Musings of a Curmudgeon on the Future of the Book

Category: Book History

On “Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in Early Twentieth Century United States”

Amy Blair’s Reading Up offers a very insightful study of Hamilton Wright Mabie’s decade-long position as the literary advisor at the Ladies’ Home Journal. Given the wide reading audience (considerably larger than the Atlantic or Harper’s), Mabie wielded a lot of power as the arbiter of “good fiction,” but this position was also limited by some of the givens of the magazine’s constitutive interpretive community. This community is not united along gender or generational lines (based on the articles, subscription prices and surveys, Blair illustrates that many men and children also read the magazine), but instead simply along the unquestioned ideology that “reading is valuable.” This value is construed materially (in the form of cultural and economic prestige) and abstractly (as a means to “build character”). As I discussed in an earlier post, Stanley Fish’s concept of “interpretive communities” suggests that the interpretive strategies that a person has prior to reading (i.e. the text has one truth vs. the text has many potential meanings) affect the “text that is written” by the reader. This accounts for the possibility that one might encounter a reader that seemingly read an entirely different book than oneself. However, in the case of “reading up,” Blair traces how the ideology of literature’s value facilitates the misreading of texts, the emptying out of aesthetic categories in favor of identification, moral certitude, and social climbing. Blair defines “reading up” as, “reading the ‘right books,’ dutifully, but not necessarily in the ‘right way.’ For example, a reader might identify with characters not intended as the central figures of a text or might reject aspects of the text that do not reinforce the upward striving that brought the reader to the text in the first place” (16).  Blair traces the continuity of interpretive strategies and the resultant active reading processes that it makes possible and likely. Blair considers three of the more prominently recommended authors (Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton) in Ladies’ Home Journal and the canonizing complications that arise from their juxtapositions with other “literature of the day.” Despite sharp critique that each of these author’s offers up to a culture of taste, middle-class readers, through the sieve of Mabie, were able to maintain their utilitarian relationship with books:

When it comes to the goals of reading up, however, all that mattered was the cultural capital accorded to works variously aligned with realism. In other words, “realism” from the perspective of reading up is an empty signifier. It is a brand and, ultimately, a term that signals a moment in the rhetorical production of a culture of taste within the culture of success in the newly industrializing United States in the beginning of the twentieth century. This culture of taste created a set of incentives for everyone involved— middle-class readers, who desired economic and social success; cultural arbiters, who hoped to remain relevant in the world of the mass media; and authors and publishers, who hoped to retain elite literary status for their works but who also, frankly, hoped to sell books. Each of these claimants had an ideological and material investment both in perpetuating the tensions at the heart of realism and in maintaining the apparent contradictions between realism and mass culture (17).

I will offer some of the highlights of Blair’s section on Henry James (I was most interested in this section because of the complex and agitated relationship James had with his readers over his long career). According to Blair,

James clearly posed a problem for the reading advisor who like Mabie needed to steer his readership towards some sophisticated literature, but who found The Golden Bowl “a subtle study of American and Italian temperaments” saddled nonetheless with a “very disagreeable plot” (March 1905, 21). Mabie’s compromise, to praise the later James’s “technical skill” but to downplay the “interest” of James’s late works, allowed his readers to self-select; the highbrow benefits of James would accrue just as readily to the reader of Portrait as to the reader of The Ambassadors. One important step was to decouple James from a continental realist, or naturalist, lineage that might associate him with Émile Zola, who Mabie says “took in many cases the most revolting, gross and repulsive aspects of life and pictured them with very little shading” (September 1905, 18). Instead, Mabie associated James with a more genteel notion of literariness. (114).

Henry James had an established reputation that required his presence on a literature advice column, particularly when cultural capital was the end for this column. However, Mabie’s tenure at Ladies’ Home Journal (1902-1912) aligned precisely with James’s late-career stylistics, a “problem” many were eager to dismiss as for those interested in “the mind of Henry James” as he ventured into the “psychological.” During this time James released “New York Editions” of several of his earlier novels revised to his contemporaneous tastes (part of this re-publication was fine, expensive binding to solidify it as “important”). While James considered these revisions to be vast improvements that would clear up many of the “mistakes” readers had been making with his texts, the New York Editions were monumental failures in the market. Blair attributes this failure to critics like Hamilton Wright Mabie, whose fidelities were to a culture of “reading up.”

