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Any reader who has ever had a childhood love for reading burned out of her by the sacred fire of a literary education will find much to admire in Janice Radway's exhaustive study of the Book-of-the-Month Club. A professor at Duke University and one of the leading figures in the field of cultural studies (primarily meaning the analysis of previously spurned, non-elite areas of culture), Radway neither wants to praise the Club nor bury it. She convincingly argues that the Club's oft-derided packaging and selling of capital-L literature to middle-class strivers made it, for good and ill, one of the defining institutions of American middlebrow culture. Further, she sees that the Club's often contradictory ideology -- which simultaneously presented books as realms of utilitarian, technocratic discourse (coded male) and intensely absorbing, transformative pleasure (coded female) -- offered its consumers opportunities for liberation as well as constriction.
While Radway's account of her year of behind-the-scenes fieldwork at the Club's Manhattan offices in the turbulent mid-'80s will be fascinating to anyone engaged with the publishing world, the most compelling aspect of her book is its autobiographical narrative. Through the course of her research, Radway comes to see the connection between the teenage girl she used to be, avidly devouring Kon-Tiki and Marjorie Morningstar (both Club selections from the '50s), and the licensed literary academic she has become, secretly and guiltily preferring Anne Tyler and John le Carré to Faulkner or Pynchon. For all the force of her critique of the sexism, racism and bourgeois narrow-mindedness reflected in the Club's selections, Radway nonetheless "comes out" as a middlebrow reader herself, shaped by the Club's irresistible ethic and aesthetic, addicted to the "tactile, sensuous, profoundly emotional experience of being captured by a book ... an experience that for all its ethereality clearly is extraordinarily physical as well."
Given that, it's somewhat surprising that the lengthy middle section of A Feeling for Books, which explores in detail the historical and cultural context surrounding entrepreneur Harry Scherman's 1926 founding of the Club, is so bone-dry. Radway has poured an immense amount of research and analytical effort into this section, but while her conclusions are often striking, her prose is leaden with academic jargon and seems (to the lay reader) needlessly repetitive. I came away wishing she could have published two versions of this book -- one for academic colleagues who will parse every footnote, and another for the very Book-of-the-Month readers with whom she identifies, however ambivalently.
There are a number of other lapses that weaken this commendable work. While she admits to the ultimate inexplicability of taste, Radway does not consider that other readers may find the same transportative delight in Ulysses or The Waste Land that she discovers in The Thorn Birds. Nor does she delineate the personal distinction she appears to draw between readerly, pleasurable texts and writerly, intellectual ones. Where would she classify Dickens? George Eliot? Proust? Finally, her evocation of a literary oligarchy still devoted to the church of high modernism seems curiously outdated. Can Radway possibly be unaware of the extent to which she and her cultural studies colleagues -- in bringing rock, romances and slasher films into the groves of academe -- have helped inaugurate a new intellectual era? -- Salon
Essential reading for scholars interested in the history of the book and popular culture.
Radway has written one of the most important books in this decade.
Libraries and Culture
Ambitious and engrossing, and it leaves us with much to ponder.
Washington Post Book World
Not only lays bare the forces that produced middlebrow reading but also explains a good deal of what is going on in the world of books today.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times
A Certain Book Club Culture
A DESIRE CALLED NEW YORK
It may have been simple anxiety. Or the weight of layered memories evoked by the familiar geography. Whatever the cause, I was not thinking about my impending appointment at the Book-of-the-Month Club as the 7:32 Amtrak commuter from Philadelphia crawled across the marshy plain outside Newark on its journey into New York's Penn Station. What I was thinking about, I recall, was New York itself. My memories were triggered by the train's slow progress past the park-and-ride lot my dad and I had used the summer we commuted together into "the city." I was twenty then and working at TWA as a reservations agent. Remembering those companionable journeys, I recalled countless other Hudson River crossings that had punctuated my New Jersey childhood. Each conjured intense, highly sensuous memories: the spangled magnificence of the New York skyline at Christmas, the city dazzling, as if deliberately bedecked for the season; the ripe, fetid smell of the fruit stands on Eighth Avenue on a hot August afternoon; the deeply shadowed midtown canyon looking up Broadway from Macy's; the recollected shock of happening on a single maple turned scarlet on an October Saturday, triumphant amidst miles of concrete. The images now seem impossibly romantic. The predictable result, I suppose, of a suburban childhood defined in countless ways by a desire called New York.
Significantly, each image was connected in my mind with an exhilarating pilgrimage to the city at the side of one of my parents or grandparents to see theChristmas pageant at Radio City Music Hall; Broadway musicals such as My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, and The Sound of Music; the Museum of Natural History; or my father's office in the building that housed the New York Daily News. In the lobby of the building an enormous silver globe was suspended, meant to be a symbol, I suppose, of the paper's reach and importance. For me New York was something other than the financial capital of the world; it was, quite simply, its cultural center—a magnet whose irresistible force captured my youthful attention and forever after defined my ambition.
