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Literary Stars of the Future

El Ateneo Bookstore in Buenos Aires

Today on NPR’s Morning Edition, co-host Don Gonyea interviewed Granta editor John Freeman and one of the co-founding editors of Granta en español, Valerie Miles, about Granta 113, which features work from 22 of the best young Spanish-language novelists. When Gonyea noted that a third of the “literary stars of the future” were from Argentina, Miles cited that country’s rich literary tradition, which has produced masters like Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and many more I probably should know but don’t. But Miles went further:

A lot of it has to do with the fact that Argentina is a country with a very long and strong literary tradition…But it also has to do with the fact that it has wonderful bookstores. Some of the really great and really important publishing companies that ran away from Franco’s Spain ended up in Argentina, and it’s very exciting to see what’s going on there.

This is a good reminder that bookstores are more than just capitalist enterprises. They are also cultural storehouses that safeguard a society’s literary tradition, and incubators of future generations of storytellers and poets and critics. Or they can be. I went into a Christian chain bookstore last week and it felt more like the midway at a carnival than a bookstore. More space had been allotted to ridiculous Christian t-shirts, kitsch, and cheap toys and trinkets (many of them made in China) than to books. (The bookstore also seemed to have an entire shelf devoted to Ronald Reagan.)

I’m not saying bookstores shouldn’t be subject to the same forces of profit and loss as other businesses. I’m saying there may be more at stake than first meets the eye. Preferring a brick and mortar bookstore – preferably an independent shop, where the booksellers are passionate, knowledgeable, and opinionated, where bookselling is something akin to a calling – might be a vote for the future of American literature. The little kids rummaging through the Testamints might be the next Mark Twain, William Faulkner, or Flannery O’Connor – if we only give them the chance.

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2 comments on “Literary Stars of the Future

  1. I just don’t see how the brick and mortar bookstore stays in business. Shane Claiborne posted at Out of Ur a similar sentiment and called for creativity in the Christian bookstore realm. Also hoped the bookstores would become more principled fighting the urge to sell Jesus Junk. Hard to be principled when you have a bottom line to meet.

    Hope I am wrong but I just don’t see how bookstores will viable in their current incarnation.

    • Jeff,

      I haven’t read Claiborne’s blog post yet, but I will. I found a link in case others want to read it too:

      http://www.outofur.com/archives/2010/12/the_christian_i.html

      I share your concern about the fate of brick and mortar stores, especially the independent ones. I’d betray my capitalist comrades and support a government subsidy to support independent bookstores (along with small family farms, newspapers, and public broadcasting), but something tells me that that is a non-starter. Ultimately, the only thing that will keep the independent bookstore open is for a significant segment of the population to buy (hard enough in these tough economic times) and to choose to buy differently. Is it going too far to say that their fate is in our hands?

      I wonder if I can convince Byron Borger at Hearts & Minds Books to open about the state of the business – the peril and the promise and what we can do to save civilization. Maybe I’ll contact him and ask for an interview.

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