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Until early this year, an individual interested in, or professionally involved with, the twenty‑first‑century world of books could travel the globe incessantly, attending book fairs, writers’ festivals, and readers’ conventions. Our roving reader, writer, publisher, or other agent in the communications circuit of the book is a literary Carmen Sandiego, darting from country to country, crossing genres, finding herself at a festival on a ferry, a canal boat, or a train. Occasionally Carmen’s passage, and thus the whole communications circuit itself, might be inhibited by the consciousness of her carbon footprint, impeded by immigration policy and visa restrictions, or cancelled due to pandemic disease.[1]

Book fairs and festivals are hubs of literary, bookish activity. The annual global calendar includes, among thousands of others, Byron Bay Writers’ Festival in Australia, Iceland Noir, and Ubud Readers and Writers Festival in Indonesia, as well as the peripatetic—and travel-themed—Étonnants Voyageurs, which takes place in St Malo (France), Bamako (Mali), and Port-au-Prince (Haiti). Book fairs take place in locations including Bologna (Italy), where the focus is specifically on children’s books and illustration, Guadalajara (Mexico), and Sharjah (UAE). These fairs and festivals are a subset of a broader category of periodic global cultural and commercial festivals and events, from live music festivals to performance art happenings, and from automotive trade fairs to United Nations climate change conferences. Bookish events have very local manifestations, too, attracting participants from geographically close communities, or they can be based partially or solely on digital delivery, as with the Glasgow Women’s Library in Scotland, whose Open the Door festival is in alternate years digital and physical.

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Book-based cultural and commercial events are the subject of this special issue, BOOK COMMERCE BOOK CARNIVAL.[2] From the foundation of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1454 to the growth of the festival format in the postwar period to the proliferation of digital and live events in the twenty-first century, book fairs and festivals have shaped book cultures and publishing industries. The history of these events has by now been well established.[3] Broadly, we would typify the existing scholarly frameworks as deriving from cultural sociology and creative economy studies. Such scholarship, as we outlined more substantially in our previous Mémoires du Livre/Studies in Book Culture article, “Serious Fun: Gaming the Book Festival,” has often taken a Bourdieusian approach, sometimes furthered via an attentiveness to Pascale Casanova’s arguments about the uneven global distribution of prestige in the “world republic of letters.”[4] Book festivals and fairs have been analyzed as worlds, as games, as tournaments, as fields, as events, as microcosms, as situations, as institutions, as networks.[5]

Our own initial interest in book fairs and festivals gave rise to an ongoing research collaboration concerning the dynamics of book cultures. In “Serious Fun,” we put forward the approach of game‑inspired thinking as a strategy to create “a space between individual case studies and abstract theories to offer a mid-level perspective” on book festivals, one that is “deliberately playful and creative, an arts-informed complement to methodological empiricism” as well as super-structural conceptualizations.[6] This article was foundational in our development of the conceptual school Ullapoolism, a post-data, activist, autoethnographic epistemology for contemporary book culture studies.[7]

We further developed this approach in our fieldwork and publications based on the Frankfurt Book Fair.[8] As we argue in our forthcoming book The Frankfurt Book Fair and Bestseller Business, book fairs and festivals lend themselves to being read through theories of the carnivalesque.[9] We pursue Brian Moeran’s idea that publishing trade fairs, and particularly their after-hours alcohol-fuelled social gatherings, have a carnivalesque aspect. Moeran sees a historical relationship between contemporary book fairs and medieval fairs, such that the concept of “fair time” can be seen as an analogue of “carnival time.”[10]

Certainly, book fairs and festivals present themselves as periodic, enjoyable interruptions to everyday work. But the mediaeval version of the carnival has more societal heft to it than this. As Mikhail Bakhtin suggests in his theory of the literary carnivalesque, the carnival is a radically disruptive space. The carnival enables “free and familiar contact between people” and therefore “a new mode of interrelationships between individuals,” and it is marked by “eccentricity,” “carnivalistic mésalliances,” and “profanation”: features that together undermine the sacred and emphasize the bodily.[11] Medieval carnivals offered forms of resistance but, as state- or church‑sanctioned events, also operated as regular safety valves, relieving pressure before a return to everyday life. In contrast, a Situationist account of carnival sees it as a moment of revolutionary potential, an opportunity to turn spectacular capitalism against itself, and thus instil the revolutionary into everyday life (to adapt the title of Situationist Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 book).[12] Can contemporary book fairs and festivals enact this revolutionary version of the carnival, while being sanctioned by the forces of global capital? We suggest not. The central role that book fairs and festivals occupy in creative economies means they do not turn the world upside down: rather, they keep neoliberal publishing economies running.[13]

