The Book Market II

by John Unsworth
Columbia History of the American Novel

The literary marketplace has always had three essential elements: authorship, publishing and audience. Each of these has been shaped by market forces from the very beginning, and each in its own way has mirrored the successive phases of Western capitalism -- pre-industrial/pre-modern, industrial/modern and, in the last fifty years, post-industrial and postmodern. Our immediate concern is with the literary marketplace in the last of these phases, but as we consider how that market has changed since World War II, it will be important to keep in mind that at least some of its features are perennial.

The postmodern period of capitalism has been characterized by rapid technological development, mass-production, inflation, and consumerism -- factors which, according to Marxist culture-critics from Adorno onward, have altered the way in which all goods, including cultural goods, are produced, distributed, and consumed. Magalia Larson has suggested that, because postmodern capitalism is a technocracy, it values and rewards expertise, which results in the rise of professionalism in intellectual life. Fredric Jameson argues that in the age of multinational oligopolies, free-market rhetoric is used to discourage the social planning of production, while the "free choice" of consumers is effectively limited to selecting standardized goods on the basis of superficial differences. Per Gedin, a Swedish socialist critic, has concluded that because postmodern capitalism is fundamentally inflationary, it requires growth and therefore inculcates the consumption of quantity rather than quality.

Seen from this point of view, the consequence of postmodern capitalism for the author is that s/he now competes for survival in an environment that is economically demotic but intellectually hieratic. The increasing distance between the popular and the respectable means that although literacy is widespread and many people do still read during their leisure time, the writer who aims for intellectual prestige, formal originality, or artistic merit is likely to have a day job. As for publishing, the foregoing account of the general economy of the postmodern era can easily be adapted to explain those features most frequently cited in discussions of the current state of that industry in America -- the emphasis on essentially interchangeable bestsellers, the precarious position of independent bookstores, the declining fortunes of "serious" literature, and the amalgamation of the novel with television and film.

Some in publishing have argued that many of these "changes" are really nothing new: highbrow literature has rarely paid well in its own day because readers have always preferred a more easily digestible fare, and publishers have distributed their resources accordingly. Moreover, the "blockbuster complex," which Thomas Whiteside describes as characteristic of the direction publishing has taken in the last decades of the 20th century, may in fact have been with us well before the advent of the cause (conglomerate ownership of publishing houses) to which he attributes it. As Gedin himself notes, in 1901 "Publisher's Weekly maintained that of the 1,900 titles published during the preceding year, a maximum of 100 had sold more than 10,000 copies. Profits, and in some cases they could be huge, were thus earned on vast printings of a very few books" (55).

A classically trained economist, looking at what Whiteside and others see as new and negative developments in the publishing industry, might see only a demonstration of the well-established capital asset pricing model, which holds that people like to be compensated for risk. The fixed costs for printing a book are relatively high, and the profitability of any one book is extremely uncertain: this generates publishers (since authors cannot afford to print their own books), and it encourages those publishers to diversify their risk across many books. Since any one author needs a publisher more than that publisher needs any one author -- unless the author in question is one of the few whose novels always sell well -- the author is in a weak bargaining position and will be likely to sign a contract which gives the publisher most of rights to future profits in exchange for a relatively meager payment up front. If the novel is a success, the conglomerate -- which may well own not only the hardcover house that published the book, but also the paperback company, the film company, and the television network to which subsidiary rights will have been sold -- will reap the reward; if the novel is a failure, the conglomerate will be able to absorb the loss, which is likely to be small in relation to its total assets.

