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date: 19 April 2018

The Literary Marketplace

Summary and Keywords

What is the literary marketplace, and what is the relationship between literature and the marketplace? The decades since the end of World War II have seen enormous changes in the economics of literary production: the book trade has grown, consolidated, and globalized; chain bookstores have replaced independent booksellers; and technological advancements have transformed how books are produced and how readers shop for, acquire, and read them. With these changes, questions about how the literary marketplace has mattered to literary history have been asked with increasing urgency, and the histories of those institutions that engage in producing, distributing, and selling literature have received increasing amounts of scholarly attention. Where the market was once understood to be a kind of implacable antagonist to literature, and literature once defined by virtue of its opposition to, and essential difference from, goods that are mass-produced, today the fields of book history, the sociology of literature, and literary studies itself frequently highlight the marketplace as a producer of modern and contemporary literature and—for better or worse—as a necessary context for it. What caused this shift, and what are its implications for literary study and for the idea of literature itself? How is a marketplace devoted specifically to the rarefied category of literature distinguished from the book trade generally, and how might one distinguish literature from nonliterature when both are produced by the same set of mostly commercial institutions? Answers to these questions depend in large part on the evolving, and surprisingly elusive, concept of a “literary marketplace” itself.

Keywords: book history, literary marketplace, globalization, American literary history, sociology of literature, publishing history, Pierre Bourdieu, cultural prizes, publishers, Amazon

The “literary marketplace” might be defined as the set of linked institutions that produce, distribute, and sell literature and apportion rewards to the makers of it. But this relatively simple definition encompasses a range of complex processes and relationships, involving authors and readers, publishers and agents, critics and scholars, and magazines and booksellers, that are connected to both how the works deemed “literary” are produced and how marketplaces and market institutions work. Since the 1950s, recognition of the marketplace’s importance to literary production has been a notable part of the fields of book history and the sociologies of literature and of culture generally, and it has figured as well in the broad turn among literary scholars away from the New Criticism and from any approach that treats a literary text as an isolated object. Scholarly considerations of the marketplace have brought clarity, context, and empirical grounding to literary studies, but the literary marketplace itself remains a surprisingly elusive concept, and the more it is invoked to help explain literature and how it works, the more the idea of a specifically literary marketplace—one that is connected to but somehow distinct from the broader book business—can recede into fuzziness.

Still, as market economics have come to loom so large in culture and politics in recent decades, as the book trade itself has grown and globalized, and as the publishing industry—formerly comprised of dozens of relatively small and independent businesses—has consolidated and been absorbed into a small number of mammoth multimedia conglomerates, the literary marketplace has become an essential and inescapable concept. With increasing frequency, sophistication, and detail, and from multiple methodological or disciplinary perspectives, scholars draw attention to how literature produced from the 19th century to the 21st has or has not been shaped by market forces, and they offer concrete accounts of the specific institutions—among them booksellers, agents, and publishers—that collaborate with authors to produce and sell literary texts to readers. This scholarship encompasses transnational and global marketplaces, and it encompasses the wide range of distinct national marketplaces.1 What has made the literary marketplace both a difficult and necessary concept? The evolution of the American literary marketplace as an object of scholarly inquiry offers a case study that clarifies how what is called the “literary marketplace” has mattered to literary studies generally since the middle of the 20th century.

Defining Literature and the Marketplace

For any but the broadest definitions of “literary,” there is, in a sense, no such thing as a literary marketplace. “It’s beyond debate,” Leah Price reminds us, “that those works we group under the rubric ‘literature’ have never made up more than a fraction of printed matter.” 2 Leaving aside for the moment the complicated question of who the “we” is that deems work literary, that fraction of printed matter to which Price refers is not produced, distributed, and sold in its own distinct physical or virtual space, its own stores, or even, most of the time, on its own shelves within stores. Studies that address the marketplace tend to focus on institutions such as publishers, bookstores, and agents as key parts of a literary arena long neglected by conventional literary scholarship. The emergence of copyright law, and governments’ roles in creating a space for, as Peter Jaszee and Martha Woodmansee put it, “commercially oriented, large-scale, commodity text publishing” is another crucial element of this story.3 But as Jaszee and Woodmansee suggest, this enterprise involves the selling of books or written works generally—even these works a fraction of the total printed matter to which Price refers—and not just, and surely not primarily, with the selling of “literature,” however we might define that vexed category.

