IT IS APPROPRIATE that Lise Jaillant’s latest study comes out as part of a publishers’ series, since she has established herself as an expert on that topic. (Her first book was about the Modern Library.) It is, on the other hand, ironic that Cheap Modernism, which is about affordability, is only available in hardcover for $105. It tells us something about our own moment that a study of cheap books is so expensive.

Nevertheless, it’s worth the money, or at the very least worth ensuring that your library acquire it. While Jaillant’s topic may seem arcane and academic, it is in fact highly pertinent to contemporary developments in the culture industries. We live in an era dominated by series production. From the Baby-Sitters Club to the Marvel Universe to Vintage Contemporaries to Chicken Soup for the Soul, our cultural products increasingly rely on the series concept to ensure market viability and brand loyalty. Cheap Modernism not only provides us with a fascinating backstory on this marketing mechanism, but it also illustrates an exemplary methodology for future study of what we might call serial culture.

As with her prior book, Jaillant takes a case-study approach, focusing on specific modernist authors and titles as examples of how midcentury publishers attempted to popularize literary modernism by issuing challenging books in affordable reprint series. Drawing on her meticulous knowledge of publishing history alongside her ample access to the archives of Chatto & Windus, Hogarth Press, Jonathan Cape Ltd., and Oxford University Press, as well as author archives housed at the Ransom Center and the University of Buffalo, Jaillant effectively recovers a neglected chapter in the long and complicated story of how modernism moved from the margins to the center of the Anglo-European literary world system over the course of the 20th century. Crucially, Jaillant’s book covers this expansion not only as a gradual trickling down from “high” to “low,” but also as an expanding out from metropole to periphery. The series she studies spread Anglophone modernist texts out across the Continent to readers who previously had little access to such literature.

Jaillant’s first chapter focuses on the role of high modernist tastemakers T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf in writing the introductions to key titles in the Oxford World Classics series. Her decision to begin with paratextual practices is fitting, since it shows how key modernist figures both leveraged and supplemented their reputations by identifying the classic literary texts that had influenced them. Thus, Woolf’s preface to Tristram Shandy and Eliot’s preface to The Moonstone do double duty, introducing both the historical text and the contemporary authority on that text to a popular readership. As Jaillant notes, by 1928, Woolf and Eliot were both well known, if not yet widely read. Their power to consecrate developed reciprocally alongside their own consecration. By introducing acknowledged classics, they could hasten their own attainment of classic status. As for cheapness, it helped that both texts were out of copyright. Indeed, copyright was and remains a definitive watershed in the reprint trade, dividing the entire industry into a public domain from which anyone can profit and a private domain which obligates publishers to negotiate with authors and their heirs.

Negotiating with prickly and impecunious authors then becomes a central challenge for the publishing ventures Jaillant turns to next, starting out with the publication of then-controversial authors James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence in the Travellers’ and New Adelphi Library series. Centering on the “Indecent Books Debate” of 1926, Jaillant adds to the ever-proliferating story of how modernism rapidly moved from “outlaw” to “classic” during the interwar era. Jaillant’s section on Jonathan Cape’s carefully paced publication of Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in his Travellers’ Library series is particularly impressive as an account of how these texts themselves were marketed as a developmental sequence. Joyce was already known as a difficult author, and Cape was able to turn this challenge to an advantage by recommending that his texts be read as a series in the order they were written, with Dubliners figuring as a necessary introduction to Portrait and both in turn as necessary to read in order to understand Ulysses (unsurprisingly never published in the series, though nevertheless used to promote it). Lawrence was less susceptible to such sequencing, but Martin Secker was equally timid in his selections, going for titles such as Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine, an essay collection, as opposed to his more explicit and notorious novels, such as The Rainbow and Women in Love, which Secker had already published in more expensive editions.

Jaillant then moves on to Wyndham Lewis, the bête noire of both modernism and modernist studies. Here she pinpoints yet another intriguing mechanism whereby modernism was popularized, as Lewis entirely rewrote his 1918 novel Tarr for its 1928 reissue in the Phoenix Library, resulting in two substantially different versions of that significant modernist text. This chapter is a particularly fine example of Jaillant’s ability to meet one of the central challenges of publishing history: by tacking between macro-analysis of the literary field and micro-analysis of a specific text — between distant and close reading, essentially — Jaillant lays out her exemplary methodology. She effectively places Tarr in the matrix of modernist publishing during the ’20s, but also leaves space for a close comparison between excerpts from the 1918 and 1928 versions, showing how Lewis simplified the punctuation, streamlined the syntax, and broke up paragraphs to create a more “readable” version of his challenging text. This convincing linkage of the socioeconomics of publishing with the discrete formal properties of specific texts is a model of the best kind of literary scholarship that has developed out of the New Modernist Studies.

Jaillant then turns to yet another chapter in the story of modernism’s diffusion, detailing how publishers’ series Tauchnitz and Albatross introduced Anglophone modernism to a Continental audience. For all the attention to the cosmopolitan and transnational nature and networks of literary modernism, it is surprising that this part of the story has never been told. Here Jaillant focuses less on specific authors than on the specific challenges and opportunities of publishing Anglophone texts in non-English speaking countries, a market in which Tauchnitz had a monopoly until Albatross came along. Appealing both to bilingual natives and Anglophone expatriates, these series are obviously an important component of the international diffusion of modernism. It is particularly noteworthy that Albatross would be the first publisher to issue cheap and unexpurgated versions of Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, well before the Anglo-American publishing world was prepared to take the risk.

Jaillant rounds out her story with Hogarth Press, a company that has received more scholarly attention than most of the other firms in her book. Her focus is on the company’s decision to publish a Uniform Edition of Virginia Woolf’s work in the mid-’20s. Here we get remarkable insight into the process whereby Woolf, who, like most of her contemporaries, was deeply ambivalent about becoming “popular,” essentially canonized herself as a mainstream literary “brand.” In this way, the Woolfs could supplement (and elevate) the strategy of affordability with the idea of completeness. While the uniform edition would be cheaper than other editions of Woolf’s work, it would counterbalance the lowbrow implications of cheapness with the highbrow implications of an author whose work merited being collected together in this manner. As this chapter reveals, Woolf embraced this patently middlebrow method of marketing her work. The Uniform Edition was aggressively marketed in mainstream venues, and Woolf had no qualms about using her name as an advertising slogan.

Jaillant’s brief conclusion accounts for the ways in which World War II and the inception of the Paperback Revolution essentially drove the series that are the topic of her study out of business. She identifies one component of their downfall as “changing readership,” and if there is a weakness to her study it is in its absence of attention to this endpoint in the communications circuit. Every chapter in Cheap Modernism is meticulously researched and narrated in remarkable detail, including print runs, price ranges, cover designs, and behind-the-scenes accounts of the difficult and dicey negotiations between publishers and authors. What is missing, of course, is what readers thought of these books. We know how they were advertised, but how were they read? Jaillant may well be wise to avoid this methodological challenge, and indeed Cheap Modernism is a history of publishing, not a reception study. Nevertheless, this remarkable book leaves one wondering: who bought these books and what did they think of them?

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Loren Glass is professor of English and the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa.