Analyzing novels such as The Sheltering Sky, Fahrenheit 451, and Peyton Place, Evan Brier reveals how novelists and the book trade positioned their works as antidotes to mid-twentieth-century mass culture, even as new partnerships between publishers and mass-culture institutions contributed to the success of these writings.
2009 | 224 pages | Cloth $49.95
Literature | Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Selling the Novel in the Age of Mass Culture
Chapter 1. Constructing the Postwar Art Novel: The Making and Marketing of The Sheltering Sky
Chapter 2. The "Incalculable Value of Reading": Fahrenheit 451 and the Paperback Assault on Mass Culture
Chapter 3. Synergy and the Novelist: Simon & Schuster; Time, Inc.; and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Chapter 4. From Novel to Blockbuster: Peyton Place and the Narrative of Cultural Decline
Chapter 5. 1959 and Beyond: Mergers, Acquisitions, and Norman Mailer
Epilogue: Novels Today: Oprah Winfrey, Jonathan Franzen, and the Long Tail
Introduction Selling the Novel in the Age of Mass Culture
The age of American mass culture and its attendant anxieties has come and gone. Today, books, music, and news outlets are available to suit any individual's narrow tastes and outlook. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and an unabashed celebrant of the emergent niche culture, puts it this way: "The era of one-size-fits-all is ending, and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes" (5). For Anderson, these multitudes signal the technology-aided triumph of the forces of cultural democratization; others express anxiety about our lack of unity and stability, the loss of an American "common culture" that connects people of disparate backgrounds and perspectives. There are now, it is said, too many channels on the television, purveyors of news, and means of communication, and this surfeit of choices threatens America's literature, its culture, its democracy, and even, in an age of anxiety about sleeper cells, its national security. "Diversity," Cass Sunstein wrote in 2002, "is a wonderful thing, but fragmentation carries serious social risks" (206).
The current conversation between fragmentation's partisans and opponents would likely surprise mid-century culture critics, for many of whom the one-size-fits-all mass culture of the 1950s appeared to be a quasi-apocalyptic end, the inevitable result of the marriage of technology and capitalism. Thus for fifteen years after the end of World War II, the urgent cultural and political problem was said to be the opposite of fragmentation: too much manufactured unity, too little diversity, too few choices, a too-passive populace. As Louis Menand notes, television sets in the mid-1950s "had twelve VHF channels, all except three of which probably broadcast static" (115). The result was a uniformity that might now seem inconceivable: whereas the top-rated television show of 2005, CSI, drew 15 percent of the television-watching audience (Chris Anderson 37), Milton Berle in 1948 drew 87 percent (Baughman, Same Time 51), and the top-rated show of 1954, I Love Lucy, 74 percent (Chris Anderson 29). Definitions of mass culture are frequently contested, but there seems little question that television in the mid-1950s is an example of it: a moment that in retrospect seems singular, when an unthinkably large audience of culture consumers, made possible by the combination of the postwar economic boom's expanded middle class, the prewar technology of the cathode ray tube, and the paucity of viewing choices in the precable television age, could and routinely did tune in to the same show. It was this unusual and by no means inevitable confluence of factors—caused by, among other things, a series of missteps by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which was ill-equipped to regulate such a massive cultural and economic shift—that inaugurated what James L. Baughman calls the "republic of mass culture" and what Menand deems network television's "empire" (116). For a brief moment that has now passed, network television ruled, and the result was mass culture.
The emergence and temporary dominance of mass culture exerted itself powerfully on American novels, shifting the cultural and economic space they occupied as surely as television did to movies, magazines, and newspapers. But unlike these latter shifts, the story of postwar mass culture's effects on novels has largely gone untold. These effects, which this book sets out to describe, are most easily—but still incompletely—seen in the stories told in the novels themselves. In the 1950s, numerous scholars have noted, novelists and contemporary critics turned their attention from the class issues that galvanized novelists of the 1930s to cultural and psychological concerns: disillusioned with radicalism in 1949, Lionel Trilling wrote, "Nowadays, it is no longer possible to think of politics except as a politics of culture" (xi), and Norman Mailer noted with disdain three years later in Partisan Review that "it has become as fashionable to sneer at economics and emphasize 'the human dilemma' as it was fashionable to do the reverse in the 1930s" (Advertisements 189). The novelistic effort to represent mass culture in the 1950s is one little-discussed example of this shift in focus. Throughout the decade, the emergence of mass culture provided novelists with a new topic not just to depict but also to critique, bemoan, and satirize. As the works I discuss in this book exemplify, such depictions are found not only in those novels that have dominated the critical conversation about postwar American fiction but in a range of novels that span what is conventionally but regrettably understood as the cultural spectrum: from Paul Bowles's avant-garde depiction of the flight from banal American "mass society" in The Sheltering Sky to Ray Bradbury's nightmare science fiction portrayal of a future dominated by television in Fahrenheit 451 to Sloan Wilson's reputedly conventional novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, about a man who begins work in a debased profession (public relations) for a debased institution (a television network). Even Grace Metalious's Peyton Place, itself typically though again regrettably viewed not as a novel but as a mass-culture scandal, mocks the conventional, mass-produced romance novel.