In brick-and-mortar bookstores, on, at airports and supermarkets, what we might agree are literary books, new or old, are sold alongside other books. Most publishers that produce books deemed literary also produce books immediately and noncontroversially not thought of that way. Literary writers are represented by agents, a key institution of the modern and contemporary marketplace for books, but those writers, however they come to be identified as literary, are inevitably a small group amid scores more nonliterary writers, a few of whom achieve great marketplace success but most of whom do not. There is a marketplace, or there are marketplaces, for books and other printed matter, arenas in which published commodities are bought and sold at prices shaped at least in part by market forces, and our improved understanding of how that marketplace works has aided our understanding of works deemed literary. But a subsection of that arena for selling books called the “literary” marketplace can only be an abstraction, a conceptual and contested space that is itself sustained by a range of institutions. These institutions include the aforementioned publishers, bookstores, and agents—mainstays of the book trade—along with more literature-specific institutions like book critics, university presses, and English departments.

The elusiveness of a specifically literary marketplace must be accounted for even before considering the much-noted blurring of the literary–nonliterary distinction, theoretical and otherwise, that has marked critical and sociological discussion of the written word over the past half-century. This blurring has taken many forms, some now outdated and some still with us. In the middle of the 20th century, for example, critical alarm sounded over the growth of so-called middlebrow culture. “There is slowly emerging,” Dwight Macdonald famously wrote, “a tepid, flaccid Middlebrow Culture that threatens to engulf everything in its spreading ooze.”4 To Macdonald, the combination of expanded literacy and market economics threatened literary production itself by engendering a new audience for subliterary works. The emergence of the mass-market paperback at about the same time, spreading books far and wide to anywhere magazines were sold, with William Shakespeare reprints alongside the pulp fiction of Mickey Spillane in drugstores and in train stations, was similarly feared to have dangerous leveling consequences for cultural production and reception.5

In mid-century critiques such as these, the demise of “literature” at the hands of what Macdonald called “masscult” and “midcult” was passionately decried by guardians of high culture. In the 1960s and after, the authority of those guardians diminished, and the questioning of the literature/nonliterature distinction intensified, with the emergence of identity-informed critiques of prevailing canons and with the recognition that these canons, and the old divide between literary and nonliterary, reflected not just the disinterested assessment of artistic merit but also the interests of select people with cultural and political power.6 Within universities, the advents of cultural studies and popular culture studies have drawn attention to the cultural work done by previously disrespected popular fiction and in doing so generated a meaningful challenge to English departments’ long-held ideas about a conception of literary value—distinct, of course, from exchange or market value—that could be objectively derived through the close reading techniques taught in literature classes. Over the course of decades, canons have expanded and the idea of a “great divide” between literature and “merely” popular fare, if it ever did make sense, has been wholly unsettled.7

These developments have profoundly affected both publishers’ backlists—the set of older books that remain in print and continue to sell as publishers produce new books with uncertain commercial prospects—and the broader marketplace for books. In turn, the greatly transformed marketplace for books, which includes the emergence and spread of chain bookstores and online bookselling and vastly improved methods of distributing books nationally and globally, the rise of the so-called blockbuster book, and a changing and growing population of educated consumers, undoubtedly had its impact on challenges to literature’s hegemony. But regardless of whether we conceive of the literary–nonliterary distinction as a function of a qualitative, evaluative assessment, performed by experts, of specific works (as it might have been imagined in the first half of the 20th century, and as many surely still conceive it) or as the pragmatic consequence of the structure of the literary world and of the power of certain institutions, political, social, and cultural, to make influential judgments and confer prestige (as sociological accounts of the literary field are likely to suggest today), a distinct literary marketplace remains elusive.

So the term “literature” is contested, and even if a definition can be agreed on or accepted provisionally, a distinct marketplace for it, an arena in which literature but not nonliterature is sold, is hard to discern. What, then, do we mean when we speak of the literary marketplace, and what might be at stake in how we talk about it? Consider that both the distinction between literary and nonliterary and then the questioning of the distinction between the two emerge, perhaps inevitably, in the larger context of the triumph of a market economy as disseminator of culture, among many other things. The term “literary marketplace” itself was rare prior to World War II, and its use increased considerably starting in the 1980s through to the early 21st century. The evolving scholarly interest in the literary marketplace emerges in the context of the larger triumph of market economies generally and after a lengthy period in which discussion of a “literary marketplace”—acknowledgment of the fact that almost all literature is produced and sold in a commercial setting—seemed contrary to the interests and ideology of literature itself. What seems like an important, emerging scholarly awareness of something an artistic ideology might once have blinded us to—the importance of institutions apart from author and reader, the business context that inevitably exerts an influence over how creative decisions are made and how and which literary works are produced—comes to mark first a reaction against and eventually a kind of uneasy accommodation to the fact of the market system.

