Jim Neilson

Commercial Literary Culture

Chapter One of Warring Fictions : American Literary Culture and the Vietnam War Narrative. University Press of Mississippi, 1999.  ISBN: 1578060885

1. The Publishing Industry

In recent years scholars have begun exploring how dominant social groups maintain privilege and achieve ideological hegemony through cultural products, as well as how subordinate groups sometimes appropriate and subvert this hegemony. Particular effort has gone into deciphering the institutional configurations and practices of English studies. Yet professors of English have largely ignored the vast apparatus that provides them with literary texts -- commercial literary culture.

The nature of the publishing industry has contributed to this neglect. With negotiations between agents, authors, and editors occurring in private, and with the details of sales and distribution often relegated to trade journals and corporate documents, the process by which books are selected, prepared, and circulated is difficult to investigate in any but an anecdotal manner. The fragmentary and ephemeral nature of the review process also hinders a systematic understanding of the reception of texts and the development of critical reputation. Consequently, the scholarly work done in this area has focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and has overlooked contemporary literary culture.

Because of this neglect, the most significant examination of the works of contemporary literary culture remains Richard Ohmann’s twenty-year old essay, "The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-1975." Laying out the process that determines the critical fate of contemporary novels, Ohmann finds that to reach "pre-canonical" status, a novel must first be selected by an agent and editor. (In 27 years, Viking allegedly has published one unsolicited manuscript out of 135,000 submissions, Random House one out of 60,000 [Rodden 58]. The odds of having an unsolicited manuscript published have been calculated at almost 30,000 to 1 [Unsworth 2]. Even if these figures are inflated, they nonetheless reveal the important gate-keeping role played by literary agents and editors.) Next, a book must be promoted by a publishing house’s publicity department, chosen by a review editor (especially the one at the Sunday New York Times Book Review, read by New York metropolitan book buyers (whose patronage is necessary for commercial success), and written about by critics at gate-keeper intellectual journals (based on a 1971 survey of leading intellectuals, these gatekeeper journals were, in order of influence, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, Commentary, Saturday Review, Partisan Review, and Harpers; conducting a similar survey of leading intellectuals in 1991, Steven Brint found the most influential journals to be, in order of influence, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, , the New Yorker, the Atlantic and Foreign Affairs, Commentary, the Public Interest, the Nation, Daedelus, and Harpers [156]). Ultimately, to reach pre-canonical status, a book must, after passing through these gatekeeper intellectual journals, be analyzed by academic critics and taught by college teachers.

This model is neither a permanent nor an all-encompassing description of the process of critical reception. The vagaries of the market (the fate of the NYTBR, the increasing marginalization of literature, the development of new technologies, etc.) can change the specifics of Ohmann’s model; likewise, literary reputations may develop outside this scheme. Indeed, the mass media regularly feature stories about the unlikely success of an obscure title that, against all odds and with virtually no publicity and reviews, becomes a bestseller. Nonetheless, Ohmann’s outline remains an accurate model of how, in general, contemporary novels gain cultural sanction. Ohmann does not, however, identify the mechanisms within commercial literary culture that marginalize radical discourse.

Analysis of how a centrist ideology is reproduced within the mass media is explained most cogently in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. To Herman and Chomsky, the media function as a propaganda system that "inculcate[s] individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society" (1). Information conveyed by the media is effectively censored because it must pass through a set of news filters: (A) the size, concentrated ownership, and profit orientation of mass media firms; (B) advertising as primary income source; (C) reliance upon information provided and "experts" funded by government and business; (D) "flak used to discipline the media; and (E) anticommunism. Since in both the publication and reception of texts commercial literary culture functions within and depends upon the mass media and is thus subject to similar institutional strictures, Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model can help explain how contemporary literature is shaped by, received within, and appreciated for its adherence to a liberal-pluralist ideology.

Like so much else in American commerce, the publishing industry has been increasingly corporatized and its ownership increasingly concentrated. Of the major independent hardcover book publishers circa 1981, only W.W. Norton; Farrar, Strauss & Giroux; Houghton Mifflin; and Crown were not corporate-owned. With Crown since purchased by Advance Publications and Farrar, Strauss & Giroux by the German media giant Holtzbrinck, Norton and Houghton Mifflin -- as of this writing -- remain the only large, independent hardcover book publishers in the U.S. As Forbes magazine declared in 1981 (well before the recent spate of mergers, layoffs, and imprint and publishing house closings), it is "hard to find an industry that has been picked cleaner by the conglomerates than book publishing" (qtd. in Coser 372-73). Although defenders of the current state of publishing claim 25,000 publishers in the U.S., a more realistic figure, according to Ben Bagdikian, "is closer to 2,500 if one counts only American firms that regularly issue one book or more in any year" (19). Bagdikian goes on to explain that more than half of the book business is held by six firms and that if these six were equal in strength, they would have revenues of more than $500 million each, while the remaining 2,494 firms, if equal in strength, would have less than $3.5 million each. This leads to numerous advantages for larger firms, including, according to Bagdikian, "credit from big banks for expansion and acquisitions, bidding for manuscripts, negotiating and paying for shelf space and window displays in bookstores which increasingly are owned by national chains, mounting national sales staffs, buying advertising, and arranging for author interviews in the broadcast media" (19).