These representations are essential to the story this book tells, but the impact of mass culture on American novels was more far-reaching and less obvious than any or all of them might indicate. Between 1948, when television began its commercial ascendancy, and 1959, when Random House, an American publishing house founded in the commercial heyday of literary modernism, became a publicly owned corporation, the way American novels were written, published, distributed, and marketed changed considerably, in ways rarely visible to the reading public at the time and rarely discussed since by cultural historians or literary scholars. This absence of discussion might reflect a continuing scholarly-critical discomfort with viewing novels as participants in a cultural and an economic arena that also includes movies and television shows. Although it is conventional to treat Hollywood movies or American magazines from an economic perspective, as competitors vying for an audience with limited amounts of money and leisure time—both topics have been the subject of numerous scholarly studies—postwar novels, at least in discussions by literary scholars in relation to other forms of commercial culture, are still often studied as though they exist outside the realm of commerce; they are still often treated solely as commentators on the commodification of culture. Novels are indeed commentators, and they should be treated as such, but they are also themselves commodities that inhabited the cultural and economic field that the emergence of television unsettled in the 1950s.
The idea that literature exists outside the economic realm is in a sense inherited from the prewar modernists, whose project of separating so-called high art from commerce—as a matter of ideology, not fact—was carried into the postwar era in the form of famous attacks on mass culture by such figures as Theodor Adorno, T. S. Eliot, and Clement Greenberg. These attacks have rightly been read as corollary to the postwar novelist's concern with culture over class, and they have become a touchstone of scholarship about the 1950s. In the early postwar era, mass culture (or the culture industry, or masscult, as it was also known), along with its detested offshoot middlebrow culture, was inevitably depicted in essays and symposia, by critics with vast political differences, as a threat to American democracy or to the brand of high culture that the modernists had created or to both. In one of several iterations of his evolving theory, Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1953 that what he called masscult "threatens high culture" ("Theory" 61) and that its creators "exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to . . . maintain their class rule" (60). The standard-bearers of anti-mass-culture theories were followed by many critics who, in sometimes painstaking detail, delineated the ills of mass culture through close examination of its artifacts. Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (1957), edited by Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White, is one collection of these critiques; it features four essays on detective fiction (two on Mickey Spillane alone), four on comic books, six on movies, and five on television and radio. The degree of attention that so many critics devoted to forms of culture they ostensibly deplored prompted art critic Harold Rosenberg, in a review of the anthology, to accuse: "They play in this stuff because they like it, including those who dislike what they like. I never heard of one who to meet his duty to study best-sellers or Tin Pan Alley tore himself away from Walden Pond" (260).
This same spirit of suspicion is found in Richard Yates's novel Revolutionary Road (1961), an example of the cultural concerns shared by critics and novelists in this era. In Yates's corrosive account of suburbia, the television set has already seduced not just the children but also their purportedly highbrow parents. In the Wheelers' living room, "the wall of books . . . might as well have been a lending library" and "only one corner of the room showed signs of pleasant human congress . . . the province of the television set" (31), this despite the fact that Frank Wheeler is himself a mass-culture critic, or a parody of such a critic, given to lengthy assaults for his wife and neighbors on the ills of suburbia, where "the television droned in every living room" (65). As Yates describes the Wheelers' social rituals: "With the pouring of second or third drinks they could begin to see themselves as members of an embattled, dwindling intellectual underground . . . . Even after politics had palled there had still been the elusive but endlessly absorbing subject of Conformity, or The Suburbs, or Madison Avenue" (59). But they are frauds. Late in the novel, Frank and his wife April watch a television show together, "which he found wholly absorbing and she declared was trash" (206). In satirizing these reactions—his presumably undeclared absorption and her felt need to declare the television show trash—Yates, like Rosenberg, has it both ways, savaging mass culture while mocking its most vociferous critics for doing the same. By the end of the 1950s, Yates's novel and Rosenberg's essay suggest, the mass-culture critique, as a topic for novels and essays, was itself a cliché. For Yates, though, as for Rosenberg, casting it as a cliché seems an effort to present himself as a more authentic critic, purer than his characters in his contempt for television and for the suburbanites who watch it. The consequences of the characters' hypocrisy, moreover, are severe: "The children," Yates writes of Frank and April's son and daughter, "lay silenced by television" (135).