In addition, the increasing scholarly attention to the literary marketplace in recent decades maps well onto the growth and corporatization of the book business itself. The initial uptick of interest at mid-century coincides with a moment of immense transformation for the book trade, its own growth into a formidable, mature business. In the 1950s, when scholarly studies of the American literary marketplace of the 19th century began to appear, the mass-market paperback transformed the book trade and reading culture in the United States—turned the book into a true form of mass culture—and the book trade matured from its cottage industry origins during this decade, in the context of the end of wartime paper rations, an economic boom, and a steep increase in the college-educated population.8 By the 1980s, when the second and far greater spike in usage of the term “literary marketplace” began, the integration of major publishers into larger multimedia conglomerates, after waves of consolidation and acquisition, was near complete, and market ideology was ascendant in the United States.

Marketplace as Antagonist to Literature

Along with an increase in references to the literary marketplace since 1945, as attitudes toward both literature and the marketplace change, we can trace a revealing evolution in how the literary marketplace has functioned in literary scholarship. The original impulse animating the use of the term and the exploration of the book trade within literary studies, as expressed by the early, conflicted scholars who deployed it, was connected to an effort to understand the production of that rarefied thing called literature in relation to, and often in tension with, the structures and institutions that distribute, market, and sell books to readers. William Charvat’s groundbreaking 1959 volume, Literary Publishing in America, announces that publishing is “a shaping influence on literature … but literary historians have only superficially expressed recognized the fact.”9 The study begins in 1790, when the first national copyright law was passed, and ends in 1850, “the year the railroads first crossed the Alleghenies.”10 These developments, neglected in study of American literature at the time, make possible a certain kind of American literature, and indeed the golden-age American Renaissance that F. O. Matthiessen had canonized in 1941.11 “Without the first,” Charvat explains, “even there could be no literary profession; until the second, a truly national culture and literature was more of a promise than a fact.”12 By the end of the period Charvat’s study covers, “the profession was ready for Hawthorne the novelist, Emerson the lecturer, and Longfellow the poet.”13

But even before expressing this central idea of the volume, that American literary greatness was shaped by and in fact depends on certain extra-literary marketplace structures, Charvat begins with a striking near-apology for the research that produced it, and an explanation for the brevity of the study he has produced. “These chapters,” he notes at the outset, “are, in one sense, a skimming, in other ways, a condensation, of materials which I collected years ago toward a history of the economics of authorship.” Why have the chapters been so condensed? “Literary history,” Charvat continues, “must be primarily concerned with literature. If the approach is wholly extrinsic, as mine was at the beginning, the product is likely to be sterile … Publishing is relevant to literary history only in so far as it can be shown to be, ultimately, a shaping influence on literature.”14 Charvat did extensive research on the publishing industry and authorship as a profession, then decided much of that work was irrelevant to literature itself and declined to include it in his book. The question of what literature actually is, why one work but not another is worthy of the term, is not entertained.

Charvat condensed his project, he explains, by eliminating from it “not only the private poets and the hack writers, but such authors as Thoreau and Whitman who, ‘public’ though their purposes were, never succeeded in becoming professional on an economic plane.”15 Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman produced literature of course, but they were not “professionals.” Charvat limited his study to “those writers for whom both art and income were matters of concern, and whose work, accordingly, revealed the often conflicting pressures of the will to create and the need to create for a buying public.”16 And even in this work about the marketplace, Charvat announces that he worked “from the inside out—that is, from what the literary work itself could tell … about the writer’s relation to society out toward the reading public and the publishing economy which conditioned that relation,” and this strategy was chosen in order to “keep literature at the center” of Charvat’s investigations.17 The narrowness of the study—its brevity, a function of Charvat’s own disbelief in the project as he began it, or his belief that the project he began was in some way unfaithful to literature itself—in effect proclaims the diminishment of the literary marketplace as a topic of interest.

Charvat’s choices are noteworthy for his insistence that literature must remain a concept that transcends the marketplace. Almost three decades later, beyond the heyday of New Criticism, James L. W. West III began his own groundbreaking account of American Authors and the Literary Marketplace Since 1900 by explaining his aim to “describe the changing professional situation that faced the serious author in America.”18 West divided the marketplace into a series of component parts: authorship, publishing, distribution, the editor, the agent, the magazine market, subsidiary rights, and blockbusters. As “literature” is a given in Charvat’s study, transcending all even as the marketplace might exert influence on it for some writers, the “serious author”—the antithesis of Charvat’s unexplored “hack author”—is taken as a given in West’s account, as something that the marketplace and its institutions happens to. West’s introduction concludes by recognizing his debt to Charvat’s study and specifically to Charvat’s formulation of literariness in relation to the marketplace. “Like Charvat,” West notes, “I am chiefly interested in the ‘public’ author, the serious literary artist who meant also to reach a large audience through the publishing apparatus of the time and who wanted to earn a living by writing.”19 West’s interest, like Charvat’s, then, is not really in what one might call a proper literary marketplace but in how literary writers approach a marketplace that is indifferent, if not hostile, to literature. West’s true subject, he explains at the conclusion of the introduction, is “simultaneously an artist and an impresario, an aesthete and an entertainer, a thinker and businessman.”20 Distinguishing artist, aesthete, and thinker (serious author, maker of literature) from impresario, entertainer, and businessperson (hack author, denizen of the marketplace), his interest is in how authors who chose to try to be public writers negotiated that set of institutions associated with the larger marketplace for mostly nonliterary books.