Tellingly, Mabie paid no attention to the New York Edition, though he was writing his columns, and recommending James, concurrently with the Edition’s publication. In his November 1904 column, there is no question that the Portrait Mabie recommends is James’s 1881 edition, not the heavily revised New York Edition. But which Portrait was he commending in 1912, or in 1909, for that matter, when he recommends his readers study Portrait as part of a program of reading that contrasts “novels of character study” to “novels of incident”? James’s revisions of Portrait were, of course, extensive and, he hoped, would “have hugely improved the book—& I mean not only for myself, but for the public.” 7 But the adviser who reached one of the most extensive mass audiences of the time, Mabie, never mentioned James’s edition, though he mentions the publication of “editions de luxe,” of other authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe (January 1909, 30), and even suggests giving such editions as gifts (December 1902, 19). Though Charles Scribner’s Sons did not advertise the New York Edition widely, Mabie would surely have known about it from the substantial literary gossip surrounding the project; at the very least, he would have seen notices of its publication and early reviews. We may assume, therefore, that the radio silence on the substantial revisions of two of Mabie’s most favored James works, Portrait and Roderick Hudson, is intentional, signaling Mabie’s own attachment to the original pieces, and even more, his presumption that his audience would neither care about nor care for the changes. (103-104)

James became a name that needed to be checked off of a list on the way towards some personal fulfillment (this is actually eerily similar to a conversation I had with an advisor while constructing my Qualifying Exam reading list when he told me to read The Golden Bowl instead of Portrait of a Lady and in the back of my mind I begrudgingly thought, “but that book is hard, can’t I just put any James on my list?”). For this reason Mabie refused to engage with James his contemporary, and the concurrent prefaces to his New York Editions that laid out in detail a “proper” reader-response to his work, in favor of what could more easily align with the expectations of his interpretive community. This affected the way in which associations (and therefore interpretive strategies) were cultivated around James:

On numerous occasions, Mabie responds to reader requests for “a course of fiction reading” with lists that present early James (Portrait, Roderick Hudson) on a continuum with Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Scott, and Austen (October 1908; October 1905; September 1909). In his March 1904 column, Mabie answers a question about the “three best American novels” by asserting that The Scarlet Letter is certainly one of them, but that the other two spaces could be filled by a number of novels: The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Marble Faun, The Portrait of a Lady, The Rise of Silas Lapham, The Choir Invisible, Pembroke, The Grandissimes, Deephaven, The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While Howells, and certainly James, might have felt themselves outliers in this group (and Mark Twain certainly would have taken umbrage at his inclusion on a list with James Fenimore Cooper), the texts Mabie chooses are apparently easy to conceptualize in a continuum with transcendentalist romance, with regionalism, and with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mabie consistently overlooked the aesthetic and methodological distinctions made by James and Howells at their most critical, allowing his readers to blur the line between James and James Lane Allen. (101-102)

It is fair to point out that we are not at all far from this line of thinking. Websites like “Goodreads” and their “listopia” function, the popular project to read Modern Library’s “100 best novels,” or the ever-present desire to establish the “Great American Novel” (an unavoidably list-creating enterprise) all serve to divorce context, aesthetic and methodological distinctions from history, form, authors, and reader-responses. This is symptomatic of a cultural way-of-thinking. Blair closes her book with an interesting contemporary case-study of reader-responses to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on Oprah Winfrey’s Book-Club discussion boards. Amidst a host of complaints about the book, Blair states, “But there are no voices that question reading per se; reading’s value has been secured. Even if you do not like Freedom, you might like another book; turning away from literature altogether is simply not an option. This presumption of reading’s essential value— aesthetic, emotional, social, material— is the enduring legacy of Mabie, the internalization of reading up” (204).

I am very persuaded by Blair’s representation and critique of the culture of taste in Reading Up. In my own work, I am interested in how the “ideology” of literature, which I extend towards the positive inclination towards paper itself, is ruptured by the force of the aesthetic itself. I see instances where the “ideology of literature” encounters the force of other shared affective atmospheres in the body of the novel itself that are discontinuous from this ideology and transcend the constraints of the interpretive community that “values reading” for its own sake. To me, each of these events are in a state of co-mingling and becoming, indelibly co-dependent and in constant, agitating contact (towards this latter end of balancing subjectivity and the power of art itself, renee c. hoogland, has an exciting book coming out this fall on the force of aesthetics).

On “Towards an Aesthetic of Reception” and “Is There a Text in this Class?”


I am pairing my comments on Hans Robert Jauss’s Towards an Aesthetic of Reception and Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class? because each attempts to unpack the shortcomings of formalist readings of texts in an attempt to reassert the “reader” in the triangle author-text-reader.[1] Each text critiques the formalist tradition and its sanctification of “the text” as a fixed, authoritative object. In positioning the text as such, as a finished product that contains within it a fixed meaning, formalist analysis ignores the active process of reading (for Stanley Fish this very act of reading is what creates the text itself because the text is simply constituted by interpretation). The point at which a text is analyzed, critiqued, and discussed, the reader is so far removed from the reading process that the initial encounter, the “prehension,” is obscured. Jauss and Fish essentially, although for slightly different reasons and with slightly different methodology, seek to invite critics to have a more self-conscious approach to their reading experience, allow themselves to be “multiple readers” and engage with the process of interpretation. I will illuminate some of the nuances of their positions here, and offer a brief analysis of how I see these key progenitors of reader-response theory functioning in my critical framework.