Over the course of decades, the attitudes of Greenberg and Macdonald and Rosenberg and Yates have come to seem old-fashioned at best, but to a considerable and lamentable degree they continue to dictate the terms of our conversation about American culture. The rhetoric of cultural crisis in which, Rosenberg suggested, critics wallowed has since been called the discourse of the "great divide" (Andreas Huyssen's term), which purportedly separates high culture from mass culture: the idea that high art and low art exist not on a continuum but on separate planes, that there is a "categorical distinction" between them that it is the critic's role to guard and maintain (viii). The discourse's unabashed snobbery has made it an irresistible target. Contemporary cultural-studies scholars and theorists of popular culture have drawn attention to mass culture's subversive potential, what Andrew Ross calls its "contradictory power and significance . . . for its users and consumers" (52). In this revisionist account, the artifacts of mass culture are seen to have uses beyond the control or intentions of their makers, who are as nefarious as Macdonald suggested they were in the late 1940s but far less powerful. Mass-culture products may be intended, as Macdonald suggested, to function as instruments of class rule, but their makers cannot control the way they are ultimately used by their audience, and that audience—the people, not an unthinking mass—find, in a process John Fiske calls "excorporation," create their own authentic culture out of game shows or romantic comedies (15); it is for this reason that "mass" culture is advisedly renamed "popular" culture.
Where do novels fit into this intergenerational debate about the relationship between and the relative values of mass and high culture? It depends, and that fact in itself reveals something of the debate's inadequacy to the story of the postwar novel. As Thomas Hill Schaub and others show, the postwar era brought renewed attention to the novel, from both New Critics and the New York intellectuals, as a form of high culture. But as Rosenberg and White's Mass Culture anthology makes plain, the 1950s also brought attacks on certain novels as examples of mass culture; in addition to the essays on detective fiction, a separate group of chapters focused on the problems posed by "mass literature." According to both the original and the revisionist mass-culture critics, some novels qualify as high culture whereas others are defined as popular, and the criteria for classifying a novel as one or the other are elusive; as C. W. E. Bigsby observes, "Popular culture . . . can apparently be transformed into 'high' art by a simple act of critical appropriation . . . a fact which applies not only to individual artists but to genres (theatre, novel, film), subgenres (farce, science fiction, detective fiction) and styles" (qtd. in Kammen 6). The idea of a cultural division between high and low (or mass) forms of literature is sometimes helpful: for one thing, it enables making the case for the specific value of literature once deemed low on terms different from the ones used to celebrate high culture. But this division, to the large extent that it is merely evaluative, obscures rather than clarifies the relationship between American novels and mass culture in the 1950s. Novels of the 1950s—regardless of whether they were deemed high or low culture at the time or since—were always also a form of commercial if not mass culture; to examine the effects of the emergence of mass culture on American novels, it is necessary to consider these novels not as high or low culture, categories so fluid as to be useless except as historical markers of critical opinion, but as commodities produced in the pursuit of admittedly varying amounts of both prestige and profit.
Doing this work, I argue throughout this book, entails shining a brighter light on the postwar book trade, that set of institutions that produced, marketed, and sold novels, occupying crucial but neglected intermediate space between the much discussed twin extremes of mass-culture corporations and highbrow critics and, in a literal sense, sometimes, negotiating with both of them. The specifics of these types of institutional negotiations have gained the attention of literary scholars in recent years. Influenced by Jürgen Habermas's study of the transformation of the public sphere, Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture, and the idea of the institution as that which mediates between the individual and society, institutional accounts of twentieth-century literature and of the novel as the product not just of an author but of assorted institutions, including publishers, literary agents, critics, booksellers, and readers, have gained in prominence. To date, these accounts have focused primarily on either genre fiction once deemed lowbrow or the production of literary texts in the first half of the twentieth century: Lawrence Rainey on high modernists Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and H.D.; Janice A. Radway on romance novels and on the Book-of-the-Month Club as a quintessentially modern, middlebrow institution; and Catherine Turner on the successful marketing of modernist texts in America during the 1920s and 1930s.
