Looking at literary culture

There’s a slight reflection on the bookstore window. In it I can see the streetscape - pedestrians, a café and a tree behind me. But I ignore the reflection and peer into the store. Hundreds of books sit on shelves and tables and in potential buyers’ hands. These books have made it. They’ve been written, edited, designed, published and now put on the shelves of a bookstore. The work has been done, right? ‘Why is it that some books are the books that everyone talks about and everyone reads, while other books just languish?’ asks Beth Driscoll, Lecturer in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. It’s a question we all ponder, and one that Driscoll is particularly interested in. She’s curious about the place books have in society: what they do, how they work and how they circulate.

Looking at literary culture (all of it). Thanks to Pat M2007 for use of this photo Decisions, Decisions! under Creative Commons.
Looking at literary culture (all of it). Thanks to Pat M2007 for use of this photo Decisions, Decisions! under Creative Commons.

‘It’s pointless to take a book in isolation and study it for what qualities it has [and how those qualities alone] create its value,’ says Driscoll (noting that theorist Pierre Bourdieu has informed her thinking). ‘It really is the whole field together which combines to make the value of the book.’

We’re not just talking about the work of writers and editors. Or even the work of designers and publicists. We’re also talking about the literary milieu: reviews, reviewers, adaptations for TV or film, university reading lists, book clubs, prizes and festivals. ‘I like to look for patterns that emerge from that – from the interactions between different people in the [wider] field,’ Driscoll says. So what are the patterns she’s seen so far?

‘I’m thinking about resurrecting quite an old and fairly pejorative word: the middlebrow, to describe the main way I’m seeing value being created… To me the middlebrow combines a kind of a reverence to the literary culture and the object of the book and authors,’ says Driscoll. The middlebrow also combines art and money. It’s reader-oriented, aspirational, entrepreneurial and often at the centre of distribution systems (like book clubs). Plus the word ‘middlebrow’ tends to be associated with women, and Driscoll notes that it’s often women attending literary events and driving literary efforts like book clubs. These women exert an influence on our literary culture. They’re not just passive recipients of books she says, ‘They contribute to the value that books have in society.’

Driscoll and I are sitting in a café next to the bookshop and I become more aware of her point. A writer’s journey doesn’t start in a publishing deal, a good cover design, a good review and nor does it start on a bookstore shelf. It starts when readers engage with your words, when they suggest your work for a book club, or talk about it over coffee. I see this literary zeitgeist at work around me daily: people reading in cafes, people reading reviews, people – like us – talking books. But how does this manifest in the digital space – particularly for digital-first publications?

‘The zeitgeist is changing,’ says Driscoll, but our literary culture is also responding. Take Oprah’s Book Club – a middlebrow institution contributing to the success of many writers’ careers. The recently relaunched Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 focuses on social-media. The new club ensures digital editions are available, with personal notes from Oprah appended (using social reading tools). The first book was Wild, by long form non-fiction writer Cheryl Strayed. ‘For the first time [the digital edition] outsold the print copy,’ says Driscoll. ‘This possibility of enriching digital books might increase the role for readers and cultural intermediaries [like Oprah].’

The digital zeitgeist can also facilitate conversation within our literary culture. ‘It is a slightly more democratic space where readers can write directly to writers and publishers, and be part of a conversation,’ says Driscoll. Commenting on social networks during literary events enables writers and those in the literary culture to convert the symbolic capital of the event into social capital. It helps writers and readers build networks. (Mind you, it’s only the quick and the dead – as Driscoll warns, ‘if you want to be part of the conversation you have to tweet at the moment it happens.’)

‘I care about readers and how they respond to events in literary culture,’ Driscoll tells me. As I pass the bookstore again on my way from our meeting I realise that I do too. The reflection on the bookstore window is as important as the books within.