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  • Critical Differences:Henry James and the Affective Predicaments of the Literary Market
  • Daniel Swain

The boom in literary production in the late nineteenth century intensified anxieties circulating between readers, critics, and authors. Overwhelmed by a glut of texts, readers turned to critics to identify the best investments of their time and money. Critics, however, were precariously employed and under pressure to produce speedily. They developed an intentionalist mania, competing with one another for interviews that might reveal the meaning behind a given author's work. While authors had access to a historically unparalleled readership, they could not trust the aesthetic discernment of the market or the critics who served as gatekeepers. This set of affective predicaments and industrial re-arrangements reminds one of Brian Massumi's astute claim that:

the ability of affect to produce an economic effect more swiftly and surely than economics itself means that affect is itself a real condition, an intrinsic variable of the advanced capitalist system, as infrastructural as a factory.

(106)

In his 1891 essay "The Science of Criticism" Henry James figuratively compares this "deluge" of "literary criticism" to a "ponderously long" train that is "free to start only if every seat [is] occupied … hence the manufacture of dummies" or stuffed mannequins to sit in the seats and look "sufficiently like a passenger" such that their lifelessness can only be detected when the train guards switch their direction at the end of the trip (EL 95). James's symbolic dummies are a comic indictment of mediocre critics, but the image is also quite dark. The uncanny bodies on the train are a gothic vision of the cultural industry's surplus-labor, while their figuration recalls the indicia of incipient capitalist modernity: automation, boutique store windows, and the new generation of electrified trains. This is an author's nightmare: a community of critics [End Page 244] without agency and a readership who cannot distinguish between the authentic and artificial.

For James, the anxieties beneath this image were personal: his relatively recent novels The Bostonians (1886) and The Princess Cassamassima (1886) had both received scant positive attention (Anesko 99). When James later turned to writing drama he also experienced critical and commercial failure. This turn to stage is an indexical episode in any biography or critical survey of James's life, and letters written during this period testify to his often profound psychological and existential despair. Writing to Edmund Gosse after the failure of his play The Americans, James is attuned to the precise and varied affective registers of failure: he's not merely sad but "moody, misanthropic, melancholy, morbid, morose," so much so that he is "unfit for human converse" (SL 258). After the disastrous opening night of his play Guy Domville, he writes a letter to his brother William describing himself as "weary, bruised, sickened, disgusted" (SL 279), terms that construct critical failure as a form of embodied violence or malaise. His initial reaction to the critical response1 theatricalizes the new material and affective vulnerabilities of the artist by framing himself as a kind of tragic protagonist whose "immense labour" and "intolerable suspense" are climactically resolved in a "few brutal moments" of audience antipathy. He bemoans the "ill-natured and densely stupid" reviews but consoles himself that he has the support of only two dramatic "critics that matter."

Here, James is attempting to separate the dummies from the warm bodies on the train, but, as Leon Edel has demonstrated, James privately courted many theatrical critics during this time, offering to further explain his work and even re-write scenes based on their reviews (Life 30). Indeed, scholarship has critiqued the mythic image of James-as-aloof-artiste, arguing that it obscures the multitude of ways he deftly negotiated the mass literary market.2 True autonomy from the market is an impossibility: as Jonathan Freedman has observed, even when artists like James defend a conception of art as autonomous of the market, their Avant-garde posture becomes commoditized as a niche literary brand (xix).

In this paper I want to read two tales James wrote during the early 1890s as textual interventions into the negative affective system of industrialized literary production. While Jonathan Flatley...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 244-250
Launched on MUSE
2019-11-13
Open Access
No
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