In assembling this special issue, we sought to further existing scholarship on book fairs and festivals in both their historical and contemporary manifestations, by pursuing the idea that they are carnivals as well as forums for commerce. Book events are sites for the trading of books, rights, and ideas, but they are also carnivalesque, located outside the everyday. Fairs and festivals are celebrations of creativity, flashpoints for anxieties, and sites of bad behaviour. Inhibitions are lowered and people wear masks, power is exposed and sometimes mocked, and books come out to play.

We elicited articles that addressed book fairs and festivals in their commercial and carnivalesque aspects, seeking to include a range of perspectives on contemporary and historical events across the globe. In addition, we have been particularly interested in encouraging unusual foci and autoethnographic methodologies that would move beyond existing scholarly narratives. In order to showcase these diverse approaches—case studies, comparative and transnational analyses, theoretical engagements, and methodological reflections—we encouraged creative, arts-informed experiments as well as methods drawn from the social sciences and humanities. Specifically, we asked the following questions, which drew on four thematic areas:

  • The first theme addressed by the special issue is the international book business. In a digital age, what is the role of business-oriented book fairs such as Frankfurt, Guadalajara, BookExpo, and the Montreal and Paris Salons du Livre? When trade can be conducted through digital technologies, why do publishers continue to gather from around the globe, often at great expense? How do pop-up bookshops, signing sessions, and literary merchandise contribute to literary economies and the circulation of the book? What does it mean for festivals to offer writers promotional opportunities, and public platforms?

  • The second area we wanted to develop is a focus on book experiences, parties and people. Who do you meet at a festival or fair? Who is in the audience, and what experiences do they have? (What do they wear, and what tote bags do they carry?) What functions do book fairs and literary festivals play for authors; what happens when authors move from the page to the stage? What are fairs and festivals like for publicists, for organizers, for agents? How does informal networking facilitate culture and trade? What harm might be done? Who might be excluded? How diverse is participation in these events?

  • This led to a third theme developed in the issue: the importance of live literature. Writers’ festivals and events at book fairs offer literature an opportunity to be animated—presented live—in front of an audience. How does “liveness” affect the production and consumption of writing? How can the situation of books within a festival environment be explored and explained, in methodological terms?

  • Finally, no analysis of book festivals and fairs could be complete without accounting for controversies and scandals. When is programming provocative and when is it disastrous? How are controversies managed by audiences, organizers, and media? How are book fairs and writers’ festivals constructed in ideological terms, and how do they create a series of insiders and outsiders? How is institutional privilege entrenched? What might be the role of satirical social media accounts? How might researchers engage with and intervene in such controversies?

These four areas, all informed by Ullapoolism, underpin what we see as the collaborative development of the field of book culture studies produced in this special issue. The issue investigates book fairs and festivals in their commercial, cultural, performative, and carnivalesque guises, and in their transnational, local, and global manifestations.

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The nine articles gathered here vary in the location and type of events they investigate, in their methods, in their conceptual approaches, and in the themes that emerge. Like Carmen Sandiego, they cross the globe and cover (some of) its linguistic diversity: from Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, and Germany to India, Scotland, Slovenia, Sweden, and the United States. Following the conventional distinction between fairs and festivals, we have structured the special issue first into a set of four articles focusing on trade fairs: Corinna Norrick-Rühl and Luise Hertwig’s two contributions address different aspects of the Frankfurt Book Fair, while Fernando García Naharro focuses on the Buenos Aires Book Fair and Christian Lenemark on Sweden’s biggest book trade fair in Gothenburg. The special issue then assembles five articles on book festivals: Arpita Das on the Jaipur Literary Festival, Rachel Noorda and Kathi Inman Berens on the Portland Book Festival, Maria Snyder on the Quais du polar in Lyon, and our own article and Alexandra Dane’s, which both focus on a miscellaneous international mix of festivals large and small.

