Bournemouth University has an internal funding scheme called FUSION, and I’ve been asked to announce a successful bid for the project Private Gains and Retailed Literature: pathways to an economics-based account of reading, beginning September 2014.
At a policy level, literary art has trouble justifying its claim on public resources; certainly with justifications that have a verifiable impact. I don’t see much point in re-running arguments about dulce and utile, claiming either literature’s own intrinsic worth or the ability of the best literature to help-create a fully cultivated citizen. l’art pour l’art is difficult to argue for in the face of severe cuts to essential public services, and functional explanations such as educating readers towards a supposedly more-culturally discerning state run aground when it comes to who defines ‘best’ and ‘more cultivated’– that debate being trapped in notions of cultural hierarchy running counter to democratic pluralism.
Policy justifications for cultural production, including the sciences, at the very least need to have economics built in at a structural level and, whether we like it or not, money now does the majority of the talking. For example, Horizon2020 does not even have an independent humanities component.
So taking the bull (market) by the horns, this project aims at an explanation based on gains, on the intangible benefits readers obtain from the books they have in hand. I want to ask why people consistently spend time and money on literature. What do they believe they gain? Since the opportunity costs are considerable, historically in terms of money and now in terms of time, readers must hope to gain something. Rather than thinking of meanings and literary achievement, I’m trying to think of intangible gains. Design items, furnishings, apparel and even certain types of tourism can signify identities that customers want access to. But, when it comes to qualities such as personal encouragement, guidance, intellectual insight, or even a remedy against loneliness, then fiction satisfies in a way no other sort of material good can.
In finding a discourse with which to build the explanation, it should be remembered that the publishing industry and its delivery of fiction is by necessity predicated on commerce, while the markets for published fiction make up part of commodity culture. The language of private gain, of benefit and loss, which is the heart of commodity culture, is well suited for thinking about general-market reading. And if we can get passed the hijacking of economics by neo-liberalism, or get past neo-liberal reductionism that converts everything to financial indices, it may be admitted that economics has something to say about the mechanisms of gain, and about a specific type of reading in that commodity-cultural context.
The project will be headed by myself, in partnership with UNESCO Chair in New Media Forms of the Book, Prof. Alexis Weedon (University of Bedfordshire) and Prof. Claire Squires, Director of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication (University of Stirling). We will be working with the international retail chain JS Group/John Smith’s books, producing a cultural and media studies report on their conception of ‘outcomes’ and their organisation of their services. We will also be conducting a student-led survey of the perceived benefits of retailed literature, across a number of UK book shops. Together, the student survey and JS study will greatly refine the project’s understanding of the qualities signified in book retail. It will help the project understand why people think books are important.
 For an engaging take on neo-liberal reductionism, see Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (London, New York, Verso 2013).