Literature starts with publishing. Something that has been taken for granted in Europe since Gutenberg in the sixteenth century, namely that books will be printed, distributed by publishers and sold in bookshops, was in many countries – especially in Africa – only ever true to a limited extent. Today we too, in the prosperous West, no longer know whether this publishing model will endure. E-books and online bookshops are in the process of destroying the traditional book market. But electronic publication and other alternatives to the classic publishing model, with its publishing houses and bookshops, also offer many new opportunities.
When, at a meeting at the Goethe-Institut last year, we decided to select an aesthetic theme for an edition of Fikrun wa Fann once again (a magazine with the word ‘art’ in its name) and dedicate issue 103 to the subject of literature, it was clear to us that in doing so we couldn’t simply publish literary texts. The selection would have been arbitrary, and with a distribution area from Morocco to Indonesia we could hardly have reflected the full variety of literatures in our target countries. So instead of featuring literature per se we have aimed to produce an edition about literature: about how creators of literature and makers of books are responding to current political, economic, and media circumstances, which are bringing with them such drastic changes that we have reason to ask ourselves whether literature will survive these changes, and if so, in what form.
Literature starts with publishing. Something that has been taken for granted in Europe since Gutenberg in the sixteenth century, namely that books will be printed, distributed by publishers and sold in bookshops, was in many countries – especially in Africa – only ever true to a limited extent. Today we too, in the prosperous West, no longer know whether this publishing model will endure. E-books and online bookshops are in the process of destroying the traditional book market, and we must gradually start to ask ourselves what that means for literature, how it is reacting to it and changing – and what this means for authors and for their economic situation, which is already, and has always been, insecure.
On the other hand, electronic publication and other alternatives to the classic publishing model, with its publishing houses and bookshops, also offer many new opportunities. Today, publishing is cheaper, quicker and less complicated than ever before. Anyone with an Internet connection and a computer, tablet, or perhaps even a good smartphone, has at their disposal – via formats and apps like Epub, txtr or Kindle – a reading device that has many advantages over books and provides direct access to the majority of texts in world literature, most of them for free.
Unfortunately, however, this facilitation and accompanying democratisation through electronic publishing is not universally applicable. You do need that Internet connection and a computer, tablet or smartphone – and while these are now almost taken for granted in the prosperous West, in Africa they are luxuries. And so, as Holger Ehling and Arthur Attwell demonstrate in their articles, it is worth trying to find alternative publishing methods, especially as in this region reading is not simply a leisure activity, or an important element of a good all-round education. It also conveys information that is essential for survival – as, for example, with the distribution of handbooks for midwives in Africa.
Added to this is the problem that apps for e-books in Oriental languages are not yet as well developed as those in languages that work with the Roman alphabet. Another obstacle to the spread of e-books is that buyers need to have a credit card, or to be able to access a similar method of electronic payment. This too is a luxury for many people in countries with a fragile economy – a description that now also applies to many countries of southern Europe.
At present the subject of electronic publication seems, in any case, to be of greater interest in the saturated West than in the Arab or wider Islamic world, where writers are dealing with far more urgent problems – problems so great that authors are asking themselves whether literature can still have any significance at all in the context of such violence and upheaval. The question is not just how to go about writing and publishing, but whether there is any sense at all in literary endeavour. The statements provided for this edition by a number of writers from the Arab-Islamic world, as their states and societies disintegrate in a manner not experienced in the West since World War Two, are forceful testimonials of resistance and of the enduring power of literature.
We can, therefore, take encouragement from these statements, despite the disastrous circumstances from which they have arisen. The same is true of the poetry on the streets of Turkish cities, which blossomed out of the protests against the authoritarian policies of Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Art&Thought brings you images (and explanations) of these poems by the photographer Achim Wagner.
We hope you enjoy this literary edition of Art & Thought / Fikrun wa Fann!
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann June 2015