For each of these theorists, the method of reader-response is crucially a historical act (Fish, 49; Jauss, “Literary History as Challenge”). Jauss juxtaposes the formalist approach to history (a dialectical relationship between many literary schools in a historical moment (“‘wherein one represents the canonized height of literature’; the canonization of a literary form leads to its automization, and demands the formation of new forms in the lower stratum that ‘conquer the place of old ones,’ grow to be a mass phenomenon, and finally are themselves pushed to the periphery [17]) and the Marxist approach (processual and “reciprocal interaction between work and mankind” [15]) to illustrate that while the former lacks an awareness of literature’s role as an affective force in history, the latter lacks an awareness of the distinctness of literary history to other histories, particularly, here, History. Jauss proposes that the reader resolves this aporia: “If on the one hand literary evolution can be comprehended within the historical change of systems, and on the other hand pragmatic history can be comprehended within the processlike linkage of social conditions, must it not then also be possible to place the ‘literary series’ and the ‘nonliterary series’ into a relation that comprehends the relationship between literature and history without forcing literature, at the expense of its character as art, into a function of mere copying or commentary?” (18). Jauss’s manifesto for the study of an “aesthetic of reception” challenges the critic to view literary history synchronically and diachronically at the same time by positioning the reader at the center of analysis.

For both Jauss and Fish, the question of the multitudinous and amorphous nature of our concept of “the reader,” and his conjoined “affective fallacy,” can be daunting for the critic, but the fear that “anything goes” is not only a red herring, but fallacious. The text arbiters a limited range of responses, given a particular subset of assumptions we can make about readers of a text. For Jauss, the reader’s “horizon of expectations” with a text are ever-changing based on the active reading process, but the initial set of expectations are set by experience, experience with genres, with poetic language, with politics, and with history:

“The psychic process in the reception of a text is, in the primary horizon of aesthetic experience, by no means only an arbitrary series of merely subjective impressions, but rather the carrying out of specific instructions in a process of directed perception, which can be comprehended according to its constitutive motivations and triggering signals, and which also can be described by a textual linguistics” (23).

The sort of analysis that Jauss describes dovetails with Fish’s work with Milton’s poetics. The problem that Fish is attempting to resolve is an important one: shedding the illusion of objectivity in favor of arguing for an interpretation with controlled subjectivity (49). Is There a Text in this Class? illustrates a fascinating evolution in Fish’s thinking about the concept of the reader and how to best defend his position that reader-response is both preferable and achievable. In his opening manifesto, “Literature in the Reader,” Fish begins with his concept of the “informed reader,” a somewhat stable entity that embodies the following three qualities:

“1.) is a competent speaker of the language out of which the text is built up; 2.) is in full possession of the ‘semantic knowledge that a mature…listener brings to his task of comprehension,’ including the knowledge (that is, the experience, both as a producer and comprehender) of lexical sets, collocation probabilities, idioms, professional and other dialects, and so on; and 3.) has literary competence. That is, he is sufficiently experienced as a reader to have internalized the properties of literary discourses, including everything from the most local of devices (figures of speech, and so on) to whole genres” (48).

For even this most novice deconstructionist, problems begin to clearly arise from this description of the encounter between a person and a book. How much familiarity with literature is required before one is “mature,” “informed,” and “competent”? However, Jauss establishes an important corollary to the variances in readers’ skill levels and competencies: “The interpretive reception of a text always presupposes the context of experience of aesthetic perception: the question of the subjectivity of the interpretation and of the taste of different readers or levels of readers can be asked meaningfully only when one has first clarified which transsubjective horizon of understanding conditions the influence of the text” (23). In other words, “literary competence” is necessary, but also slightly misleading as a relational concept between Fish and Jauss. For Jauss, the texts affect the reader in both a “literary series” and a “nonliterary series,” meaning that each book a person reads both affects the following book that they read and their experience of reality: “The relationship between literature and reader can actualize itself in the sensorial realm as an incitement to aesthetic perception as well as in the ethical realm as a summons to moral reflection. The new literary work is received and judged against the background of other works of art as well as against the background of everyday experience of life” (41). Jauss goes on to explain exactly how this distinction plays out in the lived praxis of two hypothetical people as a way to open up a broader view of community and history:

“For the reader is privileged above the (hypothetical) nonreader because the reader…does not first have to bump into a new obstacle to gain a new experience of reality. The experience of reading can liberate one from adaptations, prejudices, and predicaments of a lived praxis in that it compels one to a new perception of things. The horizon of expectations of historical lived praxis in that it not only preserves actual experiences, but also anticipates unrealized possibility, broadens the limited space of social behavior for new desires, claims, and goals, and thereby opens paths of future experience” (41).

In other words, not only might someone behave differently, think differently, after reading a text, but new thoughts and new possibilities come into being for the individual and the community through the fictive world. This is important to keep in mind as we examine the alternative model Fish formulates as his thinking evolves.

