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.

[ Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter. ]The Conversation

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.

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.

[ Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter. ]The Conversation

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.

Ghana’s copyright law for folklore hampers cultural growth



Ghana is very protective of its cultural heritage.
Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Collins, University of the West of Scotland

Ghana has a rich folkloric tradition that includes Adinkra symbols, Kente cloth, traditional festivals, music and storytelling. Perhaps one of Ghana’s best known folk characters is Ananse, the spider god and trickster, after whom the Ghanaian storytelling tradition Anansesem is named.

Ghana also has some of the world’s most restrictive laws on the use of its folklore. The country’s 2005 Copyright Act defines folklore as “the literary, artistic and scientific expressions belonging to the cultural heritage of Ghana which are created, preserved and developed by ethnic communities of Ghana or by an unidentified Ghanaian author”.

This suggests that the legislation, which is an update of a 1985 law, applies equally to traditional works where the author is unknown and new works derived from folklore where the author is known.

The rights in these works are “vested in the President on behalf of and in trust for the people of the republic”. These rights are also deemed to exist in perpetuity. This means that works which qualify as folkloric will never fall into the public domain – and will never be free to use.

The 1985 Act only restricted use of Ghana’s folklore by foreigners. The 2005 Act extended this to Ghanaian nationals. In principle, this means that a Ghanaian artist wishing to use Ananse stories, or a musician who wants to rework old folk songs or musical rhythms must first seek approval from the National Folklore Board and pay an undisclosed fee.

This is deeply problematic. Following independence in 1957, many artists have explicitly and habitually drawn on Ghana’s folk traditions to develop today’s creative industries. The 2005 Act means that the current generation of cultural practitioners must either seek permission to use and rework their cultural heritage, or look elsewhere for inspiration.

There is clearly a balance to be struck between safeguarding and access when it comes to the protection of a state’s cultural heritage. However, it is important to acknowledge that while Ghana’s legislation appears to tip towards protection at the expense of access, it restricts growth in the creative industries by discouraging artists from engaging with their national cultural heritage.

History of protection

Ethnomusicologist and musician John Collins has noted that the development of the 2005 Act was partly in response to US singer Paul Simon’s use of a melody taken from the song ‘Yaa Amponsah’ for his 1990 album ‘The Rhythm of the Saints’.

Simon attributed this melody to the Ghanaian musician Jacob Sam and his band the Kumasi Trio. But on further investigation the Ghanaian government asserted that the melody was a work of folklore and so, belonged to the state.

From this, two things are clear. Firstly, in Ghana folklore belongs to the state and not the originating communities that predate the modern state. Secondly, Jacob Sam received no recompense for Simon’s use of the work, with all royalties owed on the work flowing back the government.

There are a number of issues here that set Ghana apart from other African states.

Many states allow for the use of folklore by nationals and if a fee is applicable then it is paid as a royalty based on revenue raised. This is the case in all three states bordering Ghana: Togo, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. Consequently, if an artist in one of these countries reworks folklore but makes no money, then no money is paid for that use. If the work becomes successful then the artist and the rights holder benefit.

However, in Ghana, the law states that payment is paid prior to use and so prior to any profits made. This potentially adds to the cost of production and so discourages use of folklore.

The other issue here is who owns the rights in national heritage. In many countries, such as Kenya, the originating communities retain the rights to their expressions of cultural heritage.

However, in Ghana the rights are vested in the office of the president. This means that any moral or financial benefit that results from uses of folklore flow to the office of the president, rather than being used to support continued safeguarding and growth of cultural heritage within communities.

Guarding against exploitation

Though Ghana’s present regime may appear draconian, there are compelling reasons why such protective measures are required.

Firstly, Ghana’s cultural heritage – its traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions – have been and continue to be exploited by non-Ghanaians in international markets with no beneficial interest flowing either to the state or to the originating community.

To give this some context, Simon’s use of Yaa Amponsah was only one use of Ghana’s cultural heritage in the developing of a new, and commercially successful, work. More recently, there were a number of press reports in Ghana that the Ghana Folklore Board intended to sue the producers of Marvel’s Black Panther for the unauthorised use of kente cloth in some of the characters’ costumes.