As a result, according to Publishers Weekly executive Editor Daisy Maryles, "a writer’s best shot at the charts is getting one of the top conglomerates to issue his or her book." Maryles calculates the extent of conglomerate domination by noting that in 1994 the eight largest publishing firms "account[ed] for 83.9 percent of all the available hardcover positions on the [bestseller] list . . . and 85 percent of all the paperback positions. . . . The next six publishers bring the share to 92.6 percent for hardcovers and 94 percent for paperbacks. That doesn’t leave much room for the rest of the hundreds -- or thousands, counting smaller independent houses -- of publishing players" (Maryles 1995 58). In 1995 ownership narrowed even further, the top seven conglomerates accounting for 87 percent of hardcover slots on the bestseller list (Maryles 1996 32). The dominance of large firms, along with the decrease in independent publishing houses and booksellers, means less diversity of opinion -- and a marginalization of views that dissent too loudly or differ too radically from the status quo.

Such marginalization occurs not through overt censorship but through institutional sympathy between a publishing house and its corporate owner. As Bagdikian argues, "In any field, whether the media or detergents, when most of the business is dominated by a few firms and the remainder of the field is left to a scattering of dozens or hundreds of smaller firms, it is the few dominant ones who control that market. With detergents it means higher prices and lowered choice. With the media it means the same thing for public news, information, ideas and popular culture" (19-20). Given the interlocking network of companies in which publishing houses operate and given the ongoing business arrangements and political maneuverings of these companies, it is unlikely that texts critical of a whole range of issues -- from the practices of an individual executive to the geo-political machinations of conglomerates -- will be published, let alone widely marketed and distributed.

Ironically, the greater the sales, profits, and size of conglomerate-owned publishing houses, the greater the commercial pressures. Herman’s observation about the decrease in public service programming on commercial television networks applies equally to the commercial publishing industry: "larger profits are capitalized into higher market values, owners expect and demand further profit growth, and the competitive stakes and pressures rise" ("Market" 53). Thus, although since the 1920s publishing houses’ average profit has been approximately 4 percent, conglomerate-owned houses now frequently demand profits of 12 to 15 percent (Schiffrin 30). Even a marginal and academically prestigious publishing house like Routledge has been affected. While its profit margins were well above average (around 7 percent0, corporate owner International Thomson Publishing, seeking returns of 17 percent or more, laid off scores of editors and seems to be moving more toward publishing textbooks -- virtually the only books that regularly return such substantial profits. With decreasing budgets and increasing pressure to turn a profit, university presses too have been affected, leading them to fulfill needs that in a pre-conglomerate age had been met by commercial houses. Nicholas Weir-Williams, director of Northwestern University Press, notes that "All university presses are trying to get broader audiences. . . . All of us are trying to get books that used to be published by New York publishers 10 years ago" (qtd. in McMillen). University presses have thus begun to publish serious books intended for a non-academic audience; they are now publishing, according to Phil Pochoda, "books on topical and public issues, on pop music and pop culture, memoirs, poetry and even fiction" (13). But as Pochoda also notes, missing from university offerings are books "on most political subjects, especially those dealing with class and politics. The end of the cold war . . . witnessed the virtual disappearance of academic Marxism. . . . No alternative radical political theory has emerged that might provide the needed academic cover for partisan publishing forays into such politically controversial areas as poverty, welfare, health or education policy, or that might frame responses to the right-wing assault on civil liberties in general and on women, racial and ethnic minorities, and labor in particular" (14). If Pochoda overstates the fate of academic Marxism, he nonetheless identifies a significant trend away from Marxism and class analysis generally within the academy.

In addition, the consolidation of bookstores has limited the fate of even academic books to a mere handful of book-buyers. According to James Shapiro, "Only two or three specialist buyers now decide which books make it into hundreds of stores. Where university publishers could once depend on trying to persuade buyers at a good many independents, a great deal now is at stake in pitching books to the buyers for Barnes & Noble and Borders." For university presses too small to maintain direct accounts with chainstores, things are even worse: "they have to go through the one buyer in a particular field at Ingram Book Co., the giant wholesaler that acts as a middleman between them and booksellers" (McMillen). Fewer publishers, demand for greater profits, a handful of book-buyers, and a single wholesaler amount to an even tighter ideological filter and a greater reduction in books of radical critique.

