- Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature: Publishing, Prizes, and the Ascription of Literary Value
In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Japanese scholars stopped studying literature and took up instead “literature.” In other words, rather than focusing on the fiction and poetry presumed to belong to the category of literature, they pursued a critical rethinking of the origins of the category itself. Some of these figures (Karatani Kōjin and Kamei Hideo come to mind) were conceptually oriented, tracing the history of the epistemological structures that sculpt our understanding of modern Japanese literature. Others (such as Suzuki Sadami) carried out extensive keyword studies, showing the transformative drift across the decades of categories such as bungaku (literature) and shōsetsu (often translated as “novel,” albeit problematically). Still others—Seki Reiko, for example, and Hirata Yumi—explored the inherently gendered hierarchies that were woven into the framework of literature. Finally, scholars such as Maeda Ai and Kōno Kensuke explored the rise of literature as a material practice in the form of media histories.
Edward Mack’s excellent new study makes an important contribution to this last line of scholarship. Building on recent studies of the media history of Japanese literature by scholars such as Peter Kornicki and Jonathan Zwicker, Mack pursues “a historical reconstruction of the sociology of modern Japanese literature” (p. 7), one focused on the side of producers (publishers, [End Page 229] editors, booksellers, and—to a lesser extent—writers) rather than consumers. Looking primarily at the 1920s and 1930s, albeit with glances at earlier and later periods, he is interested in retracing how a sense of literary value was manufactured and then naturalized through the efforts of a relatively small group of persons located in Tokyo. Although Mack does not use this phrase, he argues that the widespread belief at the time that this literary value was autonomous and that it somehow transcended mundane economic concerns was a kind of ideological false consciousness, and he takes up the task of uncovering the blind spots and unconscious choices that sustained it.
The opening chapter provides a useful survey of the rise of the publishing industry in Japan from the Edo period through the twentieth century. Along the way, we learn how modern distribution networks arose, how the fixed-price regime was established, and how other crucial aspects of modern book production and retailing took shape. This is followed by a fascinating account of how the Tokyo publishing world not only survived the devastating 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake but emerged from it as an even more dominant center in the industry. What looked at first to be a devastating blow to Tokyo’s cultural centrality—including, symbolically, the loss to fire of the Iwanami Bookstore’s shop sign, with its famous calligraphy in the hand of Natsume Sōseki himself—resulted instead in an increased dominance of the capital city in all branches of publishing, including newspapers, magazines, and books.
Having traced the rise of the institutions needed to produce and distribute the material texts that would become literature, Mack turns his attention to the processes by which some of those printed texts were selected to form the core of a modern national canon. The book presents an engaging history of the massive Gendai Nihon bungaku zenshū (Complete works of contemporary Japanese literature) subscription series published by the Kaizōsha house from 1926 to 1931. The series not only saved Kaizōsha from looming bankruptcy, it also launched the one-yen book boom that became one of the definitive cultural phenomena of the era.
More important, Mack argues, the series had a “profound effect on modern Japanese literature” because it made “a single image of contemporary literature available to a much larger audience than ever before” and “invested that literature with a prestige it had not previously enjoyed” (p. 93). The real breakthrough was its claim to present a coherent, comprehensive canon of the entirety of modern national literature in Japan. Mack narrates the fascinating history...