The articles lay bare some of the apparent distinctions between fairs and festivals: the trade fair tends to foreground commerce, while the book festival emphasizes culture. However, shared conceptual approaches in articles on both fairs and festivals problematize this discursive distinction, as does an understanding of the broader neoliberal economies within which all these events are embedded. Rather than writing of “fairs and festivals,” we suggest that it might be better to gather together the seemingly disparate aspects of such events via our neologism, “fairstivals.”[14]

Following the encouragement of our call for papers, several articles use conceptual approaches that explore both commercial and carnivalesque aspects. Some examine the role of fairstivals in the creative economy, with a focus on rights sales and translation, as well as on branding and its role in city and regional development and sponsorship. These articles address the international book business. Norrick-Rühl’s “‘Die Buchwelt zu Gast in Frankfurt’: Understanding the Impact of the Guest of Honour Presentation at Frankfurt Book Fair on the German Literary Marketplace” uses industry data to examine the way in which the Frankfurt Book Fair has shaped the literary translation marketplace. Hertwig focuses her study on the “State-funded Support of International Trade in Rights and Licences: Translation Funding Programs of Guests of Honor Argentina and France at the 2010 and 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair,” or, in other words, the ways in which cultural policy has “boosted the circulation and international awareness of Argentinian literature over the long term.”[15]

Continuing with investigations of the creative economy, both García Naharro and Noorda and Inman Berens focus on aspects of branding in their respective articles, “Branding like a City: Barcelona and its Literature at the Buenos Aires Book Fair” and “‘Keep Portland Weird’?: Carnivalesque Elements in the Rebranding of the Portland Book Festival.” For García Naharro, the showcasing of Barcelona at Buenos Aires draws on city branding and stereotypes, which he also reads semiotically through cultural artifacts. Noorda and Inman Berens examine the conjunction of tourism, sponsorship, and books in their analysis of rebranding an existing event, and the implications that this has for regional commerce.

Conceptualizations of the carnivalesque feature in several articles, predominantly (but not exclusively) in the examinations of book festivals. Noorda and Inman Berens focus on the creative economy in relation to the carnivalesque, analyzing “‘transformative (carnivalesque)”’ and ‘“transactional” (status quo)’” aspects of the festival in order to understand the positive and negative aspects of its rebranding. Snyder’s “Translation Jousts and Translation Genres: Translating Culture and Style at the Quais du Polar’” examines the festival (the Quais du polar) as an expression of the egalitarian impulse of the carnivalesque; the polar (similar to but not exactly the same as Anglophone crime fiction) as an anti-hierarchical genre; and the “unsettling potential” of translation. Her analysis of live literature in the “translation jousts” at the festival is underpinned by Lawrence Venuti’s theory of translation as not just an interpretive act but also as one which destabilizes dominant cultures. Translation is rendered visible in these events, bringing to the centre what was peripheral.

The articles all focus on contemporary book fairstivals, but several offer historical perspectives (on events such as Gothenburg, Frankfurt, Portland, and Buenos Aires) that enrich our understanding of the present. Norrick-Rühl, for instance, situates her research within the discipline of book history, to which she adduces systems theory (via Axel Kuhn’s use of Niklas Luhmann’s supertheories) in order to analyze the multidimensional role of the Frankfurt Book Fair. In so doing, she examines three systems: the system of art, the system of economics, and the system of politics.

Sociological approaches in this special issue include Lenemark’s consideration, in “Negotiating Value: A Case Study of the Gothenburg Book Fair,” of the fair as a tournament of values, following the work of Moeran. Lenemark augments this conceptualization through Barbara Herrnstein Smith in order to emphasize that value is a process, and through Bruno Latour, to include multiple actors. While viewing Gothenburg primarily through the tournament of values framework, he also adopts a carnivalesque lens to examine the event, which was dubbed by one commentator a “‘company party’” as well as a trade forum, and which has been beset by political turmoil.[16] Das’s article, “Jaipur Literature Festival, the Gendered Literary Field, and the MeToo Movement in India,” uses a feminist framework to interrogate the social impacts of the Jaipur Literary Festival. Her analysis of controversies and scandals highlights the disadvantages experienced by women in book culture.

