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Thirty years later, we might reach for firmer, more architectural metaphors. The year before Griswold’s article appeared, the renowned sociologist Pierre Bourdieu published his foundational study of the French literary field, The Rules of Art. That book, which appeared in 1996 in English translation, helped to usher in a new wave of literary sociology, especially in America. Since then, an entire generation of literary scholars has combined concepts and approaches drawn from the social sciences with more traditional critical methods. These new literary sociologists built on Bourdieu, as well as other important precursors. In 1932, Q.D. Leavis studied the situation of contemporary fiction in Fiction and the Reading Public using a variety of sociological tools. Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and other British scholars associated with cultural studies in Britain imported ideas and methods from sociology as well. In America, Janice Radway’s much cited, but rarely replicated, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984) studied the readers of romance novels using questionnaires; in 1997 she followed it up with A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire, which was also built around empirical research.
These scholars all tended to focus on the reader, and on the reception of the literary text. More recent literary sociology, by contrast, attends to authors, and to the nitty gritty of production. In Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace (2007), for example, Sarah Brouillette discusses how global book markets have shaped and limited the literary prospects of postcolonial writers. The late French scholar Pascale Casanova, meanwhile, adopts a Bourdieu-inspired perspective on global flows of cultural capital in her The World Republic of Letters (2007), arguing that the road to literary consecration runs through Paris, which she describes as the “world capital of literature.” Other literary sociologists have embraced the digital humanities: The Stanford Literary Lab, founded in 2010 by Franco Moretti and Matthew Jockers, has developed a controversial research program committed to bringing quantitative and computational methods to the study of literary history.
While all of this work has been influential, it is undoubtedly Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) that has done the most to inspire the sociological turn among American scholars. The Program Era argues that the rise of creative writing was the most novel development in 20th-century U.S. literary history. Writers used to cut their teeth working as journalists or in the culture industry; after World War II, the university, with its paradoxical ethos of systematized excellence, came to be the predominant patron of literary life. Creative-writing programs, McGurl shows, have underwritten countless careers and shaped literary aesthetics in myriad ways, both large and small.
Leaving aside its specific arguments, The Program Era is a profession of faith that the institutional life of writing matters. The institutions that mediate literary life inevitably change literature itself, sometimes in surprising ways. Where authors find jobs, where they go to school, how they get published: These social facts have aesthetic consequences. We can’t tell the story of literature without telling the story of its institutions. And the institutions that scholars have studied in recent years are many and various, including book prizes, the NEA, book editors, literary agents, writers’ colonies, advising networks, Amazon, the self-publishing platform Wattpad, the position of poet laureate, and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Sinykin’s book tells the story of how corporate conglomeration transformed American fiction after 1960. (Full disclosure: I collaborated with Sinykin on a special issue of American Literary History on literature and publishing, which we co-edited back in 2021.) Sinykin suggests that conglomeration has polarized the literary field between a dominant corporate sector and a more marginal nonprofit sector, with few genuine independent publishers left standing. This polarization, Sinykin shows, has shaped the kinds of careers available for novelists and delimited the scope of literary style more generally.
The institutions that mediate literary life inevitably change literature itself. Where authors find jobs, where they go to school, how they get published: these social facts have aesthetic consequences.
Conglomeration began in earnest in the 1960s, as prestigious, privately owned publishing houses like Knopf and Random House got gobbled up by multinational media companies. Today, the multinational media conglomerates that own the so-called “Big Five” publishers — known as the “Big Six” before Penguin and Random House merged in 2013 — have reoriented literary life around their bottom line and aesthetic priorities. Under their influence, literary genre fiction, fantasy, romance, blockbuster fiction by brand-name authors, autofiction, and a narrowly delimited version of multicultural fiction have established themselves as dominant modes. Drawing on the empirical and computational analysis of a corpus of novels he undertook with a collaborator, Edwin Roland, Sinykin argues that the polarizing influence of conglomeration can be seen at the level of the sentence. “Nonprofit novels,” like George Rabasa’s Floating Kingdom (Coffee House Press) and David Treuer’s Little (Graywolf Press), feature “classically literary” prose and focus on “what it feels like to live in a body, describing perception, sensations.” “Conglomerate novels,” by contrast — “plot-driven blockbusters” like Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun or Richard North Patterson’s Degree of Guilt, both first published by Knopf — “give more attention to the results-driven world of ambition, the linguistic formalism of administration, and the manners and mores of polite correspondence.”