The Folklore Board clarified these reports in a press release, saying it did not intend to sue – but rather, wished to discuss attribution. Kente is specifically named as an object of protection under the 2005 Act and the current proliferation of unauthorised cheap kente designs entering global markets from China presents a significant challenge. Attribution, in this case, would ensure that cinema goers across the world would associate kente with Ghana, bringing a traditional craft to a global audience.

The board faces a particularly complex challenge. It must balance safeguarding traditional heritage with allowing creative artists room to reuse and rework elements of that heritage in a way that does not add to the cost or complexity of production.

Though the threat of unfair exploitation is real, equally real is the potential threat to the creative industries and the future development of Ghana’s living heritage if the country’s artists move away from their cultural heritage.The Conversation

Stephen Collins, Lecturer, University of the West of Scotland

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

Australian literature’s legacies of cultural appropriation


File 20181016 165900 1z1205e.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Australian literature has a long history of appropriating and misrepresenting Aboriginal culture.
Tom Williams

Michael R. Griffiths, University of Wollongong

Non-Indigenous Australian writers face a dilemma. On the one hand, they can risk writing about Aboriginal people and culture and getting it wrong. On the other, they can avoid writing about Aboriginal culture and characters, but by doing so, erase Aboriginality from the story they tell.

What such writers are navigating is the risk of cultural appropriation: the often offensive taking of another’s culture. It is particularly problematic when the appropriator is in a dominant or colonising relationship with a culture’s custodians. Australian literature has a long history of appropriating and misrepresenting Aboriginal culture.

Take anthropologist A.P. Elkin and his associate W.E. Harney. These white men collaborated in the 1940s on a book translating Aboriginal songlines into anglophone ballads.

In “Our Dreaming”, a dedicatory poem to the resulting collection Songs of the Songmen, the pair open with a self-aggrandising appropriation. This opening text emphasises their ownership of works that they are merely translating.

Together now we chant the ‘old time’ lays,
Calling to mind camp-fires of bygone days.
We hear the ritual shouts, the stamping feet,
The droning didgeridoos, the waddies’ beat.

An unpublished 1943 revision by Harney, altered by Elkin, even more noticeably emphasises the two authors’ claim on these songlines. The poem is titled “To You My Friend” and the first line reads, “To you my friend I dedicate these lays,” as though Harney is bestowing this culture on Elkin directly.

The pair claim to write:

not of their huts, the bones, the dirt,
Nor the strange far look in a native’s eyes,
As he looks to his country ‘ere he dies.

Rather than this vision of the apparently doomed “native”, Songs of the Songmen would purport to extol the romantic figure of the noble savage. The poem continues:

Tis not of these we muse today:
For the ‘Dreaming’ comes, and we drift away
Into myth and legend where we’ve caught
The simple grandeur of their thought.

The pair’s poetry claims in this way to be able to salvage and recapture the “Dreaming”, represented as no longer accessible to Aboriginal people themselves.

This example shows how appropriation, far from innocent, is bound up with attitudes such as the idea of a “doomed race”. It can also be connected to such projects as assimilation and child removal; Elkin advocated both.

The Jindyworobak group

The most famous literary movement in Australia to be engaged in appropriation formed in the 1930s. They were the Jindyworobak group, their founder Rex Ingamells drawing the word from his friend James Devaney’s book The Vanished Tribes, which included a Woiwurung word list.

Jindyworobak means “to annex” or “to join” in Woiwurung. The practices of its writers were, however, more annexation of Aboriginal culture than any inclusive joining together.

Ingamells’ knowledge of Aboriginal culture came from white translators and not from Aboriginal people themselves. He visited Harney on several occasions. The Jindyworobaks both believed in the myth that Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction and advocated the appropriation of Aboriginal culture.

Another writer who found Harney to be a useful source was Xavier Herbert. Herbert drew on Harney’s notes on the Yanyuwa kinship system (Harney spelled the name Anula) and turned skin names into character names in his 1976 epic Poor Fellow My Country. He had Harney’s permission but not that of the Yanyuwa themselves. Herbert’s novel arguably offers a distorted view of Aboriginal kinship.

