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Archive for November 16th, 2009

Secular Cathedrals

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Refering to this Guardian article about the evil of Waterstone’s, Damian G Walter identifies a yearning in the book buying public:

But almost all conveyed the sense that there was something missing from bookselling. Commentors gave hints at what that something might be. We want quiet places to read and contemplate. We want steaming hot pots of water and infusions of fragrant teas. We want educated, erudite staff with whom we can discuss not just books but the broad range of knowledge we learn from them. Most of all, we want a sense of community, of connection with other like minded souls in search of meaning. We want a church.

I don’t and I don’t know anyone else who does. Turning churches into bookshops: good. Turning bookshops into churches: bad. There are over 180 comments on the Guardian article but skimming through them I didn’t pick up on this overwhelming desire for quasi-spiritual communion with like-minded souls. I did find a lot of “crazy, sentimental, Luddite talk” (to quote another commenter) from people whose tender sensibilities are offended by the very idea of commerce. A couple of people did rebel from reality so much that they call for the return of Edwardian reading lounges but that is as close as we get to church. Walter goes on to make an even more dubious assertion:

People turn to art for the kind of comfort and insight they once sought from organised religion, particularly people from the urban professional classes for whom books are of such cultural importance.

There may well be some small grain of truth in this but it is a remarkably contentious statement just to throw out there as if it is a common truth. Walter doesn’t go into detail so I won’t either but there are any number of issues you could raise against this simplistic statement. Anyway, he uses this as the basis for a disengenous comparison of books and other cultural institutions:

But while galleries, concert halls, theatres and other cultural institutions have geared themselves towards satisfying the (for lack of a better word) spiritual expectations of their audiences, the bookshop has gone in entirely the opposite direction. Galleries have positioned themselves as quiet, white spaces in the chaos of modern life. Bookshops are packed full of advertising and cross merchandising… Bookshops have become a feature of shopping malls, but are conspicuously missing from the major arts and cultural centres developed in the last decade.

The first thing to note is that a bookshop is a very different beast to a gallery and it is not immediately obvious why you would compare them. It is notable that for all the comparisons to other art forms, Walter ignores the music industry which is probably the best match: individual content producers, the means of production controlled by publishers, low production costs, easily distributable, retailers that provide little added value.

Even putting this aside, the most successful gallery in recent times in the UK is Tate Modern. It is hardly what you would call a quiet, white space. Yes, the walls of the individual galleries are white but that is no more meaningful than observing that bookshops have shelves. Tate Modern repurposes an obsolete building (much as retailers often do) to create a modern, heavily-designed space which usually bustles with activity. It certainly doesn’t shun the market in favour of the purely spiritual. The exhibitions in the Turbine Hall are free because they are sponsored by Unilever and for the charging exhibitions there are adverts. Nor is it free from the market in other ways. You would expect to find shops in a shopping centre but it is less clear why you would expect them in a cultural centre. Nonetheless, Tate Modern has an excellent bookshop. It also contains a cafe, a restaurant, a bar and a shop. Just up the river, the recently refurbished Southbank Centre now boasts a branch of Foyles.

This is all preamble though; once Walter has made his diagnosis, he then provides his prescription. It is not until the very end of his post that we finally get to the heart of the matter: “Is it time that bookshops and publishers made the case for public subsidy?”

In every other area of our cultural life, visual arts, theatre, TV, etc etc, we acknowledge the need for public subsidy to mitigate the less pleasant outcomes of commercialism. But because of their relatively strong commercial basis (theatre would long since have disappeared outside London without subsidy) bookshops and publishers have not made a case (and perhaps have never tried) to get support from the state.

Again, it is easy to get distracted by some of his passing assertions but the meat of his complaint is that publishing receives no public funding. The irony here – as Paul Raven notes – is that what Walter is describing in that first quote sounds much more like a library than a church. The government spends tens of millions of pounds on exactly the sort of community book places that he wants. As Raven says: “a strong campaign for increased library funding would be a better plan than suggesting recently-successful businesses go to the state with cap in hand.”

Bookshops, as the name suggests, are shops, they are not creative venues. There is absolutely no reason the government should be funding them, other than the strange sense of entitlement which over takes some book people. As it happens though, booksellers do receive a fairly substantial indirect subsidy from the state: books are after all exempt from VAT. Nor is it true that publishers receive no subsidy, literature is one of the six artforms supported by the Arts Council (to the tune of almost £6 million a year). Not surprisingly their policy focusses on the most important people – the actual writers – but some money is directed towards publishers. To take an example of this sort of state funding that should be close to Walter’s heart, for many years Interzone carried the logo of Arts Council South East.

There is perhaps a conversation to be had about relative levels of funding for different art forms but, in terms of realpolitic, it is hard to imagine a worse possible time to call for further public subsidy for the arts. There have been ten years of continuous investment in public spending but those days are over. In recent years the government has tried to trim some of its fat but we are starting to get into the meat and in a couple of years time – except for some areas like health and education – those cuts might well go down to the bone. Now, just because you don’t have the money for something doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do. At the same time, the publishing industry is hardly at death’s door and you will forgive me for thinking the government might have other priorities at the moment.

Written by Martin

16 November 2009 at 18:16

Posted in books

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