These economic "truths" of publishing may be altered significantly in the near future by desktop publishing and other forms of computer-mediated text-dissemination. The fixed costs for these forms of publishing can be very low, which means that authors can afford to become their own publishers: that many have already done so is demonstrated by a look at FactSheet Five, a monthly catalogue which lists thousands of limited-circulation alternative and underground magazines, many of them devoted to poetry and fiction. The barriers to alternative publishing have always had as much to with status as with costs, though, and it remains to be seen whether such desktop literary productions will be regarded as anything but another form of "vanity" publishing. On the other hand, the electronic dissemination of text by academic and scientific publishers (proprietary and non-profit alike) has already begun, and a number of commercial publishing houses have begun to experiment with using computers to tailor textbooks to the requirements of individual instructors and even to deliver books on-line through commercial database services where one can read part of the book, punch in a credit card number, and download the full text. Assessments of the impact that computers and electronic text will have on authorship, reading, and publishing vary from extreme optimism to extreme pessimism, according to whether the person making the assessment feels that this new technology will necessarily overturn or inevitably reinforce the monopolization of information.

One of the things that has not changed very much over the last two hundred years is the fact that most writers have not been able to subsist on what they earn from writing. In 1986, Paul W. Kingston and Jonathan R. Cole published a book-length study called The Wages of Writing, based on the results of a 1980 survey of 2,241 American authors ("authors" being defined only as those who had published at least one book). According to this survey, in 1979 the median annual income for an author -- including book royalties, movie and television work, and payments for newspaper and magazine publication -- was $4,775. "Median income" means that 50% of all the authors surveyed earned less than that amount; fully 25% earned less than $1,000 from writing during this year, and only 10% had incomes of $45,000 or more. Not surprisingly, almost half of the writers surveyed had other jobs: of these, 36% taught at colleges or universities, 20% were employed in other professions (as lawyers, doctors, computer programmers, etc.), and 11% were editors or publishers. Among those who wrote full time, the median income was only $7,500 (or slightly less than fifty cents per hour). Genre fiction was the most profitable type of writing, with 20% of its authors earning more than $50,000 a year -- about three times the income enjoyed by authors of adult non- fiction, the next most profitable type of writing.

Kingston and Cole's survey also brings to light some interesting information about race, class and gender as it correlates with income from writing. According to the data they gathered, race and class were not significant factors in predicting a writer's income, nor was it important where an author lived or even whether the author had a college education. On the other hand, there was a noticeable difference between the income of men and that of women: the median income for male writers was 20% higher than that of female writers, and men were almost twice as likely as women to be among the highest-paid authors (that 10% who made more than $45,000 a year from writing).

Authors of both genders continue to pursue their craft in spite of the odds against success because they are willing to sacrifice income for the privilege of doing what they enjoy (something economists call "self- exploitation), and also because unknown authors do sometimes stumble into stardom. Stories of overnight success are common in publishing, even though their significance is more psychological than statistical. One such story is that of Judith Guest, whose novel Ordinary People was submitted to Viking Press, where it was published after a young assistant pulled it out of the "slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts. Guest's novel became a bestseller and was made into a profitable motion picture by a major studio. At the time that this happened, Viking Press was receiving about fifty unsolicited manuscripts every week, or 2,600 a year; Ordinary People was the first unsolicited manuscript they had published in ten years -- odds of approximately 26,000 to 1. Kadushin, Coser and Powell, who tell this story in Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing, cite a New York Times Book Review article which calculated the odds against the publication of unsolicited novels at almost 30,000 to 1. Sixty percent of the trade publishers interviewed by Kadushin, Coser and Powell said they received over one thousand unsolicited manuscripts every year; the president of one of the larger general trade houses, Doubleday, estimated that his firm receives "an average of ten thousand unsolicited manuscripts a year, out of which three or four may be chosen for publication" (130-131).

Most literary fiction is not plucked from the slush pile: editors rely on agents, friends, and even other editors to help them find publishable work. But even though an inside connection of some sort may be a necessary condition of publication, it is not a sufficient one. Once a work of fiction finds its way into an editor's hands, what determines its fate? One obvious answer would be, "the editor's taste." Kadushin, Coser and Powell found that the average editor was white, Protestant, male, and middlebrow in cultural orientation. Although the editors in their sample read a great deal, they also went to the movies often and attended sporting events: the authors' conclusion was that "the needs of the market, not personal preference, seem to rule" where editor's taste is concerned (113-116).