At the time of that particular train ride from Philadelphia, though, to talk with people at the Book-of-the-Month Club, I did not connect these memories with the task at hand. They seemed mental distractions only, ways of controlling my mounting apprehension about the impending meeting with company officials. I was traveling to the club's Manhattan offices in April 1985 to try to persuade its executives to allow me to investigate the way their members bought and read books. The task seemed simply professional, lacking any clear connection to the private details of my personal past. However, countless conversations over the next three years with Executive Editor William Zinsser, the man I was scheduled to meet, and with his editorial colleagues at the club would teach me to recognize that the project was deeply tied to these intensely resonant memories of the city. Those conversations would teach me to see in the editors' cultural sophistication and in the understanding they accorded their aspiring "general readers" the meaning of my own desire to possess the promise held by New York. The defining power of a longing for the knowledge secreted away in New York's museums and libraries on its stages, in its skyscrapers, in "the Village," and on the East Side revealed itself to me gradually in the mirror of the editors' similar desires, which apparently also drew each of them to New York's publishing houses and eventually to the Book-of-the-Month Club. Six more years in dusty archives and hushed libraries on the ghostly trail of Harry Scherman, the club's founder, would additionally reveal the precise historical sources of our shared wish for cultural mastery and the prestige that seemed to accompany it—a wish, I discovered, the Book-of-the-Month Club itself had been created to address. When I finally saw myself and the editors most clearly in the reconstructed image of Scherman's first subscribers, who had responded with hope and no doubt a certain amount of insecurity to his 1926 promise to deliver to them automatically "the best new book published each month," I understood fully for the first time that this project was defined as much by my own earlier longing for a life marked by books and the mysterious promise of Culture, with that authoritative and daunting capital C, as it was by the analytic impulse to make sense of an institution called the Book-of-the-Month Club.
I carried with me neither this self-knowledge nor this reflexive understanding of what was still an inchoate project as the Silver Meteor eased its way into Penn Station that crystalline morning in April. My thoughts focused rather more nervously on what I might say to William Zinsser about my academic credentials and about my interest in the organization. What had led me to take the train that morning was an essay on reading written by the club's chairman, Al Silverman, which he had engagingly titled "The Fragile Pleasure." I was impressed by the way Mr. Silverman evoked the particular magic of being immersed in worlds etched by words. But I was also pragmatically alerted to the fact that the Book-of-the-Month Club might harbor a lot of information about readers and reading, a topic that had become the focus of my academic research. Having just published a book about how a group of women read romances differently from the way those books were read by their many critics, I wanted to know more about divergences in the ways people acquired, read, and used books. The Book-of-the-Month Club looked like the perfect site for my next research project.
I remember mentally rehearsing this explanatory narrative and self-justification as I searched for the club's offices in midtown New York at Lexington Avenue and Forty-sixth Street. Expecting only the typical mauve, gray, and glass corporate reception area of 1980s New York as the elevator doors slid open, I was momentarily stunned to find myself in a room clearly designed to evoke a book-lined study. Too neat, ordered, and regimented to be the library of an actual reader, it reminded me of a stage set or of that restaurant across the Hudson in Tenafly, New Jersey, that my parents liked, which accompanied its English prime ribs with lots of wood, a few strategically placed, fake books, and the kind of reading lamps you see in pictures of old libraries. Although the books in the club reception area were real, they, too, seemed to have been assembled for effect. When I was asked by a young woman partially hidden behind an obviously tasteful bouquet of spring flowers to wait for Mr. Zinsser, I made a mental note of the deliberate symbolic care with which the room had been organized. Callers to this establishment were obviously meant to be impressed by its understated elegance, by its attention to the literary, and by the meticulously displayed collection of every Book-of-the-Month Club selection since 1926. Bill Zinsser emerged quickly, greeted me cordially, and then escorted me back to his office past a Norman Rockwell-like portrait in oils of the club's first judges. The picture's prominent placement seemed meant to establish that here was a Cultural institution, and one with an illustrious past at that.
My notes from that first exploratory conversation with Bill Zinsser are not terribly detailed. I wrote only that he was "fiftyish," distinguished-looking, and dressed "like an academic in tweed coat and dress slacks." I noted as well that he was in charge of "special projects" and that he edited the club's catalog, the Book-of-the-Month Club News. Perhaps I thought the interview wouldn't amount to much. Zinsser certainly didn't promise me the access I was seeking. Or perhaps I was too afraid to hope that it had gone as well as I thought it had. I didn't record much else except to say that I liked Bill Zinsser immediately and that I thought it surprising that we seemed to have so much in common. We were, after all, from different worlds, weren't we?
Looking back, I see more clearly that despite my effort to be open-minded and receptive, unquestioned assumptions about the separation between "academics" and people in publishing had led me to assume that Zinsser and I would necessarily be very different. I had been surprised to discover that before his arrival at the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1979, Zinsser had taught writing at Yale and served as master of the one of the residential colleges there. More strikingly, he also fully understood the kind of ethnographic research I was proposing, since his wife was at that moment completing a Ph.D. in education at the University of Pennsylvania, with an ethnographic dissertation on the acquisition of literacy. Still thinking of myself as an academic and of those at the book club as somehow fundamentally different—less intellectual perhaps, and more involved in commerce, certainly—I had been surprised that he did not seem at all wary about my motives or intentions. It would take many more discoveries of similar convergences between my own past and those of the club's editors before I began to see how similar we were in certain key ways and to recognize that those similarities had a good deal to do with what we had all made of the middle-class educations we were privileged enough to receive. In time those similarities would also point up the significance of the fact that our habitual treatment of books differed in crucial ways.
During this particular conversation, however, Zinsser managed to convey to me his own enthusiasm for what he called the Book-of-the-Month Club's important educational work and to suggest that our jobs were not that different. Known for his influential book, On Writing Well, Bill had been brought to the club by Al Silverman to be the in-house editor of all the organization's publications. He was also to oversee special projects of an educational and public-spirited nature that he and Al felt were important to the club's role as a cultural institution. The two men shared the same high aspirations for the club, and it was obvious that Bill greatly admired Al's values. In this particular conversation, Bill observed with a slightly ironic note of institutional pride and simultaneous self-deprecation that they liked to think of themselves as "the book club of record." I thought later on the ride home that this seemed to be a reference to the New York Times, and as such, it was meant to suggest that the club possessed parallel cultural authority.