Big Fiction synthesizes a great deal of existing scholarship on publishing, delving into the many structural forces that have mediated this stylistic shift. Sinykin discusses everything from the winnowing of editorial staff to the industry’s growing reliance on comps (comparison titles), from the ascent of powerful and predatory literary agents to the (now waning, but once decisive) power of big retailers such as Barnes & Noble.
What emerges from Sinykin’s comprehensive analysis is the sense that conglomeration isn’t just a matter of corporate structure. It has changed the whole ecosystem of literary production. Increasingly, there is no “outside” to conglomeration. Even nonprofit publishers like Coffee House Press and Graywolf, which have sought to distinguish themselves from the corporate houses, live in the shadow of conglomeration. These small presses self-consciously acquire innovative authors that the Big Five can’t or won’t handle. But this means orienting themselves toward wealthy funders and proffering mission-driven publishing: Publishers who run nonprofits sometimes feel as if they spend more time writing grant proposals than acquiring and editing books, and the way they pitch themselves to funders necessarily narrows the scope of the kinds of books they can publish. Nonprofits also often find their most successful authors poached as soon as they reach a wider audience. What’s more, many smaller publishers still rely on the Big Five behemoths for distribution. W.W. Norton, the lone true independent of any significance, is a quirky exception that proves the rule. Indeed, Norton survives in part because of its proximity to academic publishing and because of its unusual employee-owned corporate structure.
Conglomeration isn’t just a matter of corporate structure. It has changed the whole ecosystem of literary production.
This ambition comes with risks, however. Sinykin argues convincingly that corporate publishing is the elephant in the room of our literary culture. “By missing conglomeration,” he writes, previous critics of late-20th- and early 21st-century American literature “miss the whole.” And Sinykin’s analysis of the whole is sound. I do, however, sometimes worry about the dangers of such conceptual totalization. Many of the book’s individual case studies resolve into a similar discovery that the writer under scrutiny has actually, wittingly or unwittingly, been writing an allegory of the situation of the writer working under conglomeration all along.
Thus, from Sinykin’s synoptic sociological perspective, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest — published by Little, Brown and Company, which at the time was owned by Time Warner, the world’s largest media conglomerate — turns out to be an allegory of conglomeration. So does Danielle Steel’s The Promise (1978), Stephen King’s Misery (1987), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Michael Crichton’s Disclosure (1994), Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted (1996), and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996). As for Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001), a novel about a Black writer responding to market pressures to commodify his racial identity, it leaves allegory behind: It is just flat-out about conglomeration.
To be clear, these readings are all well developed and convincing on their own terms. And this mode of allegorical reading has a fine pedigree in literary sociology, having its foundation in Bourdieu’s reading of Flaubert’s novel Sentimental Education in The Rules of Art, with counterparts in scholarship by McGurl, Amy Hungerford, and Michael Szalay, among others. But this interpretive move has become familiar and can sometimes feel a bit neat. Some novels undoubtedly do allegorize their conditions of production, but does adopting a sociological perspective require us to believe that all (or even many) do?
There are, arguably, methodological reasons for Sinykin’s commitment to allegorical interpretation. Allegory allows one to quickly pivot between levels, moving from a characterization of the field as a whole to discussions of specific books. Sociologists of culture such as Griswold, Clayton Childress, and John Thompson have already done much to paint a detailed portrait of the dominant institutions of contemporary literary life. But sociologically inclined scholars in English departments face an additional discipline-specific pressure: They must make the description of specific social facts pay off interpretively. Allegorical reading squares the circle, allowing Sinykin, no less than other literary sociologists, to convert sociological claims into interpretive ones and vice versa. The method produces ingenious results, but it also risks flattening distinctions between writers as different as Morrison and Palahniuk, Wallace and Steel. Conglomeration may be the whole, but sometimes (with apologies to Adorno) the whole is the false.
Manshel started out wanting to explain a peculiar empirical finding. Citing research by the scholar James English and his collaborators, Manshel observes that book-prize committees increasingly grant awards to novels set in the past. From this Manshel deduces that “literary institutions have fundamentally reorganized themselves around the aesthetic, pedagogical, and political value of the historical past, privileging historical fiction above all other literary genres.”