Referring taste to the "the needs of the market" only means that one needs to know how editors determine those needs. The answers editors themselves give to this question tend to be somewhat contradictory. Those I have spoken to about the publishing of literary fiction tended to describe themselves as seeking to publish "quality" work, and as being unconcerned with profit: one editor went so far as to express the opinion that no writers of quality go unpublished. According to these editors, literary fiction always loses money, and is routinely subsidized by commercially successful publications. Asked about advertising and market research, an editor I interviewed remarked that "one of the strange things about publishing is that one doesn't have a very good sense for most books of who the audience really is. . . . We don't do any research on it"; another responded by reciting one of the basic credos of publishing, that "the problem with market research in publishing is that every book is a different product: it's not like toothpaste, where once you have a certain brand, every tube is the same as every other tube." In place of planning, editors cite the mysterious exercise of free choice by the audience as the major factor in determining the success or failure of a book.

None of these claims accords very well with the known facts of the publishing industry, though: the profit from bestsellers is at least as likely to be absorbed by the huge advance for the next bestseller as it is to subsidize "serious" but commercially unsuccessful works of fiction, and commercial considerations do enter very directly into all aspects of editorial decision-making. According to one survey, decision-making meetings at major publishing houses were attended by the editor in chief (85% of the time), publisher (75%), sales staff (63%), president (58%), managing editor (50%), marketing staff (46%), production staff (27%), assistant editors (24%), and, last, representatives of the parent corporation (16%) (Kadushin, 139). Sales and marketing people tend to take a less mystified view of what they do, and there is ample evidence that in many cases, it is these people who cast the deciding votes.

The pressure to consider sales has always been part of publishing, but there are indications that it now enters into the process much earlier than it once did: Roger Straus III explains that, whereas traditionally the decision to publish came first and questions about how to find the audience for that book came later, now marketing considerations are likely to determine whether the book will be published at all (Kadushin, 141). Editors themselves are not immune from these pressures, especially since in many houses editorial "productivity" is now a condition of employment. As Morton Janklow candidly observed, "for good or ill, the old style of editor and publisher is slowly passing from the scene. Now there's a much more energetic, more driving -- and, I must say, more profit-oriented -- publisher arising" (Whiteside, 57).

It should be added, though, that prestige has its own market value, and the prestigious author may be worth publishing even if his or her books are unlikely to sell many copies or be made into movies. Kadushin, Coser and Powell found that 70% of the editors they interviewed listed the prestige of an author as either "critical" or "very important" in deciding whether to publish (146). Publishing authors of certified literary merit has both personal and professional value for an editor: personally, it helps to justify the time spent on other, less estimable projects; professionally, it benefits the editor's reputation with authors and other editors. This value may be intangible, but it can be indirectly profitable, since authors who are themselves commercially viable may be more inclined to publish with a house that lists a number of artistically renowned authors among its clientele.

Deciding what to publish is only half the battle: getting that book to the reader is the other. The major problem facing the novel has always been to identify and reach its audience, and in America, this problem has been exacerbated by the historical lack of an adequate distribution system. The size of this country, the dispersion of its population, and the practical difficulties of transporting goods across long distances at reasonable costs have always posed a problem for American publishers. In the 19th century, the advent of a railroad system began to solve some of these problems, but even then, a nation-wide marketing system did not develop.