As an example of the sheer size and power of the conglomerates that own publishing houses, I turn to National Amusements, a conglomerate headed by telecommunications mogul Sumner Redstone. Among its holdings are publishing companies (Simon & Schuster, Prentice-Hall, Alyn & Bacon, Pocket Books, Macmillan Publishing USA, and The Free Press); TV networks (MTV, VH-1, USA, UPN, BET, Showtime, The Movie Channel, Nickelodeon, Comedy-Central, and the Sci-Fi Channel); TV stations (in San Francisco, Shreveport, Hartford, Rochester, and Albany, NY); radio stations (in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Houston, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle); video production companies (Gulf & Western Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Spelling Entertainment, and Viacom); Blockbuster Video (4100 stores) and Blockbuster Music (550 stores); and over 1200 motion picture theaters worldwide. Similarly, Advance Publications, the conglomerate that bought Crown Books, also owns Random House, Vintage, Pantheon, Knopf, and Ballantine books; the Birmingham News, New Orleans Times Picayune, St.Louis Post-Dispatch, Newark Star-Ledger, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and The Oregonian newspapers; business weeklies in 35 cities; Architectural Digest, Details, Glamour, GQ, Mademoiselle, Parade, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and The New Yorker magazines; the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, and cable franchises reaching 4.5 million households. (See Ledbetter, "Merge Overkill" and Miller, "Free the Media.")

At the risk of stating the obvious, large commercial publishing firms with ties to multiple corporate enterprises do not feverishly pursue books critical of capitalism, let alone those that advocate its dismantling. As the intricate and ever-entangling web of ownership and partnership grows, the likelihood of publication of such books decreases. With pressure to maximize profits, publishers more than ever must attempt to anticipate and reflect broad public sentiment, hence the move away from modest-selling books toward blockbusters. While the rewards of successful blockbusters are great, so are the losses brought on by multi-million dollar advances and massive printing runs. The failure of potential blockbusters results in a vicious cycle in which publishing houses seek even bigger books, risk greater losses, and are forced to eliminate mid-list books (some of which are picked up by academic presses). Commercialism itself, then, is a significant filter, marginalizing and even excluding books thought insufficiently reflective of popular interest, hence insufficiently profitable. For instance, Carole Gallagher speaks of the difficulty she had finding a publisher for American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War, an examination of the effects of nuclear testing upon soldiers, test-site workers, and the population living downwind from nuclear tests in six western states. Gallagher says, with only slight hyperbole, "I went to every publisher in the Western world and they turned my book down because, until MIT Press, they said it was a bummer, too expensive, or just too depressing" (qtd. in Hennelly 60).

The rejection of a manuscript because it is "too depressing" is at root ideological -- especially when this depressing content is the result of a government more interested in maintaining nuclear supremacy, maximizing corporate profit, and building a national security state than in protecting its citizens’ health. Another explanation for this aversion to material that is "too depressing" is that commercialism requires optimism and reassurance; ideally, consumers are to be put in a positive, spending mood (hence the upbeat endings of network news programs). Leftist critique, because it identifies suffering, injustice, and exploitation and because it assaults comforting myths and falsehoods, is likely to seem too depressing. A story about retarded children being fed radioactive isotopes is not likely to inspire viewers to run out for a happy meal. Refusing to publish a book because it is too depressing is merely an attempt to disguise ideological exclusion as commercial common sense.

In justifying their refusal to publish certain texts, publishers may also claim that a book is too difficult. It may be that a book is genuinely too difficult for a wide audience. Nonetheless, a book’s "difficulty" may also be shorthand for its unfamiliarity. With conventional wisdom trumpeted incessantly through the mass media and with counter arguments and evidence ignored or misrepresented, even relatively simple political arguments may appear strange or disconcerting. Since leftist critique by its very nature exists outside the framework of public discourse and challenges it premises, it will often be viewed as difficult, hence uncommercial.

We can only speculate about the many books that meet with such resistance and are not published or are published by obscure presses and effectively silenced. To Jason Epstein, former Random House vice-president and founder of the New York Review of Books, "there is finally a point beyond which a publisher cannot go against the tide. Eventually he risks drowning" (qtd. in Kostelanetz 68). Due to their desire for super-profits, conglomerate-owned publishing houses are even more likely to be constrained by mainstream opinion. Such opinion is not static; at times, particularly in the early 1930s and late 1960s, the public zeitgeist shifted leftward, and the publishing industry reflected this shift. Chris Faatz notes that "During the sixties and seventies, corporate publishing was rife with books on the New Left, the civil rights struggles of African-Americans and other peoples of color and the rise of the women’s movement" (915). These historical moments were short-lived, however, and were followed by periods of attack, revision, and recrimination.