Despite this transparent effort on my part to maintain the slight disdain and distance of traditional academic analysis (wasn't I intellectually clever enough to recognize pretentiousness and too-deliberate tastefulness when I saw them?), my notes nonetheless enthusiastically convey the sense of rapport I felt with Bill Zinsser and a quite fervent hope that the whole thing might work out. Zinsser promised only that he would talk to Al Silverman in order to explain to him what I was proposing and to suggest that he meet with me himself sometime in the future. I returned to Philadelphia wondering only what I could do next if this research initiative failed.
Within a week I received a letter from Al Silverman inviting me back to New York for lunch with him and Lorraine Shanley, the executive vice-president of the Book-of-the-Month Club and one of the founders of the Quality Paperback Book Club. That meeting, at a remarkably formal East Side restaurant serving huge steaks and whole broiled fish to business lunchers, also seemed to go well, at least from my perspective. I found I could talk as easily to Al Silverman and to Lorraine Shanley as to Bill Zinsser, in large part because words and books occupied a central place in all our lives. We talked a good deal, I recall, about recent bestsellers, about changes in the publishing business, and about the continued prominence of the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Prompted by Al to explain what I had in mind, I suggested that although I eventually wanted to investigate the many ways in which their subscribers read, first I would need to conduct an exploratory, pilot study of the club's editorial organization in preparation for writing a grant proposal. I would need a grant, I observed, to underwrite the costs of a full year's worth of work in the Manhattan editorial offices, at the club's distribution operation in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and with some of the membership. At that point, I conceptualized the larger study as focusing on the intersection between the club and its membership, with the ultimate goal of assessing the different ways Book-of-the-Month Club members used and read their books. Wryly suggesting that he, too, would like to find out what their members actually did with their books—the first, disturbing hint that the club did not know as much about its readers as I had hoped—Silverman noted that he was predisposed in my favor by his conviction that cultural institutions had a social responsibility to be open to scholarly research. He promised to think about my project and to get back to me.
Almost immediately he extended an invitation to visit the club's offices throughout the summer of 1985 for purposes of studying the in-house editors' evaluation and selection of alternate books for its membership. He promised further that if I received a grant, I could continue my research in the future. Bill Zinsser, Silverman explained, would serve as my contact at the club. He would be the one to introduce me to others, the one I should apply to with specific requests. Thrilled that gaining access had proved to be so easy, I called the next day to set up my first research appointment with Bill Zinsser. I had no idea, at that point, that matters were a good deal more complex than they appeared on the surface, nor did I see that the issue of access was not then, or ever would be, fully settled.
Looking back on the course this project has taken, I realize how utterly dependent it has been on Al Silverman's genuine sense of social and cultural responsibility as well as on Bill Zinsser's openness to establishing some sort of relationship with me. I suspect that it was their intellectual interest, curiosity, and commitment to what they were doing that prompted them initially to become advocates for my project. For advocates they clearly became. Al Silverman impressed this upon me in extending the invitation to spend the summer in the club's offices. Bill's enthusiasm for what I wanted to do, as well as his ability to explain its academic purposes, Al suggested, had convinced him that my aim was not to write an expose of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Nor was I likely to take up a simple, dismissive position on the club's selections, given the nature of my first book on romances. Bill apparently had explained to Al and to Lorraine Shanley that Reading the Romance had taken popular literature seriously. As a consequence, Al asked Bill to introduce me to his colleagues and to make suggestions about who I should approach first for information.
At the time I had no real idea of what Bill thought of me. Later we developed a relationship close enough to enable us to reveal to each other at least some of our hopes, worries, and fears about our professional lives. I think Bill enjoyed talking to me as much as I enjoyed talking and laughing with him. In fact, like virtually everyone else I met at the Book-of-the-Month Club, Bill Zinsser was very, very funny. He delighted in turning a crisp, witty eye on books, authors, cultural habits, and anyone who might take herself too seriously. He had no patience with pretentiousness and pomposity, especially among academics.
In spite of the discomfort Bill's stories sometimes provoked, I developed great affection for him and for his ability to expose the foibles of the academic world. Despite the warmth that developed between us, however, I would characterize the relationship as collegial rather than as intensely personal. It seems important to acknowledge this openly here because I think the nature of the somewhat formal but affectionate friendship that developed between us set a pattern for the connections that evolved later with other editors at the club. My relationships with them were confined to, and limited by, our professional connection over the nature of their daily work. The fact that those interactions necessarily developed amidst endlessly ringing telephones and in short intervals between the recurrent meetings and conferences that comprise upper middle-class professional work in the contemporary United States both controlled the nature of our relationship and constantly underscored the fact that it was entirely dependent on the editors' willingness to be interrupted.
In spite of the developing goodwill, though, certain things worried me. I fretted in my field journal about my growing affection for Bill, Al, and Lorraine. Mistrustful of my feelings of identification with them, I wondered how this sense of connection would affect my ability to be analytical about what I saw. The thing that gave me real pause, however, was a copy of the memo Bill circulated to the rest of his colleagues introducing me and explaining my impending presence at the upcoming Thursday morning editorial conference. I was grateful that Bill was willing to share it with me. But I was also puzzled by an allusion I could not explain. I quote the memo here in its entirety:
July 10, 1985
TO: The Editors
FROM: Bill Zinsser
I'll be bringing to this Thursday's meeting Janice Radway, professor of American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who is embarking this week on a scholarly study (eventually to be a book) of reading habits in America, using the Book-of-the-Month Club and its methods as her model. Her last book, "Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature," a study of women who read romance novels, got an admiring full-page review in the NYTBR last winter. Anyone interested in the book can borrow my copy. She is also editor of "American Quarterly," the scholarly journal in her field.
