The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers

The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers

The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers

The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers

Synopsis

The Fame Machine explores how the concept of the literary career was reshaped by the commodification of writing in the eighteenth century, a period between an age of substantial sponsorship by the nobility and the fully developed literary market of the nineteenth century. It argues that, as the conditions of literary production shifted from a patronage system to an open market, the traditional means by which authors measured their success and acquired their credentials changed as well. The book shows that in the open market critical periodicals stepped in and assumed the role of official arbiters of literary merit, to the extent that Byron would call the reviewers of his day the "monarch-makers in poetry and prose". In tracing this process, the author focuses on two successful mid-century journals, the Monthly Review (founded in 1749) and the Critical Review (founded in 1756), which dedicated themselves exclusively to reviewing new publications. Examining the professional lives of Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith, Tobias Smollett, and several women authors, the book makes the case that the Reviews in effect constructed the narratives that we would now call literary careers.

Excerpt

Laurence Sterne offers perhaps the most valuable case study of a mid- eighteenth-century literary career. His decision at age 45 to "turn author" is uniquely premeditated, yet his uncertainty about the conditions of authorship in the literary world he so assertively entered is equally remarkable. Both his self-consciousness and his confusion can be traced with considerable accuracy in letters, Tristram Shandy, and A Sentimental Journey. They make up the history of his struggle to discover what it meant to be an author in his time. We can mark each stage of his unsteady progress toward attaining celebrity and understanding the nature of his own fame. We can also observe, in the rise and decline of the Tristram Shandy fashion in the early 1760s and the subsequent success of A Sentimental Journey in the late 1760s, how one author responded to gaining, then losing, then regaining the adulation of the various publics that defined him as a cultural figure.

Sterne's case is an especially illustrative one for this study because he reenacts the transition from patrons and a coterie audience to booksellers and a consuming public that had transformed authorship as a whole during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Though that transformation took place over a period of more than a century, Sterne, I will argue, experienced it all during his brief career as a writer. in a way that is matched perhaps only by Samuel Johnson's indignant rejection of Lord Chesterfield's patronage in 1755, the story of Sterne's career is emblematic of the most basic . . .

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