A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction

A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction

A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction

A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction


As television transformed American culture in the 1950s, critics feared the influence of this newly pervasive mass medium on the nation's literature. While many studies have addressed the rhetorical response of artists and intellectuals to mid-twentieth-century mass culture, the relationship between the emergence of this culture and the production of novels has gone largely unexamined.

In A Novel Marketplace, Evan Brier illuminates the complex ties between postwar mass culture and the making, marketing, and reception of American fiction. Between 1948, when television began its ascendancy, and 1959, when Random House became a publicly owned corporation, the way American novels were produced and distributed changed considerably. Analyzing a range of mid-century novels--including Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Grace Metalious's Peyton Place --Brier reveals the specific strategies used to carve out cultural and economic space for the American novel just as it seemed most under threat. During this anxious historical moment, the book business underwent an improbable expansion, by capitalizing on an economic boom and a rising population of educated consumers and by forming institutional alliances with educators and cold warriors to promote reading as both a cultural and political good.

A Novel Marketplace tells how the book trade and the novelists themselves successfully positioned their works as embattled holdouts against an oppressive mass culture, even as publishers formed partnerships with mass-culture institutions that foreshadowed the multimedia mergers to come in the 1960s. As a foil for and a partner to literary institutions, mass media corporations assisted in fostering the novel's development as both culture and commodity.


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 . . .

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