In his essay “Interpreting the Valorium,” Fish asserts a new framework: “interpretive communities.” “Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properities and assigning their intentions. In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually presumed” (171). The example that Fish uses is that of a reader that believes that there is one “true text” and his duty is to uncover its meaning versus the reader that believes a text contains within it many texts and many possible interpretations. Each will come away with a very different reading process because their interpretive strategies shape the way that they write the text they are reading. Fish goes on to state,

“Interpretive communities are no more stable than texts because interpretive strategies are not natural or universal, but learned…The only stability, then, inheres in the fact (at least in my model) that interpretive strategies are always being deployed, and this means that communication is a much more chancy affair than we are accustomed to think it” (172).

Initially, it could be argued that “informed readers” came to different conclusions about a text only in their judgment of it (a step so far removed from reading that it in fact obscures the initial encounter with the text). Here, Fish suggests that it is also possible that readers “write” the texts differently based on different pre-reading interpretive models. Fish makes a beautiful rhetorical move to close this particular essay: “The only ‘proof’ of membership [to this or that interpretive community] is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: ‘we know.’ I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand), only if you already agree with me” (173).

Jauss and Fish dovetail in a highly productive way. Jauss’s fidelity to the reading experience as formative does not eliminate Fish’s assertion that the reader in fact also “writes” the text. Each is attempting to describe not only the active position a reader has in their encounter with a text, but how the text delimits the potential outcomes for a reading experience. Each offers a way of understanding how the text plays a critical role in affectively attuning geographically dispersed audiences. The learned interpretive strategies, shared linguistic and semantic maturity, and historical lived praxis each seem entirely unwieldy and unjustifiable positions to lay out about readers on their own. I would agree that at times in reading Stanley Fish’s descriptions of readers, he seems to be describing a particularly privileged subset of the population that enjoys a particular station in life that allows for the “literary competence” that allows entry into any interpretive community to begin with. The interpretive strategies that Fish lays out even appear particularly academic ones, but I would submit that these academic ones represent an increased diversity than are available for “non-professional” readers. As Timothy Aubry argues, middle-class American readers’ (as a problematic but functional descriptive category) interpretive tendencies are shaped by American public schools, by publishers’ marketing strategies, and by Oprah Winfrey’s book club. With the proliferation of nationalized standards in education, more finely tuned algorithmic maps used by booksellers like Amazon, and the somewhat ironic crystallization of fewer, more tightly regulated interpretive communities on-line, the task may actually be more achievable, or at least achievable in a different way, in today’s literary field than in the seventies when Jauss and Fish were wrestling with these problems.

[1]Reading for a Qualifying Exam is demanding and time is of the essence, so the following comment comes without having familiarity with the oeuvre of Stanley Fish. However, I was astonished that he did not reference Hans Robert Jauss a single time in Is There a Text in This Class? Perhaps it is because of my “evolving horizon of expectations,” but I see Fish’s persuasive argument as a oblique elaboration of the theses laid out by Hans Robert Jauss in his essay, “Literary History as a Challenge.”

On “The Golden Bowl”


The Golden Bowl wields tremendous narratorial prowess, a clinic of focalization and misdirection. The sentiment that Denis Donoghue opens his introduction to the Everyman Library’s edition I think appropriately captures the reading experience of this text: “We never feel, before the end and perhaps not even then, that James has given it to us without reserve and indicated how we are to receive it. We immerse ourselves happily in it, page after page, but we are never allowed to feel sure that we have it right.” The plot offers an overlaying of desires, knowledge gaps, misrecognitions, deceptions, and decorum damage-control, each of which is mitigated by a narrator that hovers, projects, tills but remains amazingly non-moralizing. For Jonathan Flatley, the ambiguity of James’s prose serves as a blankness that, in conjunction with our interpretive tendencies, we project our queer fantasies onto: is this character sexually attracted to her father? is this in the text, in between the lines, invented entirely by me? is James advocating for this or that?[1] The reader has little to go on in their quest to make little stacks of knowledge about characters, plot, theme or locate a logistical center of interpretation. In fact, characters almost entirely lack visual descriptions, and their value is based almost exclusively on the level of interiority.

