restricted access Scribblers for Bread: Aspects of the Novel Since 1945, and: The Modernist Self in Twentieth Century English Literature: A Study in Self-Fragmentation (review)
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Reviewed by
George Greenfield. Scribblers for Bread: Aspects of the Novel Since 1945. New York: Norton, 1989. 340 pp. $25.00.
Dennis Brown. The Modernist Self in Twentieth Century English Literature: A Study in Self-Fragmentation. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 206 pp. $35.00.

The titles of the books under review suggest each is dealing with twentieth-century literature. In fact, Scribblers for Bread is not about novels but about the marketing of novels, whereas The Modernist Self does, as promised, discuss literary works. The subject matter of each is in our century, but in periods still distinctive, still separated in contemporary criticism. Time will doubtless blur if not erase the emphatic decade or pre- and post-war distinctions we are in the habit of using today, but for the moment both their subject matter and time frame make these two books an odd couple.

Literature underwent its seismic changes in the early decades of the century and has, on the whole, been retreating from them, while the publishing industry has been experiencing its seismic shifts since 1960. Greenfield can only suggest answers to the large question of how and to what extent technology and publishing conditions have influenced the aims and achievements of novelists. He cites Evelyn Waugh's proposal that the writing instrument itself has historically affected how and how much writers write. When the fountain pen replaced the quill, novels got longer, more discursive, and more plentiful. Is it frivolous to suggest a connection between the staccato prose of journalist-novelists like Hemingway and the typewriter? Waugh thinks not. What would Waugh, who correlates the breakdown of prose style with the advent of the dictating machine, have said about the effects of the word processor?

Greenfield crams his book with useful details. He analyzes the phenomenon of paperbacks, best sellers, of the now regular auction of unfinished and unwritten books, the effects of marketing (the word first surfaces in 1952), the increasing power of literary agents, the decline of the personal relationship between author and editor/publisher, the effects of book clubs, bookstore chains, big prizes, tieins with film and TV, and, of course, the wedding of publishing to big business that began in the 1960s. It is commonplace for book publishers today to belong to conglomerates or agglomerates. In the UK, where Greenfield has been a literary agent for thirty-five years, eleven major companies now produce 60% to 65% of the nation's books. In 1965 Granada TV bought Panther Books; in 1966 CBS bought Holt, Rinehart & Winston; in 1975 Gulf & Western bought Simon & [End Page 683] Schuster. More recently (1987), Rupert Murdoch bought Harper & Row for a price fifty-five times that of the company's annual earnings. Of the Random House reverse purchase of Cape/Chatto/Bodley Head, Greenfield comments, "£17.5 million does appear to be a very large entrance fee to a not very exclusive club." These dollar sums for what has historically been a cottage industry are a shock.

The US publishes only 50% to 70% of the UK figures, but the percentage of novels published in both countries continues to decline. Publishers, editors, and agents are geared to quick returns instead of long-term authors. Literary agents are fast becoming the sole avenue to publication, a situation likely to cut out several hundred novels that, in Greenfield's judgment, could have been published in happier times. On the positive side, Greenfield does allow that corporate ownership has brought a "much needed professionalism" to book publishing. Still, the overall impact of his study suggests that, in the reported words of the head of Simon & Schuster, "the book business is the software of the movie and television media." By contrast, publishing conditions and opportunities were far better early in the century. The modernist period is intimately associated with avant-garde publishers and little magazines. How different today when Greenfield can cite only Granta in the UK as a magazine where young writers may get a hearing.

Dennis Brown's book is not concerned with the technology or the economics of publishing, but with literary works once enthroned and now unsteady or toppling under the attacks of feminist...


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