Contemporary currents

Some of Les Murray’s verse can be read as inheriting from Jindyworobak and its legacy of appropriation – notably his 1977 Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle, which presents a non-Indigenous family holiday as sacred to the equivalent of an Indigenous song cycle. Murray’s poetry is often innovative, but its progenitor is also famous for positing a near equivalence between non-Indigenous and Indigenous belonging

Murray has lent his name and ability to publications such as Quadrant, whose editors famously denied the existence of a Stolen Generation. Even where the poetry might be compelling for some, Murray’s reputation is nonetheless associated with Quadrant’s dismissal of Aboriginal perspectives on history and self-representation.

This history of appropriation is dispossession, using another’s culture for gain and without their permission. Yet some have been calling recently for Australian literature to return to and revive these legacies.




Read more:
Read, listen, understand: why non-Indigenous Australians should read First Nations writing


Critic and poet R.D. Wood has rhetorically asked, in the context of a discussion about the translation of song-cycles, “what might a Jindyworobak project for the 21st century look like?”. Such a project augurs poorly as a means of engagement for non-Indigenous writers.

South African-born, Western Australian poet John Mateer has used Noongar words in poems such as In the Presence of a Severed Head. The Western Australian poet John Kinsella has contextualised Mateer’s poetry thus:

In Kayang and Me, Kim Scott strongly objects to Mateer’s poetic use of Nyungar language at a reading from one of Mateer’s poems when they were both performing at an event in Canada. Scott speaks of the distress he felt at hearing a language that is only just being reconstituted and reclaimed by Nyungar people themselves, being spoken by, as he says, a white South African. There are important issues in this. First, Scott as a Nyungar is in a position to critique what he sees as an inappropriate usage of a language that has been placed under massive pressure by the machinery of colonisation.

On the other hand, his isolating Mateer’s South African origins does not take into consideration that Mateer is, both poetically and in terms of self-identity, as much a part of ‘Western Australia’ as of his birth land.

Mateer in his book Loanwords utilises borrowings and usages from a number of languages in order to reconstitute their original implications, while also building in the agency of new meaning in the language in which they are being deployed. This transnationality is the main drive of his work. Mateer meant no disrespect, I believe, but the issues are at the core of contemporary poetics. What is and is not available to the poet in creating a poetic language that carries its own intactness and its own implications for reading?

As Kinsella also argues, this is exactly where we need to be careful. While such transnational borrowings can enrich the English they emerge in, what is the effect on the speakers of the original language who are still recovering their culture in the face of colonisation?

Kim Scott has said in relation to Mateer’s work:

… there are very few forums for Noongar people to come to terms with the ideas of their ancestors … so it can feel doubly wrong when recent arrivals use those representations for their own purposes.

Others, more globally, have taken umbrage with critiques of appropriation. Kwame Anthony Appiah, for instance, has recently suggested that the idea of cultural ownership is vested in the commodity and not useful for thinking about cultural borrowing. Yet, he does not consider the numerous ways in which Indigenous culture is non-transferable – because it is a form of property grounded in kinship and Country.

Some poets who engage ethically with Aboriginal ways of writing and using language include Phillip Hall and Stuart Cooke. Hall engages with the same Gulf of Carpentaria Indigenous people, the Yanyuwa, from whom Herbert stole, but he does it through a reciprocal and ethical engagement. Hall has permission to write about these relationships. Cooke’s work includes translations of song cycles from the West Kimberley, for instance one written with the permission of George Dyunjgayan.

Non-Indigenous writers, if they wish to engage ethically with Indigenous culture, must learn to respect it as a form of property grounded in kinship and Country.


Michael Griffiths is the author of The Distribution of Settlement: Appropriation and Refusal in Australian Literature and Culture (UWAP).The Conversation

Michael R. Griffiths, Lecturer in English and Writing, University of Wollongong

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

Crime of culture: American Animals and the history of rare book heists



File 20180917 158219 gol8og.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

STX Entertainment

Leah Henrickson, Loughborough University

American Animals, a film recounting the true story of a 2004 rare book theft, was recently released in cinemas across the UK. The film is a dramatic retelling of events based on director Bart Layton’s interviews and written correspondence with the convicted book thieves – interactions which began while the thieves were serving seven-year prison sentences following their guilty pleas.

