- The Book World: Selling and Distributing British Literature, 1900–1940 ed. by Nicola Wilson
The turn of the twenty-first century saw the return of the literary marketplace to studies of modernism. Kevin J. H. Dettmar and Stephen Watt’s edited collection Marketing Modernisms (1997), Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism (1998), and Joyce Piell Wexler’s Who Paid for Modernism? (1997), among others, registered a surge of critical interest in the material realities that underpinned texts and reputations, and fueled a continuing stream of work that mines publishers’ archives, the correspondence of writers and agents, and periodicals. These works foregrounded the now-inescapable truth that the literature that has survived has always been paid for somehow, has gained its survival in part through the processes of commodification; literature has always, to quote Virginia Woolf, been “attached at every corner to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”1 As Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz noted in 2008, the “marketing of modernism” moment helped lay the foundation for readings of modernism’s relations with publicity and “mass media rhetorics”—one of the new directions in modernist studies that was becoming visible in the late 2000s and which continues to produce vital work that links media transformation with aesthetic production.2
In Nicola Wilson’s new collection The Book World: Selling and Distributing British Literature, 1900–1940, one finds the influence of Dettmar, Watt, et al.—who are ritualistically name-checked at the start of several chapters—trickling down to contemporary scholarship in a new way. For if the “marketing modernism” turn opened up vast new archives and a broad field of inquiry, this field was nonetheless limited by the prominence of the m-word—modernism—in the titles of all the major critical texts. In The Book World we find questions of marketing, distribution, sales, and reader practices applied to the world of “British literature” much more broadly. The book emerges from a 2012 symposium at the University of Reading (whose Special Collections archive enabled several of the essays), and is part of Brill’s Library of the Written Word series. The salutary results include fascinating glimpses into the [End Page 879] reading lives of ordinary Britons and genuine, open-minded questioning of the benefits readers got from reading such pulp writers as A. C. Gunter and Ethel M. Dell.
Even when familiar modernist names surface here, they are used as means to the end of a greater understanding of particularities of the print marketplace. Several chapters offer detailed accounts of how writers and publishers conceived of their specific markets and sought to appeal to them, through advertising, textual design, activation of professional networks, and canny evocation of the multiple kinds of capital at stake. To cite one instance, we learn a good deal about Richard Aldington’s semisuccessful war novel in Vincent Trott’s “‘The Market is Getting Flooded with Them’: Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero and the War Books Boom.” But we learn at least as much about an interesting and undersung figure in post-war publishing, Charles Prentice of Chatto & Windus. (Among other things, Prentice edited the Phoenix Library series, which brought Marcel Proust, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, and Lytton Strachey to wide-ish readerships in the late twenties and early thirties.) We learn more still about the perils of trying to ride a popular market trend with a bitterly disillusioned novel. Drawing on letters between Aldington and Prentice held at Reading, Trott walks us through the novel’s early history. It began with commercial intentions: Aldington was aware of the gathering “war books boom,” marked by the success of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, and proposed the book to Prentice before it was written. Its marketing and material design, including a jacket blurb, tried to thread the needle between the ambient “disillusionment” narrative and more conservative, patriotic sentiments within the public...