Story by Gwendolyn Schanker ·
THESSALONIKI, Greece – Aristotle once wrote that the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. In Greece, words speak volumes, and books and literary culture have a legacy that goes back centuries.
However, even the culture that spawned Homer’s “Odyssey” isn’t immune to Greece’s economic crisis, which since the worldwide financial crisis in 2008 has had an impact on every aspect of Greek society, including the arts.
Evangelia Avloniti, who in 2009 founded the Ersilia Literary Agency in Athens, has helped many Greek authors and publishers sustain their work during the economic crisis.
“It’s becoming more and more difficult,” Avloniti said. “Frankly, I don’t see an end to this crisis anytime soon. A lot of times it really boils down to a fight for survival.”
Three of the industry’s leading booksellers have fallen victim to that fight in the past several years, most notably, the 120-year-old bookstore chain Eleftheroudakis, whose last store closed in late 2016. At the same time, the number of book titles published per year dropped from 10,680 to 7,000 between 2008 and 2012 after nearly doubling during the 1990s, according to Socrates Kabouropoulos, one of the founding members of the National Book Centre in Greece.
“It’s the giants [like Eleftheroudakis] who are mostly affected,” said Kabouropoulos, who launched the center in 1994 to provide statistics on reading culture. It was suspended in 2013 during one of many government budget cuts. “In their place, you can see many small independents. It’s a totally different business model.”
The new publishing model is the result of the nationwide turmoil that has plagued Greece since 2010. Overspending by the Greek government led to rising debt in the aftermath of the global crisis, which in turn led to loss of jobs, dramatic budget cuts and billions of dollars in international bailouts.
Now, Kabouropoulos is working to rebuild the literary landscape as a book policy consultant for the Greek Ministry of Culture.
He said that today’s bookstores are less of a large, impersonal presence and more of a custom experience. While sales may be down, reading and discussion groups are thriving, as are personal relationships between publishers and customers.
The economic crisis has also led publishers and booksellers to think creatively, Kabouropoulos said. One example is a digital platform called Bibliomat, which was created by Greek publisher Periklis Douvitsas and allows readers to listen to snippets of audio books online rather than having to buy the full book.
“Don’t be fooled, life has to go on,” Kabouropoulos said of the innovation that has emerged from the crisis. “The result is that you change, you know, you have to.”
Celebration in the midst of crisis
In early May, hundreds of literary professionals and thousands of readers came together at the HELEXPO exhibition center for Thessaloniki’s 14th International Book Fair. The fair embodied the vibrancy of Greece’s literary community: Avid readers browsed wall-to-wall book displays that spanned two of HELEXPO’s enormous pavilions, booksellers discussed new titles with customers and panelists of literary experts debated everything from the Syrian refugee crisis to challenges in open access publishing.
Among the more than 400 exhibitioners was Kostas Spatharakis, who along with his colleague Thodoris Dritsas, built a small, independent Greek publishing company, Antipodes, during the height of the crisis. Despite challenges, Antipodes has found economic success.
Buying books has become a luxury few can afford, which can be fatal for publishers. However, Spatharakis said many people also seek the understanding and solace that books can provide. Becoming more selective in deciding what authors to promote and publish is part of what has led to his company’s success.
According to the statistics Kabouropoulos and his colleagues compiled prior to 2013, many readers have turned to literature as a distraction from the crisis, and new titles in fiction and poetry are on the rise. Spatharakis has seized on this opportunity by publishing classics from American writers such as Flannery O’Connor as well as featuring new Greek authors.
One title he said has done particularly well is “Gkiak,” a series of short stories by Dimosthenis Papamarkos that focuses on the lives of soldiers who fought in the Asia Minor campaign. “Gkiak” refers to the blood bond the book’s characters share, and is emblematic of the sense of community Greeks seek in a time of crisis.
“Especially at a time that is ethically burdened, you always have to find books that will help us understand the situation and our feelings about it,” Spatharakis said. “You have to find a way to pick those books and writers that can express your time and the feelings of people around you.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many of his colleagues.
Pavlina Marvin is a local writer who works for the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, one of the co-organizers of the four-day fair. Marvin’s first book, a memoir entitled “Histories from All Over My World,” was published in early 2017. Despite the fact that she has sold few copies and makes little money as a writer, Marvin continues to pursue writing because “it’s my way of being.”
“No job can we be paid as we want to, so we have to do what we really want to do,” Marvin said. She added, “People have many ways to express themselves and one way will always be literature. I was helped and would love other people to be helped from my books.”
Greek literature not only allows locals to relate to one another in times of crisis, it also helps to garner international awareness.
Christos Ikonomou’s “Something Will Happen, You’ll See” is one book that has helped create greater understanding of the economic crisis on a global scale. Ikonomou’s book of short stories focuses on the lives of working-class Greeks living in Piraeus, a large port located southwest of Athens. Since its release in 2008, the book has been published in seven countries.
“One of the things I try to do is create a bridge between Greek authors and the rest of the world,” said literary agent Avloniti. “At the height of the crisis, my revenue came mostly from abroad.”
Kabouropoulos said that even tales from the past have been resurrected, like Nikos Dimou’s “On the Unhappiness of Being Greek,” which contains a series of brief and cutting observations on what it means to live in Greece and be Greek. Dimou’s book was originally published in 1975 and has seen a resurgence during today’s crisis, with translations in English, German and French, among others.
Avloniti hopes that writers like Ikonomou and Dimou can help international audiences “get to the heart of our reality.”
“I don’t want the crisis to be viewed just as a news item,” she said. “I want through these books to make people think and for it to be an immersive experience.”
The beating heart of Greek literary culture
According to Kabouropoulos’ statistics, only around 8 percent of Greek citizens are “medium to avid readers,” meaning that they read and purchase books on a regular basis. That core community may be small, but it is resilient.
Fani Smyrli, a law student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and a regular visitor to the annual book fair, is part of that 8 percent. For Smyrli, reading books is a great way to escape the challenges of everyday life.
“When I was little, my dad brought me here,” said Smyrli, who is particularly fond of mystery novels. “[Books] make you go to another world. For me, it’s calming. It’s magic.”
Booksellers like Katerina Pandelidou and her husband own and operate a bookshop, Unknown Kadath – named after a novella by H. P. Lovecraft – that specializes in dark fantasy and horror fiction. They rely heavily on Greece’s core community of readers to maintain a stable business during a difficult time.
“The economic crisis is here to stay,” Pandelidou said, adding, “Maybe there is not much profit, but we love to do it, so profit doesn’t matter.”
In today’s economy, no publisher or writer is going to get rich. But for many, money isn’t the reason they entered the literary industry in the first place.
“We do this because we have a passion for the written word and we love books,” Avloniti said. “Love [for books] is strengthened in times of crisis. We want to salvage what we believe in.”