In his important (and overlooked) book on corporate propaganda, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, Alex Carey identifies three such moments: the pre-World War I Americanization program launched in 1912, the post-World War II anticommunist crusade, and the post-Vietnam assault upon social activism and its attendant anti-business attitude. The first of these was a response to the massive immigration of 1890-1910, to muckraking journalism and trust-busting legislation, and to the growth of organized labor, in particular, the IWW. The elaborate business-promoted and government-supported nativist response to these developments, culminating in the Great Red Scare of 1918-1919, established the thoroughly pro-business climate of the 1920s. The post-World War II anticommunist crusade was a belated response to the creeping socialism of the New Deal, the belief, in Carey’s words, "that U.S. society had been under continuous subversion by the Democrats ever since Roosevelt introduced his New Deal policy in 1933" (65), as well as a response to the threat posed to the free-enterprise system by global communism. Carey notes that by 1948, "American business’s anti-New Deal/socialist/communist propaganda campaign was costing $100 million a year for such advertising alone" (79). This business-led assault culminated, of course, in the purgings and censorship and paranoia of McCarthyism. The most recent of these assaults, which was a response to the excessive democracy of the 1960s, saw expenditures on grassroots corporate propaganda reach a billion dollars per annum by 1978 and culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan and the continuing assault on a wide range of progressive policies. To Carey, "As in 1919-21 and 1946-50 so in 1976-80: complete business hegemony over American society was re-established" (95).

Because the publishing industry is now dominated by media conglomerates, and because there exists an inevitable if broad sympathy between a publishing firm and its products, we are unlikely to see renewed interest in leftist discourse on any significant scale within the publishing industry. I am not suggesting that large firms will not publish leftist books, merely that such books will be published infrequently and distributed narrowly. The rightward tilt of corporate publishing is plain to see, as former Pantheon managing editor André Schiffrin explains,

In the United States, the political nature of books has changed drastically since the conglomerates acquired so many houses. Harper, Random House and Simon & Schuster were once bastions of New Deal liberalism. Yet the current output of U.S. publishing is markedly to the right. The editors involved are still basically the same people; one must assume that they are responding to new pressures. Indeed, one of the major reasons my colleagues and I left Pantheon . . . was the clear directive from the new Random House management that we should move away from the kind of political publishing for which Pantheon had been known, that we should consider books from the right instead. . . . one has only to look at the Random House lists five years later to see the degree to which it has abandoned critical political and social commentary. . . . The same thing is happening throughout the publishing industry."

As a consequence, Schiffrin notes, "In 1992, during the presidential election, there were virtually no books published for the general reader dealing with the major issues facing American citizens -- NAFTA, national health insurance, the future of the welfare system -- other than those taking a right-wing viewpoint, often subsidized by conservative foundations and then published by major conglomerates" (31-32). Most book editors would probably assert the have never been told what they could or could not publish. Thus Richard Snyder, former president of Simon & Schuster, declared, "I know what the truth is, whether I’m owned by Gulf & Western or not. I know that not one book we’ve put out has been tampered with as far as the content of the book is concerned. I know that we are totally independent" (qtd. in Whiteside 121). Snyder’s assertion of total independence would seem to be questioned, however, by Simon & Schuster’s cancellation of Corporate Murder, in which author Mark Dowie examined corporate decision-making generally, in particular, Ford’s design of the Pinto and its notoriously dangerous gas tank. According to Bagdikian, although senior editor Nan Talese and her staff supported the book, "neither the title nor the book was acceptable. Talese reported . . . that the president of Simon & Schuster, Richard Snyder, was vehemently opposed to the manuscript because, among other reasons, he felt it made all corporations look bad" (30). (Simon & Schuster also demanded to see a copy of Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly before publication and argued unsuccessfully for deletions.) Bagdikian does not suggest that direct pressure was applied by Gulf & Western; instead, he argues that corporate influence occurs "without any pressure, it is natural and inevitable that important people in a media subsidiary will be conscious of who their owners are" (qtd. in Wiener 750).

This understanding of the ideological limits of mainstream publishing firms is not far-fetched conspiracy theory. There have been instances in which books were refused publication for strictly ideological reasons. Such was the case with Counter-Revolutionary Violence, a critique of U.S. foreign policy by Herman and Chomsky that was to be published in 1973 by Warner Modular, Inc., a subsidiary of Warner Communications. According to Claude McCaleb, after Warner Publishing president William Sarnoff read an advance copy, he "immediately launched into a violent verbal attack . . . saying, among other things, that [Counter-Revolutionary Viloence] was a pack of lies, a scurrilous attack on respected Americans, undocumented, a publication unworthy of a serious publisher. . . . He then announced that he had ordered the printer not to release a single copy . . . and that the . . . [book] would not be published" (qtd. in Bagdikian 33-34). Sarnoff had ads for this book cancelled and the Warner catalog listing the Herman/Chomsky book and the entire 10,000 copy press run destroyed. Christopher Hitchens narrates the fate of Counter-Revolutionary Violence: "The twenty thousand copies might have been pulped if it were not for a legally binding contract. Instead they were sold to an obscure outfit named MSS Information Corporation, whereupon Warner . . . washed its hands of the entire deal and of all responsibility for advertising, promotion, and distribution." Similarly, in 1979, McGraw-Hill published Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, an account of the overthrow of Iranian premier Mohammed Mossadegh written by former CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt. Roosevelt asserted that the coup had been undertaken at the behest of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Upon complaints from British Petroleum, successor to AIOC, McGraw-Hill recalled the book from stores and reviewers (Bagdikian 39). Another example of corporate pressure affecting a book’s publication is Marc Elliot’s Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, signed by Bantam in 1989 and dropped in 1991. (It was eventually published by Birch Lane Press/Carol Publishing.) Jon Wiener speculates that Eliot’s book was killed because Bantam had contracted with Disney to publish children’s book versions of Disney movies (744).