The conceptual approach for our own article, “Experiments with Book Festival People (Real and Imaginary),” is Ullapoolist—an approach that, as outlined earlier in the introduction, embraces the materiality of art and the forced sociality of cultural encounters. The term Ullapoolist could also describe Dane’s article, “Cultural Capital as Performance: Tote Bags and Contemporary Literary Festivals,” which additionally, as its title indicates, approaches consumer culture at festivals through a Bourdieusian frame. The focus in our article and Dane’s is on fairstivals as book experiences: her analysis of tote bags and our experiment with paper dolls show how these experiences are signalled and shared. Our research also provoked its own gentle scandals, through satirical Twitter accounts and somewhat confusing audience feedback mechanisms.

The methodological approaches of these nine articles are as varied as their conceptual frameworks. Some include the use of quantitative data, as in Norrick-Rühl’s analysis of the number of titles translated into German from Frankfurt Guests of Honour and Hertwig’s overview of the translation subsidies (into all languages) offered by Guests of Honour to their home publishers. Digital quantitative methods also play a role in Noorda and Inman Berens’s sentiment analysis of tweets. Qualitative methods include analysis of texts, such as the historical and archival materials and journalistic writing considered by Lenemark and the promotional materials critiqued by Snyder. García Naharro’s semiotic approach involves a reading of cultural objects as storytelling imaginaries. Sociological qualitative methods include Noorda and Inman Berens’s survey of festival attendees and interviews with key figures associated with the festival’s brand transformation, as well as a range of ethnographic (including autoethnographic) and participant observation approaches in the studies of Dane, Das, Driscoll and Squires, Snyder, and Lenemark. Lenemark emphasizes his own attendance at Gothenburg over the past seven years as crucial for contextualizing his research, giving him a “deeper understanding” of the event, and revealing how the fair “recreates itself year after year in an almost ritualized way.”[17]

Like Lenemark, both Dane and Das foreground their own positions as autoethnographic researchers. Dane trains her eye on a number of festivals across Australia, the UK, and the US, recording her own reactions as a first-time attendee, and also observing the behaviours of other attendees and analyzing the ways in which the festivals are staged. Das’s article centres on an event at which she has been a participant over a decade, and she comments self-reflectively that this gives her a “vantage” possibly denied to a researcher coming from outside, while her “experience and emotional and cultural investment in the industry, its ancillaries and larger ecosystem, meant that if I were to turn an analytical eye to my professional world, it would never be a ‘dispassionate’ one.”[18] Given the highly politicized nature of Das’s study, with its focus on aspects of gender and MeToo, the intersection of the political, the professional, and the personal is inherent both in the method and the message of the article. In our own article, we meditate on autoethnographic and politicized inclusions and exclusions, conjuring up the wormlike creatures “Nunu” and “Otot” to animate our slogan, “No Insight Without Inside, No Inside Without Outside.” The slogan reminds us of the insider and outsider sensations experienced at book-based events, including those enforced by the power (or lack thereof) that attends different demographic and geopolitical positionings.

Finally, arts-informed, creative research methods feature in two of the articles. Dane uses sketching to capture key details of tote bags carried by festival attendees—a method that avoids some of the privacy issues and intrusiveness of photography, while supporting contemplation and reflection. Our article uses creative writing (including the development of voices for satirical Twitter accounts) and the art practice of making and decorating paper dolls (sidenote: one of our dolls carries a paper tote bag), in order to tease out nuanced aspects of festival experience and the performance of live literature.