I think this problem bears out interestingly on the basic level of communication. Considering the conventional use of direct speech acts in 19th century realist novels as representing the characters “linguistic view of the world,” one that can be compared and cross-checked with the authoritative moral compass of the narrator’s linguistic view of the world, the utterance about utterance, The Golden Bowl rather presents an intensely confused overlaying of discourses, where at least one role of the narrator is as a visual corrective for the lack of content or gaps in content of the direct speech acts of the characters. What is interesting here is that the narrator does not serve so much as an editor, transforming the direct speech acts of the characters to fit his own narrative, but committing a mirrored process of reading of the characters to one another, and ours to them. Direct speech acts on their own offer little, but the minor facial movements, intonations, changes in posture all must be read and interpreted, by one character of another character, by the narrator of several characters, and by the reader of some limited totality of language. According to Bakhtin, “language is something that is historically real, a process of heteroglot development, a process teeming with future and former languages, with prim but moribund aristocrat-languages, with parvenu-languages and with countless pretenders to the status of language which are all more or less successful, depending on their degree of social scope and on the ideological area in which they are employed.” The Golden Bowl presents several characters, and an author no less (which is a key figure in Bakhtin’s formulation), whose linguistic practices are informed spatially (the Prince is an Italian emigrant, the Ververs and Charlotte are American), socio-economically and aristocratically (the Ververs control the wealth, yet they require the social brilliance and connections of the Prince and even Charlotte. One might then expect that a hierarchical territorialization of these linguistic practices would fall along these categories, but power, particularly the linguistic power endemic to heteroglossia, is not constructed by these organizing principles alone. The formal aesthetic practice that Henry James utilizes in The Golden Bowl instead functions on a primarily epistemological axis, what characters know, how they know it, to whom and how they choose to reveal that knowledge, and ultimately how the reader figures along those lines.

In this vein, Mark McGurl, in his book The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James, offers a compelling argument in which he draws connections between these modes of interpretation among and between characters and the social situation of the novel itself that James is responding to.[2] McGurl’s account of Henry James follows a Foucauldian/Bourdieu philosophical axis, following the novel’s competing discourses of power and cultural capital and the complex structuring of readers and non-readers that these discourses organize. As McGurl points out, “When The Golden Bowl was published, the idea of the novel’s potential as ‘high art’ was not exactly new, but neither could it be taken for granted, and this had everything to do with how the genre’s audience was conceived” (34).

“The ‘collective edition’ had been conceived as early as 1904, around the time of the completion of The Golden Bowl, and like this novel, though on a much larger scale, it would be intended by James as the creation of a sort of masterpiece. Revised to reflect his latest refinements of style, and supplied with the now-famous prefaces, the volumes in this edition would, James hoped, appear in the form of what he called ‘Handsome Books’—beautiful, high-quality objects. The New York Edition would be James’s artfully reconstructed version of his career as an artist, an ideality manifest materially as a set of handsome and durable things…Alas, by this point, the wide audience that James had begun to lose in the late 1880s could not be lured back to him with, and the laboriously prepared edition was a miserable commercial failure” (McGurl 36).

McGurl, I think, figures this discussion of the book as object into both the thematic and formal practices of The Golden Bowl quite persuasively. McGurl juxtaposes the frontispieces that James and the photographer A.L. Coburn develop for his texts while walking through London. The intrusion of pictures into books, into novels, the very things that so artfully “bristle with immediate images,” represented for James the intrusion of a “new homogenous ‘multitude,’ the ‘total swarm’ now able to ‘possess itself in one way or another of the book.’ James’s [conceived] of the novel, the dominant book genre in mass print culture, as a genre dominated, held hostage to a mass readership for whom ‘taste is but a confused immediate instinct’” (McGurl, 37). James’s frontispieces offer an interesting commentary on this lamentation by offering, not visual representations of characters, but of shut doors.

Frontispiece for 1909 edition of “The Golden Bowl”

McGurl argues that the partition between insider/outsider, of those allowed to enter and those that cannot, of those who understand and those who do not, of those who put the work in to understand a “real” novel and the rest of mass readership, is embodied by these frontispieces and carried out by the epistemological nature of his aesthetic practices. This is what, for McGurl, figures Henry James as the progenitor of the aesthetically difficult, perhaps misinterpreted as “prototypical,” modernist novel that James himself would not likely recognize (Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood for example).

[1] Flatley, Jonathan. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

[2] McGurl, Mark. The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.

On “The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control”

Ted Striphas’s account of “everyday book culture” illustrates the ways in which “book history” offers truly illuminating perspectives on 20th-21st century American literature. Striphas analyzes the arrival of e-books, the rise of big-box bookstores (Barnes and Noble), the distribution system of, the confluence of media in Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, and finally the piracy of Harry Potter. While each of these “everyday” intonations of contemporary book culture feel familiar enough that we might take the existence of the book itself, the ‘sacred object,’ completely for granted, the process that puts the book in our hands is anything but simple. Distribution channels, copyright and anti-piracy laws, and labor practices have undergone such systemic changes in the business of books over the last hundred years, it is truly a disservice to analyze how readers interact with texts, books’ political efficacy or affective spontaneity without understanding to a large degree the labor that has been abstracted (the simple case study of the implementation of ISBN numbers was fascinating) and selectively inflected (the extended study of Harry Potter emphasizes that “scarcity takes work to produce”). But, what I perhaps most appreciate about this text is the surprising and persuasive conclusions that Striphas develops out of these “everyday” book practices that many of us have developed conjectures about with partial facts and fragmented histories.