As a recent study points out, the absence of such a system was a determining factor in the success of "two of the most important innovations in book distribution during this century -- paperbacks and book clubs." Both of these methods of "recycling" the texts originally produced by trade publishing houses took hold during the twenties and thirties "because trade publishers could not exploit the national market through conventional means"; the solution hit upon by paperback publishers was to use the existing magazine distribution network (this is why we have paperbacks in airports, drugstores, and supermarkets), and books clubs solved the problem by using the U.S. postal service (West, 34). Book clubs were opposed by trade publishers, often in court, until the 1950s; by that time, clubs like the Book of the Month Club (founded in 1926) and the Literary Guild (founded in 1927), had become ineradicable features of the publishing landscape, in large part because of their success in reaching a targeted group of paying readers through direct mailing (West, 124-125). Modern paperback publishing, which began with the establishment of Pocket Books in 1939 and Bantam Books in 1945, received a critical boost in its rise to power in the literary marketplace at about the same time. During the second World War, the Council on Books in Wartime (founded by Farrar, Norton, and other leading publishers) issued more than 123.5 million copies of paperback books to servicemen, in the Armed Services and Overseas editions (West, 129-130).

The success of both paperbacks and book clubs are part of what many have seen as the commercialization of publishing during the last fifty years. A number of people, notably Ted Solotaroff and Thomas Whiteside, have cited the so-called "blockbuster" phenomenon as a principal culprit in this process. Beginning in the 1960's, publishers started paying huge amounts for the rights to potential bestsellers: a major part of this sudden inflation in contract prices has been the rise in the importance of subsidiary rights. Kadushin et al. observe that

In the nineteenth century, a hardcover trade book's profit was

determined by the number of copies sold to individual readers. Today, it is usually determined by the sale of subsidiary rights to movie companies, book clubs, foreign publishers, or paperback reprint houses. (14)
Subsidiary rights can also involve television, merchandise (T-shirts, dolls, etc.), and other tie-ins; in fact, the sales of the book itself often depend on the successful promotion and sale of subsidiary items and productions. The result of this is that the direct sale of books to individuals is far less important than it once was -- a situation analogous to that in professional sports, where (as West points out) gate receipts have been overshadowed by the sale of television rights. In the words of Dick Snyder, chairman of the board of Simon and Schuster, books "are the software of the television and movie media" (Whiteside, 64), and in fact, one third of the movies produced each year are based on books (Kadushin, 218). Richard Kostelanetz gives the worst- case account of the influence of subsidiary rights on editorial decision- making when he says that "suitability to the mass media determines not only whether a novel will be offered to a large audience, but whether it will be published at all" (189).

It is not coincidental that the ascendency of subsidiary rights was established at the same time conglomerates began buying up publishing houses. Charles Newman, in The Post-Modern Aura, records that

as of 1982, more than 50% of all mass market sales were accounted for by five publishers, and ten publishing firms accounted for more than 85%. Nine firms accounted for more than 50% of "general interest" book sales. The largest publishers in the country are Time, Inc., Gulf and Western, M.C.A., Times Mirror, Inc., The Hearst Corp., C.B.S. and Newhouse publications, conglomerates which all have heavy stakes in mass-market entertainment media, such as radio, book clubs, cable TV, pay TV, motion pictures, video discs, and paperback books. All of them have become significant factors only in the last ten years. . . . (152)
Gulf & Western, which was originally a manufacturer of auto parts, now owns Paramount Pictures, Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books; Warner Communications, a major producer of films and records and the part owner of the third-largest cable-TV system in the country, is also the owner of Warner Books and Little Brown; MCA, the owner of Universal Pictures, is also the owner of the hardcover publishing houses G. P. Putnam's Sons, Richard Marek, and Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, and the paperback houses Berkley Publishing and Jove publications (Whiteside, 64).

