The Frankfurt Book Fair and Its Cupboards

“In order to understand the multi-dimensionality of the global book industry, we urgently need to move beyond standard methods alone.”

Every October, publishers and other book trade professionals from around the globe assemble at the Frankfurt Book Fair to deal in rights, discuss industry developments, and network: it’s the event that “everyone attends because everyone attends.”1 In 2022 alone, 180,000 visitors saw 4,000 exhibitors from 80 countries.2 The Frankfurt Book Fair (or Buchmesse)—which originated in the 15th century and took on its modern role after World War II—is a byword in the contemporary publishing industry, a synonym for the global book business’s sense of being.

The fair is also multilayered, sprawling and complex in ways that exceed quantitative methods and standard counting. We first went to Frankfurt in 2017 to begin researching the fair’s role in global publishing. From the moment we asked ourselves, “How might we explain the Frankfurt Book Fair?,” we knew the answer would be “not normally!”

This is why we took our three years of fieldwork at the fair and transformed it into the basis for writing and self-publishing The Frankfurt Kabuff, a comic erotic thriller that mixes fieldwork with fantasy to showcase the fair’s essence. Writing under the pen name Blaire Squiscoll, we crystallized our understanding of the values and political stakes of the international book trade.

Our story opens at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Imagine a busy party at a publisher’s booth, with book trade people from around the world delightedly discussing the latest big books of the fair. But you notice, at the back of the stand, an open door. It intrigues you and, glass of warming white wine in hand, you head toward it. You step through the doorway into one of the exhibition booth’s shadowy cupboards (or Kabuff in German); suddenly, you encounter a very different set of numbers from the statistics which opened this article:

One disillusioned Australian high school teacher, staying in a hotel opposite the Buchmesse. One hot cop (badge number 6969). Two dedicated publishers of left-wing philosophy. Eleven ice blue eyes (and one eye patch) directed at our heroine who is trapped in the Kabuff. Half a dozen book club members armed with knitting needles. One almighty struggle for the heart and soul of the book fair.

These enumerations form the heart of The Frankfurt Kabuff. Our heroine, Beatrice Deft, arrives in Frankfurt and is immediately entangled in attempts to thwart White Storm’s plot to take over the fair. White Storm is a neo-Nazi organization, aided and abetted by no less than the Buchmesse’s Vice President for Intellectual Freedom. Along the way, there is time for some heated dalliances with Caspian Schorle, the police officer tasked with ensuring the fair’s security, and some quality jokes focusing on normative discourse around the fair (e-books, stand size, and so on).

Throughout, we dwell on questions of numbers and of size. And we did so deliberately because, as we discovered when researching at Frankfurt, official numbers (including square meterage) don’t really scratch the surface of the Buchmesse’s function and significance in the contemporary publishing industry any more than scholarly accounts of the industry that choose more normal research pathways. A more playful approach to size shows how numbers are employed to bolster the industry’s sense of self. The publishing industry’s emphasis on the bigness of the fair is part of what we term megativity: a positive attitude that drives future-oriented behavior, including rights trading. It exists alongside negativity, a persistent industry narrative of decline.3 The fair is not as big as it once was. Cue discourse on the death of the book; the death of the print book; the death of the high street bookstore; the death of et cetera, et cetera.

To understand this juxtaposition of bravado and gloom, we concluded, the key was the cupboards that are built unobtrusively into many exhibitor stands. One Frankfurt lunchtime, we were told that German publishers termed these cupboards not the standard German word Schrank, but, rather, Kabuffs. Kabuff is a redolent word for a shadowy, cobwebby space, often slightly disordered. Not quite the closet, but certainly a place in which the unconscious of the Buchmesse could be hidden away—along with spare water bottles and handbags. “What’s in the cupboard?” we asked. And so, as part of the array of research methods we brought to our fieldwork, we decided to try and get into as many publishers’ cupboards as possible.

We wanted to get at the finer grained nuance of the global book business and go beyond more conventional media narratives and limiting academic ways of knowing. We did so through several experimental methods, most notably, our turn into Kabuffs and fiction. Other unconventional methods included fortune-telling mood fish, the Sleaze-O-Meter, and stepping into the personae of Penny Power and Polly Pringle (journalists). From such methods, informed by Jack Halberstam’s low theory and the situationists’ dérives and détournements, we came to the conclusion in The Frankfurt Book Fair and Bestseller Business4 that the fair’s role in the international publishing industry is as a central node in the people-powered networks that move books across borders and languages. We analyzed the importance of business-to-business communication—from formal meetings between literary agents to gossip at a party—in generating buzz, managing mood, and building industry culture. It is these communications that give the Buchmesse its dual role in both facilitating international business and forming publishing’s cultural-political identity as a bastion of humanist ideals.