Lewis Hyde’s astounding The Gift, published in 1983, is a third study that exemplifies the idea of the marketplace as an antagonist to literature. Unlike works by West and Charvat, The Gift is not a study of the marketplace, but the existence of the marketplace is crucial to its argument about art as a gift and artists as possessors and givers of gifts. Similar to studies of bifurcated cultural arenas by West and Charvat, The Gift begins with the premise that “works of art exist simultaneously in two ‘economies,’ a market economy and gift economy,” and that the gift economy is where art truly belongs and what art truly requires if it is to flourish.21 “What is it about a work of art,” Hyde asks, “even when it is bought and sold in a market, that makes us distinguish it from pure commodities such as” mass-market romance novels?22 Hyde’s answer to this question, crucially the point of departure for his book (both the artfulness of literary art and the artlessness of romance novels are assumed) and not the conclusion of his argument, is that “the work of art is a gift, not a commodity.”23

Hyde, like Charvat, is not seeking to define formally or thematically what separates “literature” from genre fiction. The distinction is presented as a given; what he is asking is how we are able to apprehend the distinction when both literature and nonliterary genre fiction—Shakespeare and Spillane, for instance—might appear on the same shelf of books in a store, which is to say when they participate in the same marketplace. Hyde suggests that literature is simply ontologically distinct from nonliterature, and that we know a literary text is a literary text simply because we respond to it differently from works that are not literature. Still, the marketplace, and more broadly the dominance of the market system in which the marketplace for art now resides, remains a potential danger to literary production. Hyde compares works of art to sacred objects that, according to some religious traditions, lose their sanctity if they are sold. “A work of art seems to be a hardier breed” than those sacred objects; “it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art.” “Can” does not mean “will”: “But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity.” The fact of the marketplace threatens literature but does not necessarily destroy it. “I do not maintain that art cannot be bought and sold; I do maintain that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.”24

Hyde’s premise, again, is that a work of art can be merchandised—bought and sold in a commercial marketplace—but that because it is art is must be merchandised in a special way. Hyde chooses Whitman as one of his avatars of the artist as gifted and gift-giving figure (Ezra Pound is the other), not really suited to a world governed by the marketplace. Charvat, as his introduction explains, had declined to include a discussion of Whitman in Literary Publishing in America for much the same reason. One way to open up the question of what the literary marketplace is and what it does, and to think through how attitudes toward it have shifted over the course of decades and in the decades since The Gift was published, is to ask what it would take to see Whitman himself as a participant in a certain kind of marketplace and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—on backlists, in print, and certainly a moneymaker more than 150 years after its initial publication—as a certain kind of commodity? The same questions can be asked about the poetry of Ezra Pound, published for decades by James Laughlin’s successful avant-garde press New Directions.25

Charvat, West, and Hyde wrote compelling accounts of the marketplace context that nonetheless view literature as something utterly apart from it. In these groundbreaking works about literature in relation to and in the context of the marketplace, the “literary marketplace” is akin to a fiction, a phrase that demands quotation marks. A marketplace, by definition, cannot be literary, and literature is that which does not properly belong in, and must constantly do battle with, a marketplace. In the context of the rise of market economies generally, these three studies might be seen partly as efforts to maintain an idea of literariness distinct from market economics, by highlighting the inherent tension between the two. In later studies of the marketplace, however, the marketplace would be understood not as the intractable antagonist of literature but as its producer and necessary context.

