National canons, literary fiction, and traditional publishing

Census time!

This week I came unstuck when filling in the Scottish census.

“What do you feel is your national identity?”

I don’t feel any national connection with Englishness, Scottishness, Britishness, or otherwise.

If pushed, I’d probably describe myself as a New Scot as this seems inclusive and relatively fluid.

These questions are really complex as they are about much more than a feeling of “identity”. For example, the Scottish Independence Movement seems like an understandable reaction to the growing social inequalities from the Thatcher era onwards.

The national “we”

Have you ever through about the idea of a national “we”?

Maybe you have encountered phrases like “a national treasure”, “in our culture,” “we are a welcoming nation” etc.? These turns of phrase are common in Western societies and many others. They are examples of what the sociologist Michael Billig called banal nationalism, and I’ve come across them frequently in the publishing world too.

From a critical perspective, this national “we” is often used to exclude or create hierarchies between nationally defined selves and others. If you are asked to imagine an English gentleman, the imagined person likely has a particular skin colour. Yet even if we question and pull apart these stereotypes, they often remain on the edges of our lived and felt experience.

Some novelists clearly feel at home in national categories and invoke concepts like “Englishness” in their work. Other writers do not.

National canons, literary fiction, and nation-building in Europe

Indeed, this issue emerged when seeking funding for a joint Bosnian, Montenegrin, Croatian, and Serbian literary translation workshop. The UK organisers required partners in the source translation countries. Yet, in Croatia especially, it was difficult to get any state institutional support for a workshop at which the four different language varieties would be represented.

In this context, there has been a strong motivation to strengthen and create new national canons of literature and culture. In Croatia, the nationalist logic is separatist and individuating, rather than – equally problematically – pushing for a forced unity and ignoring some of those differences.

These nationalist processes are commonplace in Western Europe too. Councils exist to promote (standard) languages and cultures like English, French, German, and Spanish. Oftentimes, the assumption is that language and culture go together in a one-language, one-culture, one-nation triad that has been popular over the past couple of centuries.

These language councils operate as a kind of soft power and often promote literary fiction over genre fiction. One reason for this is that literary texts are presumed to have a greater artistic value and are therefore better suited to building national literary canons.

What about the authors?

However, many writers of literary fiction feel apathetic about this cause. Others oppose such attempts. One of my favourite authors in this vein is Roberto Bolano. He writes about the absurdity of these political ideas. And of literary scenes in Latin American that flirted with right-wing and fascist ideology.

I love it when presses work outside of these paradigms and reject the idea of a national canon! V&Q Books describe their collection as books “from Germany” and include authors based there writing in other languages (e.g. Croatian).

In Montenegro, I collaborated with the speculative fiction and anthropology press, Aquamarine Press. They were openly queer. They supported LGBTQ rights, while also playing with the boundaries of anthropological and speculative fiction genres. However, they struggled to obtain state funding in a publishing landscape oriented towards producing and redefining a national canon.

Why indie publishing is exciting

Now, indie authors represent a broad spectrum of viewpoints and perspectives.

However, indie publishing doesn’t rely on gatekeeping and the establishment to the same extent as trad publishing. It’s clear that trad publishing has a white middle-class female background to it. Indies don’t have the same constraints or conservatism (linked to risk-taking) as trad publishing. This makes it an exciting and, in some ways, more inclusive arena.

Being aware of national and nationalist dynamics in publishing is important. It tells us why certain projects receive funding and what motivates certain authors to write. All this can help publishing consultants and developmental editors to improve the quality of their author feedback and services.

We tend to do a better job when we’re excited by and advocates for the story (and its messaging) too. This is why writing about these issues and being upfront about our views can help us find better partners for creative collaborations.

What’s your take on all this?If you enjoy playing with boundaries, categories, and genres and thinking critically about the publishing world, then get in touch! I’d love to connect with authors I share common ground with.

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Photo by Darwin Vegher on Unsplash

1 Comment

  1. very clear and good article easy to understand. Thank you

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