I strongly recommend the sections on the distribution system, as well as the analysis of copyright laws associated with the rise of e-books and the boom of Harry Potter piracy, but for the purposes of this response I will offer an example that perhaps can be summarized and responded to in a small space. One such example of this is Striphas’s analysis of Oprah’s Book Club. After narrativizing his research into how the Book Club mapped and acted upon the specific practices of everyday life of many women, Striphas comes to an interesting and fresh conclusion on an event that I still find myself talking about thirteen years later, Oprah’s rescinding her invitation of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Striphas first develops and traces out a dialectic of Oprah’s Book Club and its preoccupation with the connection between books and real life, or what many us associate with it: sentimentality.[1]

On the one hand, the material facticity of the books themselves has provided at least some participants with much-needed time and space away from their daily obligations as partners, mothers, and professionals. On the other hand, the club has marshaled the content of the books to serve a seemingly contrary purpose, namely, that of facilitating a more intense, introspective engagement with women’s everyday realities vis-à-vis the main characters and events of selections…The club demonstrates how women can carve out a safe harbor of sorts for themselves, one adjacent to but ultimately distinct from everyday life’s repetitive routines. Through books they find the necessary perspective to reflect on how their needs correspond with others’ expectations of them, perhaps even to invent new possibilities for repeating everyday life differently. (128).

Striphas then juxtaposes the two “scandals” that have been associated with Oprah’s Book Club: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and James Frey’s Million Little Pieces. I have often been so preoccupied by thinking about Franzen’s discomfort over his selection (the explicit emphasis the book club places on biography over literary invention, the club’s effect on the delicate balance between high and low art and its overwhelmingly gendered intonations [he discussed in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air his fears of losing male readers], the effect of the additional presence of the Oprah brand on his authorial rights of the text, and, last but not least, the presence of that annoying Oprah’s Book Club image on the cover). This event was fascinating for literary critics, authors and readers because of the opportunities to read into it, among other things, sexism, racism, and elitism.[2]  But, what Striphas brings to this discussion, is how utterly insignificant the Franzen debacle was to the actual book club, particularly in comparison to the scandal of James Frey’s Million Little Pieces. In the case of Frey, viewers, and Winfrey herself, exhibited actual distress and anger:

The book club could ignore Franzen precisely because the trope around which so much of the controversy had turned—the distinction between high and low culture—was more or less irrelevant to the book club’s worldview and ways of  operating. Responding at length would have been tantamount to validating what are, in effect, exogenous categories. Indeed, this would explain why Winfrey, when asked about the controversy four years later, responded by saying that Franzen was ‘not even a blip on the radar screen of my life.’ In Frey’s case, however, his fabrications contravened what is probably the core value of Oprah’s Book Club: the grounding of books in actual events. Rather than reinforcing the intimat connection between literature and life, as almost all previous book club selections had been made to, A Million Little Pieces embodied the possibility of a disconnect. It thus cast doubt on a fundamental principle according to which the club has inspired legions of people to engage with books both meaningfully and practically. (136-137).

James Frey was not a blip on the radar screen of my life, but as Striphas dug into the ways in which Oprah’s Book Club contributed to a specific feeling for books and in fact structured daily practices of women based on that feeling, on that dialectic, he illustrates the ways in which Frey’s controversy impacted that relationship more deeply and irreparably than Franzen’s perceived curmudgeon-ness. This is just one example of how careful analysis of extratextual factors effect the culture of books, and culture more broadly.

Striphas takes away from this study his concept of “controlled consumption” in the “late age of print,” each term needing some nuanced explanation. Striphas extrapolates the concept of “controlled consumption” from Henri Lefebvre’s Everyday Life in the Modern World: “A society of controlled consumption both operates and attempts to organize social life pursuant to general logic of control…, which is actuated in four specific ways…1.) a critical infrastructure consisting not only of enormous industrial capacity but, equally important, of cybernetic systems that manage key aspects of commodity production, distribution, exchange, and consumption…2.)  attempts to minimize—and, ideally, to eliminate—whatever freedom of choice may still exist in the realm of consumer culture [what he calls ‘programming’]…” 3.) planned obsolescence where the products stop working, as in the case of e-books that are time-limited or disappear after a limited number of views, “whose programming undermines whatever permanence the notion of ownership might have implied,” and 4.) “by troubling, acting on, and reorganizing specific practices of everyday life,” like, for example the installation of bookshelves in new homes in the 1920s and 30s or the stigmatization of new books versus borrowed books (180-182). Striphas adopts this as his favored terminology over “neoliberal governmentality.”