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The world of books is capacious and, as some of the articles in this special issue demonstrate, occasionally capricious. With local cultural manifestations in every corner of the (admittedly cornerless) globe, as well as ties to the centralizing forces of economic capital, book fairs and festivals are the illustrators non pareil of the commercial and carnivalesque aspects of that world—as this issue of Mémoires du Livre/Studies in Book Culture establishes. We are proud of the issue as a vibrant, rigorous, energetic boost to the field of book studies. Its conceptual and methodological richness and its multiple, cross-disciplinary analyses point to several possible future directions for research on book festivals and fairs, as these events continue to grow and develop in the twenty‑first century. Digital methods, historical perspectives, participant observation, autoethnographic scholarly engagement, and creativity come together in these essays to add new complexity to the truism of publishing studies: that commerce and culture are always in tension, and yet are inextricably intertwined. For researchers, focusing on fairstivals offers significant perspective on this intimate yet combative relationship. Fairstivals showcase the international book business in the most spectacular of ways, providing book-based experiences for industry professionals, writers, and readers. They counterpose formal business meetings and sales opportunities with informal gatherings and parties, visibly perform the scandals and controversies that simmer throughout book culture, and unleash literature live into the field, sometimes literally. They thus expand our disciplinary field and its inter-disciplines, and open new possibilities for understanding and engaging with book cultures—and sometimes for offering trenchant critiques of them.

The special issue that we present here, then, elucidates some of the multifarious diversity of fairstivals, offering insight both into specific spaces, peoples, and experiences (from green rooms to stages; booths to Twitter) and into the broader multiplicity of contemporary book cultures. Yet as we write this introduction and finalize the special issue, we are more aware than ever of some of the elements of privilege inherent in our studies. We started this introduction with the figure of Carmen Sandiego, reimagined as a globe-trotting reader, writer, publisher, or other agent in the world of books, a privileged member of a travelling literary elite (a perspective, it must be clarified, that is not upheld by all the articles in this issue, which also focus on local communities and their practices as well as critiquing global big business). In her numerous transmedia incarnations, Carmen is variously constructed as a spy, a double or triple agent, a detective, and an audacious thief appearing and disappearing across the globe at will, stealing because she can. Even before we had conceived of this special issue and its themes of commerce and carnival, we had dreamed of providing a squad of international researchers with a mission to investigate book events around the world, carrying briefcases filled with novel conceptual approaches and methodological tools. Although this over-determined scheme never came to pass, our article authors nonetheless have fulfilled aspects of that mission. As researchers dramatically swirl their red trenchcoats, spin, curtsy, doff their fedoras, and exit the stage, what are the implications?

What happens if we cast ourselves as researchers in the Carmen Sandiego role, and reflect upon it? Are academic researchers in fact detectives? Double agents, or even thieves, stealing content from our research subjects for our own purposes? What is the researcher’s position in relation to book fairs and festivals, and to their organizers and participants? Many of the researchers in this special issue have a close relationship to the fairstivals about which they write, and have used this relationship to negotiate access to and then offer their analyses of the events. That ethnographic, and occasionally autoethnographic, approach has brought much epistemological richness to the studies presented here, as we detailed in the section above Some of these methodological orientations bring along their predicaments, however: what to do with overheard comments from the audience when you are sitting within it yourself; how to account for the elements of the event to which you do not have access; when the researcher transforms from passive, seemingly objective observer to a scholar with a standpoint, or even a scholar-activist; and what the role of imagination is within such scenarios.

All such concerns are standard considerations within auto/ethnographic scholarship, but—with some notable exceptions—are less commonly taken into account within the study of contemporary book cultures.[19] The ethical ambit of these questions—which encompass but go beyond those of the university ethics committee—should also, we argue, be central to the study of contemporary book cultures. Contemporaneity affords, and therefore demands, ethical engagement with the challenges of situatedness, entanglement, and potential for intervention.[20]

Carmen Sandiego’s spectacular intercontinental perambulations make us stop and think about our own assumptions as researchers as to what we can study and where, and the logic of neoliberal university systems that place value (in performance reviews, promotions applications and grant applications) on overseas travel and the researcher bringing back home the spoils of international keynotes, networks, fieldwork observations, and grant income. These systems insist on hierarchical thinking, privilege, competition, and carbon. While researchers might enjoy the benefits of these systems—just as the author travelling the book festival circuit, the reader on a literary pilgrimage, or the publisher in their beloved annual gathering might do—we should rightly interrogate our own actions and their implications. This is not the mode of Carmen Sandiego, a fictional figure who in some iterations might teach children about the (ill-gotten) riches of the globe, but who does so with more wish fulfilment than responsibility. So that we do not thieve from our subjects, it is the latter spirit that should animate our investigations, and our agency as researchers, as we turn our eyes to contemporary book cultures.