This book extends the institutional focus into the postwar era, from which it has, with a few important exceptions, been absent, and uses it in two related ways: first, to sketch a necessarily episodic narrative of postwar novel production, of modernization in fits and starts, during the postwar mass-culture explosion; and, second, to explore a paradox that ran deep in literary culture throughout the decade but has yet to be examined. The 1950s is likely the time during which alarm over the fate of both reading in general and high literature in particular was at its apex. These were, in fact, two distinct forms of alarm: as I discuss throughout this book, those intellectuals concerned with the fate of culture for the few—Macdonald, Harold Rosenberg, and Greenberg—had little interest in, if not outright hostility toward, more humanistic assertions of the importance of mass literacy, concerns that were more properly the purview of secondary school English teachers, mainstream commercial publishers, and Rudolf Flesch, author of the best-selling literacy jeremiad Why Johnny Can't Read (1955). There was a tension between the missions of self-appointed protectors of high culture and those who wished to spread literacy, promoters of the value of reading for everyone.
But the tension was easily elided in the light of shared assumptions about declining literacy in the age of television, and the two forms of alarm were easily conflated in the face of the common enemy that mass culture represented. "Who is to blame," Saturday Review asked in 1956, "for the plight of contemporary reading?" ("The Battle" 5). The premise of the question, the idea that there was a plight, was taken as self-evident, the point of departure for much of the discussion of the future of reading and literature in the 1950s. At the same time, as contemporary issues of Publishers Weekly and the recent study Literacy in the United States suggest, in the 1950s more books than ever before were produced and sold to a growing population of educated consumers. "The increase in trade book sales during 1956," Publishers Weekly reported in January 1957, "will top the 7 per cent increase which 1955 registered over 1954" ("Highlights of 1956" 47). Literacy in the United States confirms Publishers Weekly's conclusions, citing the "widespread popularity of book reading by the 1950s" (Kaestle, Damon-Moore, Stedman, Tinsley, and Trollinger 150) and noting that reading expenditures, controlled for both inflation and population growth, rose throughout the decade (153-54), despite the fact that, for much of the 1950s, spending on magazines and newspapers was in steep decline. This rise is not merely an effect of the economic boom, either; at the same time that book sales were increasing, borrowing from libraries was also increasing, "contrary," the study notes, "to all the dire predictions" (165). In 1959, Publishers Weekly reported the happy news that the book-publishing business was "approaching a billion-dollar level" ("A Year of Reading" 79). In short, throughout this decade of alarm over the plight of reading, the book trade was benefiting from the public's growing consumption of books, mostly nonfiction but also fiction. This raises two important and, as it turns out, related questions: Why did the public buy more books than ever in the 1950s? And what produced the disconnect between the rhetoric of crisis and the reality of increasing book production and sales?
To the latter question, the Cold War is one inescapable and essential answer, but in broaching its role, caution is advised. As Deborah Nelson has noted, we are likely past the point where the "containment" metaphor for an anxious postwar culture needs to be asserted and defended as a counternarrative to what was once the standard, idealized version of the content 1950s. Now that the cultural power of Cold War ideology has been established by Ross, Donald Pease, Elaine Tyler May, and Alan Nadel, among others, the opportunity exists to shine a light on how that ideology intersected with other, also formidable, cultural, commercial, and institutional imperatives. It is important to recognize the Cold War's role, but it would be a mistake to view the concern about literacy after World War II as another instance of perhaps manufactured Cold War paranoia, whereby fears of the consequences of illiteracy, fed by anxiety about Communist infiltration, the masses, and totalitarianism, overwhelm empirical evidence that suggests those fears are baseless if not, at least, premature.