There was yet more to discover beneath the buzz, and we found it in the concept of Kabuffs, as we started channelling our observations into a piece of creative writing. We dreamed up characters, taking them in and out of cupboards, and propelling them into adventure. After all, what better way to understand the publishing industry than to write a novella set at its very heart?

It wasn’t enough just to write The Frankfurt Kabuff, though. One of the lines of dialogue we’d written for Callum, a publisher and Beatrice’s contemptible ex-boyfriend, was “writing and reading books is the easy part.” So we challenged ourselves to turn the novella into an experiment in self-publishing. By uploading the novel to Wattpad and developing a coterie of early readers, the novella became an intervention … a situation, even.

We had a precedent: Michèle Bernstein, one of the Situationist International (SI), a group active from the late 1950s to early 1970s who articulated a Marxist opposition to commodity capitalism and the “spectacle” which renders people as passive consumers. Bernstein wrote two novels that détourned, or subverted, the conventions of popular fiction (she wrote these largely because she and husband Guy Debord were “skint” and needed to make money).5 Bernstein worked at a publishing company and, as Greil Marcus writes, “she knew craft and story; she knew cliché, and how to extend clichés until they both held their shape and spoke new languages. So she contrived a book out of every fragment of popular fiction […] a prefabricated bestseller.”6 This description of Bernstein’s play with genre convention aligns with Lauren Fournier’s extended definition of autotheory to include “works that exceed existing genre categories and disciplinary bounds, that flourish in the liminal spaces between categories, that reveal the entanglement of research and creation, and that fuse seemingly disparate modes to fresh effects.”7

Wrapped in the package of a thriller, The Frankfurt Kabuff, like Bernstein’s novels, is intentionally replete with cliché. But, as with autotheory, it also transcends boundaries, critiquing prevalent modes for approaching the literary economy as well as providing a new way to write criticism. A Kabuff is not only a perfect location for a showdown or a sex scene, it’s also a portal to shadowy, unresolved elements of the publishing industry. These elements include questionable and inconsistent constructions of freedom of speech within a global market economy, and a range of demographic inequities, including the gendered and racialized nature of the industry.

“Fictocriticism,” another of Fournier’s terms, further elucidates our mode. Fictocriticism combines art and political purpose. We also added a healthy dose of humor. Puckish elements of the novella’s collaborative authorial production included the gleeful use of genre tropes, writing jokes to amuse each other, and the inclusion of a romance plot. The latter has occasioned some of those (men) interested in our collaboration to ask how we wrote the sex scenes (stock evasion: “on Google docs”). Our fictocriticism recalls, and draws on, the work of mischievous partnerships and collective performances from artists Gilbert and George, feminist geographers J. K. Gibson-Graham (who also combined their names), and anonymous art activists the Guerrilla Girls.

Like our performative responses to predictable questions, The Frankfurt Kabuff offered an intentionally sideways focus on Frankfurt’s people and places, and on writing and publishing itself. As a quirky, extremely self-referential work, we knew it might not have a mass readership. Experimental works typically appeal to a small audience, potentially limiting their political efficacy. Autotheory may encounter difficulties in its attempts to critique institutional power, explains Fournier, not least of which is theory’s “niche appeal.”

Nonetheless, we were determined that The Frankfurt Kabuff would have activist and reconfiguring potential. The Frankfurt Kabuff isn’t art for art’s sake. Rather, its purpose is to drive social and cultural change. Ruha Benjamin writes of such an imperative in relation to the “racial fictions” she created as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests:

Novel fictions that reimagine and rework all that is taken for granted about the current structure of the social world—alternatives to capitalism, racism, and patriarchy—are urgently needed. Fictions, in this sense, are not falsehoods but refashionings through which analysts experiment with different scenarios, trajectories, and reversals, elaborating new values and testing different possibilities for creating more just and equitable societies.8

Benjamin’s account of the activist potential of research-led fiction complements feminist understandings of the value of fiction writing. Patricia Leavy, for example, suggests academic fiction writing can lead to consciousness-raising through depicting “hard-to-get-at dimensions of social life.”9 We hold that fiction is—or rather, it can be—a form of direct action. In the case of The Frankfurt Kabuff, the action is directed at the publishing industry and the broader creative economy of which it is part.

We wanted to get at the finer grained nuance of the global book business and go beyond more conventional media narratives and limiting academic ways of knowing.