One should not be surprised by the infrequency of overt censorship. There are many steps a manuscript must follow, any one of which might prevent its eventual publication. Many if not most radical books will have been eliminated from consideration by major publishing houses long before contracts are offered or manuscripts edited. Also, it takes only a few such prominent incidents to reveal the bounds of acceptable discourse. The persistent affirmation of the dominant ideology by the mainstream publishing industry is due not to commands issued by media moguls or cultural commissars but to the editors and officers of publishing houses having internalized the values of the corporations for which they work.

As for the absence of works of fiction from the above discussion, I suspect fiction is thought less serious, less in need of intervention, less directly critical or explicitly political. Also, literary tradition and prevailing critical orthodoxies have promoted a model of fiction that privileges the individual imagination and denigrates as polemical literary texts that identify specific social ills and encourage radical activism. This model has engendered a form of self-censorship, authors shaping their writings to fit what they perceive are the ideological parameters of mainstream publishing. As Russell Berman writes, "no matter how literary production and consumption may be reciprocally determined, the nature of production has its own definite consequences: authors who understand themselves as employees dependent on publishing houses with precise marketing strategies will choose to write in certain ways" (56). And these certain ways are not likely to challenge the publishing industry’s liberal-pluralist ideology.

Unlike the news media, book publishers do not depend upon advertising revenue. Nonetheless, advertising still serves as a filter, affecting the kinds of books published and the manner in which they are received. For although book publishers may not depend upon advertising revenue, related companies within media conglomerates do. Thus, when Prentice-Hall arranged to have Gerard Colby Zelig’s Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain made a selection of the Fortune Book Club (which belonged to Time, Inc. and which was administered by the Book-of-the-Month-Club), Du Pont complained to Time, the Fortune Book Club canceled its contract, and Prentice-Hall stopped promoting Zelig’s book. According to Richard H. Rea, a representative of Du Pont, Prentice-Hall general counsel William Daly revealed that the Book-of-the-Month Club "had notified Prentice-Hall that, after further pressure from Du Pont, they were cancelling their agreement. Daly said the pressure consisted of threats of litigation and cancellation of all of Du Pont advertising in Time, Life and Fortune" (qtd. in Bagdikian 38). Similarly, in 1968 Reader’s Digest Association was prepared to publish a book critical of the advertising industry -- The Permissible Lie -- through its subsidiary Funk & Wagnalls. Reader’s Digest Association canceled this book, according to Bagdikian, because "the association presumably felt threatened by loss of advertising from its magazine if its book subsidiary offended the advertising industry" (163).

Like other industries, book-publishing has seen many lay-offs and salary reductions in recent years. Said an anonymous publishing company empoyee in 1994, "all the jobs seem to be residing in three companies, and even that is so uncertain now." This source was unnamed, according to the New York Times, because employees "were forbidden to speak disparagingly of the company in public, or they would forfeit their severance packages" (Lyall). In such a climate, editors will be even more circumspect about what they publish and will be more aware of the risks they run when publishing books critical of the liberal-pluralist consensus.

Popular Reviewing

Another way that the concentrated ownership and narrow ideology of large publishing firms affect the reception of contemporary novels is through the New York Times Book Review, which remains the most important determinant of a book’s commercial fate -- especially the fate of books with serious literary pretensions. Its influence is clearly recognized by the publishing industry: more than half the advertising budgets of the main publishing houses are devoted to the NYTBR. According to Ohmann, "The New York Times Book Review had about a million and a half readers, several times the audience of any other literary periodical. Among them were most bookstore managers, deciding what to stock, and librarians, deciding what to buy, not to mention the well-to-do, well-educated east-coasters who led in establishing hardback best-sellers. The single most important boost a novel could get was a prominent review in the Sunday New York Times" (Politics 71-72). Although there is not an absolute connection between favorable reception in the NYTBR and a book’s lasting critical reputation, the public and critical prominence gained from such reception is an important initial step in defining what in contemporary literature is worth serious scholarly attention -- according to Julie Hoover and Charles Kadushin, 75% of elite intellectuals read the NYTBR (Ohmann, Politics 74). If agents, editors, and publishers are the obstacles a book must negotiate in order to be published, the NYTBR is the most significant early test of a book’s critical worth, of its potential to reach pre-canonical status.