Another very important force shaping the literary marketplace in the late 20th century has been mass-market book retailers like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks (the latter now owned by K-Mart). Whereas in 1958, independents accounted for 72% of all bookstore sales, by 1985 the bookstore chains had almost half of the market. In some cases, these chains have an influence on the publishing process that goes well beyond retailing: with every cash register hooked up to a computerized inventory system, B. Dalton has been able to track the "item velocity" of each book they sell, and they provide that information to publishers in the B. Dalton Merchandise Bulletin -- "one of the most influential publications in the entire book-publishing business," according to Whiteside (45). Chain stores such as B. Dalton are divided into metropolitan stores and suburban shopping-mall outlets; a work of literary fiction may well be carried in the metropolitan stores, but if it is judged (by the buyers at the chain) unlikely to sell in the shopping malls, this directly affects the size of the printing that book will receive. An informal survey of publishers at the 1987 ABA convention showed, among other things, that the mean for book sales was 10,000 copies, with sales of 70,000 or more copies generally considered necessary to place a book on a major bestseller list: unless a book is carried in the suburban outlets, sales beyond 10,000 copies are unlikely. The chain bookstores also have an effect on what books are kept in print: shelf-life is short in these stores, for the simple reason that "item velocity" drops precipitously as books move to the backlist: the same ABA-convention survey showed that, on average, 91% of a book's total sales were registered in the first year (Crowther, 15-18).

In the opinion of some, the influence of the chain bookstores has been more significant than that of conglomerate ownership in publishing. Dick Snyder argues that the chains "serve a different community of book readers from any that the book business has ever had before. . . . the elitism of the book market doesn't exist any more." According to Snyder, "the minute you get into the suburbs, where ninety percent of the chain stores are located, you serve the customers, mainly women, the way you would serve them in a drugstore or a supermarket." While some have decried the supermarket approach to selling books as a major contributing factor in the decline of "quality" publishing, Snyder sees the 'book supermarket' as an essentially positive development: "Sometimes a publisher will publish a commercial book and that might be sold to Waldenbooks and some people might say that's bad. I say it's good -- better that people read a commercial book than read nothing. It's a step up" (Whiteside, 116).

However distasteful Snyder's endorsement of the literary supermarket may be to some, his description of that supermarket's customer -- non-elite and usually female -- matches the historical profile of the audience for the novel itself. Although reading has a long tradition as an activity of the elite, the history of novel-reading is linked to the more recent emergence of an educated middle class. Ian Watt, Lewis Coser and others have pointed out that the rise of the novel in England during the mid-18th century was due, in large part, to the broadening distribution of wealth: as the numbers of the moderately wealthy grew, there was a corresponding increase in leisure time, literacy and education, all of which were conditions favorable to the novel. The rise of the novel is also attributable to what might be called the rise of domesticity. The literal expansion of the domestic sphere is part of this: reading is by nature a solitary activity, and larger living quarters allowed individuals the privacy in which to pursue it (Coser, 41). In our culture, the domestic sphere has traditionally been the domain of women, and middle- class women, although generally excluded from the worlds of business and formal education during the 18th and much of the 19th century, were increasingly literate and leisured, and made up a majority of novel-readers during this period (as they still do, according to Snyder and others in the publishing industry).

The fortunes of the novel are linked not only economically but also ideologically to the fortunes of women. According to William Charvat, American readers of the late 18th century consumed quantities of reprinted British novels, many of them written "by women working in anonymous secrecy" for a publisher who paid them a flat fee (19); this anonymity did not prevent novels from being identified as a form of entertainment by and for women, and American literary critics were nearly unanimous in denouncing the triviality and vulgarity of the genre, effectively depriving the novel of cultural status despite (or perhaps because of) its popularity.

These same considerations obviously made writing novels an unattractive profession in America -- especially for male authors concerned with prestige. In explaining how authorship became a viable profession in this country, Charvat concentrates on the economics of the novel -- by the 1830s, he says, American authors had begun to write on subject of broad appeal, American readers had the money to buy their books, and American publishers had the means to deliver them. But he also notes, in passing, that it was the financial success of British authors such as Byron and Scott which finally raised the cultural status of authorship in an "increasingly pecuniary" American society (Charvat, 29-30). It would appear, then, that as long as novel-writing was regarded as the occupation of women, its cultural status (as well as the remuneration afforded its authors) remained low.