Marketplace as Context for Literature

In a study notably not about literature but about bookselling, a topic, in Charvat’s words, “extrinsic” to literature, Laura J. Miller sums up the attitude toward literature in the earlier works about the marketplace: “The distinction between the meritorious and the unworthy, between serious and trashy books, is simply taken as a given.”26 Writing, in a vein similar to Miller’s, of studies comparable to those of Charvat and West that bring the marketplace to bear on the category we call “literature,” Lawrence Rainey suggests that “their tendency to postulate a rigorous opposition between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture may be inadequate to account for the growing complexity of cultural exchange and circulation in modern society.”27 Studies such as Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism, published in 1998, challenge this rigorous opposition. In a sense Rainey builds on Hyde’s insight that art imposes constraints on how certain works can be merchandised, and both writers take high modernist icon Ezra Pound as a key figure with respect to literature in the age of, and in tension with, market economics. But where Hyde asserts that the work of art is not a commodity, Rainey calls Pound’s modernist art, as well as that of James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and H. D. [Hilda Doolittle], “a commodity of a special sort, one that is temporarily exempted from the exigencies of immediate consumption prevalent within the larger cultural economy.”28 Despite this difference, Rainey’s study does explore how modernist writers, and the institutions that produced them, merchandised their works differently—as Hyde had suggested they must be—in order to assure their socially made stature as works of art.

In Rainey’s study, modernist art and its institutions before the Great Depression accomplished this through a strategic retreat from the larger and more conventional market for books, instead producing limited editions of key works that could be speculated on by investors: “The [modernists’] answer to the leveling effect precipitated by a consumer economy was to defer consumption into the future, to transform it into investment; which is to say, to encourage or even solicit the ephemeral seduction of the consumer economy, acknowledging the status of art as a commodity, but to postpone and sublimate its consumption by turning it into an object of investment whose value will be realized only in the future.”29 More generally, Rainey focuses on how a work might be merchandised to shape its reception as literature. In this context, to offer one example from Rainey’s study, Eliot’s decision to publish The Waste Land in the Dial rather than the smaller-market magazine Little Review or the much larger-circulation Vanity Fair (both of which negotiated to publish it), affected how readers received Eliot’s iconic work.

James English’s Economy of Prestige draws from theoretical premises similar to Rainey’s to address itself “broadly to the economic dimension of culture”—its point of departure, again not that far removed from Hyde’s, is that culture in the 20th and 21st centuries necessarily has an economic dimension—and “to the rules or logics of exchange in the market for what has come to be called ‘cultural capital.’”30 In English’s argument, culture always operates in some kind of marketplace, and even things that purport to stand outside it are contained within it. As in Rainey there is a historical dimension to English’s economic argument. He focuses on the contemporary ubiquity of cultural prizes and their proliferation during the 20th century, and of complaints, made inevitably by artists and critics, that these awards cheapen or trivialize genuine artistry. The complaints purport to stand outside the marketplace, reenacting the fiction of a pure, commerce-free space for art, but as English argues, they cannot help but play an important role in shaping the prestige and business economies in which cultural prizes also participate. The prize, English argues, is “the single best instrument for negotiating transactions between cultural and economic, cultural and social, or cultural and political capital—which is to say that they are our most effective institutional agents of capital intraconversion.”31 It is in this context that English examines, for example, Toni Morrison’s failure to win the National Book Award for Beloved (Larry Heinemann’s novel Paco’s Story won instead) and the “scandalous” outcry about it.

As West nods to Charvat, English draws explicitly on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. The Economy of Prestige works as a not-always-uncritical continuation of Bourdieu’s project, he writes, “to extend economic calculations to all the goods, material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular formation.”32 The vocabulary and conceptual apparatus that Bourdieu established for talking about the “cultural field” as both a subset of the larger economic field and as the “economic field reversed” has proven enormously useful for recent scholarly discussions of the marketplace, placing concepts like literariness within the larger economic field rather than, as Charvat and West suggest, locating them outside of the economic system. For Bourdieu, the marketplace is one element in a sociological approach to art that takes aim at mystifications about art and artists found in Charvat and Hyde but also understands those mystifications as having helped to produce and sustain an idea of art in the age of marketplace dominance. Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural and symbolic capital; the idea that art’s existence in a market society depends on institutions that promote, or produce belief in, the value of that art beyond its value as a commodity; and the vision of authors and publishers as “adversaries in collusion” all help to make comprehensible the idea of literature in the context of the marketplace.33

