Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.
In Under the Cover (Princeton University Press), Clayton Childress traces a novel from inception to afterlife in the hands of readers, deftly demonstrating the interrelated nature of creation, production, and reception. Traditionally studied separately, Childress makes the case for creation, production, and reception as three interdependent fields that should not be studied in isolation. Though others have studied two or more of these fields together (e.g. Wendy Griswold’s Bearing Witness), Childress goes further to analyze the process of translation as an object passes between fields. “If creation, production, and reception all matter,” he argues, “what is lost by independently studying these processes and the transitions between them is actually most things” (p. 4). He explores the inner workings of each field as well as boundary-spanners at each point that translate the object into the next field.
Childress follows Cornelia Nixon’s Jarrettsville, a novel published in 2009 by Counterpoint Press. Jarrettsville is historical love story-cum-courtroom drama based on the true story of Nixon’s ancestor. It is a tragic love story, but because it is set in Maryland just after the Civil War it is also a story about race and Southern identity. He tells Jarrettsville’s story, and the story of the publishing industry more generally, by drawing on an impressive variety of data sources, including ethnography and interviews at Counterpoint Press, interviews with authors and publishing professionals outside of Counterpoint, annotated manuscripts and memos from the author, book club observations, and reader surveys.
Starting with the field of creation, Childress complicates the popular image of the writer as a solitary genius. Far from being an isolated enterprise, he shows that Nixon is embedded in a community of writers whose conversations and constructive feedback help shape the novel. After the initial creation process, literary agents are the “primary boundary-spanners” that move the novel into the field of production. Agents must both understand the author’s vision and be able to translate it into market terms that appeal to an editor. Since personal interest and taste play a large role in how agents and authors are paired, this process is a type of cultural matching where agents tend to take on authors with similar experiences and backgrounds. Childress presents some sobering statistics on this point (only 6% of literary agents are nonwhite), suggesting that lack of diversity among literary agents has a detrimental effect on the diversity of stories that make it to publication.
Childress, through observations and interviews, gives the reader a detailed inside look at publisher decisions like cover design, back cover photo, catalog position, and hardcover versus paperback release.
He emphasizes that “every book must be sold twice,” first to retailers and then to readers (p. 115). This initial sales process happens through industry events and direct sales calls between publisher reps and retailer buyers. Reviewers provide a link between retailers and readers. Jarrettsville was negatively reviewed in the New York Times, in part because it reviewed by a historian rather than a literary fiction author. Categorization was a persistent challenge for Jarrettsville — it was literary fiction but also historical fiction with commercial potential; it was a love story but also a courtroom drama.
In the field of reception, readers categorized and interpreted Jarrettsville in a variety of ways, primarily through the genre conventions readers most preferred. Some readers interpreted it quite differently than Nixon intended, though they enjoyed it less than those readers whose interpretation was more aligned with authorial intent. Perhaps most interesting, Childress shows (through book club observations and pre- and post-discussion surveys) that interpretations often change through interaction.
Jarrettsville was not a hit but it broke even financially; the Counterpoint CEO called it a “typical publishing story.” However, there are lingering questions about how “typical” this case is. Counterpoint is a Berkeley-based independent publisher of literary fiction, and as such has a particular identity. Would the process look the same at a New York-based imprint of a large corporate publisher? What about publishers that specialize in commercial genres like mystery or romance? While Childress does interview industry professionals outside of Counterpoint (and addresses this issue in the Methodological Appendix), the subtleties of different publisher types might have been further discussed in the main chapters. At the same time, he seems to equivocate on the general applicability of the tripartite interdependent field structure. Childress cautions that this field structure may be more visible in publishing than other areas (music, art, etc.) because of the geographic separation of the components, calling it an open empirical question that a traditional production of culture approach, attuned to a range of industries, might address. These closing statements come across as rather vague – if fields are more condensed in other cultural arenas, what is the significance for interfield translation processes? This was one of the few unsatisfactory elements in an overall excellent book.
Under the Cover is a refreshing contribution to the sociology of culture. Childress utilizes a variety of data sources to give readers an inside look at the life stages of a novel (creation, production, and reception) and successfully demonstrates the interdependence of these fields. He balances the particular case with general background on publishing, such as the (lack of) diversity among publishing professionals. He successfully shows that throughout the process art and commerce are more in translation than in tension. Under the Cover is an essential read for any scholar of creation, production, or reception, and its insider look at the publishing industry holds appeal for general readers.