Recent discussions of the literary canon, and particularly of the American canon, have made it clear that the laurels for "serious" literature have been awarded disproportionately to men. This is not because women have not written novels, or have written only bad novels; rather, it is because both the writing and the reading of novels by women has been consigned to the realm of popular (i.e., disposable) culture. In the 20th century, the bifurcation of the novel into "serious" and "popular" literature has been accelerated not only by mass-marketing (which has increased the disparity in size between the audiences for these two categories of cultural production, even though it may not actually have diminished the audience for literary fiction), but also by professionalization, which has provided a positive incentive for certain (mostly male) writers to make their fiction less accessible to the amateur reader.

This account of the current state of literature is likely to meet the same objection from liberal humanists that the Marxist cultural critic's and the classical economist's would, namely that "the mysterious force of all serious art is the extent to which it always exceeds the requirements of the market" (Newman, 196). But even the liberal humanist would have to admit that the struggle of "serious" literature in America has always been in large part a struggle for an audience, and thus has been a struggle with the marketplace and its requirements. The two types of fiction most frequently identified as postmodern conveniently mark the poles of contemporary artistic response to these requirements. One is the response of writing fiction that is deliberately unmarketable: Charles Newman calls this sort of writing

a true future fiction for an audience which not only does not exist, but cannot exist unless it progresses with the same utopian technical advancement of expertise, the same accelerating value, which informs the verbal dynamic of the novels written for them. This represents an act of ultimate aggression against the contemporary audience. (92)

The other pole of response is represented by that postmodern fiction which incorporates and even celebrates mass-market commodities and mass- culture icons. This adaptation to the market may have survival value from an economic point of view, but it is likely to arouse the contempt of intellectuals:

By becoming kitsch, art panders to the confusion which reigns in the "taste" of the patrons. Artists, gallery owners, critics, and the public wallow together in the "anything goes," and the epoch is one of slackening. But this realism of the "anything goes" is in fact that of money; in the absence of aesthetic criteria, it remains possible and useful to assess the value of works of art according to the profits they yield. Such realism accommodates all tendencies, just as capital accommodates all "needs," providing that the tendencies and needs have purchasing power. As for taste, there is no need to be delicate when one speculates or entertains oneself. (Lyotard, 76)
Jean Francois Lyotard's tirade against kitsch eclecticism and commercial realism clearly demonstrates that even those who reject the marketplace still define art in relation to it. The identification of literary merit with opposition to the marketplace derives from the tradition of the historical avant-garde: Flaubert's remark, in 1852, that "between the crowd and ourselves no bond exists," is an early but characteristic rejection of philistinism. This attitude intensified as the marketplace and its cultural influence expanded: Flaubert went on to sigh, "alas for the crowd; alas for us, especially," but sixty years later, Pound seems to have felt no such regret when he remarked to Harriet Monroe that "So far as I personally am concerned the public can go to the devil."

The artist's claim of autonomy may be one of long standing, but it takes on new significance in an age of professionalism. As Larson points out, professional autonomy always derives from exclusivity, and "the secrecy and mystery which surround the creative process maximize the self-governance conceded to experts"; Louis Menand, in his study of T.S. Eliot's literary reputation, demonstrates that Eliot was instrumental in teaching both academics and artists that such self-governance depends on establishing "the experts' monopoly of knowledge" (235). Seen in this light, "Art for Art's sake" is a paradigmatically professional credo, since every profession

aggrandizes itself most effectively by identifying with a higher standard than self-interest. This double motive is reflected in the argument all professions offer as their justification, the argument that in order to serve the needs of others properly, professions must be accountable only to themselves. (Menand, 113)
In the words of Eliot himself, "professionalism in art [is] . . . hard work on style with singleness of purpose" -- in short, literary professionalism manifests itself in artistic formalism and New Criticism, both based on the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy. Discussing this same "autonomy aesthetic," Peter Burger points out that it "contains a definition of the function of art: it is conceived as a social realm that is set apart from the means-end rationality of daily bourgeois existence. Precisely for this reason, it can criticize such an existence" (10). And in fact, the service that both art and criticism have offered the twentieth century has been a constitutively professional one: the analysis of culture from an allegedly disinterested and uninvolved perspective.