We’re promised unprecedented levels of freedom, interactivity, and customization—which is to say a heightened degree of control over the disposition of our reality—yet the critics of neoliberal governmentality say in reality this sense of control is an illusion. It masks the extent to which we’re surveilled mined for fata, and compelled to act in ways contrary to our own interests…Instead of being in control, these critics suggest, our daily lives are increasingly controlled by the agents of capitalist accumulation. There’s certainly a strong measure of truth to this claim. Consequently, its easy enough to see the affinities between a society of controlled consumption and the techniques of neoliberal governmentality. I nevertheless hesitate to embrace the latter paradigm since it seems to view control as a given rather than as a major point of contestation in the late age of print…What’s also clear is that…the industry’s desire for control is attenuated by a restless public that refuses to be impressed by the industry’s tough talk or to defer in every instance to its technological innovations. Indeed, the phrase ‘control is an illusion’ cuts both ways…Neoliberal governmentality…smoothes over the complex historicity of contemporary social formations, which consist of dominant residual, and emergent elements. Its exponents want to tell a story about control so unique that they risk underestimating the degree to which consumer capitalism and cultural politics persist in the present—and not as a mere residuum. (185).

Indeed, this distinction is what contributes to the appropriateness of Striphas’s takeaway label, “the late age of print,” which indexes, not a break from an earlier period or the start of a new period, but a time of on the ‘verge’ or in transition between periods. This does not mean that “the possibilities for politics are diminishing, it would be more accurate to say they’re being transformed—or maybe even multiplying” (186). The positive side of the politics, for Striphas, exists in this “being on the verge:” “Transition implies that the future has yet to be settled once and for all, and that politics, however (re)defined, remains a possibility. Boooks and book culture can reveal emergent trends and tendencies that may be antidemocratic, but they also should remind us that life may repeat itself differently—and, with any luck, for the better—every day” (189). I am partial to this positive side of the politics of book history, and the challenge Striphas lays out for further study in book history in the 20th century. Because of this, I am interested in blurring the lines between the materiality that Striphas accounts for so well, and the ‘sacredness’ that we associate with “the book,” at least certain transcendent books in particular. This magical quality that has been packaged and re-packaged as a rhetorical provocation, as “reasons to read,” facilitate many of the processes of abstraction of labor practices and distribution channels. Yet they remain, in such fascinating ways, magical. Both sides require such careful and balanced attention because neither succeeds without the other. We become attuned to particular affects that allow the magical quality of literature to be encountered in all its force, but only because this intricate machinery that, as Striphas explains, trains in us, situating us in our time and place.

[1] Timothy Aubry has an interesting take on this in his book Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Readers. The value we ascribe to reading, one which Oprah’s Book Club capitalizes on and percolates, is its ability to help us feel like we understand our own life better, through sympathy and identification among other mechanisms.

On “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “The Program Era”


Raymond Carver’s famous short story collection “What We Talk about When We Talk About Love,” one that is credited with “putting him on the map,” so to speak, lies at the intersection of a number of literary issues that I find fascinating: book history, affect theory and periodization. To the first, D.T. Max’s 1998 article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Carver Chronicles” unveils the extent to which editor Gordon Lish contributed to Carver’s success (and his name being synonymous with “minimalism” itself); “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fix-It” was cut by seventy-percent, while the infamous  “Tell the Women We’re Going” (and my personal favorite) was altered so dramatically that it didn’t appear to be the same story:

Written by Carver in the late 1960’s or early 70’s, the story was unusual for him, one of the few in which the violence implicit in his characters becomes explicit. The story first made an appearance as ”Friendship” in Sou’wester, a small literary magazine. By the time it appeared in the ”What We Talk About” collection, Lish had retitled it — and cut it by 40 percent. The story is set near the town in which Carver grew up, Yakima, Wash. Bill and his tougher friend Jerry take a break from their wives at a barbecue and drive off looking for action. They find two teen-age girls bicycling along the road and try to get their attention. Things go awry. After a tense pursuit full of strange pleas and laughs, Jerry rapes and kills Sharon — a scene that Bill, who has dropped behind, arrives in time to witness. He cries out, asserting in that moment the horror that the reader feels, too.

What’s noteworthy about the story is the way Carver makes a boring afternoon build to murder. Lish didn’t care about this. He was after more abstract effects. He made cuts on every page. Bill becomes just a passive companion to Jerry. The pursuit is eliminated: the violence now comes out of nowhere and is almost hallucinogenic. ”[Bill] never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock,” Lish wrote in. ”Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.” The story ends right there. One wonders how Carver must have felt when he saw that.

Then, predictably, tension began to bubble between Lish and Carver (Lish feeling undervalued and Carver feeling that his credibility might be shattered if the truth was found out).

”Please, Gordon, for God’s sake help me in this and try to understand. . . . I’ve got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I’ve been up all night thinking on this. . . . I’ll say it again, if I have any standing or reputation or credibility [sic] in the world, I owe it to you. I owe you this more-or-less pretty interesting life I have [but] I can’t take the risk as to what might happen to me.” In the same letter, he wrote imploringly, ”[M]y very sanity is on the line here. . . . I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story.”

