I’ve been making a lot of progress since I last posted here and I think ti’s time for a more complete description of my dissertation project (yes, be still your racing hearts). Here’s the overview:
In the past fifty years the world of literary publication has experienced a continual revolution of new social structures, business models and textual media. The growth of university writing programs, the birth of the mass-market paperback, the corporate consolidation of publishing houses, the emergence of national mega-bookstores, and the dominance of the Internet are some of the major milestones in this saga. Yet by and large literary critics still approach books published today with the same set of cultural and scholarly expectations as they do works that appeared a century ago. The goal of this dissertation is two-fold: first, to map out these new and still-evolving ecologies of reading and writing in a digital era; second, to articulate a new model for the engines and pathways of literary success in its many contemporary forms.
The structure of the dissertation will address these two goals simultaneously by working through a series of specific examples of contemporary literary success using a case-study model. The relationships between new literary ecologies and authorial success are related in complex and interdependent ways, and the use of diverse case studies will allow us to employ information from a variety of different sources, including literary close readings, analyses of critical responses, and a variety of non-literary sources, such as consumer reviews, citation indexes, sales information, interviews, etc. Many of these evidentiary sources offer a glimpse into parts of our lives as readers that were rarely accessible in the past: book associations (i.e. the “customers who bought this book also bought these other books” feature), customer ratings, reviews, and conversations, and used book availability (as a comparative index of a work’s staying power), for example. It is also important to recognize the roles that many actors play in the process, from literary agents to publicity managers and from booksellers to professional critics. I will also conduct interviews with representatives from these groups in order to map out their varying positions in terms of cultural production. Each case study will face the challenge of integrating disparate empirical evidence with textual readings.
The value of this project lies in the attempt to shift the playing field of literary studies, however incrementally, to adapt to a changing media reality. As the impact of capitalism on cultural life and the world of the university becomes ever more powerful, any honest study of contemporary literature must address the ways in which cultural values and economic interests interact to help determine what, how, and why we read. This project will uncover some of the ways in which these changes affect not just the production of literature but its life after publication. The authors profiled here have all succeeded (or failed interestingly) in creating ideational networks with their books, leading readers to other books and to new ideas, dialogs, and writings of their own. As more readers become critics and writers, the traditional boundaries of publishing are crumbling.1 I will argue for a new understanding of literary fame and the role of authorship in an increasingly collaborative, engaged society, where capitalist consumption increasingly equals cultural production. In this landscape the critical term cultural capital must be overhauled to incorporate the role of ideational networks and the distributed power of millions of cultural producers/consumers. The growing sophistication of cultural production is leading to new scarcities and abundances driven by the resources and capacities of this cultural consumer, a figure now actively engaged in the construction and expansion of ideational networks and in redefining literary production.