Middlebrow Reading and The Power of Feeling
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Middlebrow Reading and The Power of Feeling
A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club: Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. By Janice A. Radway. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 424 pages $34.95 cloth. $16 95 paper.

The seriousness of sociology articles taps into your emotions if you can get beyond the statistics. The emotions of the novels tap into your seriousness, your awareness that this is reality.

—Megan Olson, sociology major, UC Santa Barbara.

As the author of the renowned Reading the Romance, Janice Radway must have had to decide whether to call this book The Romance of Reading. She made the right decision, and yet romantic, magical reading is the topic on which this book excels. The volume has great value as a history of the Book-of-the-Month Club and of the formation of middle class culture as “middlebrow” culture. It offers special insight into the techniques by which American publishers managed to commodify books as objects which claim to reach beyond the world of commodities. But it is the best book I know on the mind altering powers of reading for pleasure.

I did not expect this when I sat down to read four hundred pages on the internal workings and social effects of the Book-of-the-Month Club. I knew from the initial reviews that Radway’s book describes the creation of middlebrow literature as a new and controversial hybrid of “serious” commercial writing, but I had a hard time imagining the book [End Page 910] offering the drama of a high-stakes cultural conflict. My default association with the term “middlebrow” is the conventional, the normal, the complacent, the conformist. My second association is with the frustration I have felt in my own research when I have examined workplace forms of middlebrow normalcy, looked for something—anything—expansive, unruly, or self-transcending, and I found lots and lots of disgruntled, passive-aggressive commitment to existing structures. I figured that Radway would be making the same kind of effort and braced myself for insightful but necessarily convoluted depictions of the Book-of-the-Month Club as a hotbed of grey flannel rebels, of would-be middle class radicals and “independent thinkers” forever unhappy with the culture of corporate capitalism and yet forever unable to imagine something better. How threatening could the middlebrow be?

But Part I of A Feeling For Books was a revelation. Radway bases this section on sustained ethnographic contact with the club’s editors—with their reports, their conversations, their editorial meetings, their ideas in discussions with her. The result is a series of usually secret passions suddenly brought to light. Describing a report from editor Joe Savago, Radway exclaims,

What is wrong with being moved? I secretly applauded Joe’s refusal of the familiar, ironic pose of caustic disdain for all things sentimental and of the implicit superiority that goes with declaring oneself above such easy pleasure. . . . I loved the sheer energy and campy exuberance of Joe’s flamboyant, operatic excess. Joe did not seem to be afraid of feeling, and neither did any of his colleagues.

(32)

Savago’ s exhilaration sustained critique and judgment, while suspending the hierarchy on which most critics think judgment depends. His feelings stayed tied to the feelings and judgements of others, and they brought Savago into a psychological proximity with other lives that allowed him to see unexpected things.

By concentrating on the editors at the club (rather than upper management, support staff, and so on), Radway tells a very unusual story about the literary professional-managerial class (PMC). She unearths an aspect of PMC psychology that is almost always viewed as fake or ineffectual, namely, the passions that can supersede predictable white-collar ambivalence. Radway explores their exhilaration at the unexpected, their emotions that leapt the banks of analytical categories, their head-over-heels careening through a book’s new world, their [End Page 911] secular raptures, their partly utopian visions. Part I links reading to the emotional charge that not only connects people at an affective level but, while the charge lasts, can erode social distinctions, override institutional logics, allow...