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This item is taken from PN Review 79, Volume 17 Number 5, May - June 1991.

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about the crisis in publishing in eastern Europe, the cruel adjustment - disastrous in the short term for 'middle list' and literary authors - to new patterns of accountability, and the wholesale acquisition and restructuring of established literary concerns.

In a few years' time, the process will be complete, and the inexorable integration of the publishing media - barring a new cold war - will be taken for granted in a 'united Europe' of one kind or another. After all, where there's capital, paper, writers and readers, bookstores and the other accoutrements of literary culture, a certain stability emerges. And the literary culture in those nations now being colonized by free enterprise is hardly inferior to that of the west, despite the inefficiency of the old industries and of the desultory censorship.

Yet the debate that has surrounded these developments has silenced, in recent months, a more urgent debate. The chaotic literary infrastructure of third world countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia provides a more urgent and intractable crisis than the adjustments in Eastern Europe.

These are traditional markets into which European and American publishers export their wares against credit guarantees and sometimes venture a little investment, especially if national or institutional grants are available. But what might be done if the money written off each year by the American publishing giants in 'unearned advances' to pulp authors had been, instead, imaginatively invested in developing readership in less advantaged nations? It is as though the Southern Hemisphere, apart from Australia and New Zealand (and South Africa) had been written off by the great publishing interests.

Of course these southern nations - many of them - present an extremely hostile environment to books. Larger than the problems of censorship, there is the quagmire of illiteracy. The venture capitalist and the independent entrepreneur must also face tangled state regulations, and a mood of distrust of foreign investment in the information industries. And there is the yoyo of inflation, uncertainty of supplies, problems of currency. As markets, as manufacturing bases, despite the often cheap cost of printing, these can seem unpromising risks.

Third world problems might strike us as less acute were it not for the fact that even twenty-five years ago publishing industries in Singapore, Nigeria and Mexico, to name but three, performed with a degree of vigour. New writers, native and neighbouring, appeared; there were literary journals with significant circulation; translated literature was published; the industries exported, not always modestly. Today at the Frankfurt Book Fair the co-operative national stands of the surviving publishers are often poor affairs: dutifully showing the flag, but a singularly threadbare one.

Now that superpowers and ideologies compete less avidly for third world intellectual allegiance, the resources which once found their way, often by indirection, into publishing - and propaganda - are otherwise deployed. Nationalism, and a habit of nationalizing the stable educational publishing sector, leave would-be literary and general publishers exposed. The poverty of bookselling in these countries, the absence of trade journals with reliable analysis and statistics, make for a trade lacking the crucial givens of the literary infrastructure we take for granted - the infrastructure which overgenerously provides us with more than 60,000 new titles a year.

Gordon Graham, in an article in Publishers' Weekly (15 February 1991), writes: 'The tragedy of it all is that strong national publishing industries, based on private enterprise and local cultures, are essential to democracy and stability.' He adds, after some political pieties: 'Bookless societies are dangerous to themselves and to the world.'

It might seem to be in the interests of capitalist publishers to develop markets and industries in populous emerging nations. It is doubtless in the interests of our culture that the best foreign works should actually emerge and be made available. Once upon a time, even in the early part of this century, American writers had to 'make it' in Britain before they could feel that they had 'made it' at all. Some Commonwealth writers still suffer this insecurity: the bourse is in London or New York. This is understandable but unfortunate - understandable because of the extreme instability of the publishing industry in Canada and Australia quite as much as in India and South Africa. In sad fact many Latin American writers are invisible until they are quoted on the literary bourse in Barcelona or Buenos Aires.

If the book trade in the third world could find in the profit-hungry and cruelly efficient industries of the northern hemisphere a collaborative response - if Waterstones opened in Nairobi, for instance, and Random Century established in Pakistan what Heinemann have done in Africa - then a first step might be taken. If Whitakers or Bowker developed sophisticated trade journals in such countries, collecting and collating information ... The husbandry that goes into the creation of literary culture: it is long term, with solid prospects yet such developments must remain imaginary for a time. They will have to accommodate to local laws and needs, to remain apolitical (a word with different nuances in different nations). They will require risky investment. Yet they might also contribute not only to the growth of literary markets, but to the strengthening of literary cultures, a matter of urgency not only for eastern Europe but also for lands with even harsher cultural problems and priorities.

This item is taken from PN Review 79, Volume 17 Number 5, May - June 1991.

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