A French take on English letters

British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice 1880-1914
September 11, 1998

Recently there has been an emergence of exciting work in Anglo-American circles examining authorship, readership and literary production in new, interdisciplinary contexts. It marks in part a renewed interest in contextualising literature in light of theories emerging in the "sociology of texts" or book history. Inspiration has come from marrying past Anglo-American traditions of bibliographic enquiry with French-inspired theoretical work into the social history and cultural analysis of the production, consumption and reception of literature.

Peter McDonald's book is a study of British literary culture from 1880-1914, reflected through case studies of the early publishing and literary careers of Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennett and Arthur Conan Doyle. The object is to consider how the interaction between authors, publishers, critics and mass reading publics can shape the trajectory of literary careers. McDonald is on a mission from France, exhorting us to utilise recent theories of cultural production developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to gain a greater appreciation of the role of authorial reputation in the literary marketplace. McDonald spends the majority of the introduction explaining and summarising Bourdieu's "theory of the field": social microcosms, as McDonald puts it, with their own structures and laws, within which operate writers, critics, publishers and readers as "'specialists' with 'particular interests' specific to that self-contained world". Thus in the case of Conrad, McDonald suggests that the production of early works such as The Nigger of the Narcissus was shaped by, and can be read in the context of, Conrad's wish to be accepted and respected by the elite circle of authors and critics led in the 1890s by the dominating W. E. Henley.

Bennett, on the other hand, provides a salutary case of an author tailoring his literary work both to fit varying "literary fields" and markets, in this case the avant-garde list of the publisher John Lane as well as the popular markets of the penny periodicals. Bennett's ability to switch between a bewildering array of literary genres in search of a high income led, as McDonald rightly suggests, to a profound misunderstanding and underestimation of his literary abilities.

McDonald presents subtle, densely argued and extremely detailed case studies for us to ponder. Some chapters, such as the pieces on Bennett and Conan Doyle, are effective and persuasive. Others are disappointing, as in the Conrad piece, which in essence proves a hefty study of the Henley circle's literary and critical preoccupations, with a thin layer of Conrad analysis sandwiching the effort. Likewise, the book's dependency on Bourdieu proves to be both a strength and a weakness. As a primer on Bourdieu, this section might well benefit any postgraduate. But McDonald's fascination with Bourdieu's theories is so intense it eventually overwhelms and overcomes this section, leaving McDonald seemingly unable to step out from under his mentor's shadow to assert himself. In the end, the work stands up as an important if flawed example of new methods being applied to questions of literary worth and interpretation, and as such should be welcomed.

David Finkelstein is senior lecturer in print media, publishing and communication, Napier University.

British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice 1880-1914

Author - Peter D. McDonald
ISBN - 0 521 57149 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50
Pages - 230

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