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A novella of the Frankfurt Book Fair
Alastair Horne talks with Beth Driscoll and Claire Squires, authors of "The Frankfurt Kabuff"
Wilfrid Laurier University Press’s edition of The Frankfurt Kabuff, by Beth Driscoll and Claire Squires, arrives just in time for this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Praised by Claire Battershill as “a refreshingly joyful and playful intervention in the book history and publishing studies worlds,” it will be launched today (October 12) in a free online event.
Alastair Horne, a contributor to the volume’s new critical apparatus, shares perspective on the project here, drawing on conversations with authors Driscoll and Squires. Many thanks to everyone involved with the terrific guest post.
The Oxford English Dictionary, that common first resort of a student—or academic—tasked with writing on a topic they don’t quite understand, defines a critical edition as a “published literary, musical, or other text . . . often having substantial explanatory matter relating to authorial intention, historical context, editorial emendations and textual variants, etc.” Glenn Most, in his chapter “What is a Critical Edition?,” writes of such editions displaying “the bourgeois virtues of hard work and the tedious collection and scrutiny of evidence.” On that basis, the number of self-published twenty-first-century comic erotic thrillers to have been republished in critical editions can, one suspects, be counted on the fingers of . . . well, on a single finger.
And yet The Frankfurt Kabuff: Critical Edition, published last month by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, exists. Its playfully salacious and satirical story of hot police and shady neo-Nazis, mysterious cupboards and activist reading groups, is now further enhanced by essays on “Negronis as method,” the politics of Frankfurt, and the “paradox of the unseen yet ubiquitous rectangle” that stands at the heart both of the Fair and of reading more generally.
The novella’s authors, Beth Driscoll and Claire Squires—writing originally under the portmanteau pseudonym Blaire Squiscoll—created the book inside nine weeks, posting it to Wattpad as they wrote, before self-publishing it via Kindle and print-on-demand. Driscoll is Associate Professor in Publishing & Communications Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne; Squires is Professor of Publishing Studies and Director of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication at the University of Stirling. The Frankfurt Kabuff, they say, grew out of their shared frustration at the limitations of publishing studies as a discipline. As Driscoll suggests, the field has “a fairly limited number of theorists that most people refer to, and a fairly limited number of methodologies. It tends to rely heavily on the case study.” They wanted, she said, “to bring some creativity to the discipline as a way of kind of shaking up ways of thinking about what publishing is and can be,” and the Kabuff was the result: its critique of the industry emboldened by its fictionality and embodied in its modes of publication. “At Frankfurt,” Driscoll notes, “there's always a lot of talk about what the future of publishing will be and what the latest digital platforms and affordances are for the publishing industry. So, publishing on Wattpad felt right in that sense.”
Squires notes that publishing has traditionally been “quite shy” about crediting its non-author contributors—“those kinds of intermediaries who are typically hidden”—whereas “in the film industry, for instance, people at least tend to get their names in the closing credits.”
The pair had been working together for some time, researching the Frankfurt Book Fair for a more conventionally academic book, The Frankfurt Book Fair and the Bestseller Business, that would be published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. A planned proposal for a paper on Frankfurt at the annual SHARP conference—on the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing—then veered into uncharted territory when one of the authors decided that the text was “too exciting.” The novella resulted: an opportunity, Driscoll says, “to pull at some threads that had been nagging—to play with some ideas, bounce them off each other and see where they would take us.”
This playful-yet-serious approach is a key part of Ullapoolism, Driscoll and Squires’s “conceptual school,” developed after a research trip the pair once made to the Ullapool Book Festival, held in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. As Squires describes it, Ullapoolism is “creative and critical; it's playful and it wants to look sideways at things. Its intention is also activist and political.” Driscoll defines the movement as “collaborative in spirit” and notes that that spirit is embodied in the critical edition, which “brings more people into conversation to generate ideas together.”
“The fact that there are footnotes in the index is very special.”
The pair site their critical approach alongside the Situationist tradition. Squires talks of experiencing the Frankfurt Book Fair as a “dérive”: “the aimless wandering about that nonetheless seems to take you in some kind of important direction.” Both also cite Michèle Bernstein, mentioned in the volume’s introduction, as a central influence—Squires describes her as “a fascinating creative character who definitely became a bit of a touchstone.” Bernstein was a Parisian publisher, novelist, and member of the Situationist International, who happened also to be the wife of Situationist co-founder Guy Debord. She supported the couple financially—“she went out to work and he didn’t,” Squires wryly notes—by publishing two novels which combined Situationist techniques with an informed knowledge of what worked in fiction to produce “prefabricated bestsellers.” Driscoll and Squires have taken a similar approach with The Frankfurt Kabuff, playing with genre conventions to enable a broader critique of the industry that produces them. “One of the things that we loved about Michèle Bernstein's novels was the playfulness and that playfulness was a quality we wanted to bring to our research, too,” Driscoll adds.
The essays, creative works, and studies that accompany the novella in this new critical edition draw on a range of forms and disciplines, incorporating a comic strip, an imaginary musical, and a joke book. Squires notes that “our base is very solidly in publishing studies and history of the book, but it's interesting to see how people have picked those ideas up and taken them a little bit further from the perspective of, say, cultural sociology or the creative industries.” One of the book’s particular highpoints comes in its final nineteen pages, where Paula Clarke Bain has produced an index full of easter eggs and clever jokes that fits perfectly with the playful yet critical tone of the rest of the book. Driscoll says that she was “thrilled to be working with Paula,” perhaps best known for creating the index for Dennis Duncan’s recent book Index, A History of the, published by Penguin. Even so, she adds, “I hadn't anticipated the creativity around the type setting and the visual laying out that she's brought to it. And the fact that there are footnotes in the index is very special.”
Squires notes that publishing has traditionally been “quite shy” about crediting its non-author contributors—“those kinds of intermediaries who are typically hidden”—whereas “in the film industry, for instance, people at least tend to get their names in the closing credits.” Rightly highlighting the contribution made by Bain—who is credited as the author of her index just as prominently as the other participants and included among the contributor biographies—might therefore be seen as another way in which the book critiques problematic publishing practices by embodying a better way of working. On this front, the pair are full of praise for publisher Wilfrid Laurier University Press who have, Squires says, been “incredibly creative and involved in the process. They’re really doing some great things with their publishing programme and the ways that they communicate their work.”
Finally, fans of The Frankfurt Kabuff will be delighted to hear that a follow-up novel is planned. Driscoll states that it will focus on “how Beatrice Deft developed those values she brings to troubleshooting the global publishing industry; we’re going to take a look at Beatrice’s mother and what she was up to in May '68 and friends that she made through a certain book club!”
Alastair Horne is a lecturer in publishing at the University of Stirling, a frequent visitor to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and a contributor to The Frankfurt Kabuff: Critical Edition.