For one thing, such a view misses how interlocked were the articulations of alarm and the book trade's commercial success. As I discuss throughout this book, and in depth in Chapter 2 about Ray Bradbury's fantastically successful science fiction paperback Fahrenheit 451, institutions of the book trade, the ones that were benefiting most from the increase in reading expenditures, did much to disseminate the idea that the literary sky was falling, suggesting that what seems to be a disconnect between perception and reality might be better understood as a successful and shrewd, but not cynical, marketing strategy, one that paid off in the form of the sizable increase in book production and sales throughout the era. All of this is meant not to deny but to complicate the Cold War's considerable role in the marketing of culture during a tense historical moment. Anxieties about Communism did in many instances script the marketing of novels, sometimes directly but often indirectly, as a consequence of government and educational efforts to promote national literacy as a bulwark in the battle against Communism. Although the Cold War plays an essential role, it does so only alongside and in conjunction with other factors that demand but have received little or no attention from literary scholars, such as the previously mentioned modernization of the book trade after World War II and the exponential growth of America's college-educated population in the middle decades of the twentieth century, a process that began before the Cold War. Rebecca Lowen's assessment of the "Cold War university" applies as well to this study of early Cold War culture: "While America's research universities . . . were undoubtedly shaped by the more than forty years of cold war . . . other forces, which are not neatly bound by the beginning and end of the cold war, were shaping them as well" (1).
Shining a light on these "other forces" that shaped novel production at this crucial moment and on their intersections with Cold War ideology is one of this book's primary aims. Throughout the 1950s, institutions of the book trade engaged in a paradoxical project: using the genuinely felt alarm over the emergence of mass culture as a means to carve and define a space for the novel within a newly crowded commercial field, not just articulating a Cold War-inflected rationale for novels in the age of mass culture but also disseminating that rationale more widely and effectively than had ever been done before. That project—how it came about; how and why novelists, critics, and the book trade participated in it and how they were affected by it; and how it has affected the critical conversation about postwar novels—is the subject of this book.
The cultural and commercial project of redefining the novel for the television age occurred at a moment that in retrospect, like the era of mass culture itself, was transitional rather than final: when literary institutions, flush in the late 1940s with the end of wartime paper rations and the start of the postwar boom, first contended with television but before America's publishing houses were consolidated into mass-media empires, as they would be in earnest in the 1960s. An institutional account of the book trade during this transitional moment might include the following developments. In 1939, Robert de Graff and Simon & Schuster together formed Pocket Books, resulting, after World War II's paper rations ended, in the unprecedented ubiquity of books in America, both lowbrow genre fiction and literary classics, which were now sold not just in bookstores but also in train stations, pharmacies, and anywhere magazines were sold. The mass-market paperback would be followed by the more upscale trade paperback, which was more expensive, printed on higher quality paper, and sold in bookstores only, in the early 1950s: first Doubleday's Anchor Books, and later Knopf's Vintage and others. In 1943, the William Morris Agency, then the second-most powerful show business agency in the United States, established a separate department for representing authors of books, signifying both the growth of the literary agent's profession and, just as important, a mass-culture institution's belief in the profit-making potential of the book trade. As this book shows, the literary agent, whose role shifted markedly in this era, is a persistent symbol and presence in accounts of novel writing of the 1950s yet has received little attention. That William Morris represented not just commercial writers like James Michener but also literary stars like Paul Bowles, Ralph Ellison, and Robert Penn Warren hints at an untold story of 1950s literary culture: the continued growth of the audience for fiction marketed and received as literary. Another important moment occurred in 1944, Pocket Books and Simon & Schuster were merged into a small multimedia conglomerate called Field Enterprises, which included four radio stations, a newspaper, and a textbook publishing company. The merger was not an immediate trendsetter, but it was a harbinger of the widespread consolidation of the book trade that was to come and to which this era served as crucial prologue.
Running roughly parallel to this set of developments, the impact of which was felt throughout the 1950s, was a set of institutional initiatives begun in 1946, when American publishers joined forces to form the American Book Publishers Council (ABPC). The ABPC was a successor to numerous earlier attempts to modernize and organize the book trade, and it was the first one that effected genuine change. Its explicit aim was twofold: first, to unite competing publishers in pursuit of their common commercial interests and, second, just as important, to unite publishers with other institutions that had an interest in getting people to read. These included, of course, other commercial institutions of the book trade like bookstores and book manufacturers. But more meaningful alliances were formed with institutions outside the commercial field, including English teachers and professors (who perceived a strong interest in promoting the value of literature); religious institutions; and private-sector, concerned-citizen cold warriors, who believed that an educated, literate populace was a key element in the struggle to contain Communism. These new alliances reflected the dual status of the book as commodity and form of artistic expression with both civic and aesthetic value beyond its value as commerce. As Frederic G. Melcher, longtime editor of Publishers Weekly, put it in 1953, "Books have some advantages over steel in gaining public attention, for a million and more teachers and librarians serve daily, explaining to the new generation what books are and how to use them" ("An 'Industrial Family'").