I've talked with Janice at length about her project (Al and Lorraine have also talked with her) and I think the collaboration will be a pleasant and fruitful one for all of us in a number of ways. She will want to talk with you about your work as she gets into her research. You will enjoy the quality of her mind; her questions, unlike some that have been asked of you lately, are enjoyable and even understandable.
BZ Clearly, Bill had positioned me on the side of the editors, but against whom? Who else had been asking questions of them and why? Also, he had suggested that the editors themselves might get something out of their interaction with me. But what did he have in mind? Definitely troubled that Bill's move clearly compromised my distance from them—I was more confident then about my ability to maintain this—I worried that I was being presented as their ally in a conflict I had neither detected nor understood. His memo summoned an ill-defined yet adversarial presence, an inquisitor like me, but one Bill defined as irritating and obscure. When I asked him about the identity of this individual, he said only that he was referring to managers from Time, Inc., the corporate owner of the Book-of-the-Month Club, who had been sent to the club's offices recently to gather information about its structure, operations, and profitability. When he referred to them as "MBA-types," I relaxed some and acquiesced a little too happily at being ranged against them.
Time, it seemed, had purchased the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1977 but had done nothing to integrate the club into its own massive bookselling operation. Bill worried out loud that these interviews suggested that something new was afoot. He assured me, though, that this would not have an impact on my own research. Comforted, I did not react with the alarm I should have. Instead, I thought a good deal about the suddenly obvious difference between talking with a group of romance readers, whose education and access to writing was quite distinct from my own, and this new situation of "studying up," that is, working within an organization peopled by individuals with linguistic, social, and communication resources comparable to those of the academic investigator. Evidently I would have to deal much more regularly with my interlocutors' characterizations and manipulations of me as well as, possibly, with their outright disagreements and opposition to what I might write. A little more wary then than I had been only a few days before, I sat in on my first editorial meeting at the Book-of-the-Month Club on July 11, 1985.
CULTURAL FINESSE AND AN
ENTHUSIASM FOR SENTIMENT
These editorial meetings were held every Thursday morning in the club's elegant conference room. Like the reception area, this room was lined by polished wooden bookshelves laden with club selections. At the entrance, enshrined in a small, lighted cabinet, were a few volumes from founder Harry Scherman's Little Leather Library, twenty-five-cent copies of the classics that Scherman sold at Woolworth's and by mail order before he created the Book-of-the-Month Club. The organization's institutional awareness of its history and position was further demonstrated by framed prints of several New Yorker cartoons gently gibing the club and its social-climbing members. More often than not, a lavish floral centerpiece graced the table, testimony to the fact that the club's official judges, the individuals responsible for the monthly main selections, had recently dined in the room at a catered lunch as part of their own judicial deliberations. Always referred to collectively at the club as "The Judges," at the time I started this research the group included Clifton Fadiman (a member of the panel since 1944 and its chairman), David McCullough, Gloria Norris, Wilfrid Sheed, and Mordecai Richler. The judges did not attend the Thursday morning conferences, which were dominated by the ten to fifteen in-house editors whose chief responsibility was to select the books offered as alternates in addition to the club's main selection. They were joined by several other individuals, including those in charge of subsidiary book clubs, such as Cooking and Crafts, Fortune, Dolphin, and Quality Paperback Book Club; the heads of production departments associated with the creation of the club's catalog; and assorted other employees who needed to keep up on what the editors said about the books they were offering in order to do their own work within the organization. Thus, copywriters, editorial assistants, artists, and miscellaneous others attended this July meeting, which was presided over by Joseph Savago, at that point an executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club who reported directly to its editor in chief, Nancy Evans, who was out of town.
Savago was young, I noted—in his early forties probably—and impeccably dressed. In fact, he was dressed much more formally than the other men at the table, who arrived casually attired in shirtsleeves and ties or in sport coat and slacks. They looked the counterpart to most of the women there, who dressed much as my academic colleagues did at the time, in longish skirts, blouses, and distinctive jewelry. Savago, on the other hand, was wearing an extraordinarily well-cut, three-piece, midnight blue, pin-striped suit. I wondered to myself if he intended this, consciously or not, as the mark of his position, as a reference to his status as a business professional, or as the mark, simply, of his difference from others. Whatever the rationale for the suit (which he duplicated in slight variations day in and day out), when combined with the showy verbal display he subsequently put on in conducting the meeting, it spoke to me of a New Yorker's sophistication, of style, of self-confidence, and, of course, of cultural mastery. Joe spoke not merely the language of sartorial style with his own distinctive accent but also fluently commanded the high aesthetic language of literary evaluation, criticism, and commentary. He had a mordant wit as well, sharper than Bill Zinsser's, a bit wicked and waspish even, but one capable of summing up cultural fads, peculiarities, and aspirations with the perfect phrase set off in rhetorical caps and quotations to mark its status as a cultural category surely everyone understood. "The Hungarian Gone with the Wind?" he taunted one of the editors who was fumbling for a way to describe the family saga she had read and liked but that was clearly too popularly written to be a club selection.
I am surprised now when I look back at my notes from that meeting to see that I did not register more of Joe's sardonic commentary. I remember being astonished by his ability to pronounce so confidently on so many different kinds of books. From cookbooks to cyberpunk fiction, from medical reference books to the exquisitely turned-out first novels of unknown writers, he seemed thoroughly assured of his ability to declaim at length on the merits and demerits of every one of them. I was impressed by the shrewdness of his assessment of the book reading public and by his ability to condense into a single, pointed observation an astute analysis of the cultural moment, of the anxieties of different subgroups within the population, and of the reasons why a particular book might take off in the next couple of months. Here is a cultural critic, I remember thinking who has found the perfect use for his abilities.
