Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Literary Ecosystem and Keir Graff at Thomas Ford

In Booklist Online editor Keir Graff's presentation "How I Kept My Day Job and Became a Published Author - And You Can, Too!" at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library last Friday, I was particularly struck by his description of the "literary ecosystem," a network of readers, writers, publishers, publicists, reviewers, booksellers, and libraries that make the writing and reading of books possible. The term makes obvious sense, but I did not remember ever encountering it. So I decided (being a reference librarian) to see what prior uses of the term I could find. A quick websearch revealed way too much and in no useful order, so I turned to our library databases, which need more use anyway.

Through Academic One Search, I found "The African Writer's Tongue," an article by Akinwumi Isola in the Spring 1992 issue of Research in African Literatures. The article discusses the disconnect when African authors switch from writing in their local languages to English. They lose local readers who may not have learned English. The author of the article uses the term "literary ecosystem" throughout the article that poses that readers and writers must keep languages alive to preserve the literary heritage and the local culture.

Searching the New York Times, I found "On Getting and Spending, Reading and Listening: As a Century Dies, a Puzzling Concern with 'Community' " by Kennedy Fraser, an article from November 24, 1997 about how author readings were very popular in New York but he feared that the golden moment might soon pass. Near the end of the article he described the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd St. Y, which he said was the oldest subscription series of reading in the city. "The poetry center, which began in 1939, sustains a valuable literary ecosystem: readers, writers at all stages of their careers, famous writers adding ballast in the program for those who are less so, living writers honoring dead ones."

The term seems to be used only once in the ERIC database. The term is found in an article "A Whole-School "Read" Creates a Reading Community" in Middle School Journal, September 2008, pages 4-11. A trio of authors discusses the effect of having the students of Hand Middle School in Columbia, South Carolina help keep the books and media from the school's media center in circulation during the year that the center was closed for remodeling. "In this unlikely setting, they created a kind of literary ecosystem in which equilibrium between the community of construction and the community of learning was maintained, creating a balance between bedlam and books, between renovations and reading."

Having seen these and other uses of "literary ecosystem," I sensed that no agreed upon definition existed, a notion which I tested in a search for definitions through Google and Bing. (The term is not in the Oxford English Dictionary.) I did find a use in an older article "Twin Perspectives and Multi-Ecosystems: Tradition for a Commonwealth Writer" by Edwin Thumboo in World Englishes, July 1985. Like Isola in 1992, Thumboo was concerned with African languages. (I can not see the actual use of the term in this case without paying for the fulltext.) The term is also used on the website Willa Cather Archives to indicate a network of literary voices.

Keir said he had no source for his use of the term but that the concept as he described it just made sense to him. I would agree. Writers, readers, publishers, librarians, and booksellers all need each other. Maybe Keir can write up his literary ecosystem theory, use his clever illustrations, and become famous as a literary ecoscientist. Maybe the term will even be added to the OED.

By the way, twenty-one people, many of them aspiring authors, came to the library on a Friday evening to hear Keir describe the many paths to getting published, none of which are easy. I was pleased to see people who do not regularly attend our programs. Several stopped afterwards to thank me for bringing Keir to the library.

(Photo by Sean Graff.)

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