When we drew from our autoethnographic observations of the fair in writing the novella, we did not do so solely for entertainment. Rather, our aim was to critique. Beatrice is skeptical about the extravagant claims that all books produce positive social change. The Vice President for Intellectual Freedom misuses freedom of speech rhetoric to enable Far-Right political violence. Other aspects of the novella spotlight discrimination against women and marginalized groups in book culture, and expose how literary snobbishness aligns with exclusionary industry practices. These are all live issues in contemporary publishing; our story thus draws attention to institutional and systemic wrongs.

That said, the effectiveness of The Frankfurt Kabuff’s political critique is affected by its literary form. The thriller genre’s textual conventions mean that The Frankfurt Kabuff replicates some conservative logics, through a retro feel which includes uncritical references to smoking, alcohol (particularly Negronis), and an international jetsetting lifestyle. These limits to our political project create intriguing predicaments for us and for readers who may relish conservative tropes while desiring progressive change.10 As a situation, The Frankfurt Kabuff enacts a political struggle and advances critical arguments about the publishing industry, but it also risks reinforcing the industry’s structures and practices through its use of satire. Satire is rhetorically complex and multivocal, which means it can be complicit in ruling structures even while it pursues its ethical objectives, including through the critical possibilities of stereotype.

Similarly, as our self-publishing activity navigated the routes determined by digital capitalism—Wattpad; Amazon; Ingram—we reflected on the neoliberalism of the publishing industry, and its manifestations in both conglomerate publishing companies and the technocapitalist systems of the 2010s and early 2020s. As with other forms of capitalism, we can use digital systems for playfulism and critique, even as we work against their most harmful effects.

Which brings us back to numbers. When used lightly and satirically, numbers can be a playful, critical mode of understanding and interrogating culture. This mode is evident in the next iteration of The Frankfurt Kabuff, its scholarly edition, which layers the fictocritical novella with countable elements of critical apparatus. The Frankfurt Kabuff Critical Edition11 is comprised of discrete parts: firstly, an exegetical introduction; secondly, the novella itself; thirdly, critical essays; and fourthly, creative assemblages (to say nothing of, fifthly, the world’s most creative index). The novella, with its 16 original chapters, is augmented by 169 (sometimes explanatory, sometimes obfuscatory) footnotes (including one on Frankfurt denizen Jenny the Horse, who is absurdistly linked to the history of publishing conglomeration). The 15 critical essays examine The Frankfurt Kabuff from a range of perspectives: creative writing, the cultural economy, book history, genre fiction and fanfic, and classroom teaching. The 11 creative assemblages include one account of the making of the novella (“Dear Diary”), one comic strip, and 13 jokes (nine Knock Knock/Klopf Klopf jokes; four other).

Our argument in assembling such a garrulous text is that, in order to understand the multidimensionality of an event such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, or the global book industry, or yet more broadly the creative industries, we urgently need to move beyond attempts to explain through standard methods alone. Instead, we argue for an approach that matches its objects of study with its own creativity, and fuses this creativity with exploration, explanation and critique.

At the Buchmesse, we asked the question “What’s in the cupboard?” What we found was political struggle, gender inequity, and digital unease; playfulness, flirting, book clubs, and solidarity: the messy subconscious that lurks beneath the international publishing industry’s glossy facade. icon

  1. Sabine Niemeier, Funktionen der Frankfurter Buchmesse im Wandel (Harrassowitz, 2001).
  3. For more on megativity, see Beth Driscoll and Claire Squires, “Megativity and Miniaturization at the Frankfurt Book Fair,” Post45, April 8, 2020.
  4. Beth Driscoll and Claire Squires, The Frankfurt Book Fair and Bestseller Business (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
  5. Michèle Bernstein, The Night, translated from the French by Clodagh Kinsella, 1st edition (Book Works, 2013), p. 9.
  6. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Twentieth Anniversary, (Belknap Press, 2009), p. 392.
  7. Lauren Fournier, Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism (The MIT Press, 2021), p. 2.
  8. Ruha Benjamin, “Racial Fictions, Biological Facts: Expanding the Sociological Imagination through Speculative Methods,” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, vol. 2, no. 2 (2016): pp. 1–28.
  9. Patricia Leavy, “Fiction and the Feminist Academic Novel,” Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 18, no. 6 (2012), pp. 516–22.
  10. See Kim Wilkins, Beth Driscoll, and Lisa Fletcher, Genre Worlds: Popular Fiction and Twenty-First Century Book Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2022).
  11. Beth Driscoll and Claire Squires, The Frankfurt Kabuff Critical Edition (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2023).
This piece was commissioned by Laura B. McGrath. Featured image photograph of the Frankfurt Book Fair by Blaire Squiscoll.