It seems clear that I was entranced by what I took to be Joe's savoir faire as a New Yorker, by his remarkable cultural sophistication. Indeed he lives vividly in my imagination even now. At the time I was dazzled by his self-confidence and envious of his ability to pronounce assuredly on all things literary. He pulled off what I strove for in my classes, but with the kind of brio and finesse I had always associated with those more culturally adept than I. In fact, Joe made me feel clumsy and inarticulate again, that parvenue from the suburbs.
Later that same day, when I was given a packet of reader's reports, I encountered Joe for the first time in writing. His command of the written language was as assured and passionate as his virtuoso verbal ballet. I was particularly taken by the ease with which he created and manipulated a persona in words, almost like a puppeteer who, in marshaling his alter ego, also winks slyly over his head at the audience, acknowledging all the while that "of course we're all in on the joke together." My first encounter with Joe Savago, master of the Book-of-the-Month Club reader's report, a genre that stands at the heart of the whole enterprise, was occasioned by his commentary on Carl Sagan's book Contact. I quote Joe at some length here both as a way of attempting to do justice to his confident yet gaudy style and as a way of exploring the complex, often contradictory attitudes about books and literature expressed at the club. For even as Joe ratified the selection of Contact and admitted his thorough enjoyment of it, he subtly revealed that he knew he was not supposed to like it and that, most important, he knew why.
Forget about "novel" and all the things we expect from novels and whine about when they're not there—Contact (to be billed a novel, and it sure as hell ain't nonfiction) is an enchanting book which does in its way what literature is, acc. to some, spozed to do, Instruct and Delight. When you've said that the protagonist/heroine, the astrophysicist Ellie, is a good hearted, fiercely professional, feminist woman, you've said all there is to say, and you can say even less, much less, about anyone else in the book—forget "characters," in other words. You can therefore forget "dialogue" too, in the usual sense of character-revealing speech, full of individual coloration and perspective—there's dialogue here, but it mostly takes the form of polemic and position-paper: Ellie argues with a fundamentalist, a Defense Dept, bureaucrat, etc. and each clearly and eloquently states his/her position and premises—not unlike (if we want literary precedents) the sort of "dialogue" Mann and Huxley and other novelists-of-ideas used to write when the idea was to dramatize an intellectual climate (Magic Mountain, eg) rather than a heroical personal destiny.
I loved Joe's roguish insubordination. "I know this can't be judged a fine literary novel," he seemed to say. "I know you'd dismiss this—and I know how, too." I imagined him replying to a skeptical professor, crafting the perfect retort to a dismissive rejection of Sagan's wooden characters and stilted dialogue. "I know these aren't fully realized characters and this isn't highly colored dialogue, but that doesn't matter." "Character and conversation," Joe argued vigorously, "aren't always the mark of an engaging book, and besides," he seemed to add, "in the past, people we now supposedly respect, wrote this way, too." He continued:
Let's call Contact a scenario, if we must call it anything, a scenario drenched in a humane and hopeful writer's humane hopes for the human future and a humane and hopeful speculator's humane and hopeful speculations as to what They might be like should They decide to get in touch with us.... The scientific details are fascinating because the writer is Sagan the Scientist and we trust (and learn, as we trust) his details concerning how a message might be sent and how we might decipher it. The political details are amusing and insightful and ring true because the politics are plausible in the world-as-it-is, yet gentled by an imagination of a coming detente, an imminent easing in world tensions which is not implausible and accords with all of our deepest hopes for this planet. The imagination of The Contact—what They will be like, Their history—is pure imagination, no science is possible here of course, nor extrapolation, this is the Purest Sagan, and it is a beautiful imagination, very moving. And WHY NOT??? Why not, indeed? What is wrong with being moved? I secretly applauded Joe's refusal of the familiar, ironic pose of caustic disdain for all things sentimental and of the implicit superiority that goes with declaring oneself above such easy pleasure. I also loved the way he used caps and obvious repetition to call attention to the fact that Sagan's own authorial stance was itself a performance, a deliberate evocation of sentiment and affect. In Joe's imagination, this did not seem to be an indictment of his crass manipulation but rather a love for theater, an appreciation of a writer who could make him part of a participatory audience. He elaborated:
We read noir without flinching or declaiming "Cynic!!!", we read worst-case and we read post-nuke wasteland/stone-age and we read Death Battle of the Galaxies junk so why not remember the rapture we all felt, youngest and oldest, watching E. T. (didn't we? I did.) and allow Sagan a lovely and mind-boggling conception of The Alien and what He will want from us.... It is also, to borrow a phrase from My Era (duh Sixties,), "mind expanding" in its pervasive assumptions—assumptions we all "know," but which we have probably never "assumed" ourselves for the space of hundreds of pages—about the size and the antiquity ... of the universe, the more than likelihood of other lifeforms out there, of zones and sciences which turn all the "laws" of our planet on our head. I was moved beyond words by Contact, the way we were all supposed to be moved by the satellite pictures of the Earth from the heavens or the Moon Landing, but I was not, not then. I declare myself now, at last, moved. I think this is a lovely book and I think it's going to be huge and I'm glad we already own it and I think we should play it to the hilt.
I loved the sheer energy and campy exuberance of Joe's flamboyant, operatic excess. I was impressed by his ability to keep the balls of literary analysis and judgment spinning in the air even while he juggled others—accounts of what it felt like to read this book and cultural commentary on why Sagan's offering might capture the attention of a large audience—all the while managing the de rigueur nod to the cynical sophistication of the literary aesthete even as he defiantly asserted his willingness and desire to be moved. Here was a stance, I recorded in my notes after reading this and other reports, that was informed by the formalist principles that had governed literary criticism for more than forty years or so, but one that was also attentive to the experience of reading, to the feel and the sound of it, and to the emotional weather set off by the interaction between book and reader. I grinned surreptitiously when Joe thumbed his nose at those nagging, superior authorities whom I also could conjure with such ease, schoolmasterish types who demanded the dismissal of everything popular because it was too sentimental, too crude, or too earnest. Joe did not seem to be afraid of feeling, and neither did any of his colleagues. For them, reading was completely suffused by feeling and affect; it was an experience of reply, response, and reaction. Joe's willing indulgence in emotion seemed refreshing. In fact, it came as a relief.
