An Author Thanks His Collaborative Readers

My warmest thanks to Dave Mazella, Eleanor Shevlin, and Joseph Byrne for their perceptive comments on The Enlightenment and the Book. I found the summaries of the introduction and four of the chapters detailed and accurate, and the commentary interesting and engaging. I am of course delighted that you all found so many good things to say about the book. It was very gratifying.

Here are some of the comments that I found particularly useful and provocative:

  • Eleanor’s distinction between the sociological and the sociohistorical
  • Eleanor’s suggestion that I may actually be presenting the practices of authors rather than a model of authorship
  • Dave and Joseph’s perceptions that chapters that I thought presented pretty strong arguments were “descriptive” rather than “argumentative,” and the ways that this distinction was explored
  • Dave’s question about who the “losers” were (are there always winners and losers?), and Joseph’s remarks about the losers being at the low end of the publishing spectrum (chapbooks and such)
  • Eleanor’s questioning my use of the term “Places” in the section of chapter 3 titled “Patrons, Publishers, and Places” (in my quest for alliteration, I may have failed to realize that the term is ambiguous in that context, though I meant it only to mean positions; I know, that term would have been alliterative too, but “places” is a more authentic eighteenth-century word)
  • Joseph’s point about my being too hard on Constable and publishing in nineteenth-century Edinburgh (maybe so: I would be the first to say that I am no expert on nineteenth-century publishing; if my book encourages others to establish on firm grounds what has up to now been accepted only on hearsay, I will be quite happy with that outcome)
  • Dave’s reluctance to follow his instincts to “Matt’s and Jery’s visit to the Grubs in Humphry Clinker” when reading my chapter 2, because “Sher is to some extent trying to wrest book history away from the preoccupations of literary history” (not at all, Dave! I am trying to fashion a form of book history that will be helpful to literary history. If my book helps literary historians in any way, I shall be very pleased to know it.)

I was also interested in the ongoing discussion about subjects omitted from the book or not developed enough there. Ephemera headed the list, but Dave also mentioned genre as a subject worthy of further consideration, and reading came up too. Eleanor I think alluded to a review by Roger Emerson which argues that my book pays too much attention to book publishing at the expense not of other areas of print culture such as reading and ephemera but of patronage and other matters. I find this a difficult and sometimes frustrating line of criticism (especially so in the case of Emerson’s review, which seems to me to be more about his own work than mine). For that reason I was pleased to see that the discussion in this forum raised the issue of exactly how ephemera might have been relevant to this particular book and seemed to conclude that it would not be. I can certainly see how topics such as the reception of Scottish Enlightenment books and Continental European reprints and translations of them might have been added to the book, but I don’t see how I could have done them justice within a reasonable time frame and a reasonable number of pages (some would say that the number of pages is already unreasonable!). In his recent review of my book in the Journal of Modern History (81, June 2009, 405–407), Adrian Johns points out some of these missing elements (e.g., how the books under discussion were read and what role Continental Europe played) but then concludes, generously and I think fairly: “Such self-denying ordinances, while they may be controversial, are also defensible; it is arguably thanks to them that the book’s conclusions can rest on such firm empirical grounds. Still, authoritative as The Enlightenment and the Book is, there remains room for a volume 2.” (407) I am full agreement with Joseph’s statement that print culture (or whatever we call it – I’m not going to go there!) is “a continuum, including ephemera, magazines, newspapers, and of course books” (pamphlets too), and I also believe that these formats, as well as reading and reception, are as important as components of print culture as book publishing. But I don’t think it’s fair to expect all the components to be present in every volume.

One of the early posts provided excerpts from several of the reviews of the book. I have seen about thirty reviews so far, and I have been very pleased with the reception. But one point has surprised and disappointed me. Although the book has “America” in its title and contains two chapters on American print culture during the late eighteenth century, no notice has been taken of the book in any journal devoted to American history, literature, or culture. Why is that, I wonder?

 Finally, I have some thoughts about error and correction. This topic is very much on my mind these days because I am currently having discussions with my publisher about whether the paperback edition of The Enlightenment and the Book, which is supposed to appear in 2010, will or will not contain corrections. Because the smart money at the moment is that it won’t, I intend to discuss some of these errors and their corrections in a separate post. But for now, I will simply note that readers should be careful about accepting information uncritically just because it appears in precise-looking tables or appendices. (I am thinking mainly of the appendices in another book that came up frequently in the blogs on my book, but the same rule applies to every book, mine included.)

Thanks again for all your comments.



6 responses to “An Author Thanks His Collaborative Readers

  1. Eleanor Shevlin


    Thank you very much for a thoughtful response to our discussion. I think I can speak for all three of us when I say that it has been a pleasure spending time with your book and that the stimulating exchange it generated has been useful to us all.

    When Dave first posted about genre, I actually felt that this topic might have seemed extraneous to your purposes and arguments. Yet in reading chapter 3 for my posting, I really began to see why Dave had brought this issue up–and was glad that he did. As Dave noted at the time, it might be the basis for another project (for you or another scholar), but I do think you would have some very interesting things to say about this issue if you were able to add material to the paperback edition or if you wished to put forth ideas in an essay (or if you decided to take up Johns’s suggestion for a volume 2).

