- Creating Postcolonial Literature: African Writers and British Publishers by Caroline Davis
What if the narrative of literary history were focalized not through landmark works or indispensable authors but through the institutions that produce and distribute literary texts? In Creating Postcolonial Literature, Caroline Davis attempts just this. Her book focuses on a single British publisher, Oxford University Press (OUP), its business in Africa across the twentieth century, and its publication of African [End Page 313] creative writing through the Three Crowns series. Davis is a senior lecturer at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes University, less than three miles up the hill from the current headquarters of OUP on Great Clarendon Street. For much of the history she examines, though, the educational and trade business of OUP was based in London, in contrast to the more scholarly Oxford-based Clarendon Press. Indeed, the relation between what Pierre Bourdieu terms “the economic capital” and “the cultural capital” represented by London and Oxford, respectively, is central to Davis’s account of OUP’s role in the creation of “African literature.”
Davis works in the tradition of the history of the book and draws on Robert Darnton’s model of the communications circuit, albeit with a keen awareness, à la Bourdieu, of the “hierarchies and power relations” that such a model can obscure (4). The book rests on empirical methods of historical research, including extensive archival research in England and South Africa. While Davis acknowledges the need to read “against the grain of the archive” at times—and she does so by drawing on oral histories and non-OUP sources—her writing is straightforward, rarely dwelling on problems of knowing (10). This is not to say, however, that the book lacks a critical edge.
To begin with, even as Creating Postcolonial Literature recognizes real commitment to African writers on the part of some OUP editors—Rex Collings, James Currey, and Jon Stallworthy, in particular—it challenges liberal views of British publishers as benevolent patrons. Davis concludes that African Marxist critics such as Chidi Amuta come closer to identifying the “asymmetrical relationship” that was actually obtained between OUP and the African writers whom it published (141). At the same time, her book engages with Bourdieu-inspired sociological approaches to postcolonial and world literature developed by Pascale Casanova, Graham Huggan, James English, and Sarah Brouillette, among others, and provides an alternative to some of their assumptions. In place of the complicit or assimilated postcolonial authors theorized by these critics, Davis finds African writers to have instead been frequently “divorced from the publishing process” (194). Most substantively, Creating Postcolonial Literature revises Bourdieu’s equation of symbolic value with a calculated refusal of economic profit by showing how the geography of publishing matters for perceptions of value. With OUP, Davis contends, “the value of a publication was defined not only by its place of publication but also by its geographic destination,” specifically, in the case of Three Crowns, the schoolbook market in African countries (34). Davis uncovers what she terms “a system of cross-subsidisation of cultural and economic capital that was global in scale”: educational publishing for African and other Commonwealth markets generated profits that underwrote the scholarly work of the Clarendon Press, the cultural capital of which, in turn, helped to sell OUP products abroad (31).
Following the introduction, the book is divided into two parts. Part I, Oxford University Press in Africa, 1927-80, begins with a chapter focusing on OUP’s operations [End Page 314] in Britain’s African colonies during the early twentieth century. The chapters that follow detail the histories of the African branches established after the Second World War in Nigeria, East Africa (primarily Kenya), and South Africa. While alert to historical shifts, Davis stresses the continuities between colonial and postcolonial publishing systems. For each branch, Davis has compiled accounting tables. These tables show that sales and profits peaked in East Africa in the early 1970s, in Nigeria in the late 1970s—at one point, the Nigerian branch accounted for nearly 20% of...