In 2004, four friends in their early 20s – Charles Allen, Eric Borsuk, Warren Lipka, and Spencer Reinhard – attempted to execute an elaborate plan to steal more than US$12m worth of textual treasures from Lexington, Kentucky’s Transylvania University (Transy) Special Collections.

After a year in the planning, the heist involved the men disguising themselves as elderly, shooting librarian Betty Jean Gooch with a stun gun and simply shoving valuables into backpacks. When the day came, the men managed to escape with approximately US$750,000 worth of books in their backpacks, including a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, an illuminated medieval manuscript, and a copy of John James Audubon’s A Synopsis of Birds of North America.

Rushing from Lexington to New York, the men attempted to appraise their loot at Christie’s, but never managed to sell their ill-gotten gains. They returned home with the books and were tracked down by the FBI within a matter of months. The entire ordeal was so poorly organised that Vanity Fair deemed it “one part Oceans 11, one part Harold & Kumar”.

Light fingers

But this was by no means the only notable rare book heist in living memory. Earlier in 2018, an audit of the special collections of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh uncovered a series of thefts of rare books and book pages with a total value of around US$8m over a period of more than 20 years. It turned out that the former manager of the Carnegie Library’s rare book room, Gregory Priore, and bookseller John Schulman had been working together to sell the stolen goods through the rare book trade and auction houses.

The books stolen from Carnegie included Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, a first edition of The Journal of Major George Washington, and a first edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Unaware of where these books came from, booksellers from across the globe bought and sold them on to their own private and institutional customers.

Sir Isaac Newton’s own first edition copy of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica with his handwritten corrections for the 20th edition.
Andrew Dunn via Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, CC BY-SA

These sales can be difficult to track on such a large scale and, while some works have been recovered (often at the booksellers’ own expense), hundreds of the stolen items remain missing. An up-to-date list of those items believed to have been stolen is provided by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America.

Library thefts are nothing new. Throughout the 1840s, Italian count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja stole approximately 30,000 items in his job as chief inspector of French Libraries (he later made a comfortable living selling this loot in England).

More recently, in 1990, American bibiomaniac Stephen Blumberg was arrested for stealing more than 20,000 books valued at more than US$5m from more than 200 universities and museums across North America.

The Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Corven, 19th century.
Wikimedia commons, CC BY-NC

He served four years in prison and became known as the “Book Bandit”.

But on a more systemic and institutional level one could go as far back as the ancient Library of Alexandria, which supposedly seized any books found on ships arriving at the port. These books were copied by professional scribes who then deposited the original works into the library and gave the copies to the books’ owners.

Book ‘em

While library thefts are commonplace, the release of American Animals and the news of the recent Carnegie Library thefts have made this crime front page news. After all, the sheer value of some of these books makes them a very attractive proposition for thieves. But it’s not always just about money – the young men in American Animals fantasise about getting their hands on culturally revered items, while Guglielmo Libri and Blumberg were bibliomaniacs with a recognised condition. And the Library of Alexandria had a larcenous ambition to become a “universal library”, gathering all of the known world’s knowledge under a single roof.

The rare book trade is lucrative, certainly. Individuals and institutions are willing to spend healthy amounts to enhance their collections. But books represent more than just profit. They are cultural artefacts that span space and time to carry the voices of those who have meaningfully contributed to the world’s knowledge. As the primary means of communication for thousands of years, books reflect and perpetuate cultural heritage and – ultimately – help us understand what it means to be human.

Whether someone is stealing books for financial gain, the thrill of the game, or the overwhelming love of these objects, library theft is always underpinned by an understanding of books as valuable cultural artefacts. The young men in the American Animals heists are animals because they tried to plunder these relics of human development.The Conversation

Leah Henrickson, PhD Candidate, Loughborough University

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

Cultural appropriation and the whiteness of book publishing



File 20170608 32339 143n2pi

(Flickr/Tommy Ellis), CC BY-NC

Clayton Childress, University of Toronto

Last month, cultural appropriation became a big issue in the Canadian publishing and media world after the trade association magazine, Write published a special issue featuring work by Indigenous authors. The editor of the magazine, Hal Niedzviecki, wrote a glib editorial in defence of cultural appropriation.

