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  • Radway’s “Feelings” and the Reflexive Sociology of American Literature
  • James F. English
A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Janice A. Radway. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Pp. xiii. + 424. $29.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

Virtually alone among American English professors, Janice Radway has been performing ethnographic research into contemporary American literary taste and reading practice for twenty years. This is not to say that her work lacks points of contact with broad movements or trends within the discipline. Between the publication of her Reading the Romance (1984) and her new study A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (1997), there has been a reflexive sociological turn within English departments, resulting in studies about canon formation, literary value, and the relation of English to other disciplines, to the broader cultural field, and to the field of power itself. 1 Much of this work has been marked at least glancingly by the influence of Pierre Bourdieu, the controversial French sociologist whose Distinction (1984), Homo Academicus (1988), The Logic of Practice (1990), Photography: A Middlebrow Art (1990), The Rules of Art (1996), and eight other books all appeared in English during this time, and whose core theoretical concepts (field, habitus, and capital) have been widely circulated and heatedly debated by sociologists of culture..2 Although, as John Guillory and others have observed, Bourdieu’s reception among American literature professors has for the most part been a hostile one, with neither his postpositivist scientism nor his seemingly economistic terminology and schema finding much support in that quarter, there has been a significant convergence of concerns. 3 As English professors have begun more rigorously to scrutinize their [End Page 139] own habitual dispositions and practices, the material sources of their legitimacy (and of challenges to that legitimacy), and the symbolic violence that is worked through their authority, they have been addressing exactly the focal points of the reflexive sociological project that Bourdieu initiated in France. Indeed, the resistance to Bourdieu among literary scholars has shown up less in their rejection of his broad agenda or even his specific theoretical formulations than in their unwillingness or incapacity to carry out the kind of ethnographic fieldwork or other social-scientific researches that, for Bourdieu, must underpin any responsible inquiry into these matters: fieldwork not just into the familiar world of literature professors, writers, and critics—what Bourdieu calls “the field of restricted cultural production”—but also into what he calls the “field of large-scale cultural production,” which encompasses everyone from the nonreader to the dutiful reader of “major” new political biographies to the avid consumer of bodice-rippers and self-empowerment manuals. 4 Radway, by contrast, is both a committed ethnographer and a devoted student of low- and (especially) middlebrow literatures. While it might not be accurate to describe A Feeling for Books as a work primarily enabled or inspired by Bourdieu, or as one of which Bourdieu and his more proximate disciples would unreservedly approve, it is probably the closest thing we have to an American literary-critical variant of Bourdieu’s reflexive sociology of culture: an ethnographic study of reading practices and preferences that is at the same time a critical analysis of the academic world out of which such studies must be produced. 5 It thus offers a good opportunity not only to consider the particular innovations and idiosyncracies of Radway’s sociological method but also to assess the very suitability of Bourdieu’s model in the contemporary American context.

When Radway pursued her early research on the Book-of-the-Month Club, making weekly trips to the Club’s meeting rooms in New York from her teaching job at Penn, she wrote of the inherent pitfalls of the kind of reflexive empirical study, or “comparative ethnography,” she was undertaking: that it might lead not to the ideally mutual interrogation of two cultural worlds (that of book-club professionals and that of English professors), but merely to a conventional piece of fieldwork with indulgently narcissistic supplements; or that her determination to achieve a double or dialectical critique might stall...

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