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A Publisher's Reader on the Verge of Modernity: The Case of Frank Swinnerton

From: Book History
Volume 6, 2003
pp. 175-195 | 10.1353/bh.2004.0011

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Book History 6 (2003) 175-195

For much of the twentieth century Frank Swinnerton was one of the most significant figures on the London literary scene. Author, publisher, broadcaster, and reviewer, he wrote more than forty novels—the earliest ones of which, including the best-selling Nocturne (1917), won considerable critical approval. A columnist for the Bookman in the 1920s and later a reviewer for the Observer and the Evening News, he was also an astute critic, writing influential studies of Gissing and Stevenson as well as the provocatively titled The Georgian Literary Scene: 1910- 1935 (1935)—a book that remains one of the more comprehensive accounts of the literature of that era. He met and befriended many writers and cultural figures of the century and was still writing well into his nineties—his book Arnold Bennett: A Last Word was published in 1978 when he was in his ninety-fourth year. Swinnerton began his literary life, however, in publishing, working first for J. M. Dent. Then, as reader for Chatto & Windus between the years 1909 and 1926, he played a major role in helping to transform that firm into one of the most important literary publishers of the 1920s.

In his autobiography (1937), Swinnerton claimed to be a "predestined" publishers' reader, inasmuch as he had "always tried to gravitate to the back seat." The impact that a firm's reader has on the publishing process is invariably not one that remains visible once a manuscript has completed its path through editorial production and emerged as a published book. As Stanley Unwin wrote in The Truth About Publishing, "If authors were as prompt to recognize the services of publishers' readers as they are to criticize them, the public would learn with surprise how much it owes to a group of conscientious men and women of whose existence it is barely aware." It has, therefore, been scholars and historians of literature and publishing who have uncovered the part played by publishers' readers in discovering and advising authors and helping to improve (or in some cases to impair) books and literary careers. Where records and archives have survived, readers' reports have come to be recognized as a valuable resource for extending our understanding of publishing trends and author/publisher relations. As early as 1909 B. W. Matz drew attention to George Meredith's role as reader to Chapman & Hall, and more recent critics have been able to show how publishers' readers have influenced the formation both of individual writers and texts and of cultural history as a whole. Building on the work of Guinevere L. Griest, Linda Marie Fritschner has analyzed the way Geraldine Jewsbury's reports for Bentley helped both to define and to reinforce values and tastes in Victorian fiction publishing. In a more specific analysis, Dorothy W. Collin has shown, through a study of S. R. Crockett's relations with Edward Garnett, how an author could respond to specific and extensive criticisms and suggestions made by a reader. And Warwick Gould has exposed, through an account of Macmillan's rejection of W. B. Yeats in 1900, how a reader like Mowbray Morris—who was so fixed in his tastes and opinions—could impede a successful publisher through failing to recognize new talent or to admit challenging new directions in literature.

The sequence of reports by Frank Swinnerton preserved in the archives of Chatto & Windus offers an insight into the way one particular firm went about building up its list. It allows us to see what kind of books it was interested in; how it set out its parameters in terms of subject matter, literary quality, and commercial incentives; how it responded to new trends in literature; and how it reacted to perceived values and tastes. Further, the reports show how far a single individual could influence the policies of a publishing firm. Taken together with his various autobiographical writings and numerous books of literary reminiscences, the reports make it possible to situate Swinnerton within critical arguments about literary taste and confirm his importance as a representative figure in the transformation of publishing practice in the early twentieth century. Swinnerton held no partnership in Chatto & Windus, was not involved...

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