Jirina Smejkalova and an extraordinary publishing revolution

Jirina Smejkalova

Few fields can have gone through such radical changes over the 16 years since the fall of communism as publishing. In her research, the academic, sociologist, cultural theorist and feminist Jirina Smejkalova has shed some fascinating light on the subject, publishing a study that has become a classic of its kind. She is also well known for her writing on feminism, and was one of the first people to introduce contemporary western feminist thinking to the post-Velvet Revolution Czech Republic. In this week's Czech Books she talks to Pavla Jonssonova. She starts their conversation by remembering back to the beginnings of her academic career, as an undergraduate in Prague during the deepest days of communism in the late 1970s. Surprisingly, given that those were the days of censorship and social engineering, she feels more than a little nostalgic.

Jirina Smejkalova
"I think that actually we were really very lucky in the 1970s - I mean the people that met at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University - because despite all the obvious political constraints and ideological brainwashing, and so on, I think we managed to form a group of committed souls, people who really understood each other, who read books together, discussed philosophy and played music and did theatre and so on. I would say, paradoxically enough - and now I can say that as a university teacher myself - that precisely those constraints of the institution, of the university, made us create work of our own, which was perhaps even more authentic and more exciting than students have today - but perhaps that's too ambitious a hypothesis!"

Talking about your professional career, you were one of the first Czech scholars to assert themselves on the international academic circuit. Could you tell us more about what happened, how you path unfolded after your degree in sociology?

"This is quite a funny story, because my long dreamed of desire of a doctoral fellowship in the United States came as a matter of accident, because at some point, still before the revolution of 1989, I saw a little poster on my boss's table, inviting applicants for an American Council of Learned Societies post-doctoral fellowship. Of course it was spring 1989. We could not dream of going for a post-doctorate in the United States. Nevertheless I picked up the flyer, because I knew it was going to end up in the garbage can anyway, and very shortly after November 1989 I just wrote them a letter that I would be interested in applying for a fellowship. To my great surprise a guy came from New York in the spring of 1990 and interviewed me for the fellowship. I was the second Czech scholar to get the ACLS fellowship in the United States after 1989.

"I ended up at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1991, which was an extremely exciting time, because - for those listeners who are a bit familiar with the field and the whole structure of American education - Santa Cruz represents one of the new-age universities. When I was there, most of the big shots, as I like to call them, of contemporary cultural theory and feminist studies were present at the university."

Your major publication so far is a "Book with a Capital B" which was written in Czech. It was published a few years ago. Could you sum up for us what the book was about?

"I followed two agendas in this book. One of them was to introduce a field of book studies to the local wider public, because, even though in this country we have a very long history of libraries, history of publishing, this whole new inter-disciplinary field of book studies has not been widely discussed here. So that was my idea - to introduce the whole field of book studies. The other reason for writing this book was also to try to ask some of these theoretical, methodological questions about the transitional book market of the 1990s."

How do you view the current situation on the Czech book market?

"In the mid-1990s - just to give an example - I did about 40 in-depth interviews with these "transitional publishers", that is people who rushed into publishing after the so-called Velvet Revolution. Prior to 1989 there were about 42 registered state-owned publishers in Czechoslovakia, and already in late-1990 or the beginning of 1991, there were over 2,500 registered publishers. If you look at the history of books from a larger perspective - the European book history of the 20th century, or even world book history - you don't find such a dramatic boom of people who want to enter the publishing business."

It's quite incredible. So what has happened to all of them?

"Well, quite. You have to consider that if you are talking about a certain number of 2,500 or 1,500, it doesn't mean so much unless you look at the concrete activities of these people. So at the moment - mid-2005 - the number of people actively publishing more than 10 books a year is incomparably lower than that. But it is interesting to see just how many people decided to register themselves as publishers, because among other things it shows this incredible eruption of attempts to share ideas with other people. So, according to my theory, at the end of the day, it's not so important how many books these people published as the fact that so many people all of a sudden got the idea of going into the publishing business, which is notoriously known for being incredibly unprofitable until you are at the very top of the market."

You mentioned these numbers that are strikingly different before and after 1989. Where do you see the continuity in that?

"I think that's really the interesting part of it, because if you look at the media coverage of the book markets in the early 1990s, if you look at a lot of the stuff that has been written about them, there is this kind of revolutionary discourse, this idea that there was a revolution in publishing, a revolution in print and so on. But what I am interested in, while I go beyond these statistical data, is exactly how people in concrete situations behaved at the point when they were exposed to these transitional conditions.

"As I mentioned, I did about 40 interviews with the publishers themselves in the mid-1990s and late-1990s. I asked them to reflect on the way they coped with the transitional situations, because, for example, one of the first institutions that completely collapsed was the distribution system, and also the information about books in print, which was previously centrally controlled, and all of a sudden, if you were a bookseller, you didn't really know what was on the market, because there were only very weak sources of information and none of them reliable. So how people - publishers, booksellers, as well as the readers - behaved in these "revolutionary" conditions was precisely by using the old networks of friends, by word of mouth. Interestingly enough, up to the mid-1990s there was really strong resistance to advertising. You would hear these publishers say, 'Oh, if I wanted to make money, I would go to sell bananas and wouldn't sell books.' It was a very commonly heard argument. So on the one hand there was this need to publish texts that were previously banned from publishing, on the other hand people who went into the business were for a long time resisting the basic market principles, such as advertising or public readings. A lot of fiction writers would have thought, 'I'm not going to prostitute myself in front of the audience. A good book sells itself.'

"I think this is the interesting part of this whole project, that on the one hand you have the numbers, the revolutionary boom of publishing and so on; on the other hand it is really an institutional chaos, which concrete people in concrete situations have to manage. They manage them by applying some kind of patterns of behaviour, which were established years ago, and which helped them to survive the communist era as well."

Do you think that there is any particular year that could be described as a turning point in that kind of behaviour?

"There are people from the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers, who - and I would agree - see the turning point in the second half of the 1990s. So I think it took a good five or six years to really get people to realize that books are commodities, maybe specific ones, but still commodities."