Aiming to harness these advantages for the first time during a moment of extraordinary economic growth, the ABPC was instrumental in forming organizations with such names as the Committee on Reading Development (established in 1950) and the National Book Committee (established in 1954) ("Summary 1950" 224; "Review" 322). The latter committee exemplifies the collaboration that took hold during the decade. Its original officers included a university president, representatives from publishing houses, and the former Secretary of the Air Force, and its mission statement sets into relief the Cold War context of its effort to market books: "In a time of tension like the present, it is especially needful for citizens to see to it that books are made available for all . . . and above all, that they are read, so that we may understand the complex issues of our time and see our current crises in perspective" (qtd. in Grambs). To promote the buying of books, these committees established symposia and conferences on the value of reading and the need to promote it in both urban and rural areas, and they published volumes on the social and political importance of reading with titles like Wonderful World of Books (edited by Stefferud) and The Development of Lifelong Reading Habits (written by Grambs). The ABPC was also instrumental in creating, in conjunction with other institutions of the book trade, the National Book Awards, which were first awarded in 1950, and which were designed in part to be a literary alternative to the Pulitzer prize (English 58). The ABPC and the materials it produced have yet to figure in accounts of postwar American literary culture, but they provide crucial clues not just to the literary institutions' emerging ideology of the book but also to its increased ability to disseminate that ideology.
In these two lists of generally neglected institutional developments (only the story of the paperback has received a lot of attention; the rest have received either little or none), two overlapping stories are being told. The first is the story of the book trade's emerging relationship with mass-media institutions. In the decade or so between the emergence of postwar mass culture in 1948 and the publishing industry's own consolidation triggered by Random House's purchase of Knopf in 1960, both sets of institutions recognized common commercial interests, or ways in which they could achieve their separate commercial interests through collaboration. The creation of the William Morris Agency's literary department, which was headed by Helen Strauss, a former executive at Paramount Studios, and the merger of Simon & Schuster into Field Enterprises, a product of Field's belief, after seeing the sales of paperbacks, that the book trade would be increasingly profitable in the second half of the twentieth century, exemplify this nascent, mutually beneficial collaboration (Tebbel 4: 70-71). So too does the sharp increase, largely driven by the paperback, of movie tie-ins during the 1950s, whereby new books, or new versions of older books, and their movie versions are promoted together. As Emory Austin, the ominously titled "director of exploitation" for MGM told Publishers Weekly in 1956, "When the publisher is willing to spend the money and make the effort required, then we, for our part, are happy to do the same" ("Paperback Movie" 151).
But the story of collaboration between literary and mass-media institutions in the 1950s—the story of the institutional absence of a great divide—has been obscured in large part by the second story, that of the book trade's increasingly unified and centralized public response to mass culture's emergence, a response that, in the light of the first story, needs to be understood as largely rhetorical rather than substantive and thus as deeply ironic. At the historical moment in which the book trade's ties to the institutions that produced mass culture were strengthening, it had both a commercial and an ideological interest in positioning itself as separate from and opposed to mass culture, in language not dissimilar from that of the harshest and most uncompromising highbrow critics. This was a delicate rhetorical strategy, for to advertise novels as works of art or as works of transcendent social or political importance or as both, the book trade had to speak loudly about them without being noticed, without drawing attention to the fact that the production of books, whatever their artistic value and whatever their civic value, was always also a commercial enterprise.
