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The dawn of commercial fiction

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Monday, Oct 24, 2005

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change sheds a great deal of light on the dawn of the commercial-print business and the advent of fiction-writing as a profession. This seems a pivotal moment, the beginning of the culture industry as we know it and the various paradoxes that adhere to the making of art for profit—are artists disinterested arbiters of taste or are they simply craftsman making a specialized commodity? Should one judge one’s merit in terms of how wide an audience one reaches, how many people’s attention you can hold, as the logic of the marketplace suggests? Or should artists properly resist such philistine assessments, and define themselves in opposition to market rationale. How do artists balance the need for publicity with the need to establish a reputation by scorning it?


Eisenstein theorizes that the divide between “competent businessmen” with no leisure or interest in imaginative fiction and fiction writers who had inherently “a vested interest in idleness, in promoting the value of pleasure seeking and leisure, in cultivating consumption of the ‘finer’ things of life” surfaced with commercial printing. This opposition, this “inversion of values” leads to uneasy alliances when fiction-writers would try to scandalize bourgeois values to make profits with the help of those they were scandalizing. She posits an inevitable sensationalism developing in print culture, fueled by the professional writer’s need to hold the attention of the idle, who would be drawn to “vicarious participation in this particular sport” of scandal. In this, novels are merely following the pattern of consumer products in general, as they become sold increasingly for the novelty rather than their usefulness. The novel (the name is not accidental) is the ur-commodity in this sense, because it was never particularly useful and always was the quintessence of an object valuable only for the semblence of novelty it promises. The printing press transforms writing into a commodity (one of the first, pathbreaking ones pointing the way to a consumer society driven on marketing branded, specicoulsy differentiated goods) and makes writers into an especially alienated species of widget maker.


And Eisenstein’s characterization of the earliest professional authors is unsparing. “Alone with his quill pen, altogether remote from workshops and foundries, equally remote from the fickle readers upon whom his fame and fortune hinged, the professional author did not simply mirror the alienation of others from an industrial or urbanized society. He was himself an alienated man who worked hard to promote leisure, fought for commercial success that he despised, set wives against husbands, fathers against sons, and celebrated youth even in his old age.” (This description remains depressingly accurate for many who write for lifestyle magazines.) The professional writer relies on a novelty that he comes to despise and must manufacture conflicts to create the cultural space for his product to exist, all while regarding his clients as rubes, sheep. In Eisenstein is right, this kind of professional writer is in bad faith with himself, his audience and his culture. It’s a wonder anything gets written at all.

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