But there is something else in Joe's report that attracted my attention, and that has to do with the particular way in which he displayed his learning and cultural knowledge. In fact, when I pushed him later about his own tastes, I found that they were not all that different from those of the professorial critics who had educated both him and me. Joe had an eye for narrative complexity, an ear for poetic song, and an abiding appreciation for the ability to create unique aesthetic worlds. Although he responded to and appreciated many different kinds of books, he took his greatest pleasure from those self-consciously "literary" ones that foregrounded the careful and precise way they used language to construct a world. His taste, then, was profoundly modernist in that it celebrated the virtues of compression and condensation, of intricacy and complexity, of minimalism and spareness.
Yet Joe did not assume that to value works like these he had to deny the different pleasures offered by quite different books. His taste seemed not to be threatened by the existence of other tastes. In fact, what I liked best about Joe's display of his own cultural preferences, wit, and learning was the exaggerated, stagy way he expressed all of them. He did not seem to cling to them in a self-righteous, defensive way, as if he alone was the "real" critic and everyone else lacked his perception and discernment. His taste, like everyone else's, he seemed to say over and over, was an acquired performance, a pose, a deliberate adoption of beliefs about what books should do, like the belief that some are "spozed to ... Instruct and Delight." Just as he could call attention to the kind of performance involved in Arnoldian high-mindedness with his use of that strategically chosen "spoze," so, too, did his ebullient, effervescent display of his own mastery seem to expose it as the fun of the quintessential puppet-master. Less a strategy for demonstrating his superiority and power over others, taste, for Joe, seemed more like a spirited declaration about his own peculiar and quite particular pleasures, those of someone who had lived through the passions and the inanities of "duh Sixties."
The exaggeration involved in wearing a different three-piece suit every day, I began to think, was Joe's way of indulging in the pleasures of "beautiful things" while taking what they supposedly said about him not entirely seriously. There was a kind of distance between Joe and his self-presentation, a gap, if you will, between who his tastes and preferences declared him to be and some other self he also recognized and appreciated. Perhaps it had something to do with his own class mobility. Raised in the suburb of South Salem, New York, rather than in New Jersey, he once admitted to me that "the city" had been a major Mecca in his childhood geography also. He, too, had excelled in school, had loved to read above all, and had eventually made his way to Cornell University, where he pursued a Ph.D. in English. Clearly, he had been deeply marked by that experience. Indeed he once observed that "if I had stayed in the academic world, which I would have if I had ever gotten my thesis written and if it hadn't been at a very bad crunch in the early seventies when there were a zillion more people with Ph.D.'s than there were jobs, I'd be doing what you're ... ," and yet, something held him back. Something kept him from moving into that world completely. Perhaps it was his refusal to give up his appreciation for sentiment. Or perhaps it was his refusal to take on the trappings of the taste offered to him by his professors with the appropriate measure of seriousness and purpose. Maybe it was the siren call of New York. I don't know. But it was Joe's exuberant cultivation of himself as a persona that fascinated me and set me to thinking about the meaning involved not simply in the content of certain tastes but more significantly in the particular manner in which they were asserted and indulged. What I liked initially about Joe and his colleagues was that they did not seem to invest so much in cultural snobbery. Although I would soon have to revise this perception—there were limits to what they could support—my first reaction was one of appreciation for their willingness to be open to all sorts of books and for their love of feeling and emotion.
RITUALS OF INSTITUTIONAL SELF-DEFINITION
Joe Savago became my most important early guide to the native terrain and the in-house maps employed by the editorial community at the Book-of-the-Month Club. I use the word "community" deliberately, for what struck me most about the group was its tightly knit, clearly defined character. Virtually all of the people responsible for reading and discussing the books had been discovered, hired, and promoted by Al Silverman, who himself set the tone for the organization through his expressed interest in particular books and their potential audiences. Thursday morning editorial meetings were characterized by a rapid-fire repartee that proceeded effortlessly but with a certain momentum because everyone relied on a peculiar lingua franca or aesthetic shorthand composed of generic tags, literary categories, and identifying handles. "Popular history at its best," "right-to-left narrative," "autistic fiction"—this last phrase Joe threw out to expose the mannered and self-involved obfuscation of a too-literary writer. Comments like these recurred again and again, and no one was asked to explain them. At the same time, editors frequently concluded their reports on books they had read for the meeting with the observation, "This is clearly our kind of book." On the other hand, they would go on appreciatively and somewhat sheepishly about the "trashy" pleasures of a particular celebrity biography or a long-winded women's novel only to conclude with regretful resolve, "But still, this is clearly not for us. Let's leave it for the Guild." The Book-of-the-Month Club, too, trafficked in the business of distinction, however much I wanted to believe otherwise.
All of the editors included themselves within the "we" and the "us," pronouns with an entirely clear but unspecified antecedent and identity. And they never explained that "the Guild" referred to the Literary Guild, their chief mail-order competitor. Yet it was obvious from the way this and other terms were rhetorically wielded to make decisions and to give them institutional weight that the very idea of the Guild crystallized for them a crucially important boundary. The Book-of-the-Month Club, it was taken for granted the "we" of which they were so proud to be a part, was everything the Literary Guild was not. I picked up very quickly that, from their point of view, the Guild's literary province was the inferior world of women's reading, romances, books on forming relationships and rehabilitating marriages, make-over manuals, and the most salacious celebrity biographies—the publishing equivalent of Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey. The Book-of-the-Month Club, they would tell me later, was PBS and the Smithsonian. Their tolerance, clearly, had its limits. And the limits were familiar.
