restricted access Who Paid for Modernism? Art, Money, and the Fiction of Conrad, Joyce, and Lawrence (review)
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Reviewed by
Joyce Piell Wexler. Who Paid for Modernism? Art, Money, and the Fiction of Conrad, Joyce, and Lawrence. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1997. xxv + 157 pp.

Using the papers of agent J. B. Pinker, who represented all three authors, Joyce Wexler studies “the ways ideology and models of authorship interact with social institutions to shape literary texts.” But she inadequately answers her title question, partly because she tells us too little about money, and partly because she sacrifices complexity for the single-minded pursuit of her thesis that writers blamed publishers for their own confusion. The result is an often tendentious book that misses many chances for genuine illumination.

Adhering to Flaubert’s famous credo of impersonality and an ideology that opposed art and money, Wexler’s modernists believed popularity was a sign of artistic failure; yet each of them desired a public [End Page 1033] that would buy his books. But the tone of such sentences as “modernist writers . . . could not sully the purity of their vision by deliberately altering it to win readers” undermines Wexler’s relationship with her own audience. She also begs numerous questions, asserting, for example, that all three authors “actually earned more as writers than they would have been able to earn in any other career open to them at the time.” This is both dubious—Joyce could have earned a fine livelihood if he had pursued the musical career he once considered—and untestable.

Examining Conrad’s ambivalence about success, Wexler usefully suggests that his “subjectivist” epistemology conflicted with his stated aims to make readers hear, feel, and see. She also aptly outlines how Conrad’s association with Blackwood’s Magazine enabled him to envision and reach a specific audience. Nevertheless, he remained tortured by the (apparent) conflict between money and artistic integrity. Even after Chance became a best seller he remained frustrated that his earlier, better books garnered so little public attention. But Wexler too readily accepts Conrad’s vacillations and complaints at face value and invariably ascribes unpleasant motives to him, as when she criticizes him for demanding increasingly large advances. This chapter also suffers from a dearth of detail about money. How, for example, can we assess whether he “sought payment on a scale only a few popular novelists justified” when we get scant information about Conrad’s earnings and none about the popular novelists’?

Clarifying her aims in the Joyce chapter (she does not assert that Joyce should have acceded to publishers’ demands, but only questions his self-mythologized martyrdom), nonetheless Wexler displays little affection for him or his work. Solecisms crop up: what does she mean, for example, in declaring that in Ulysses “style supersedes syntax”? More damaging is her exaggeration of the influence editorial suggestions had on Joyce’s early work: she claims that Grant Richards’s vague advice to rewrite Dubliners “in another sense” inspired Joyce to compose “The Dead” as a tribute to Irish hospitality. Spare me such a “tribute.” Wexler further implies that Pound was correct in advising Joyce to abandon his experiments in Ulysses (how many Joyceans agree with that?) and announces that audiences sought out the book only after the Little Review installments were banned—perhaps true but, again, unprovable. And while she is right that Joyce never reconciled the conflict [End Page 1034] between the bourgeois and the bohemian, she fails to recognize that the older Joyce became not less but more willing to accede to commercial necessities—publicizing books, staging events—as long as he could control them.

The Lawrence chapter—containing the detailed interpretations, documentation and sympathetic analyses lacking so far—almost salvages Wexler’s book. Her readings of Lawrence’s 1920s novels bolster her thesis about developing models of authorship and persuade us that his use of intrusive, self-reflexive first-person narrators anticipates postmodern fiction and dramatizes his struggle to address his audience directly. Still, Lawrence remained trapped between conflicting models of authorship and alienated from his readers until he discovered that private publication could free him from censorship, allow him to revise with his audience clearly in mind, and earn him adequate money.

This study remains unsatisfying, however, because of its simplistic...