Praise from the NYTBR is not a prerequisite for critical respect, considering that other newspapers and journals, as well as academic critics, help determine a book’s reputation. (Also, new venues for critical attention, such as Oprah Winfrey’s book club, are bound to appear.) It is not praise so much as recognition by the NYTBR that contributes to a book’s sales, to its being considered worthy of review by others, and to its being published as a paperback. The latter is vital if a text is to remain available for critical evaluation and study. Thus, according to Ohmann, "the single most important boost a novel could get was a prominent review in the Sunday New York Times -- better a favorable one than an unfavorable one, but better an unfavorable one than none at all" (Politics 72).

The NYTBR serves as a kind of cultural clearing house, sorting through the approximately 45,000 books published yearly in the U.S., 4,000 of which are works of fiction (Norman 22), and identifying those worth serious attention. In so doing, it naturalizes the values of mainstream publishing culture. In other words, the NYTBR reaffirms and gives cultural sanction to the world-view of the professional-managerial class -- what Brint defines as knowledge-based professional elites: "people who earn at least a middling income from the application of a relatively complex body of knowledge" (4) -- that dominates American book-publishing. Because books published by larger houses are more likely to fall within the dominant ideological frame, because the NYTBR concentrates on books from these larger firms, and because the NYTBR plays such a determining role in the development of literary reputation, the process by which contemporary novels are granted cultural sanction encourages a centrist politics that rarely questions capitalist or nationalist premises.

The sympathy between the NYTBR and the mainstream publishing industry is due to the shared class and cultural backgrounds of reviewers, editors, authors, and agents. But it is due as well to the Book Review’s dependence on advertising revenue. A 1968 study found an almost direct correlation between the amount a publisher advertised and the review space accorded its books by the NYTBR. (It comes as no surprise, therefore, that since 1980 the New York Times has reviewed only three books from South End and one apiece from Common Courage and Monthly Review presses.) Advertising affects what will and will not be reviewed in the New York Times (and in many other newspapers). Newspaper reviews, especially the NYTBR, establish a book’s initial reception, help determine its sales (thus keeping it in print) and help develop its critical reputation. That a book’s being reviewed depends in part on advertising, therefore, is one more instance in which the size and wealth of publishing firms and the biases of a market economy influence the shaping of the literary canon and the creation of cultural capital.

Also constraining discourse are the restrictions inherent in the magazines and newspapers that publish book reviews. Lack of review space, most newspapers reviewing no more than three or four books per week, and the need, especially in magazines like Time and Newsweek, to review recent best-sellers (a need exacerbated by the financial demands and subsequent mass entertainment biases of media conglomerates) means that scholarly texts, let alone texts that exceed the ideological boundaries of the mass media, receive little attention from commercial culture.

Book reviewers in large circulation magazines and newspapers are likely to share, in broad outline, the ideology of the periodicals for which they write, and these periodicals are likely to fit within the spectrum of acceptable public discourse. For an example of how public scholarship reflects the prevailing ideology, consider the case of China scholarship in the 1950s. In response to the fall of China and the subsequent McCarthy backlash, there was, according to Peter Steinfels, "a nearly complete change in the scholars reviewing China studies for the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune. At these two papers, the group who had done over 80 percent of the reviewing in this field between 1945 and 1950 reviewed not a single book after 1952" (6-7). A similar change occurred in the New York Review of Books, which flirted with radicalism during the 60s, publishing essays by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Stokely Carmichael and which was red-baited for doing so. (To Tom Wolfe, the Review was "the chief theoretical organ of radical chic," and to Walter Goodman, now New York Times television critic, it was "cocktail party revolutionary"; Esquire asserted that "from among [its] auhors the next Stalin and his speechwriters will emerge" (qtd. in Nobile 7, 5, 126). The Review has since moved steadily to the right. By the 1990s, it helped legitimate the perception that universities were being terrorized by rampant "political correctness," notably C. Vann Woodward’s favorable review of Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education.

The role of commercial literary culture in creating a canon and developing literary reputations depends upon two sets of experts: those who construct and market books (agents, editors, and marketing staff) and those who evaluate books (reviewers and critics). I have already discussed many of the ideological constraints imposed upon and internalized by the former group. Reviewers and critics -- who define the formal characteristics that determine literary merit, explicate such features, and place literary works within various genres, conventions, and traditions -- likewise function as an ideological barrier. By privileging imagery and language, experts can downplay a text’s social dynamics; by showing how these formal devices encourage multiple and often contradictory meanings, experts can suggest the naiveté of political formulas and the richness and complexity of the individual imagination; and by focusing on a few, exclusive traditions, experts can marginalize counter-traditions and their potentially alternative ideologies. A book’s political import can be hindered obliquely, by downplaying its social commentary and praising its formal qualities, or overtly, by repudiating its ideology. In other words, reviewers by and large reinforce modernist assumptions of critical value, championing complex and sophisticated narratives at the expense of schematic and dogmatic ones and valuing the individual and timeless human struggle over social struggles against specific injustices. I am not suggesting that consideration of a book’s aesthetics precludes analysis of its politics but that reviewers tend to focus on aesthetics at the expense of a book’s politics. Similarly, Brint argues that discourse in center-liberal periodicals follows a cognitive frame whose "predominant style is based on synthesis, elegant writing, and an ‘unusual’ or ‘interesting’ perspective. Close observation, fullness, and breadth are prized characteristics. . . . it is more important to ‘say something worthwhile and interesting’ -- to educate the sensibilities -- than it is to take a stance as the ‘guardian of values,’ no matter whether these values are threatened, ignored, or widely acclaimed" (163).

