Lee Erickson, The Economy of Literary Form: English Literature and the Industrialization of Publishing, 1800-1850.
Imagine if you will a seminar in literary theory, the day after tomorrow. While the instructor talks of Derrida and Foucault and Lacan, the students rarely bother to take notes; only occasionally, they exchange mildly condescending smiles. They are quite willing to indulge the professor's nostalgia trip, which does have a certain musty charm about it. But they know, as everyone knows, that the truly hot literary theorist of the day is Paul Samuelson.
Economic interpretations of literary history have been attempted before, but until now their inspiration has come predominantly from Das Kapital. "There are still many who refuse to read Adam Smith and believe in Marxist economics," observes Lee Erickson, "in much the same way, I think, as there are those who refuse to read Darwin and believe in creationism" (17). In The Economy of Literary Form, Erickson introduces a methodological innovation that is all the more striking for its simplicity: He applies classical economic theory to the creation of literature. As an explanatory model it is not perfect; still, it works far better than (say) the kind of Marxist publishing history practiced by N.N. Feltes. Erickson sets himself the goal, as admirable as it is ambitious, to make publishing history relevant to critics who are interested solely in the aesthetics of great literature--the scholars who don't see why the economics of the book trade should concern them. For their benefit, he proposes to delineate "the interrelations between literary quality and profitability" in a free marketplace of books (5).
It's all a question of marginal utility. When books are expensive, Erickson argues, readers will demand classics, because they yield high marginal returns of truth and beauty over repeated rereadings. When books are cheap, readers will buy the kind of ephemeral literature that yields immediate gratification but does not bear a second look.
That theory quite neatly answers a question that has baffled generations of authors, publishers, and critics: Why Poetry Doesn't Pay. It paid Byron very well during the Napoleonic Wars, when rising paper prices inflated the cost of books. As Erickson explains it, "The labor that is required by the constraints of meter and rhyme and that produces the greater local density of a line of poetry as opposed to one of prose was more than proportionately rewarded, apparently because readers, able to afford fewer books than before and forced to read those books more often, demanded a verbal texture that would provide more pleasure upon reading and rereading than would prose" (20-21). A literary economy of scarcity produced similar poetry booms during the two world wars, as well as in the old Soviet Union.
By 1825, however, stereotype printing and Fourdrinier continuous papermaking machines had brought down the cost of publishing. These techniques of mass production made possible inexpensive magazines, such as Fraser's and Blackwood's, as well as popular literary annuals. For these new markets, professional authors had to retool to produce essays and light verse. Serious poetry became relatively unremunerative and was left to rentier authors such as Browning and Tennyson, who expressed their alienation from the mass reading public in "My Last Duchess" and "Ulysses." With the alacrity of Wall Street Week, Benjamin Disraeli produced an astute analysis of the market in Vivian Grey (1826-1827):
There is nothing like a fall of stocks to affect what it is the fashion to style the Literature of the present day--a fungus production, which has flourished from the artificial state of our society--the mere creature of our imaginary wealth. Every body being very rich, has afforded to be very literary--books being considered a luxury almost as elegant and necessary as Ottomans, bonbons, and pier-glasses. Consols at 100 were the origin of all book societies. The Stockbrokers' ladies took off the quarto travels and the hot-pressed poetry. They were the patronesses of your patent ink, and your wire wove paper. That is all passed. (54)
Meanwhile, the market for critical essays was soaring. In the 1780s the Monthly Review had paid contributors only four guineas a sheet. The Edinburgh Review started in 1802 at 10 guineas, and was paying Macaulay 32 guineas by 1833. As other periodicals entered the public arena, they continually bid up rates for authors, who naturally gravitated to this genre.
Why, then, were writers complaining so loudly about the commercialization of publishing? The problem, Erickson concludes, was that literary journalism had become an ungentlemanly way of earning a gentleman's income. You could not make a living writing literature, it seemed, but you could make a killing writing about literature for what Thomas Carlyle called "one boundless self-devouring Review" (90). Ever the master of ironic analogy, Carlyle protested that "Book-paper," as surely as "Bank-paper," could be devalued by overprinting (108). Magazines, circulating libraries, serialized fiction, and mass-market advertising were all creating a wider audience for literature, which in turn sustained higher payments to writers. Serialization, however, forced authors to manufacture novels according to the time-clock work disciplines of the new industrial age. And as Erickson himself argues, "The decline in style occasioned by periodical publication was created by the economic necessity of making an immediate appeal to the lowest common denominator of the common reader" (180). Many authors sought a refuge from the industrialization of literature in some kind of state patronage, but the government was only prepared to hand out a few Civil List pensions.
Several historians of the book have discerned a "Reading Revolution" in the early nineteenth century, following closely on the Industrial Revolution, and no less momentous. This shift, according to the theory, involved not only a great expansion of the reading public, but also a change in its habits: From repeated rereadings of a few canonical texts to one-time readings of a vast quantity of perishable literature. Recent research suggests that the Reading Revolution--again like the Industrial Revolution--was a more uneven, variegated, and incomplete transformation than we first imagined. Nevertheless, Erickson clearly confirms that such a change did take place. More than that, he persuasively explains why and how the Reading Revolution happened, as well as its impact on the profession of authorship.
Parts of The Economics of Literary Form are familiar, notably the chapter on Jane Austen and the circulating libraries. Though the documentation is usually quite sound, occasionally Erickson rests his case on an unsafe assumption: How does he know (for example) that circulating library novels were read mainly by women? And Erickson starts off on the wrong foot when he claims that publishing history "has inevitably concerned itself with counting or listing works that almost no one has been willing to read for a long time and that only a few scholars today are willing to read about" (5). That is scarcely fair to the work of Alvin Kernan, John Sutherland, and Robert Patten, to whom The Economy of Literary Form is considerably indebted.
Erickson would have also found much valuable material in the Victorian Periodicals Newsletter, but he cites only one article (dating back to 1970) from that useful journal, and seems unaware that it has long since changed its title to Victorian Periodicals Review. Moreover, The Economy of Literary Form is based entirely on published sources. Had Erickson looked at publishers' ledgers and correspondence, he might have found (as John Sutherland and John Dempster found) that classical economics cannot explain everything. Among nineteenth-century publishers, there were "gentlemanly capitalists" who did not sacrifice all to profit maximization.
Still, Erickson does succeed in outlining a novel methodology and making it work. In a way it is impressive that he achieves as much as he does without having ventured into an archive. That fact suggests that if we arm our graduate students with The Economy of Literary Form and Samuelson's Economics, and then turn them loose in any reasonably well-equipped research library, they may open up fascinating new realms of literary history.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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