Niedzviecki resigned after Canadian media executives irreverently pledged donations toward a “Cultural Appropriation Prize” on late-night Twitter in support of his editorial. The main thrust of the offending Twitter conversation seemed to be that white media elites and writers felt they were under threat of being censored.

White media elites felt they were under threat of being censored

The argument was framed in the high-minded rhetoric of freedom and creative license, but underneath that thin veneer, it relied on a belief in white victimization that you’d expect from fringe white nationalists rather than the top one per cent of Canadian mainstream media.

As a scholar of the book publishing industry, I can say with empirical authority that the notion of white people being under threat in publishing crumbles in the face of evidence. As I show in my new book, Under the Cover: The Creation, Production and Reception of a Novel, book publishing is the same as it ever was: it is white-dominated and it’s easier for white people to gain entry to it. Although my research on book publishing is based in the United States, as the sociologist Sarah M. Corse has shown, the U.S. and Canadian book publishing industries are deeply intertwined, and more often than not are actually the same industry.

If you want to throw an all-white party, invite book publishers

To understand the real barriers to book publishing, the most important places to look are the points of entry themselves. In publishing, those access points are guarded by literary agents and acquisition editors. They are the gatekeepers, and across the U.S., the gatekeepers of publishing are 95 per cent white. If those gatekeepers had their own state, it would be the whitest state in the U.S. If they had their own country, it would be the whitest country in the world. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, if you wanted to throw a party with only white people in attendance, you’d invite veterinarians, farmers, mining machine operators and book publishers.

While it is hypothetically possible that those white gatekeepers could privilege racialized authors over white ones, the reverse is actually true. Regardless of their race, about 38 per cent of the 1,200 literary agents in the United States I’ve studied show an equal interest in representing “general” fiction. But when that fiction covers topics of ethnic and multicultural diversity, white agents run for the hills, with only 15 per cent willing to even take a look.

Racialized authors work harder and submit more widely

Simply put, racialized authors — who are overwhelmingly the ones writing ethnic or multicultural fiction – are the authors who face longer odds of getting published. And like people of colour across different occupations, research shows these authors respond by working harder and submitting more widely, putting more effort and sweat equity into their searches than their white counterparts. This is done in an effort to balance out the discrimination they know they will face.

Yet even in my interviews with racialized authors who could secure publishing contracts, they described a process in which their novels were ping-ponged back and forth between being “too racialized” at first, and then not racialized enough.

Racialized authors are often asked to dumb down their stories

As a Black, southern literary writer explained to me, he had to “dumb down” his manuscript populated by Black southern characters because his editor didn’t believe “people talk that way” – the cultural specificity and accuracy of his novel was whitewashed out.

In the marketing and promotion stage, however, even after having their novels culturally denuded, racialized authors found themselves ghettoized and pigeon-holed again. One African-American novelist told me the painful story of her fears that her work of literary fiction would be pushed back into the “African American interests” section of bookstores rather than being shelved with the rest of the literary fiction.

A widely celebrated Chinese American literary novelist sardonically told a racially diverse room of her fans about a conversation with her publisher: “I told them: ‘Just promise me you won’t put any lanterns or fireworks on the cover because these are stories about people. Yes, they happen to be Chinese, but they’re stories about people.’ So as you’d expect, it has goldfish on it. The only thing I left them.”

Don’t forget these are the success stories. These are the racialized authors who make it.

The ConversationRegardless of the statistically and experientially indefensible claims made by Cultural Appropriation Prize supporters, the real “race problem” in book publishing is the same as it is all over the world: white people are blessed with large and small advantages that they may not even understand. Racialized people are penalized with large and small disadvantages that they have no choice but to understand. If you don’t know where to stand on the cultural appropriation debate, just look at the numbers.

Clayton Childress, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Publishing should be more about culture than book sales


Dallas J Baker, University of Southern Queensland

It seems too obvious to point out that publishing is a cultural activity, not just a process for corporations to make money. That being said, we rarely talk or write about publishing without talking about money, about book sales.

