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  • The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Literary Careers
  • Maureen Harkin
Frank Donoghue. The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Literary Careers. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. Pp. 213. $37.50.

The familiar modern routine of checking the reviews for responses to new books first established itself in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century. The rapidity with which this practice became routine within the two decades following the founding of the Monthly Review (1749) and the Critical Review (1756) is remarkable; by the time of Burney’s shrewd dedication of Evelina to the reviewers of the Monthly and the Critical in 1788, the reviewers’ power in the literary hierarchy was well entrenched. The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Literary Careers takes for its subject the importance of these two periodicals in mid-century England, specifically as the crucial means for making possible and defining literary careers.

Donoghue’s work allies itself with the work of scholars like Michael Warner and Kathryn Shevelow on eighteenth-century print culture and the role of journals in regulating the expanding audience for books. The book’s primary ambition, however, is to force a reconsideration of the careers of the writers under study—principally Goldsmith, Sterne, and Smollett—in terms of their various responses to, and incarnations as, reviewers. In focusing on these writers’ careers rather than on thematic analysis of their texts, Donoghue attempts to bridge the gap between serious criticism and literary biography, two modes of writing about literature that maintain a very uneasy coexistence at present. Noting the subdued response to the major biographies of eighteenth-century authors published in the 1980s, Donoghue probes the current limbo between biography and criticism, and describes his own work as an attempt to forge a “possible path for a new biography” (14).

This is an important project, and the focus on the reviews’ role in constructing literary careers produces striking and original claims about the work of Sterne, Smollett, and Goldsmith. However, the terms of the investigation undertaken here generate one difficulty, that of providing a framework for discussing the work of female writers, for the reviews’ definition of a literary career, which Donoghue adopts, claim it as an “exclusively male form of social practice” (161). Hence the brevity of the concluding chapter on a range of female writers from Sarah Fielding to Frances Burney. Caught in the familiar dilemma of the lady-writer, Donoghue identifies [End Page 139] their counterstrategies (having texts endorsed by male “sponsors” or claiming to aim at an exclusively female audience) as ultimately rather self-defeating attempts to forestall reviewers’ criticisms of their professional ambitions. (162–67). It is, then, Donoghue’s assessment of the forces shaping the male literary career that is the central achievement here.

Donoghue argues that the rapidity with which the Monthly and Critical Reviews established themselves as indispensable sources of information on recent publications cannot simply be explained as part of a natural expansion or “democratization” of reading in the century (22–23). He demonstrates, through a comparison of the different initial strategies of the Monthly and the Critical, that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the tendency, by the later 1750s, of reviewers and philosophical critics alike to hierarchize various reading preferences and tastes. The Monthly’s original conception of its mission—to provide a comprehensive but not terribly opinionated survey of new publications (23)—changed only in response to the Critical’s successful formula: the aggressive exercise of critical judgment as a means of distinguishing the “curious and critical” from the socially marginalized and endlessly disparaged “hasty reader” (28).

Donoghue’s account of the formation of literary careers in this exacting climate stresses not only the power of the reviews to confer or withhold legitimacy on various productions after the fact, but also the prescriptive effect of their opinions on matters of style. The distinctiveness of his contribution to the study of the reviews lies in his account of the reviewers as often influencing and even dictating authorial choices and initiating what were in effect collaborative relationships between authors and critics, the most extreme case being that of Sterne. In accounting for Sterne’s abandonment of Shandyism for the pose of the...

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pp. 139-140
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