Studies such as those by English and Rainey that draw on these concepts are not, as Louis Menand has noted, “debunking exercises.” They are not designed to tell us that what we call literature is not special or that literature is indistinguishable from other kinds of writing. Rather they are “simply efforts to understand literature sociologically.”34 To understand literature sociologically in the 20th and 21st centuries means, in part and not in full, understanding how segments of the book trade, as ill-defined as literature itself but nevertheless concrete and worthy of study, are structured to help produce something distinct. Bourdieu’s sociology, too, aims not to debunk claims to the specialness of literary writing but to preserve those claims on firmer ground. Sociological analysis, such as his own of Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, “seems to abolish the singularity of the ‘creator’ in favour of the relations which made the work intelligible,” he writes at the start of The Rules of Art, “but the effect of this work is not to reduce or destroy it.” Rather it enables readers “to rediscover it at the end of the task of reconstructing the space in which the author finds himself encompassed and included as a point.”35 Bourdieu continues, “Renouncing the angelic belief in a pure interest in pure form is the price we must pay for understanding the logic of those social universes which … succeed in extracting from the often merciless clash of passions and selfish interests the sublimated essence of the universal. It is to offer a vision more true and, ultimately, more reassuring, because less superhuman, of the highest achievements of the human enterprise.”36 The author is no longer singular or superhuman—an overstatement one might unfairly attribute to Charvat, West, or Hyde—but understood in the fullness of its social context, which includes but is not limited to the marketplace, the author’s work remains something special, one of humankind’s great achievements.

Book History and Literature’s Future

While Bourdieu’s sociological approach—as well as that of Rainey, English, and others for whom the marketplace context is crucial—seeks to rescue “literature” from the mystifications of other literary scholars, it does so by and large in the cause of reconceiving, rather than renouncing, the idea of literature’s specialness. The same cannot always be said of the interdisciplinary field of book history, the emergence of which has brought welcome attention to the literary marketplace. The field received an influential definition in Robert Darnton’s 1982 essay “What Is the History of Books?,” which proposed an invaluable “general model for analyzing the way books come into being and spread through society.”37 Darnton’s essay recognized a broad, multidisciplinary, global investigation already underway, a bringing together of otherwise disparate scholarly inquiries—historical, literary, and sociological—that in some form concerned the history of the book and of the printed word generally. Book history has since become a thriving field; as Price notes, it includes “multivolume national histories of the book … ; a professional society with a prizewinning journal (Book History), a hyperactive discussion list … and a bulging website; and a growing canon of textbooks, anthologies, and degree programs.”38

The emergence of book history as an energetic field is essential to rising interest in the marketplace for books, late in the 20th century, as a historical phenomenon. But from the perspective of some book historians, the focus on a tiny percentage of texts deemed literary, among the vastness of all that is written, is an error that needs correcting. “How essential,” Price asked in summing up the position of these historians of the book, in her introduction to an issue of PMLA devoted to “The History of the Book and the Idea of Literature,” is “literariness to the history of the book?”39 And one answer has been that literature, that tiny, exclusive, rarefied segment of all written material, is not as important as English departments and literary critics claimed it to be over much of the 20th century. It is thus, as Price suggests, the ambition of some book historians to “reverse center with periphery,” to push the small number of “literary” texts that have dominated our discussion of books to the margins and push the vast number of previously marginal—because popular, in some but not all cases—texts to the center.40

Such an approach precisely reverses early treatments of the literary marketplace by literary scholars. In his introduction to Literary Publishing in America, Charvat announced his suspicion of any account of the book trade that devalued or decentered literature itself, and today some book historians suspect studies of literature themselves—if not the very idea of literature—for doing the same sort of marginalizing to the vast history of print. Book historians thus push beyond the move made in essential literary studies like Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs, an account of popular American fiction of the 19th century, and Janice A. Radway’s Reading the Romance, among many other things a valuable rejoinder to Hyde’s casual dismissal of romance novels at the start of The Gift. Sensational Designs and Reading the Romance consider the important cultural work done by ostensibly “nonliterary” fiction. So too does Gordon Hutner’s What America Read, examining what Hutner calls “middle-class” fiction published during the middle decades of the 20th century.41 In different ways, each of these studies argues for a more expansive vision of literature, or for unhitching literariness from questions of commercial success, or for ridding ourselves of the evaluative implication of the term “literary” altogether. Each argues in its own way against the literary scholar’s focus on a minuscule percentage of texts deemed literary.

A History of the Book in America, a multidisciplinary, five-volume series published by University of North Carolina Press from 2007 to 2009, testifies to the book historian’s ambition to reverse center with periphery and more generally to the growth of the field of book history that Darnton had announced in 1982. The fifth volume of the series, covering the history of the book since 1945, examines the era in which the field of book history came to be, and it is a work of book history about the era in which the distinction between literary and nonliterary became, as Rainey and English show us, ever more a function of the marketplace. Implicitly, the study offers an answer to Price’s question of how essential literature is to book history. In a volume featuring outstanding discussions of neglected topics including religious publishing, scholarly publishing, technological changes in how books are produced, the advent of desktop publishing, government publishing, and Spanish-language books produced in the United States, literary history of the kind that concerned Charvat—focus on the few, best authors, as determined by a small group of anointed experts representing groups with cultural and political power, with everything else in service to this aim—is a faint presence.

