Personally I find it overwhelming to enter a bookstore. Obviously the cultural productions of any given bookstore are highly variable. Bookstores, like books themselves, can be read in many different manners. Yet, even as there is a degree to which bookstores have great variation, there are some fairly constant dynamics within most western bookstores.
For example, bookstores are usually understood to contain an eclectic panoply of literature. Though this seems fairly logical, it depends how someone defines ‘eclectic’ and what standards of difference constitute a wide variety of styles. Even further, there is a divergence between what physically exists in bookstores and how a consumer interacts with the space. Yes, there may exist many different styles of literature, according to a variety of definitions, in most bookstores. This does not, however, mean that those different styles are displayed equally.
Most bookstores, particularly large chains, prioritize section labels over the titles of a book. Books are usually placed in shelves only visible by the side. In contrast, newly reprinted “classics,” best sellers, award winners, or other literature deemed of note, are usually made more visible. Though book stores might be imagined as a type of cosmopolitan, multicultural haven, a small number of forms and content dominate the space. Bookstores often highlight the commercial success of a book as a marker of popularity, and therefore quality. Most bookstore chains, such as Barnes and Noble, place “best sellers,” often on The New York Times’ list, in the main entrance of a store. The New York Times best sellers are not calculated based upon how many books are actually sold, but the number of copies retail chains purchase.
Even though many people regularly buy books for pleasure, far fewer have much understanding of how publishing or other institutional frameworks of literature operate. In general, consumers believe authors have far more control over the creation of their book than they do. Authors usually have little control over what gets written on the back cover of their book. This knowledge is fairly easily accessible and basically public record. Any description I could give would only barely scratch the surface of common practices within publishing industries.
Similarly, many people give great value to certain prizes, but far fewer know the basic operations, let alone the historical precedents, behind them. For the Pulitzer Prize, much cursory information can be garnered from a brief perusal of the website.
I am trying to give some idea of the extent to which cultural productions of spaces associated with objects described as “art” are invisible in popular consciousness. Many people go to museums, yet far fewer know the basic processes behind artistic installation selections. I know I do not.
I started thinking this through when I went from my local library to the nearest Barnes and Noble to purchase a copy of Janet Mock’s first book Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. After meandering about aimlessly for a bit, I asked an employee to look up the book for me. The employee gave me directions. I searched high and low where they suggested and sheepishly returned five minutes after I started. They led me to the cultural studies bookcase, located in the corner of the store next to the bathroom. On the bottom shelf, of about 20 books, was the “African American and LGBT” section.
When considering the “new inclusion” of underrepresented groups, it is misguided to just count best sellers and award-winning authors. The structures surrounding literary, and artistic production more generally, must be interrogated.