There is a quantitative element to Writing Backwards, but Manshel’s book wears its data lightly. As is often the case with the new literary sociology, quantitative analysis may motivate new research agendas, but the big takeaways emerge from visits to the archive, close readings, and a more familiar kind of literary history. Numbers help pose questions, but they don’t answer them. By the end of the book, Manshel moots many answers to his initial question about the development of historical fiction but doesn’t really propose a single overarching explanation. Rather, he develops a series of convincing local arguments. (My favorite reading involves Colson Whitehead’s 1999 novel The Intuitionist, a work of historical fiction about elevator inspectors in New York City, which Manshel interprets as a disguised campus satire that recapitulates debates about multiculturalism at Harvard in the 1980s.)
Since the 1980s, historical fiction has gradually disappeared from the bestseller list while simultaneously proliferating on university syllabi.
Writing Backwards persuasively establishes that historical fiction has played a significant role in opening up the American literary canon to minoritized voices. But this access has come at a cost. Writers of color are, increasingly, admitted into the classroom, awarded prizes, and reviewed in prominent outlets only to the degree that they write about specific, often traumatic histories. Historical subject matter becomes a way of establishing a writer’s identitarian bona fides. Manshel suggests that panelists for the National Endowment for the Arts prized historical fiction, in part, because they judged fiction proposals blindly. “[A]n anonymous submission process” is, he argues, “circumvented by a work’s all-too-telling historical setting.” Historical discussions of race thus came to serve as a proxy for the racial background of the author. The setting of such novels in the past accommodated “traditionalist” critics while also appealing to the New Historicism that became ascendant among literature professors in the 1980s. This is an interesting, if somewhat arguable, contention. It isn’t clear why representations of racial trauma in the present might not have done the proxy trick just as well. And in any case, Newt Gingrich (and Bill Clinton) razed funding for the NEA, slashing its budget by nearly 40 percent, way back in 1995, yet the larger trend toward historical prizewinners has continued apace. Moreover, canon-loving traditionalists in the 1980s may have valued the literary past, but it isn’t clear to me that they preferred historical settings as such.
Quibbles aside, Manshel’s argument that historical fiction has achieved a new prestige in American literary culture over the course of the last four decades is ultimately convincing. This is the book’s major descriptive claim, but Manshel’s thesis also has a normative dimension: He suggests that the multiculturalist promise of “writing back” against the canon has given way to a requirement that writers of color “write backwards,” adopting certain acceptable temporal settings if they want to be taken seriously. Perhaps surprisingly, this book about historical fiction ends with a passionate call for contemporary writers and critics to transcend the genre, insisting that other kinds of literature be recognized, read, and assigned today.
I suspect that the recent rise of literary sociology among scholars of American literature has something to do with the increased awareness among graduate students, postdocs, and early-career faculty of the precarity of academic employment. We all become aware of institutions and their power to shape ideas much earlier now. Long gone are the mythic days when an adviser could call a friend at another institution and secure a grad student a job. More and more, academics are thrown into brutal competition with one another. Even as administrators and state legislatures dismantle the institutions they hope to join, junior scholars are asked to adopt various highly formalized social protocols, habits, and rituals. If social conditions have aesthetic consequences, is it implausible to imagine that this new self-consciousness, forged by intensified competition, has affected, and in some ways even enriched, our understanding of recent literary history? Social conditions have consequences for scholarship, too.
The ultimate promise of literary sociology is that it can help us better understand how capitalism and culture collide. If Big Fiction and Writing Backwards are any indication, this research project is proceeding apace, with remarkable results. In the 21st century the sociology of literature has moved from a somewhat niche subfield to one of the most vibrant zones of American literary study. The formless days of amoeba-like, undirected growth that Griswold described back in 1993 have passed. The problem now, if there is one, may be too much uniformity: If sociologically informed critics in literary studies face any specific challenge, it is the discipline-specific temptation to fall back on a fairly traditional genre of literary criticism, in which allegories of the production of the work of art take pride of place.
Indeed, reading through Sapiro’s brief but bracing overview The Sociology of Literature, I was struck by how few of the many scholars she cites are based in departments of literary study. Despite many common objects of study and concern, literary scholars influenced by sociology and sociologists of literature remain on parallel rather than intersecting courses, and are playing different disciplinary games. Future work in literary sociology, then, might seek to move away from simply importing tools and concepts from the social sciences and start pursuing new collaborations across the disciplines. Who knows what would happen if literary scholars and sociologists started to actually talk to each other?