At Norway’s WEXFO: Democracy and the Freedom to Read

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The third annual World Expression Forum (WEXFO) in Lillehammer featured a half-day ‘learning lab’ on the connection of reading and democracy.

At Lillehammer’s World Expression Forum (WEXFO), speakers on ‘How To Advance the Freedom to Read?’, from left, are Karine Pansa; Even Aleksander Hagen; Mariann Schjeide; Jørgen Lorentzen; Tora Åsling; Olav Brostrup Müller; Miha Kovač; and Laurie Halse Anderson. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Einarsson: ‘Actions Need To Start on the Ground’
In a new concentration on a specifically publishing-based context, May’s World Expression Forum (WEXFO) devoted a full-afternoon workshop session in its third-year of programming at Lillehammer.

The session was titled Access to Information, Books, and Ideas: How to Advance the Freedom to ReadAnd if anything, this event’s strongest message might have been aimed at publishing as much as being about it.

“On the global level,” Kristenn Einarsson said in a closing comment near the three-hour mark, “we can agree on statements. But actions need to start on the ground” and must be coupled with “a dissemination process of what we learn while we’re doing it.”

Einarsson is practicing what he preaches. The longtime chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee and the founding CEO of WEXFO has made this rapidly expanding annual conference program not only something that brings together world-traveling policymakers, activists, and creative thinkers, but also a platform for a widening youth program.

The Scandic Lillehammer Hotel facility at which WEXFO is set rings with the sounds of young people engaged in coordinated initiatives named WEXFO Youth Voices; WEXFO Young Experts Utøya; WEXFO More Young Voices; and the WEXFO Youth Network Conference. The two days of the main WEXFO conference agenda are enriched and enlivened with the inquisitive presence and bright observations of as many as 500 young people each day, more than 1,000 overall.

WEXFO founding CEO Kristenn Einarsson speaks at the session in Lillehammer, May 27. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By no means, however, is the intent to focus strictly on the youth element.

By working with the IPA to develop and test a construct that connects the freedom to read and prospects for world democracy in this era’s challenging political environment, WEXFO is helping to cultivate the issue that the world body introduced at London Book Fair in a program titled A Trinity of Freedoms at Risk: Expression, Publishing and Reading. That program was centered on a statement issued by IPA, the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF); the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA); the International Authors Forum (IAF); and PEN International.

As Einarsson explained to this packed workshop’s attendees in Norway, the concept is to utilize centralized events such as WEXFO to explore and examine dimensions of the dangers to those three freedoms—of expression, of publishing, and of reading—and then to amplify what’s learned and discussed by moving “outward” through such an organizational structure as IPA can provide with its 101 member-organizations set in 81 far-flung international publishing markets.

The energy, then, moves two ways—from international hubs and events out to national and regional settings, and back again from those markets “on the ground.” And the way to think of WEXFO is as a rare dual-purpose occasion: It is that international hub, yes, but its youth programs provide an enormous laboratory “on the ground” simultaneously.

“School is the only place where we can connect everybody in the society. After we’re out of school, we’re all split into our own bubbles.”Kristenn Einarsson, World Expression Forum

“When it comes to the reading part of it,” Einarsson said, “I think it’s so important to work locally. In WEXFO, we call this ‘learning labs.’ Everything we do is a learning lab.” This gives WEXFO itself the flexibility to learn from and adjust its own programming, “and try to improve and start again.”

In ongoing talks with university centers such as Germany’s Gutenberg at Mainz and with similar centers in Spain, Einarsson said, his program is exploring what is known to work “in the lower age groups” and then to connect the dynamics understood to be working with younger participants to the “higher age groups and the democracy process.”

In fact, for those who these days feel that there may be too much emphasis on the important but slow process of educating youngsters in the issues, Einarsson picked up on one of the afternoon’s speakers’ most insightful points: “School is the only place where we can connect everybody in the society. After we’re out of school, we’re all split into our own bubbles.”

Comments from Panelists

Author Laurie Halse Anderson talks with the WEXFO Freedom to Read ‘learning lab’ delegates at Lillehammer about her experiences in having one of her books banned more than 60 times in the United States. At left are session speakers Olav Brostrup Müller and Miha Kovač. At right is the National University of Singapore’s Peter Schoppert, who spoke about artificial intelligence to the World Expression Forum plenary in the morning session on May 17. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

The basic premise of the workshop on advancing the freedom to read was easily parsed into a five-point list:

  • We need political acceptance of the necessity of developing better reading strategies, with a special focus on “higher-level reading.”
  • Politicians must look at the funding to support reading, not as funding something “Nice to have” but as a pure necessity in the fight to uphold our democracies.
  • There’s a global trend to limit the access to books in different ways, that we must counter.
  • We need high-level readers.
  • They need to have access to books.

