was Walter.

What happens next is mysterious and intriguing as past and present combine. The ending is both poignant and satisfying.

Hatchet (1986)


Scholastic

Imagine finding yourself stranded in an unknown wilderness without a mobile phone. This is exactly what happens to Brian in Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet.

It’s a kind of modern Robinson Crusoe story, first published in 1986 before the proliferation of mobile phones.

In this adventure, Brian has to be inventive and resilient to survive. The book is the first in a series of five. One review suggested, for many readers, Hatchet was “the first school-assigned book they fell in love with”.

How to Bee (2017)


Allen & Unwin

How would life be without bees? How would the pollination of plants, so essential to life on earth, happen?

This intriguing story, by Bren MacDibble, explores that idea and sets up a scenario where children do the pollinating – but only the bravest and quickest.

Penny longs to be one of these, but can she, especially when it looks as though she might be taken away from the life she has known?




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The Conversation


Margot Hillel, Professor, Children’s Literature, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.