By the end of the summer, after I had attended many of these meetings and could predict with a fair degree of accuracy which titles would be taken by the club and which would be dismissively rejected, I began to wonder why so much time was devoted to these meetings. Generally, at least an hour and a half each week was given to the discussion of about fifteen to twenty titles. The discussions themselves were not merely amicable but high spirited and filled with pointed, sharp observations about books, writers, and readers: "The Hungarian Gone with the Wind," on that dubious family saga; "I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can for the middle-aged," on Betty Ford's memoir about her drug addiction and alcoholism, "the kind of thing you see on graph paper," of the plotting of a new mystery; "she doesn't invite you in," on a Nadine Gordimer novel the editors loved but were afraid they could not sell to their members. I was amazed by their ability to condense complex analysis into sparkling aphorisms and epithets. The meetings were also extraordinarily rich intellectually, seminars, almost, in contemporary cultural study. Disagreements were rare. What was produced—and relatively easily at that—I began to understand, was a strong consensus about the appropriateness of a book for the Book-of-the-Month Club's list. But if the process of identifying appropriate books was so simple, why the ritual of the meeting? For ritual it clearly was. And as ritual, as a kind of public performance, I wondered, what was displayed and dramatized in those discussions?
The key, I think, is in the constant invocation of the Literary Guild throughout the conversation. By differentiating themselves so cleanly from a similar, yet supposedly vastly different organization, they performed a kind of boundary work, a process of self-definition that has been described by sociologist Michele Lamont, who herself has written on the aesthetic preferences of social elites in both France and the United States as "the process by which individuals define their identity in opposition to that of others by drawing symbolic boundaries." In effect, each Thursday morning the editors were saying, "We are different from the Literary Guild because we appreciate `good writing' and feature `serious fiction'; we are the `book club of record.'" The Literary Guild, they repetitively reassured themselves, strives for the merely popular, for that which simply sells the most. "We, on the other hand, are after quality." The editors affirmed collectively, then, that they knew who they were, that they knew what position their organization occupied in the publishing hierarchy, and most important, that they knew why they did what they did. When they gestured dismissively in the direction of the Guild's offices across the street, they drew an imaginary line between what was acceptable to them and what was not. Their constant surveillance of the boundary between approved celebrity biographies and those beyond the pale—Vivien Leigh is "our" kind of movie star, an editor once observed at a meeting, Dolly Parton is not—created an inside and outside and thus marked the limits of acceptable space that people like themselves ought to occupy. At the same time, it offered a kind of emotional tutelage, a sense of what it feels like to be the sort of person who appreciates good writing, high quality, and serious books. By formulating again and again the principles of discrimination that they already had internalized, they constructed and reconstructed a vision of their community as one with a certain distinction.
This tendency to define the self by dismissing the tastes and preferences of others was disturbingly familiar to me. Academic high culture, after all, constantly defines itself against the suspect pleasures of the middlebrow. In fact, at roughly the same time that I was attending these meetings, I discussed book clubs and my research with one of my colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. He disparaged the Book-of-the-Month Club particularly and told me that the club he belonged to, the Quality Paperback Book Club, was much more substantial and serious. When I mentioned that QPB was actually owned by the Book-of-the-Month Club and run by the very same people, he pronounced himself "shocked." I was not sure he was kidding when he added, "I guess I'll have to discontinue my membership." I remember feeling irritated by what I called "his elitism" and more generally disappointed to discover that taste at the Book-of-the-Month Club also seemed to be a way of establishing social superiority. I wanted the club and its editors to be different somehow, and I suppose I wanted to think myself different as well.
But I had to admit that I, too, had obviously used my own taste and cultural knowledge in exactly the same way in the past. Whatever else New York signified in my youth, I certainly thought that an association with it was a mark of social distinction. I suddenly remembered how much my brother disapproved of my penchant for saying I was from New York rather than from New Jersey when I was in college in Michigan. "Why don't you tell the truth?" he once asked with disgust. So perhaps my interest in the Book-of-the-Month Club and in the nature of aesthetic value was a product of guilt: guilt at leaving Reader's Digest, Woman's Day, and the suburbs behind; guilt at the consequences of my own social mobility; guilt at the feelings of superiority I had worked so hard to achieve.
My image of the Book-of-the-Month Club as non-elitist and tolerant was more wish than reality. And yet there seemed to be more to it than that. Something about the club was different. But what? True, the club's approach to culture and to value looked a lot like the game of social distinction I had become so familiar with in the academy. The editors dismissed the Guild in exactly the same way that some of my peers had recently dismissed as "banal" and "formulaic" the home decoration schemes, love for colonial domestic architecture, and suburban planting schemes of the nineteenth-century middle class. The scholarly speakers at a conference I had attended on consumption and the middle class delivered their analytical pronouncements with no apparent awareness that their own homes undoubtedly displayed very similar, eclectic collections of museum exhibition posters, oriental rugs, nonrepresentational works of art, a mix of antiques and contemporary furniture, and an assortment of "museum-quality crafts" and pottery. Just as the Book-of-the-Month Club editors felt superior to the inferior readers they conceded to the Literary Guild, so did these scholars place themselves above the plebeian tastes of those who supposedly could only follow the dictates of bourgeois fashion as codified in the Sears catalog because they could not recognize aesthetic quality or originality when they saw it.