Programmed into three sections, the audience of WEXFO delegates heard from an author whose work repeatedly has been censored; then from representatives of key organizations working in the field; and finally from three speakers who—in a reflection of Einarsson’s global-local framework, addressed critical thinking and its importance from the international, national, and local viewpoint.

What we’ll offer here, for brevity in our report, is only a part of the commentary brought by each speaker to the event, which was moderated by Publishing Perspectives.

Laurie Halse Anderson is an American author, winner of the 2023 five-million Swedish-kroner Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. She’s also a US National Book Award finalist whose 1999 novel Speak (Macmillan / Square Fish) has been the subject of bannings in at least 66 school districts. A 2018 graphic-novel edition of the book with artwork by Emily Carroll has been banned by at least 12 school districts. The figures on United States book bannings are based on the work of the American Library Association and PEN America.

  • “From July 1, 2021, to July 1, 2023, two full school years, there was a total of 5,894 book bans in the United States. They occurred in 42 states.” An additional 4,349 book bannings were recorded in the States between July 2023 and January of this end, she said, “almost as many  as we had in the two previous years. … [The book-banning proponents] have made up a lie, a lie that we’re teaching children pornography when we give them books that explain how their bodies work. They also call any books about gay characters or trans characters or non-gender-conforming characters ‘sexual content.’ … Parents of course have the right to choose for their own children. They just can’t choose for other people’s children.”

Karine Pansa, IPA president and a children’s book publisher with Girassol Brasil Edições in São Paulo.

  • “If I speak to one particular extract” from the statement issued by IPA and four other organizations at London Book Fair, “I can say it is the responsibility and mission of publishers, booksellers, and librarians, through their professional judgment, to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing everyone with access to author’s words. Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not necessarily endorse every work they make available. But individual publishers and booksellers make their own editorial decisions and selections. Access to writing should not be limited on the basis of personal history or political affiliations.”

IFLA’s Mariann Scheide speaks at the World Expression Forum’s reading workshop on May 27 at Lillehammer. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Mariann Scheide, a member of the advisory committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression with IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.

  • Since 2014, a change in Norway’s library laws has purposefully made libraries “public houses for cultural events but also for political debates and for promoting views, both through lectures and debates and talks like we’re having at this very moment. Why are libraries doing this? Because we don’t  have many venues or sites where we discuss things other than social media. We don’t look each other in the eyes. We are almost never under the same roof. We are simply writing things to invisible people. It does something to us to sit in the same room and look each other in the eyes. And this has also put the library manager in a certain and maybe unusual position as an editor with an individual responsibility Having said that, it has gone quite well. But sometimes it can be hard to be in the eye of the storm.”

Tora Åsling, policy officer with the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF), which was a party to the London “three freedoms” statement in March, spoke to censorship efforts beyond the United States.

  • “I want to talk a bit about the kinds of books that are being censored. It’s novels aimed at teenagers and young people and over topics such as exploring your sexuality, puberty, sexual violence, but they also challenge literature that portrays queer characters [who] challenge the binary and challenge heteronormativity. We mentioned the United States but we also have a few cases here in Europe already. Many of you have heard about the controversial case in Hungary where there LTGBQ-plus laws designed to ‘protect’ minors against … anything that doesn’t fall within the heteronormative norm. [The law] basically forbids bookshops and booksellers from providing books with queer characters to children or to minors under the age of 18. … The law is very vague and punishment is quite arbitrary. This has led to cases of self-censorship because booksellers are afraid of being persecuted.” Åsling also referred to the recent case of censorship by the French interior ministry involving Éditions Thierry Magnier, part of Actes Sud, and the 15-title Collection L’Ardeur for a young, informed audience.

Jørgen Lorentzen of the Norwegian Nonfiction Writers and Translators Association (NFFO), spoke for the national-level Norwegian drive for a reading initiative, urging Oslo to commit to a 1-billion kroner program (US$93.8 million), even as his organization is involved not only in Norway but in Ukraine (“to restore faith in democracy after the war is finished) and in Uganda (where schoolbooks are often made by big international publishing houses, generic books”).

  • “You have to read if you want to write. It’s impossible to write if you don’t read. Writing is based on reading. You will not have any type of imagination or fantasy because [reading] creates the words that gives us fantasy and imagination and dreams. We can see the future when we’re ready. Look at all these terrible authoritarian regimes. If you want to build a democracy, a strong democracy, you have to read because you have to read these books that some people don’t have. You have to read everything and understand everything to be able to be built as a strong and powerful, sustainable democracy.”