    I also found the very different directions from which Dave and I were approaching this book (Joseph’s work, I know, is more involved in print culture studies) fascinating. I have already mentioned this fascination in a post, but I raise it again here because of your clarification, Rick, about “trying to fashion a form of book history that will be helpful to literary history” rather than, to quote Dave, trying to wrest book history away from the preoccupations of literary history.” Dave’s impression might have stemmed from comments in your introduction about how book historians have relied heavily on English literary texts as evidence. For literary historians, your work offers a broader context in which to consider literary production. This context can help literary scholars test and assess received notions about authorial practices, production and more. It also gives us the opportunity to explore literary genres from a potentially richer perspective of generic systems (as Dave suggested). My own work in book history has encouraged me to rethink the way I approach literary studies on several fronts–for instance, I am much more attentive to the role of the publisher/bookseller. This attentiveness began with my work on titling practices and the history of the title as a textual practices. Literary scholars often make arguments about titles and authorial intentions–and sometimes do so when it was the bookseller or publisher who devised the title. (Titles, especially working titles, can, of course, offer insights about authorial aims; in the case of working titles, they can chart an author’s composition process.) I also tend to pay far more attention to the material forms of texts–and do so at times in ways that depart at times from traditional bibliographic practices. For example, rather than looking at a particular work and its variants across editions, in cases in which I am interested in discovering material affinities among various titles, I sometimes use a particular work as the “copy text” and trace physical variants across a body of works.

    I’ve been exposed more and more to nineteenth-century publishing because of my work on Harrison — he died in 1818. But my knowledge can be far sketchier as I cross that 1798 divide! I need to re-read chapter 6, but I wonder, Joseph, if your comments about Constable were based on your working in this period or more on Rick’s phrasing and presentation (either way, they were interesting remarks).

  2. Rick, thanks for the lovely remarks here. I’ve got some thoughts on these, but need to hit the road to get home later today. I’ll check in again this evening, to see if I can elaborate some of the points here about the intersections of literary study and the study of print culture . . . .

  3. Rick,

    Reading your book made me self-conscious about the degree to which I’ve assumed the priorities of literary history while exploring the history of the book in a more general sense. This is one reason why I thought an exploration of genre would help us remember the range of writings being produced at any given time.

    I was curious, though, about which aspects of print culture/history of the book get overemphasized when literary values are overgeneralized? Would anyone care to elaborate on that question?

    • Eleanor Shevlin

      Hi, Dave

      I think your point about genre that you raised early on in our discussions was extremely important. The genre issue also perhaps offers an example of what gets over-emphasized. When you initially raised the issue of genres, you asked about “hierarchies of genre,” a term that implies an ordering by status or value. As literary scholars, we tend to think in terms of values (or labeling of certain texts as “literary” is at the heart of the discipline’s history; this emphasis on value is of course shifting and we have expanded our values beyond aesthetics–for example, the cultural work a text performs–as the canon has expanded). As a consequence, some literary scholars approaching book history tend to focus on novels, plays, and other genres that have been accorded more value in the discipline. Similarly, more canonical authors are privileged. Those literary scholars who have become quite immersed in book history/print culture studies seem far less bound by traditionally disciplinary values and boundaries (not always the case, though). Joseph’s work on ephemera and chapbooks offers one example. Peter Stallybrass’s interest in the “little jobs” is another. My own work on Harrison does deal with the novel in some ways but does so from very different angles than the genre typically receives at hands of literary scholars (and in many ways, the novel is just a small part of the work). Literary values have also privileged the author as the creator of the text–and ignored or given short shrift to the publisher. This emphasis has, among other effects, skewed studies of copyright. Similarly, literary values often de-emphasize or ignore economic factors. These are just a few effects. Rick’s introduction addresses a number of effects, some of which I have also mentioned here.

      A number of literary scholars today are interested in print culture studies/book history (broadly conceived to include manuscripts, ephemera, etc.), but of course, literature has a number of approaches, and this one is only one among many. I also see literary scholars who are essentially doing this particular type of historical work but don’t realize it–and also some who say or think they are engaged with this type of work, but whose work seems to suggest otherwise.

  4. Eleanor, and Rick (if you’re listening), I’ve been thinking some more about the role of literature in print culture studies, and wondering whether the issue is about the habit of literary scholars to try to single out a “dominant” genre (in the manner of Tynianov) out of the literary system of any particular moment, and rely upon the evidence regarding that dominant genre or set of writers to extrapolate for the whole system. So at one level I think the question is about the selectivity of the evidence, and what steps we can take to correct for it. But in some cases the scantiness of the evidence makes it even harder to do that kind of compensatory work to offset the best-known cases.

  5. Eleanor Shevlin


    Do you think it might be more a matter of the parameters of what constitutes a “literary system” for literary scholars? In other words, while many literary scholars might read Adrian Johns’s Nature of the Book, the works that form the subject of his book are not typically ones that literary scholars teach and publish essays and books about. Literary scholars seem to represent the largest discipline working in the interdisciplinary fields of book history and print culture studies. (SHARP membership broken down by departmental affiliations support this claim.) That poetry, drama, and fiction arguably represent the “genres” most studied by literary scholars (although that seems to be changing some) establishes a selectivity of evidence from the start.