And yet, as I read further in the club reports and attended more meetings, and as I began to question the editors themselves, it gradually became clear that although the larger game of taste and aesthetic display functioned similarly in the world of the Book-of-the-Month Club and in the academic world I myself occupied, the club editors adopted a stance toward books and reading that was also distinctly different from the one with which I was most familiar. The editors quickly made it very clear that they were wary of academic ways of reading and writing, and that wariness was closely bound up with an articulate critique of academic habits of evaluation. It was also tied to their desire to assert against such academic strictures the validity of their own competing recommendations and professional expertise. "Typically academic," they disdainfully observed about many university press books-"too dry, too specialized, too self-absorbed for us." In their world, the word "academic" was as much a term of opprobrium as the word "middlebrow" was in mine. Where the world of my peers was defined, in part, by the fact that it was not "middlebrow," the editors' world was marked by its distance from the "dryasdust academic."
The issue of our competing tastes and competencies came more forcefully to the fore as I began my interviews with the Book-of-the-Month Club editors. I was struck, in particular, by how differently they responded to my questions from the way the romance readers had reacted when I asked them why they read. Although the editors answered my questions willingly, straightforwardly, and to the point, those answers were offered in clipped, carefully crafted sentences, parsed precisely as if to fit the space on a printed survey. Neither voluble nor long winded, the editors never expanded on their initial thoughts in a self-revealing or expansive way as the romance readers had. If I asked about the role or function of the club, I received terse answers that assumed a great deal and therefore obscured as much as they offered. "I think it's a combination of middle-class leisure entertainment and uplift," I was told by one editor. Period. Pause. "There's always been a strong didactic element in the self-image of the club and in the way it's perceived by its members, a strong element of self-improvement." I wanted to probe and to inquire after the specific meaning of a term like "leisure entertainment." I wanted the editor to expand on what might constitute "self-improvement." But frequently I did not ask, and the editors almost never volunteered additional information. A certain wariness and distance on their part put me off and produced self-censorship on mine.
They were right to be chary. They well knew what academic investigators did. Products of the same system of higher education as I, they were conversant with its practices and protocols, its ways of generating information. They knew I meant to analyze what they said and would write about what they "really" meant. Their reserve, I thought, was a form of subtle resistance, an unconscious strategy, perhaps, for thwarting my purposes and project. What the Book-of-the-Month Club editors impressed on me in these first, early responses to my queries and probes was their comparable power as members of a professional community. Not only did they possess the knowledge and experience to make sense of what I was doing, but they had at their command the linguistic and social resources to resist politely all my efforts to get them to lay bare the basis of their own status and prestige, that is, their professional expertise, the specialized knowledge that presumably only they possessed.
Their very manner of answering my questions exposed the way we were positioned as professional competitors in what might be called the literary field. The club's success as a commercial enterprise is entirely dependent on its ability to persuade potential subscribers that the advisory service it offers is actually worth something. As one of the club's executives put it to me, "Essentially, as an intellectual exercise, it is our minds that you buy. And our taste." Because the Book-of-the-Month Club had successfully managed this task of persuasion for over sixty years when I encountered it, it was an important force on the publishing scene. The club imprimatur on a book almost inevitably guaranteed higher sales and a greater level of publicity and book talk. The editors and judges performed a kind of consecratory act every time they selected a manuscript from the stacks in the mailroom and decided to feature it in their catalog.
This is little different from what literature professors and academic literary critics do when we select books to present to our students in classroom discussion or to write about as complex exemplars of contemporary literary discourse. Our authority to define what this society takes to be great literature is as dependent on getting others to buy our minds and our tastes as the Book-of-the-Month Club's is. Both are constituted as literary authorities by our professional knowledge. The difference, perhaps, is that the commercial nature of the exchange involved is more masked in the case of academics. We are not paid so directly for our services but retained through the sinecure of tuition and institutional fund-raising. In returning my inquisitorial gaze as they did, the editors exposed the conditions of possibility for my own authority and for the very fact that I was there to query them about their professional knowledge in the first place. Implicitly, as well, their reticence demanded of me that I face the difficult question that sits uneasily at the heart of all ethnographic research, the question of what I intended to do with the information I hoped to generate with their help.
I recall a number of disquieting conversations with friends and colleagues at the time about what it would mean to write about some of the marks of class and intellectual privilege I had begun to detect in the editors' procedures for dismissing books. I worried that it would be unfair to presume on their good faith only to debunk, to deconstruct, and to disapprove of what they did. And yet it also seemed clear that if I erred in the other direction and presented them in unqualified fashion as an antidote to academic asceticism and snobbery, I would ratify and legitimate their expertise and power as professional purveyors of leisure reading to the middle class. I dealt with the dilemma by avoiding it. I deferred its resolution to another time. What I did actively was to throw myself into the business of describing how the editors at the Book-of-the-Month Club read.
Copyright © 1998 The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
|Pt. I||In the Service of the General Reader|
|Ch. 1||A Certain Book Club Culture||21|
|Ch. 2||A Business with a Mission||49|
|Ch. 3||The Intelligent Generalist and the Uses of Reading||88|
|Pt. II||On the History of the Middlebrow|
|Ch. 4||The Struggle over the Book, 1870-1920||127|
|Ch. 5||A Modern Selling Machine for Books: Harry Scherman and the Origins of the Book-of-the-Month Club||154|
|Ch. 6||Automated Book Distribution and the Negative Option: Agency and Choice in a Standardized World||187|
|Ch. 7||The Scandal of the Middlebrow: The Professional-Managerial Class and the Exercise of Authority in the Literary Field||221|
|Ch. 8||Reading for a New Class: The Judges, the Practical Logic of Book Selection, and the Question of Middlebrow Style||261|
|Pt. III||Books for Professionals|
|Ch. 9||A Library of Books for the Aspiring Professional: Some Effects of Middlebrow Reading||305|