That’s because, even though contemporary publishing has seen the emergence of diverse independent publishers and the self-publishing boom, it is still dominated by multinational corporations. And corporations are all about the numbers.

Most books are produced by one of the “big five” publishing multinationals (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster).

Katherine Bode of Australian National University puts this figure at 74% of books in Australia. These transnational corporations are, by their very nature, focused on the creation of profit rather than the creation of culture.

In fact, for some of those multinational corporations, books and writing aren’t even the largest part of their business.

HarperCollins and Hachette are both subsidiaries of media companies (News Corp and Lagardère respectively). Commercial or “traditional” publishing is not so much aimed at telling a story and hopefully making a profit but at making a profit by telling a story.

In this publishing climate culture is always subsumed to business. The book and its story or narrative are merely a vehicle to generate sales and as such are understood as a unit of exchange rather than as an artefact of expression and/ or meaning.

In other words, publishing is viewed as a business not as a cultural activity. This perception of publishing as a business, even a creative one, means that the question of book sales dominates our conversations about it, rather than questions around how readers use books and book culture to develop a sense of the society in which they live and/ or a sense of themselves.


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When we talk about publishing there is little discussion about the ways it contributes to culture, to the formation and expression of identity, to constructing notions of gendered, social, ethnic or national belonging.

Multinational corporations are not about culture, not about identity and belonging. And here lies the big problem. Culture (literature, music, cinema etc.) is about the mediation and expression of identity and belonging.

Although culture is sometimes, perhaps even often, accessed as part of a commercial transaction, it doesn’t need that transaction to fulfil its purpose, which is to communicate, express or muse over something.

Culture can and does thrive without being bought and sold. The huge amount of free culture on the internet attests to that. More to the point, the thing we value about culture doesn’t depend on a financial exchange but on a human exchange, an exchange of ideas and/ or experiences.

Most of us (the sane ones) do not value a cultural artefact or experience because of what it costs but because of the meaning we take or make from it. We also value it because of the effort, skill and expertise its creator put into it.

I appreciate Mark Rothko’s painting Untitled (yellow and blue) because of its simplicity, skillful use of colour and the delight I get from it, not because it is worth US$46.5 million.

I appreciate JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books because the character Hermione Granger kills me, not because Rowling made her publishers a gazillion bucks.

The process of finding meaning in the books we read, or making meaning from them, is one that goes far beyond any commercial transaction. These days it also goes beyond the page.

Our experience of a book is now supplemented by perusing reviews and blogs, engaging with print and screen media items about the book and its author, viewing or reading author interviews, attending book and writing related events and festivals and, for many of us, by participating in fan communities.

Few of these engagements depend on a financial transaction (excepting a festival entry fee here or there).

Though high sales figures might give an indication of social significance in a specific (often passing) moment, it doesn’t give us any sense at all of lasting cultural value.

The Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer were socially significant for a while, but it is doubtful that they will be valued (or even remembered) a hundred years from now, or even 50 years from now.

Not even the most ardent Twilight fan is likely to say that Meyer’s books are great cultural works.

Likewise, consider Peyton Place, the 1956 blockbuster novel by Grace Metalious. Peyton Place sold 60,000 copies within the first ten days of its release and stayed on the New York Times best seller list for 59 weeks.

It was also made into a successful film and then a hit prime-time television series.

Even so, until you read Grace Metalious’ name here it is likely you had never encountered it before. Grace Metalious is no Jane Austen, not even an Ernest Hemingway. Many books that are commercially and thereby socially significant for a time fail to find a long-term place of prominence in our culture.

When we talk about publishing these days, we have to talk about much more than book sales, even more than the written word and books themselves. We need to talk about all the things we do with and around books, our engagement with book culture.

In other words, we need to talk about publishing as a cultural practice, as something that contributes to or even constitutes who we are as individuals, who we are as citizens. We need to talk about publishing as a socio-cultural activity that helps us to understand our place in the world.

Publishing expresses and shapes our societies. It even plays a part in the kind of nations we live in. It would be wise, therefore, to broaden the conversation about it to more than sales figures.

In short, we need to shift our attention from publishing as a business process to thinking about publishing as an act of culture.

The Conversation

Dallas J Baker, Lecturer, Editing & Publishing, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.