Mapping Literature: Cultural Capital in the Digital Era

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.

Reading on the Rise

The National Endowment for the Arts has announced a reversal in the decades-long downward trend of American reading habits. The last time they published a major study on reading the hue and cry was great and unabating. Naturally I’d like to attribute this to the grand textual revitalization that the Internet (broadly speaking) has brought about. The dominance of television ended sometime in the late 1990s, a fact we can be sure about because it experienced its golden age just as the empire was crumbling.

Now we’ve got billions of screens–yes, of course, video hasn’t gone away, but we’re also doing much, much more reading and even some writing. The blog explosion minted millions of new authors, and whether they stuck with it or not, they all got to experience the thrill of publication in some way. The enduring power of the keyboard in mobile devices and email in all sorts of places is a testament to the fact that we are once again word people. I have no evidence to connect this with the fact that more people are reading fiction (assuming that it’s even true, that this isn’t a statistical blip). But I’d like to think our enhanced communication landscape is retraining us to appreciate the pleasures of literature.

Finding the Poetry in the Desert of the Real

You’ve got to love that Slavoj Žižek. I developed a fondness for his inspired/crazed lacanian readings of popular culture when I put together a course on the Matrix trilogy a couple of summers ago. So I think the author of Welcome to the Desert of the Real might have some interesting things to say about the clip below. Fortunately it’s my blog so I’m going to say some interesting things instead. But go ahead and watch it first.

What I love about this is the way the creator finds poetry in the many wasted moments of our blasted media landscape. I mean no insult to Charlie Rose, but I love the way the quirks, gaps and nuances that usually speed by too quickly for thought are captured here like fireflies in a jar. The shaggy, lurching bizarreness that makes us human lurks behind even the most poised and professional mask, and I think this clip helps bring it out.

Thanks to friend Dan at Open Culture for posting this!

Pynchon and the Paranoid Sublime

It seems like the holidays happened ages ago, but it’s only been two weeks since we entered 2009 and a little less than that since I got back on the dissertation trail. I spent most of my time since the last posting working on a revised dissertation proposal. Once I ascertain that my committee has, in fact, approved that, I’ll post some details here.

The other project I’ve been working on and just completed is a revised draft of a paper on Pynchon and cultural capital in the digital era. I’m arguing that Pynchon’s unique success as an author is connected to both his postmodern anonymity and something I’m calling the paranoid sublime. This combination has helped make Pynchon such a critical and commercial success, allowing me to use his career as a model for exploring the new cultural capital. I’m hoping to submit it for publication soon.

The Pynchon paper will eventually turn into one of my chapters, so I’m hoping to work through some of my ideas in this shorter form first.

More on Bourdieu + Lab Notes

I’m going to drop the Dissertation Update titles in lieu of the “dissertation” tag below. The blogs gets to be even more monotonous than usual when all the titles start off the same.

Today I thought to look up for the first time when Bourdieu died and what sorts of things he was up to in his later life. There’s a deeply cynical side to academic research, one where the news of Bourdieu’s death in 2002 provides a sense of frank relief. After all, what if he was still out there, thinking about all the new media things I’m planning to write about? It’s much easier to work with a fixed body of work, no matter how great (or just controversial) that achievement is. I found a wonderful little obituary for Bourdieu in The Nation, written by Katha Pollitt.

Finally, I’ll add a link to Work Product, a “research diary or lab notebook” put together by Matthew Wilkens, a postdoc at the Humanities Research Center at Rice University. Wilkens is doing some very interesting stuff and his blog is a more sophisticated (and consistent) example of what I’m hoping to accomplish here. He’s evaluating Part of Speech taggers right now, which is a major service to us all. Way to go, Matthew!

Dissertation Update #3: The Book of the Month Club

I’ve gotten my Bourdieu (it turns out it wasn’t poached, but misdelivered to the right house on the wrong street). It is looming rather smugly over me on the shelf.

I’ve been listening to Amy Hungerford’s undergraduate course on American novels post-1945. This is possible through a new Yale University initiative to make several of their courses available online–syllabi, audio and video. The first book she tackles is Richard Wright’s Black Boy and she tells the fascinating story of how the Book of the Month Club, which published it, dramatically influenced it editorially.

This dovetails nicely with one of my current reading projects, Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books, which starts off with an anthropological mission to The Book of the Month Club just as the realities of modern publishing were catching up to it. At least I think that’s how things will turn out–I’m only in Part I.

Curious, I tried accessing the Book of the Month Club website. They’re still a going concern though from what I gathered on news sites the new owner, an outfit called Direct Brands, is cutting staff.

Dissertation Update #2: Somebody Poaches my Bourdieu

It’s been quite a week around here. I’ve been working on a long-running editing project, made my first visit to the ASU campus (and its library), and put together a paper proposal for next summer’s Digital Humanities Conference.

In the midst of all that and an unusually busy social schedule, I didn’t notice that my copies of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction and The Field of Cultural Production had never arrived from Amazon. It looks like somebody poached the box from our front porch! I hope they enjoy massive French sociological tomes. The ironies here are left as an exercise for the reader.

Next week I’ll start drafting my dissertation proposal and post some more details about the general outline of my project.

Dissertation Update #1: Wherein the Expedition sets off in Crisp Morning Sunshine

I’m going to try a little motivational experiment here by writing about my progress on the dissertation. I don’t know how frequently I’ll be doing this but I hope at least weekly.

Right now my topic, broadly, is the question of cultural capital in an era of digital literacy. How are ecologies of reading and writing evolving online and what does that mean for authorial fame and fortune? I have many more ideas but I’ll save them for future posts (and more mulling).

The reason I’m writing now is to share the geeky thrill I felt when I picked up a stack of books from the ASU library today. It’s been a bit of a struggle getting access and requesting books from a new institution where I have no official status, and it’s a relief to know that I can still track down the books I need.

I’ll put texts up in LibraryThing as I tackle them. Time to get reading!


I’m downsizing. My long-running blog Parlay began as a personal experiment, evolved into a largely unsuccessful promotional vehicle, dawdled along as a lifeless bundle of digital flotsam, and now has finally been put to rest. Maybe with just one garden of words to tend I can do a better job. Http:// will now point here.

I hope to write here about my research, the looming dissertation (more on that in a separate post), and items of more general interest.

Digital Fiction

I just came across a post on BoingBoing to some new digital fiction put together by Penguin. I’m excited about this for two reasons. First of all, each of the pieces (there are six in all) experiments with a different digital form. Second, a major publishing house is demonstrating interest in digital literature–great news for someone who’s hoping to write, and write about, some digital lit himself one day.