To demonstrate how reviewers sometimes function as an ideological filter, I turn to the critical reception of two works by the contemporary American novelist Richard Powers: The Gold Bug Variations and Operation Wandering Soul. The Gold Bug Variations was accorded ample praise by the literary-critical establishment; it was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and was chosen book-of-the-year by Time. This praise was directed almost exclusively at its intellectual breadth and linguistic and structural inventiveness, with virtually no discussion of the book’s social critique. USA Today described The Gold Bug Variations as "both a homage to high art and an intricate mystery," Kirkus spoke of "the mysteries of love and the passionate pursuit of knowledge," while the New York Times declared it "a cerebral quest for a philosophical heffalump" (James 9). Yet in the midst of his philosophical quest, Powers shows how market-determined social relations thwart community. The novel’s central characters are alienated from the culture at large, their social contact consisting of little more than "checkout clerks, the muffled sadism from upstairs and a host of cheerful, limited-time phone offers" (228). They must ignore the "fifteen million adjacent catastrophes," must "consign entire boroughs to misery beyond addressing," and must step "gingerly over a baseball-batted body at the top of the subway stairs" (291). The novel’s central device, an elaborate reflection upon the similarities between Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the genetic code, is meant to make us aware of the interdependence of life -- a vital concern at a time when "the whole community is about to go under, pulled in by our error. Why," Powers asks, "do we want to revoke the contract, scatter it like a nuisance cobweb, simplify it with asphalt?" (325). Powers attempts to provide us with a vision of the world that is grounded in biology and genetics, one that may help us overcome apathy and ignorance and lead us to revere natural creation. It is his hope that "anyone who once adds up the living number must act ecologically, commensually forever" (326). Critical praise for The Gold Bug Variations, however, has paid scant attention to its political urgency, focusing instead upon its structural complexity and linguistic inventiveness. Such priorities are commonplace in the culture of book-reviewing. By emphasizing aesthetic merits and downplaying the political merit of literary texts, reviewers and critics have promoted a literature and an appreciation of literary texts that diminishes whatever small potential literature may retain to effect social change.


Operation Wandering Soul, although a finalist for the National Book Award, was not so consistently praised. While some of this criticism was directed at the book’s perceived failings (especially its daunting complexity and linguistic excess), some also was aimed at Powers’s social critique. For Operation Wandering Soul is an indictment of the murderous effects of consumer culture (particularly upon a group of children at a charity hospital in contemporary Los Angeles), of the lethal consequences of U.S. imperialism in southeast Asia, and of the brutal treatment of children throughout history. As an example of Powers’s often frank social critique, here is his description of Bangkok: "a skylined, sprawling runaway, AIDS-infested needle nest. It had become a child-peddling shambles. Some hundred thousand juvenile whores of both sexes made a living in the place, the murder capital of the exotic East, the Golden Triangle’s peddler, catamite to the slickest of tourist classes, gutted by CarniCruze junkets and semiconductor sweat shops, glistening in fat postcolonialism, clear-cutting its irreplaceable upcountry forest to support its habit" (309). There are many similar passages that brutally critique the suffering wrought by capitalism. To repudiate this critique, Bruce Bawer in the Washington Post asserts that "Powers divides people too neatly into good and bad, and does so along crude, politically correct lines, aligning himself throughout with . . . the received ideas of today’s academic establishment." For Lee Lescaze in the Wall Street Journal, "Mr. Powers decries the brutalization of children by man and disease. That is not a case that needs much arguing. It is hard to think of another novel in which such a sophisticated presentation wraps such a simple core." Lescaze also points to "an added -- and clichéd -- burden": the notion that the central character’s father "was a government agent who wrought evil in Indochina and elsewhere on behalf of the U.S." (Besides the worldview of critics, Lescaze’s evaluation suggests the American exceptionalism that reigns within the U.S. foreign policy establishment, since Lescaze was himself a prominent foreign correspondent.)

According to these critics, to demonstrate the effects of social injustice in contemporary America is crude, to decry the brutalization of children simplistic, and to reveal the global terror created by U.S. foreign policy clichéd. Note that here ideological objections are rendered as aesthetic judgment. Bawers and Lescaze do not say they object to Powers’s critique but to its dogmatic and unsophisticated nature. As is common in literary evaluations, they make political arguments meant to discredit Operation Wandering Soul and to discourage further critique under the guise of aesthetic evaluation -- Powers’s critique lacks subtlety and originality. But if one means seriously to address the global suffering caused by gross inequity in wealth and power, subtlety is hardly an effective strategy, especially in a culture so benumbed by commercialism. Similarly, one must ask what the value of originality is if the suffering of children and the consequences of U.S. militarism are seen as clichés.