This was one of the charges of the ABPC. As Pierre Bourdieu describes it, in the cultural world, "The less visible the investment, the more productive it is symbolically." Thus promotions within that world, "which in the business world take the overt form of publicity, must here be euphemized" ("Production" 77). In 1955, George Brockway, a vice president of Norton, addressed the convention of the Modern Language Association, a crucial partner in the project of promoting the book as a cultural good: "The road to salvation is, however, a simple one: all one needs to do is to increase the reading of books. . . . Publishers would not be much better off than they are today, because oddly enough a publisher doesn't make much more on a sale of 10,000 copies than he does on a sale of 5,000. But authors and booksellers would be vastly better off, and so would the country" (123). The book trade's challenge, made explicit in Brockway's address, was to minimize the visibility of its investment in books as a form of commerce—publishers, Brockway says, do not even benefit from increased sales, but the country does—because the perception of its distance from the commercial world was one crucial source of its value as a commodity. One way of doing this, as this book shows in some detail, was to embrace works that themselves presented novels as a bulwark against a threatening mass culture. Mass culture may have been, as Huyssen famously put it, "the hidden subtext of the modernist project" (47), but by the 1950s it was out in the open, an "enemy" uncovered, which is to say a rhetorical foil; the book trade, by its own design, was what was hidden.
Thus an inevitable irony of the book trade's promotional responses to mass culture is that they also, wisely, exploit the enormous commercial opportunities that mass culture offered; in the 1950s, books were advertised as never before on the radio and of course on television, in the form of both actual advertisements and book-related programming. "Publishers," Priscilla Coit Murphy notes, "embraced new media for the new advertising opportunities—even if they were competitors for their readers' time and money" (41). The first National Book Awards ceremony was broadcast on the radio (television coverage also was sought), and it featured musical numbers to enhance the ceremony's entertainment value, but what it aimed to advertise most of all was its literary credibility (Melcher, "1000" 1508). In promoting novels, the line between mere advertising and what Bourdieu calls the "production of belief" in the value of the novel beyond its market value was beginning to blur because the idea that the novel transcends commerce became a chief selling point to an increasingly educated audience in the age of mass culture. To the extent that the audience for fiction marketed as literary had grown, announcing the novel's distance from commerce and especially mass culture could quickly pay commercial dividends.
Spheres of Cultural Production
My aim in describing how novel-producing institutions marketed their products, here and throughout this book, is decidedly not to criticize them for engaging in commercial activities; rather, it is to show the specific commercial uses to which the idea of the literary was put into the age of television, an issue that scholarship of the era has yet to address. Nor is it my aim to suggest that because novels are always commodities and because in the 1950s the institutions that produced novels developed relationships with mass-media corporations, those novels are somehow artistically compromised. On the contrary, although it is important to recognize novels as commodities in order to appreciate how mass culture's emergence affected them, it is just as important to recognize that not all commodities are alike: the concrete differences between the institutions of the book trade and those of mass culture affected what they produced, and those effects matter. By Michael Kammen's useful definition, mass culture is that which is "nonregional, highly standardized, and completely commercial" (18). The book trade, for a variety of reasons, could never be thus. For one, barriers to entry into the trade have always been relatively low: it is far less expensive to publish a book than it is to produce a movie or television show, so the possibility of "mass control" over output by a small number of well-capitalized institutions (like the major Hollywood studios or three television networks) is diminished. According to sociologist Paul M. Hirsch, "Conglomerate middlemen do not have the capacity to transform diverse readers of books into a controllable market with an oligopolistic or monopolistic structure" (114); in short, novel production could never be like television production was in the 1950s or movie production in the first half of the twentieth century. Books are therefore inevitably a more "producer-oriented" than "consumer-oriented" trade, a distinction Hirsch borrows from Herbert Gans's study of the relationship between high culture and popular culture, and this is a sociological insight with consequences for both literary output and institutional studies of it.
In particular, Gans's insight has significant implications for this study of the postwar American novel and its institutions. Institutional studies of the arts have sometimes disdained close readings of texts themselves, on the grounds that the answers the studies seek are better found elsewhere (in the structures that distribute and legitimize those texts, for example). Throughout the 1950s, as the logic of modernization dictates and as this book shows, the machinery of literary production—the number and size of those structures, the institutions that stood between the novelist and the reader—was indeed growing, as publishing became less of a cottage industry and individual houses became more like conventional businesses. But one of the primary aims of this book is to show the degree to which novelists of the 1950s, as producers in a producer-oriented trade, participated within their novels in the promotion of the novel in general as a cultural and political good, often in terms that echoed the industry's promotional campaigns and the rhetoric of culture critics.