The claim to an aloofness from the marketplace is a dubious one at best, not least because the professionalization of "serious" literature has coincided with the movement of the writers of that literature into the academy. As the founding editor of Perspective magazine recalls,

The generation of writers that shaped twentieth century literature (Eliot, Pound, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc.) earned their livings outside of Academia. In the forties, there was a mass migration of writers into the universities as teachers of courses in "creative writing." (Thurston, 234)
This dating of the professionalization of creative writing coincides with a marked growth in academic publication: sociologist Diana Crane's "analysis of the growth of publications in English literature from 1923 to 1967 reveals a linear pattern of growth until 1939, followed by a very slow rate of exponential growth (doubling every seventeen years rather than every ten years as in the basic science literature)" (94). Some would say that the result of this coincidence has been "the development of a literary activity which in many cases exists only for the critics" (Gedin, 184).

In "The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-1975," Richard Ohmann argues that, in addition to sales and major reviews, attention from intellectuals (who, in 20th-century America tend to be academics) and inclusion on the college syllabus also play a crucial role in establishing literary merit. A book must sell well in order to survive in the short run, regardless of its merit, but a book must also receive the imprimatur of academia if it is to survive in the long run. Ohmann sees inclusion on the college syllabus as the "all but necessary" form of that imprimatur: "the college classroom and its counterpart, the academic journal, have become in our society the final arbiters of literary merit, and even of survival [for literature]" (75).

According to Gerald Graff, there was no such thing as a course in the modern novel until the very end of the nineteenth century, and it was not until the middle of our own century that even "serious" contemporary fiction would have been considered an acceptable subject for academic study. It has only been in the last twenty years that English departments have routinely offered courses in contemporary literature, and only in the last ten that this has established itself as a field in its own right within the discipline (Graff, 196-197). New Direction's James Laughlin corroborates Graff's account when he recalls that

At Harvard in '33, believe it or not, there still were no courses being given in [Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Joyce]. They were not yet accepted. . . . in those days, the Professor of Rhetoric . . . would get so angry if the name of Eliot or Pound were mentioned in his course that he would ask the student to leave the room. (13-14)
Laughlin and Graff (and many others) again point to World War II as the turning point: after the war, Graff says, "an institution that had once seen itself as the bulwark of tradition against vulgar and immoral contemporaneity [became] the disseminator and explainer of the most recent trends" (206). Harold Rosenberg, in a 1960 essay called "Everyman a Professional," offers the broadest cultural explanation for this shift when he says that in an age of specialization teaching has become a matter of
popularization, which acts as journalistic or educational intercessor between the isolated mind of the theorist-technician and the fragmented psyche of the public, [and] is the most powerful profession of our time . . . gaining daily in numbers, importance and finesse. (71)

George Steiner (in an essay called "After the Book?") goes so far as to suggest that reading itself is splitting into real and pseudo-literacy, the former practiced by a small elite mostly consisting of academics, the latter describing the limits of the practice of reading in the culture at large. In Steiner's view, there is nothing wrong with this, except that the elite today no longer has the power or receives the respect that it deserves (201-202). On the substance of Steiner's point, Ted Solotaroff agrees, remarking with regret on "the widening gulf between the publishing culture and the literary or even literate one. For if the former is advancing steadily into the mass culture, the latter is retreating to a significant extent from it into the confines of the university" (78). Solotaroff does cite the influx of writers into academia as a solution of sorts to the "age-old" problem of the starving artist, but he sees a danger in the increasingly common career-path of the writer from MFA student to teacher of writing, with little adult experience outside the university (79).

