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Horizons of the Publishable: Publishing in/ as Literary Studies

From: ELH
Volume 75, Number 3, Fall 2008
pp. 707-735 | 10.1353/elh.0.0016

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Horizons of the Publishable:
Publishing in/ as Literary Studies

I. Introduction: The Precession of Publishing

It is conventionally assumed that book publishing is a process through which writing is relayed to readers: publishing conceived as publication. At most, publishing is acknowledged as a process which writing passes through, with effects that are partially acknowledged for mass-market genre fiction, and almost universally denied for literary fiction. Here I argue that publishing—as a set of processes and practices—is constitutive of all formations of writing and reading. Publishing precedes writing and governs the possibilities of reading. This article is an explicit challenge to both contemporary book studies and literary studies. The argument elaborated here takes publishing—as a set of processes, practices and relations—to the centre of literary studies. It should be immediately clear that the definitions of “publishing” and the publishable formulated here, owe little to common sense. These common senses, implicit and explicit, are elaborated in the first section of this article. Section two presents a critical alternative. A sketch of this critical alternative—horizons of the publishable—follows. I finish by outlining some of the transformations effected by publishing and the publishable on concepts such as style, genre, intertextuality, adaptation, and the literary, in its strong evaluative sense.

The materiality of the book is now both topos and mantra. Varying modes of publication, the diverse physical forms of texts, and historically variegated reading practices are routinely invoked as contexts in ever more nuanced accounts of textuality and reading. In part, this represents the selective movement of book studies into the literary studies mainstream. Leah Price’s introduction to the 2006 PMLA special issue—“Book History and the Idea of Literature”—both documents and evidences this process.1

But the book as object, and slogan, also reflects a more complex traf-fic of discourse: a specifically literary contribution to the general topic of “material cultures”; continuities and congruence between Annales history (which shaped early histories of the book and reading) and the [End Page 707] “new” historicism; and the metabolization of certain concepts, above all writing/différance, in some fields of critical editing. Despite this, publishing remains untheorized, not only in literary studies but in book history. Such a claim clearly requires substantiation, but a couple of general points here may suggest the shape of the argument. There is certainly an increasing awareness that regimes of writing and reading are shaped by a wide range of institutions, including those of publishing. Any attention paid to illustration, format, typography, distribution, reprinting, and so on, can offer direct or indirect evidence of this. Yet for the most part this attention is not directed to thinking either individual practices, or publishing as a totality, at the most general level. For the most part, publishing is not a primary interest in such studies at all, which evidence ever more and ever fuller instances of the rich variations that differentiate text, contexts, readings, and readers.2 More speculatively, the context in which publishing came to be understood as an influence on writing and/or reading coincided with the moment when authority and responsibility for meaning shifted from author to reader and reading. Roger Chartier’s later work is emblematic of this simultaneous opening up of material form as the inscription of production and its nearly exclusive understanding in terms of reading.3 It is within the terms of this problematic movement towards reading that publishing was and generally remains understood.

Above all I wish to insist here on the precession of publishing. Ro-land Barthes, most famously in “The Death of the Author” and “From Work to Text,” did much to defamiliarize and invert our commonsense understandings of the relationship between texts (and works) and those who write and are inscribed in them.4 It was Barthes, after all, who naturalized the author as a figure subsequent to the text, constituted in writing and reading. But this much-misunderstood birth of the reader, or rather a very specific practice of reading, leaves no role for publishing. Barthes comes closest to describing such a process in “From Work to Text” when he invokes the machinery of book production and especially...