To view postwar novels in this light is, hopefully, to take a step toward overcoming what Pascale Casanova calls "the supposedly insuperable antinomy between internal criticism, which looks no further than texts themselves for their meaning, and external criticism, which describes the historical conditions under which texts are produced, without, however, accounting for their literary quality and singularity" (4-5). As there is no categorical separation between mass culture and other forms of culture, there is no such divide between the marketing of postwar American novels and the novels themselves; marketing went, as it were, all the way down, and novelists were, in effect rather than by design, essential collaborators in the project of producing belief in the novel's cultural value, cocreators of a promotional pitch that was inscribed into the novels themselves in ways that have yet to be appreciated. For this reason, this book is neither exclusively a marketing or business history nor exclusively a study of novelistic representations of mass culture. Either project, on its own, misses something essential about the complex relationship that developed between American novels of the 1950s and the emergent mass culture, which was alternately, if not at once, a marketing partner and a foil, a collaborator and a Cold War bogeyman. This relationship is better grasped by reexamining what and how novels communicated in the context of the book trade's slow, unsteady, largely neglected modernization, a story of a relatively small set of businesses capitalizing on an opportunity for growth, in part by collaborating with mass-media corporations and in part by advertising their distance from them.
Advertisements for Themselves
The novelist's role as promoter—his or her participation in the project of articulating the specific cultural value of the novel in the age of mass culture, typically by announcing his or her aloneness—was always paradoxical in ways that rarely found expression. These paradoxes are explored in the first two chapters of this book, which outline the emergence and novelistic articulation in the late 1940s and early 1950s of a strategy for advertising the literary novel and the emergence of an institutional apparatus for implementing that strategy, a network of relationships among publishers and between publishers and a range of other institutions. In the story of how Paul Bowles's avant-garde literary excursion became a best seller—with help from the William Morris Agency and Doubleday—and how Ray Bradbury's version of a little-esteemed form of genre fiction, published by paperback upstart Ballantine, became a staple of high school English classes, we find far more institutional continuity than institutional divide among supposedly disparate literary spheres. Literary institutions of the postwar era—publishers, teachers, and critics—embraced works that celebrated the idea of the writer's solitariness and juxtaposed that solitariness against a corrupt, decadent, or totalitarian mass culture, precisely because those works did the work of producing belief in the cultural and political value of the novel.
Conversely, the novels discussed in Chapters 3 and 4—Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Grace Metalious's Peyton Place, respectively—seemed to fail or refuse to do this work, and they were critically derided in the mid-1950s, the former as a "quintessentially middlebrow" compromise and the latter as a lowbrow scandal that precipitated a supposed cultural decline from which we have yet to recover. Both novels benefited from the increasingly sophisticated machinery of literary promotion that developed over the course of the 1950s, early examples of the synergy that would be one of the rationales for media mergers in the 1960s and after, and their marketplace success does indeed constitute the realization of a modernized book business's commercial potential, which had only begun to come to light in the late 1940s. But the to-date unexamined stories of the making and marketing of both novels confound the still-too-prevalent modernist narratives that connect the book trade's growth and the rise of mass culture to literary decline; it is one of this book's aims to unsettle the hold that these narratives of decline have had on accounts of cultural change after World War II. Between The Sheltering Sky and Peyton Place, two novels on opposite sides of an old version of the cultural spectrum, there exists, again, not a divide but a continuity that was obscured in the service of the myriad goals of collaborating cultural and economic institutions.
That continuity, and the growth of the book business that fostered it, was exposed late in 1959, when Random House sold 30 percent of its shares to the public and months later bought Knopf; the merger was front-page news in the New York Times (Talese 1). At almost the exact moment of the stock sale, Norman Mailer's unorthodox, early career retrospective Advertisements for Myself was published and, as Chapter 5 shows, its relentless exposé of the business of publishing is itself both a sometimes blinkered comment on what had become of the book trade over the period this book covers and a prescient example of how its transformation into a high-profile business might affect the ideology of the novel going forward. With Mailer's unorthodox example in mind, this book ends where it begins, in the twenty-first century. With hindsight, truly mass culture is a brief moment, the result of an unlikely set of circumstances that shifted the cultural ground beneath the novel and allowed it to be defined a certain way. Even as publishing houses have continued to consolidate, to be bought and sold by multimedia corporations over the past two decades, the number of choices for culture consumers has grown exponentially, and the mass audience, if it ever existed, has become ever more a fiction. Our current era, featuring a conceivably unlimited number of cultural niches, has shifted the ground beneath the novel yet again and in ways that we have only begun to consider.