Miha Kovač speaks about the Ljubljana Manifesto at the World Expression Forum (WEXFO) at Lillehammer, May 27. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Miha Kovač, co-author of the Ljubljana Manifesto of Higher Level Reading introduced in October during the Guest of Honor Slovenia programming that Kovač led at Frankfurter Buchmesse (read the manifesto here) on the manifesto’s insistence on “deep higher-level reading,” something akin to “critical thinking” in some cultures, based in immersive long-form reading and the mental discipline it requires.

  • “What really matters here is that everybody in society gets an opportunity. Regardless what kind of background he or she has, there must be an opportunity for everybody to achieve this. And of course, there is this million-dollar question: how to do it? And I would say I don’t have a mindset. But I know that we must do it. You must start to believe that mental effort must be celebrated. People who read, think, and produce intellectual products must be celebrated. What I believe is that there is only one recipe and I’m willing to accept, of course, any other ideas if somebody persuades me. But for now, I think that there is only one recipe we need to think about: We need to go back to old-fashioned reading.”

Even Aleksander Hagen, State Secretary in Norway’s Ministry of Culture and Equality, outlined the Norwegian national framework for educational equality and told Lorentzen that his and others’ call for a well-funded reading initiative has been heard.

  • “Government has implemented a new book act that balances the interests of various stakeholders and will provide predictable conditions for authors, publishers, and stable conditions for booksellers. Additionally, the book act ensures fair competition conditions for publishers and booksellers of varying sizes and affiliations. Diversity in the book market makes it possible for more writers and different voices to become available for the readers, but the relevance of all this goes together with the actual competence and joy of reading among the citizens of this country. Therefore, this government has also addressed the need to lift reading as both a competence and a preferred activity among children and young people.”

Olav Brostrup Müller, getting back to Einarsson’s call for the international-to-local perspective, is head of culture in Lillehammer and head of the Lillehammer UNESCO City of Literature program. As it would turn out, Lillehammer’s city government is raising the stakes in its own specific reading culture in an organized program meant to develop “higher-level reading” as the Ljubljana Manifesto names it. What’s more, the Lillehammer program includes the text of the IPA-EIBF-IFLA-IAF-PEN International statement on the trinity of freedoms at risk.

  • “Our goal is for all children to experience that books are equally accessible to them, as I experienced as a child,” the son of a librarian. “This government has therefore made it a priority to strengthen libraries at schools. We do see positive results from that. As adults, as authorities and as governments, we have a particular responsibility to show our children and young people the way into reading and into literature, to emancipate them and to protect our workers. Government cannot force anybody to read. In the end it’s a personal choice. But the government of a well-functioning democracy needs at its core a well-reading public. Because in the action of reading lies understanding, principle thinking, and imagination. And those are the abilities that carry important parts of the well-being of our society on their shoulders.”

A robust discussion among WEXFO delegates and panelists ensued, closing the day with Einarsson’s comments, reflected above. Throughout the program, respect, was given to each speaker and interlocutor, a hallmark of the World Expression Forum’s gatherings and debates.

The Freedom to Read at the Publishers Congress

It’s anticipated that another evocation of the IPA-WEXFO reading-and-democracy “trinity of freedoms” program will be presented at the 34th International Publishers Congress (December 3 to 6) at Guadalajara.

That program now is under preparation by Einarsson; Prix Voltaire director James Taylor; and the congress’ producers: the Mexican Publishers Association, the Cámara Nacional de la Industria Editorial Mexicana (CANIEM), which is led by IPA past president Hugo Setzer; and the Association of American Publishers (AAP).

We”ll have more coverage of those plans as they’re available. Ticket sales and travel arrangements for the congress are available now, with information and registration here. The international congress, a biennial event, is supported this year by the University of Guadalajara and by the Guadalajara International Book Fair.

Members of the panel at the 2024 WEXFO learning lab, ‘Access to Information, Books, and Ideas: How to Advance the Freedom to Read.’ From left are Jørgen Lorentzen, Tora Åsling, Olav Brostrup Müller, and Miha Kovač. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

More from Publishing Perspectives on issues of the freedom to publish, the freedom to and freedom of expression is here, more on the Prix Voltaire is here, and on the International Publishers Association is here. More on the World Expression Forum, WEXFO, is here. Special thanks to James Taylor for session documentation.

Publishing Perspectives is the global media partner of the International Publishers Association.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.