Books are commonly denounced for their "bias" -- i.e., they are seen as simplistic, dogmatic, unoriginal, and unimaginative. Such denunciations of overtly ideological books are commonplace for mainstream book reviewers, as revealed in the following reviews from the New York Times. To Foreign Policy editor Alan Tonelson, in a review of Turning the Tide, Noam Chomsky’s "one-dimensional interpretation of American foreign policy" and "blanket condemnation . . . reflects a failure to think of United States national interests in a Hobbesian world in which tragic choices are sometimes unavoidable." To Karen Pennar, Richard Barnett and John Cavanaugh in Global Dreams "do a creditable job of introducing the uninitiated to the ways in which multinational corporations operate across borders"; unfortunately, "These are not new arguments." To Harpers magazine editor Michael Pollan, although Michael Parenti in Inventing Reality "provides a valuable rebuttal to the drumbeat of criticism of the news media from the right" and "shows how even the press’s putative objectivity can contribute to unbalanced coverage," he "paints the press in such broad, Marxist strokes that he ignores many details." Parenti is "so simplistic and doctrinaire in accounting for this bias," Pollan writes, "that he makes his book easy to dismiss." Not just this book, one might add, since of the many books Parenti has authored between 1980 and 1997, only Inventing Reality was deemed worthy of review by the New York Times. The answer to the problems of simplicity, dogmatism, unoriginality, and unimaginativeness, according to reviewers, is clear. Chomsky should recognize that the U.S. has "brought record prosperity to the people of the industrialized world [and] to South Korea, Taiwan and others . . . and [has] permitted all of these populations to exercise unprecedented control over their destinies" (Tonelson). Likewise, Barnett and Cavanaugh should recognize that "American culture and American products . . . are emphatically not being force-fed around the world" and that "as world economic growth rises, consumer spending does too" (Pennar). And Parenti should acknowledge the media’s "courage and independence . . . during Vietnam and Watergate" (Pollan). In other words, to escape ideological biases, radical critiques like these should acknowledge the benevolence of U.S. foreign policy, the benefits of global capitalism, and the brave autonomy of the corporate media.

Frequently, denunciations of a book’s ideology appear as a criticism of a book’s language and style. Thus Nicholas Lemman, writing in the New Republic, declares Herman and Chomsky’s argument (in Manufacturing Consent) to be "delivered in the leaden prose of a sectarian tract. . . . Though they use the word ‘Orwellian’ a lot, they write in exactly the ideological style that Orwell so perfectly parodied" ( ). Similarly, in his review of Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience for the New York Times Book Review, David Oshinsky finds Gabriel Kolko’s writing "reminiscent of the war itself -- bleak, redundant, interminable" and his book "loaded with eye-glazing rhetoric about imperialism, class protest and revolutionary values." Note that Lemman’s and Oshinsky’s objections (like Bawer’s and Lescaze’s to Operation Wandering Soul) are dressed as aesthetic objections: it is not Herman and Chomsky’s politics, not their critique of the unacknowledged ideology of the mass media that Lemman objects to but their "leaden prose" and "ideological style." But how could Herman and Chomsky write a book that is overtly ideological, one that attempts to identify the hidden ideology of the mass media, without employing an ideological style? How, too, could Kolko write a book critical of U.S. imperialism and sympathetic to Vietnamese communism without this "eye-glazing rhetoric?" In wishing for a less ideological style and a more lively rhetoric, Lemman and Oshinsky actually want the normative, ostensibly non-ideological "style" and "rhetoric" of liberal-pluralist discourse.

To express uncertainty and to appreciate the values of opposing arguments, for reviewers, is to recognize the complex and untidy nature of the world as it really is. Yet in calling for books that are unbiased and non-ideological, uncertain and complex, literary culture is actually asking for books that fall within the parameters of acceptable discourse, books that reinforce liberal-pluralist and capitalist democracy. Commercial literary culture rejects and repudiates as biased any discourse indecorous enough to acknowledge its own ideology, rather than to disguise this ideology (in the manner of liberalism), as common sense. It is true, of course, that commercial literary culture is more receptive to radical discourse than the mass media generally and that, notwithstanding the constraints imposed by the concentrated ownership of publishing houses and by commercialism, such texts do get published, distributed, and reviewed. The point is not that there is a prohibition on radical discourse but that the practices of commercial literary culture make such discourse infrequent and force it through a number of filters whose effect is to limit, ridicule, criticize, and marginalize. These barriers preclude (or make extremely difficult) the stitching together of a coherent counter-hegemonic narrative, one that may contribute to an active, radically egalitarian politics.