Indeed, many of the authors discussed by these critics have, like the 36% of the writers surveyed by Kingston and Cole, spent all or most of their adult lives in the academy. They are also mostly male: though he doesn't point it out, less than 20% of the authors whom Ohmann calculates to have made it into the "intermediate stage in canon formation" are women. Moreover, as the discussion of professionalism in literature might lead us to expect, the authors named are frequently those whose fiction emphasizes formal elements, sometimes at the expense of narrative.

In Distinctions: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu argues that "to assert the autonomy of production is to give primacy to that of which the artist is master, i.e., form, manner, style, rather than the 'subject', the external referent, which involves subordination to functions -- even if only the most elementary one, that of representing, signifying, saying something" (3); this attitude of detachment from function is, he suggests, "the paradoxical product of conditioning by negative economic necessities -- a life of ease -- that tends to induce an active distance from necessity" (5). By contrast, those who cannot afford this distance tend to require representationalism and apply "the schemes of the ethos, which pertain in the ordinary circumstances of life, to legitimate works of art, [resulting in] a systematic reduction of the things of art to the things of life" (5). In short, Bourdieu contends that our hierarchy of taste, which values formalist sublimation and detachment more highly than "vulgar" and unselfconscious realism, serves to reproduce the hierarchy of class.

It also reproduces a hierarchy of gender, and perpetuates the association of the popular (instinctive, unreflective) with the feminine, and the difficult (deliberate, conscious) with the masculine. In his essay bemoaning the increasing distance between what is commercially viable and what is artistically valuable, Ted Solotaroff finds hope in the fact that

women writers today have a genuine subject and a passionate constituency, and a really gifted writer -- an Alice Walker, Alice Munro, or Anne Tyler, a Lynne Schwartz or a Marilynne Robinson -- is able to surmount the obstacles that the conglomerates and the bookstore chains and the mass culture itself place between her and her readers. (80)
Solotaroff's remarks, and his examples, suggest that in order to overcome the barrier between literary merit and marketability, even "really gifted writers" must still be realists, and must appeal to "a passionate constituency" -- code for "women readers," as they are perceived in publishing. This reading may seem to infer too much about the role of gender stereotypes in the literary marketplace, but a prominent woman editor with whom I spoke suggested that "difficult" fiction is generally written by men and for men, while women writers reach a larger audience (of women) by addressing themselves more directly to spiritual concerns. The flip side of this essentialism is that women who write experimental fiction are likely to be told by editors that their work is not what women want to read -- a stricture that may be intensified when the author in question belongs to a "spiritual" race as well as a "spiritual" gender, as bell hooks' experience demonstrates :
[The] creative writing I do which I consider to be most reflective of a postmodern oppositional sensibility -- work that is abstract, fragmented, non-linear narrative -- is constantly rejected by editors and publishers who tell me it does not conform to the type of writing they think black women should be doing or the type of writing they believe will sell. (13)

In sum, the literary marketplace is, for better or worse, the most reliable indicator of how we value literature. Literary taste, literary status, and literary production are all determined to a significant extent by the economics of that market and, in turn, by the hierarchy of values that are expressed in those economics. In the postmodern era, publishing has become part of a multinational and multi-media marketplace for narrative, and therefore it competes with movies, television, and even "non-fictional" formats such as TV news, which increasingly adopts the trappings of narrative to attract its viewers. In this environment, the most profitable type of novel is that which can be easily translated into other media, namely the realist narrative. The best-paid authors of such narrative are disproportionately male, as are those who manage the mass-market for narrative, but the product is, especially in the case of the novel, marketed to women -- often on the basis of essentialist stereotypes of the proclivities and desires of that gendered market. "Serious" fiction which is non-realist in its aesthetic orientation is prestigious but unprofitable, and those who write it tend to be men confined to the academy, which is the only place that their professionalism does have a market value. In addition to reflecting our hierarchy of gender, the literary marketplace reflects our presuppositions about race and our predispositions toward class, not so much in who gets published as in what gets published and what gets preserved -- and it is the difference between these last two that may tell us most about how literary value is determined.

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