But what is most revealing to me is the letter Max cites written by Don DeLillo to Lish when Lish begins to toy with the idea of taking public ownership of his contributions:

The fact is: there is no exposing Carver. . . . Even if people knew, from Carver himself, that you are largely responsible for his best work, they would immediately forget it. It is too much to absorb. Too complicated. Makes reading the guy’s work an ambiguous thing at best. People wouldn’t think less of Carver for having had to lean so heavily on an editor; they’d resent Lish for complicating the reading of the stories…In the meantime, take good care of your archives.

What this observation by DeLillo illuminates is the relationship between Carver’s reputation and the uncomplicated reading experience, the way in which a situated author figure facilitates or primes a mood that allows for the affects that we might “generally” concede to the form itself, but is actually more complex. Minimalism, as this awkward editor-author relationship amplifies, makes the beatification of shame into a teachable, imitable craft that would be taken up by many aspiring writers in the recent historical past and present.[1]  Carver, as avatar of Hemingway, enabled a “literary school” that would be one of the major bellwethers for what Mark McGurl calls “The Program era.”

McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing has been one of the most influential contributions to my thinking on contemporary fiction. His chapter “The Hidden Injuries of Craft: Mass Higher Education and Lower-Middle-Class Modernism” offers a unique take on the minimalism/maximalism binary (as emblematized by Carver/Joyce Carol Oates). Lower-Middle-Class Modernism is one in a tripartite schema of postwar fiction, along with technomodernism (the “postmodern” genre that focuses on communication of information) and high cultural pluralism (or something more analogous to  multiculturalism). Lower-middle-class modernism “is preoccupied more than anything else with economic and other forms of insecurity and cultural anomie.”

McGurl, through an emphasis on the forms homologous relationship to the creative writing program, positions this binary of minimalism and maximalism at the nexus of a dialectic between shame and pride of whiteness itself: whereas Oates saw whiteness as integrally tied to shame and therefore a loss of the socio-historical self (as evidenced by her letter to Toni Morrison congratulating her on the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), Carver saw whiteness as the metaphorically desirable “status” to achieve for the lower-middle-class worker. The shame/pride dialectic functions analogously with the rise of higher education because of its application to creative-writing classroom itself (fiction pieces being critiqued by peers and instructors [shame] before they reach the level of publication [pride]). This is a simplification, of course, as the dialectic is interrelated and the manifestation of one emotion (pride) is accompanied by, and contributes to the production of, the other (shame).


Fredric Jameson has an interesting riff on this tripartite schema:

For it is the fate of any third term to linger precariously on the margins, disabused of any ambition to become the synthesis between the two already in place, and thus condemned to struggle to displace one or other of its opposite numbers to find its own proper place in the binary system. What McGurl has called ‘lower-middle-class modernism’ is always on the edge of proletarianisation, slipping back down into mass culture and the genres still available as Literature to the nobler modes of technomodernism and high cultural pluralism in the form of pastiche.

The lower-middle-class mode cannot hope for that distinction, and so in it the two great tendencies of minimalism and maximalism fight it out to exhaustion, the former producing Carver, the latter Oates. Of the two, it may be said that minimalism carries the palm by way of a genuine high-literary invention – the rebirth of that quintessential writing-program form, the short story.

Jameson’s quibble over this third-part as not exactly a proper Hegelian synthesis between technomodernism and high cultural pluralism seems more adjacent  than disruptive to McGurl’s payoff in this chapter:

Minimalism is valuable to us in its very ‘colorlessness.’ Unredeemed by proud communal attachments except to the occupational category of ‘writer,’ it lays bare itself. It reveals the dependence of postwar American writing on the university, first and foremost, but it also lays bare the general condition of subjection of the majority of the postwar U.S. labor force, white and nonwhite, which owes its mobility, such as it is, to a system of mass higher education built to the specifications of the market. Whatever its disadvantages, political, aesthetic, or otherwise, the beauty of literary minimalism is in its artful unwillingness to conceal the concealment of its own dependency and weakness, which infuses it with an exquisitely shameful reflexivity. As an ‘embarassingly’ programmatic product of the program and unable, for all of its skills at understatement, to hide the fact from anyone very well, minimalism has the ironic advantage of revealing the systemicity of creativity in the Program Era in its starkest form. In doing so, it lays bare the recruitment of that creativity to the inhuman ends of the economic order we serve. (320)

McGurl does not weigh the negatives against the positives of the creative writing program, but instead unveils the ways it is dialectically symptomatic of the postwar literary marketplace. What McGurl (and Max’s account of Gordon Lish) show is that minimalism is anything but simple sentences and concealed emotions. More on The Program Era to come.

[1] As David Foster Wallace points out, this imitability produces some of the most mundane and debilitating fiction, but it is not limited to minimalism as a form itself: “After the pioneers always come the crank-turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end. The crank-turners capitalize for awhile on sheer fashion.”