The Influence of the ‘Field’ on Literary Production

Two readings in the Sociology of Literature for today. The first is one an article by Frank de Glas entitled “Authors’ oeuvres as the backbone of publishers’ lists: Studying the literary publishing house after Bourdieu” published in the journal Poetics (Volume 25: 1998). The second, an article by Jeanne Barker-Nunn and Gary Alan Fine entitled “The vortex of creation: Literary politics and the demise of Herman Melville’s reputation” was also published in Poetics (Volume 26: 1998). Both make arguments regarding the influence of Bourdieu’s concept of the ‘literary field’ on the production of authors. Both, I think, fall short of proving their intended point, or if they have succeeded, the point they prove seems rather trite.

de Glas examines more closely a pair of publishing houses in order to draw conclusions about the influence they have in the production of their authors. He is interested in qualifying what he sees as an oversimplification in Bourdieu’s own analysis of the publishing house:

A further question mark set against Bourdieu’s analysis of publishing houses concerns the rather abstract level of aggregation of this analysis. Bourdieu divided publishing houses “according to the distribution of their commitments between risky, long-term investments (Godot) and safe, short-term investments, and by the same token, according to the proportion of their authors who are long-term or short-term writers”….Bourdieu was characterizing publishers’ lists in only a general fashion, but what is lacking is any further study of particular sections of an author’s body of works within a list. (p. 382, quoted text from Bourdieu, “The Production of Belief” [1993])

de Glas summarizes the work of Boschetti on two French publishing houses that were established around the time of the first world war, those of Bernard Grasset and Gaston Gallimard. The eventual success of Gallimard’s Nouvelle Review Francaise over Grasset, despite Grasset’s implimentation of “modern methods of recruiting authors and promoting literary books,” is attributed largely to Gallimard’s ability to unify his publishing house around a certain, younger, literary cadre, with an interest (because they were not well known) in defining themselves against the prevailing avant garde of the “fashionable salons” and “the ‘rive droite'” as well as the Academie Francaise (383). Boschetti posits this process of “social renewal” that accompanies the new, younger avat garde , can be explained as a very specific ‘position-taking’ by the younger writers within a field of positions that is largely established. She gives a further example in the Surrealists, who, several years later, define themselves against the very set of avant garde artists ushered in by the NRF.

Young authors define themselves against older authors, in the hope of creating their own ‘new thing.’ This all makes perfect sense, and (to me at least) really doesn’t need the sort flogging that it seems to get in the Sociology of Literature. The problem is that both de Glas and Boschetti (and Bourdieu, for that matter) seem to see this adolescent rebeliousness, this resistant position-taking, as sufficient explanation for the Surrealist project itself:

On this point, both Bourdieu and Boschetti criticize the approach of traditional ‘literary studies’ which have mainly approached the development of an author’soeuvre as the realization of an original authorial project. In reality, according to both, the reverse is the case. It is the structure of the literary field which determines the possible positions of authors (and, according to Boschetti, of publishers), not the other way around. (384)

Two things: First of all, the second half of the statement above is in no way the reverse of the first half, as de Glas states. Indeed, it is hard to see how the conclusion he draws at the end of the statement relates in any way to an author’s oeuvre or to their authorial project. Indeed, that the structure of a literary field determines the possible positions of authors (both established and new) makes perfect sense. However, in the end, this seems to say little more than “you can’t be Proust, we’ve already got a Proust.” More importantly however, is the assumption on de Glas’s part of the sizeof the role position-taking plays in the production of the actual literary work. This is the sort of reductive determinism of which Bourdieu makes me ever more suspicious.

de Glas qualifies the arguments of Bourdieu and Boschetti, and then states his thesis:

My central thesis is that the publishing house…is not merely a gatekeeper, certainly not the mere gate-keeper it is alleged to be [what horrible writing!]. It’s involvement goes much further. From the very beginning and in various ways the publishing house decisively influences the creativity of the author. (386)

He goes on to examine the publishing list of the Dutch publishing house W.L & J. Brusse, and shows (rather conclusively, I think) that it is a combination of long-term authors and new and emerging authors that make a publishing house successful. What he doesn’t do, however, is prove his thesis, that these trends have any effect on the work of authors themselves. It seems clear from his analysis that authors creative production influences the long-term success of the company, but how (or if) this process works in reverse (the point he sets out to prove) is not even touched upon.

The second article, by Barker-Nunn and Fine, examines the role of Melville’s contemporary critical establishment in destroying his reputation. The authors paint a picture of a young and rather culturally naive Melville who, after the publication of his first novel, was taken up as the spokesman for Young America, a democratic critical faction in New York. Melville took the theoretical underpinnings of Young America, which emphasize independence and formal risk taking, so to heart that he ended up isolating himself from the establishment. Near the end of his literary career, Melville found himself with very few critical or popular fans.

This again seems rather trite. A circular argument, even: Melville was critically unpopular because critics didn’t like his work. The more ambitious claim in this article, perhaps, and one which mirrors that of de Glas, is that this critical atmosphere had a significant impact on the way that Melville wrote, as well as the things he wrote about. Barker-Nunn and Fine say things like “The content and form of Melville’s work was affected not only by his being a Young American writer but by his being a New York writer as well…” (88), but they never actually tell us how it is that Melville’s form reflects the influence of the Young Americans. Certainly, he had taken from them parts of his writing philosophy. He had probably taken also from any number of people, and not least of all the crew of the whaler that inspired Typee in the first place, but the crew of the whaler doesn’t fit into anyone’s concept of a ‘literary field.’ It seems more clear though, from their growing displeasure with his writing, that Melville was less inclined to ‘toe the line’ than the Young Americans would have liked. That he ended his career in relative obscurity suggests that whatever formal approach he was employing, people in the mid-19th century just didn’t get it. Whatever it was, they thought it was bad.

And so we are back to our facile Bourdieuian mantra: Melville asavant garde can be explained in his position-taking as resistant to the ‘main line’ of literary production, as represented both in the Young Americans and in the New England poets. I fail to see the profundity. Nor can I understand how this helps us understand anything about Moby Dick, any more than I can understand how the fact that the Surrealists were young and resistant to traditional production avenues helps us understand the motivations for Un Chien Andalou. An author might easily define himself against the ‘main current’ in literature: he might simple produce utter nonsense, words and phrases and sentences that don’t seem to fit together at all (Dada, anyone?), and we could make the same arguments about his position-taking that seems continually to be made in Bordieu-inspired Sociology of Culture. It just seems reductive, or banal, or both, and needlessly so. Surely, there are ways of accounting for a broader understanding of networks of influence than that put forward here.

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About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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