Linda M. Scott’s chapter, “Markets and Audiences,” argues implicitly that the idea of literature has harmed the book business. “Instead of developing consumer expertise” during the second half of the 20th century, Scott writes, “the publishing industry continued to rely exclusively on editor judgment.”42 The reliance on editor judgment, treated as a sign of the business’s refusal to modernize and maximize profits, stems in Scott’s view from the notion that books are different, that there is something special about them. As Scott explains, “publishing … claims special status” and it is only by virtue of this claim that the book trade can “justify its seemingly irrational economic behavior.” Referring to critics of the commercialization of the book trade generally, Scott asserts that in fact the book trade has failed to reach its commercial potential because “the publishing industry resisted exactly the kinds of practices that its critics today claimed had corrupted it: publishers seem to have felt that they were above ordinary consumer marketing because they produced a special kind of product.”43

Scott’s criticism of the commercial book trade, in short, is that it has remained structured by ideas about literature—the idea, specifically, that the book is no ordinary commodity—that are bad for business. The critics to which Scott alludes and with whom Scott disagrees, observers who argue that publishing has become too commercial and too much like an ordinary business in recent decades, include Bourdieu himself. In the postscript to The Rules of Art, Bourdieu writes, “One could ask whether the division into two markets characteristic of the fields of cultural production since the middle of the nineteenth century, with on one side the narrow field of producers for producers, and on the other the field of mass production and ‘industrial literature,’ is not now threatening to disappear, since the logic of commercial production tends more and more to assert itself over avant-garde production (notably, in the case of literature, through the constraints of the book market).”44 The literary marketplace has been with us since the mid-19th century, but late in the 20th century, Bourdieu suggests, something changed: “Commercial literature has not just come into existence recently; nor is it new that the necessities of commerce make themselves felt at the heart of the cultural field. But the grip of the holders of power over the instruments of circulation—and of consecration—has undoubtedly never been as wide and as deep as it is today—and the boundary has never been as blurred between the experimental work and the bestseller. This blurring of boundaries to which so-called ‘media-oriented’ producers are spontaneously inclined … constitutes the worst threat to the autonomy of cultural production.”45

Scott and Bourdieu approach the book trade from opposing perspectives. Still they converge on this blurring of the distinction between the specifically literary marketplace and the book trade. Not all that differently from Bourdieu, Scott argues against the mystifications of generations of literary scholars, but in this case largely on the grounds that these mystifications have prevented the maturation of the book business as a business. Not all that differently from Scott, Bourdieu sees institutions of literary production overlapping with, and ever less distinguishable from, the larger book trade, though he sees this as a threat to literature rather than to the book business. Thus despite their opposing vantage points, Bourdieu and Scott together mark how the concept of the literary marketplace itself has changed since the marketplace became a key object of study at mid-century. Where accounts of the literary marketplace begin, in the mid-20th century, with literature in implacable opposition to the marketplace—the marketplace for books as an obstacle that “serious authors” and literature itself must overcome—they shift, by the early 21st century, to describing literature as ever more imbricated in, and inseparable from, a larger book trade. Whether literature is threatened by the growth of the business, or the business is harmed by ideas about literature, the book trade and the literary marketplace become hard to disentangle from one another. This helps to explain why the literary marketplace is both an elusive term and a necessary one for the future of literary studies. And it suggests that the relationship between literature and the marketplace will remain in flux in the face of economic, technological, and political shifts.

The Idea of the Literary Marketplace

Conceptions of the literary marketplace shift as ideas about the nature of literature and art generally change and as the role of market institutions change. As in the case of West’s account, a literary marketplace might be understood broadly as a group of institutions—including but not limited to publishers, agents, authors, and bookstores—that collaborate, and compete, to produce books and sell them to a certain population of readers. But the literary marketplace might be defined, as in historically inflected sociological accounts such as Bourdieu’s “Field of Cultural Production” or English’s Economy of Prestige, as a network of institutions that produces and sells an idea of a rarefied thing called “literature” in the context of a market economy, and that generates and circulates recognition for writers and cultural capital for readers. As ideas about the literary marketplace have shifted since World War II in particular, scholars have deepened our understanding of the institutions of distinct national marketplaces and of a global marketplace, and the histories thereof, while also developing nuanced accounts of the specific cultural work that something called a literary marketplace might be said to do. While these studies can vary greatly depending on historical era or theoretical or disciplinary focus, it is shaped by recognition of the centrality of markets to our cultural world, the importance of the book to global history, and the importance of the idea of “literature” to the history of the book.

