Serious Series

May 30, 2015   •   By Loren Glass

THREE DECADES AGO John Sutherland, writing for a special issue of Critical Inquiry, called the history of publishing “a hole at the center of literary sociology,” and predicted that “most future publishing history will be drudging, unexciting labor.” Since his gloomy prediction, a number of noteworthy histories of modern publishing have come out, including Thomas Bonn’s Heavy Traffic and High Culture: New American Library as Literary Gatekeeper in the Paperback Revolution (Penguin, 1990), Andre Schiffrin’s The Business of Books (Verso, 2000), Jason Epstein’s Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future (Norton, 2002), Jay Satterfield’s “The World’s Best Books”: Taste, Culture, and the Modern Library (U of Massachusetts, 2002), Catherine Turner’s Marketing Modernism Between the Two World Wars (U of Massachusetts, 2003), Al Silverman’s The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors (St. Martin’s, 2008), Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House (Simon and Schuster, 2013), and my own Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (Stanford, 2013).

I can’t speak for the other authors, but my labor was far from drudging, and I felt honored to join the growing number of scholars, journalists, and industry professionals diligently working to fill the hole Sutherland found. Now, with Modernism, Middlebrow, and the Literary Canon, Lise Jaillant asserts that the emergent field of publishing history has become established enough to justify a second history of Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer’s landmark Modern Library Series.

Jaillant’s engaging study is indeed a worthy addition to the field, and its strategic and structural difference from Satterfield’s earlier monograph illuminates some of the methodological challenges presented by the history of publishing. The contrast is immediately visible in their tables of contents. Each of Satterfield’s six chapters modify his title’s slogan, “The World’s Best Books,” with a gerund specifying the topic; thus chapter one is “Establishing the World’s Best Books,” chapter two is “Advertising the World’s Best Books,” and so on through “Booming,” “Packaging,” “Selecting,” and “Closing.” As these headings indicate, Satterfield doesn’t spend much time on any individual title. This is indeed a frequent sacrifice that one must make in writing a history of any publisher, even the smallest of which still presents a title list too long to accommodate close reading of individual texts. Jaillant partially bucks this trend by focusing on what are essentially case studies of Modern Library’s relations with individual authors. After a brief introduction presenting her core argument, that “the diversity of the Modern Library exemplifies the flexibility of cultural categories in the interwar period,” she proceeds to illustrate it with individual chapters devoted to H.G. Wells, Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, and William Faulkner, each designed to establish how these authors were (for the most part) seamlessly marketed alongside more mainstream fare in the Modern Library Series. Jaillant’s case studies are arranged in a loose chronology, starting with the series’s auspicious launch in 1917 and ending with what she sees as its declining relevance in the post-World War II era. Together the chapters tell the story of the creation of a motley middlebrow marketplace that, according to Jaillant, was divided and conquered by the post-war ascendance of the New Criticism.

Since Jaillant is interested in the ways in which the Modern Library was unconcerned with the distinction between high and low culture, she tends to work in pairs, juxtaposing texts that might be considered “literary” against those that are not. Thus her first chapter on H.G. Wells reveals how the company marketed his novels alongside scientific texts on biology and the “sex problem.” Specifically, we see his then-controversial Ann Veronica appear in advertisements alongside Charles Darwin’s Evolution in Modern Thought in 1920 and then, a decade later, Tono-Bungay alongside an anthology on The Sex Problem in Modern Society. As the latter title (along with the series’s title) indicates, it was the very concept of the “modern” that links these variant titles, pitting the company against the “moral absolutism” of anti-obscenity groups such as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and positioning it as a symbol of “a liberal lifestyle.” Jaillant’s chapter on Joyce similarly pairs the company’s marketing of A Portrait of the Artist alongside Fourteen Great Detective Stories to reveal the facility with which the company “crossed the divide between literary modernism and popular fiction.”

Jaillant’s other chapters focus more explicitly on canon formation. Rather than giving pride of place to literary critics or to the intrinsic quality of the texts themselves, Jaillant credits Modern Library’s marketing strategies. Thus her chapter on Sherwood Anderson argues that the publisher’s aggressive marketing of Winesburg, Ohio to college bookstores and English departments spurred other reprint publishers to join the bandwagon, boosting both the classroom adoption and the literary scholarship that kept this novel in the canon. Her chapter on Woolf closely tracks the fate of the introduction the author wrote especially for the Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway, in which she endorses the “common” over the “professional” reader, an introduction that was subsequently dropped from Harcourt Brace’s post-war reprint. Citing sales and course adoption figures to bolster her claims, Jaillant argues that Modern Library created a “Democratic Highbrow” Woolf in the United States who was eclipsed by the high modernist sensibilities of post-war literary criticism. In other words, the very success of Modern Library’s canonization through popularization led to her high culture status and the rejection of the “common reader” ethos. Her chapter on Cather shows what happens on the opposite trajectory, arguing that the author’s notorious hostility to reprints and cheap editions “contributed to her gradual marginalization in the literary canon.” Finally, her chapter on Faulkner, like the one on Woolf, emphasizes the influence of an introduction, this time the author’s famous claim in the introduction to Sanctuary that it was “a cheap idea . . . deliberately conceived to make money.” As with Woolf, this introduction was dropped from post-war reprints, for the same reasons, writes Jaillant: the Faulkner of the 1930s was marketed as a “popular writer,” established as important, and then kicked upstairs.

As this brief summary establishes, the history of publishing is the history of paratexts — the prefaces and introductions and flyleaf copy — and the problem with paratexts (as with texts) is that they can be made to prove many things. Jaillant’s study provides fascinating insight into the marketing methods of the Modern Library, but it requires another leap to argue that it shaped the entire cultural field to the degree she seems to believe. Advertisements tell us how publishers wanted readers to perceive their products, and sales figures tell us how many readers bought them, but neither tells us why a given reader buys a book or what he or she thought about it. Course adoption and literary criticism tells us more, but here is where I think Jaillant’s evidence feels somewhat contradictory, or at least selective. For the most part, she tracks course adoption in the 1930s, before the massive post-World War II expansion of the university that primed the pump of the paperback revolution.

This is not to say that her claims are inaccurate, just that they both overreach and are incomplete. Focusing as she does on the marketing strategies of a single publisher provides an informative narrative, but necessarily a limited view.


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