Further Reading

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Translated by Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Translated by Susan Emanuel. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Brokaw, Cynthia J., and Kai-wing Chow, eds. Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Brouillette, Sarah. Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.Find this resource:

Charvat, William. Literary Publishing in America, 1790–1850. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1959.Find this resource:

Darnton, Robert. “What Is the History of Books?” Daedalus 111.3 (Summer 1982): 65–82.Find this resource:

Davis, Kenneth C. Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1984.Find this resource:

Enderle, Jonathan Scott. “Common Knowledge: Epistemology and the Beginnings of Copyright Law.” PMLA 131.2 (2016): 289–306.Find this resource:

English, James. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Finkelstein, David, and Alistair McCleery, eds. The Book History Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002.Find this resource:

Lesser, Zachary. Renaissance Drama and the Politics of Publication: Readings in the English Book Trade. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Ohmann, Richard. “The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960–1975.” Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 199–223.Find this resource:

Price, Leah. The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Rabinowitz, Paula. American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Radway, Janice A. A Feeling For Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Rainey, Lawrence. Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

le Roux, Elizabeth. “Book History in the African World: The State of the Discipline.” Book History 15 (2012): 248–300.Find this resource:

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives For Critical Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Tatlock, Lynne, ed. Publishing Culture and the “Reading Nation”: German Book History in the Long Nineteenth Century. Rochester: Camden House, 2010.Find this resource:

Thompson, John B. Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2010.Find this resource:

West, James L. W., III. American Authors and the Literary Marketplace Since 1900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.Find this resource:


(1.) See, for just a few examples, Elizabeth le Roux, “Book History in the African World: The State of the Discipline,” Book History 15 (2012): 248–300; Lynne Tatlock, ed., Publishing Culture and the “Reading Nation”: German Book History in the Long Nineteenth Century (Rochester: Camden House, 2010); Cynthia J. Brokawand Kai-wing Chow, eds., Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

(2.) Leah Price, “Introduction: Reading Matter,” PMLA 121 (2006): 10.

(3.) Peter Jasziand Martha Woodmansee, “Copyright in Transition,” A History of the Book in America, Vol. 2: Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880–1940, ed. Carl F. Kaestleand Janice A. Radway (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). For more on copyright, see Jonathan Scott Enderle, “Common Knowledge: Epistemology and the Beginnings of Copyright Law,” PMLA 131.2 (2016): 289–306; and Martha Woodmansee, “The Cultural Work of Copyright: Legislating Authorship in Britain, 1837–1842,” in Law and Domains of Culture, ed. Austin Saratand Thomas Kearns (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998). On copyright law in the United States, see Meredith McGill, “The Matter of the Text: Commerce, Print Culture, and the Authority of the State in American Copyright Law,” American Literary History 9 (1997): 21–59.

(4.) Dwight Macdonald, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (New York: The Free Press, 1957), 63–64.

(5.) See Kenneth C. Davis, Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984).

(6.) See Richard Ohmann, “The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960–1975,” Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 199–223.

(7.) See Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

(8.) See Evan Brier, A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

(9.) William Charvat, Literary Publishing in America, 1790–1850 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1959), 7.

(10.) Charvat, Literary Publishing, 8.

(11.) F. O. Mathiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941).

(12.) Charvat, Literary Publishing, 8.

(13.) Ibid., 9.

(14.) Ibid., 7.

(15.) Ibid., 8.

(16.) Ibid., 7–8.

(17.) Ibid., 8.

(18.) James L. W. West III, American Authors and the Literary Marketplace Since 1900 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), 1.

(19.) West, American Authors, 5.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), xvi.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) Hyde, The Gift, xviii.

(25.) See Greg Barnhisel, James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005).

(26.) Laura J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 7.

(27.) Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 2.

(28.) Rainey, Institutions of Modernism, 3.

(29.) Ibid., 39.

(30.) James English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 3.

(31.) Ibid., 10, emphasis in original.

(32.) Ibid., 5, emphasis in original.

(33.) See the essays collected in Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

(34.) . Louis Menand, “All That Glitters,” New Yorker, December 26, 2005, p. 139.

(35.) Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), xix.

(36.) Ibid., xx.

(37.) Robert Darnton, “What Is the History of Books?,” The Book History Reader, ed. David Finkelsteinand Alistair McCleery (New York: Routledge, 2002), 10.

(38.) Leah Price, “Introduction: Reading Matter,” 9.

(39.) Ibid., 10.

(40.) Ibid., 13.

(41.) Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); Gordon Hutner, What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

(42.) Linda M. Scott, “Markets and Audiences,” A History of the Book in America, Volume 5: The Enduring Book: Print Culture in Postwar America, ed. David Paul Nord, Joan Shelley Rubin, and Michael Schudson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 82.

(43.) Scott, “Markets and Audiences,” 84.

(44.) Bourdieu, Rules of Art, 345.

(45.) Ibid., 347.