Nicholas Mason. Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism

By Parker, Mark | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Nicholas Mason. Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism


Parker, Mark, Studies in Romanticism


Nicholas Mason. Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Pp. 216. $49-95.

The astringencies of publishing history are always tonic. Nicholas Mason's Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism is an illuminating reminder of the importance of economics and system in the production of the literature that we have come to call Romantic.

Mason opens his study with two anecdotes that sketch the decline from high literary ideals to market realism in the book trade. The first concerns the founding of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Although William Blackwood intended an independent and impartial magazine, Blackwood's quickly made a graceless dive into "the mire of literary puffery" (7). Regular contributors like John Gibson Lockhart and John Wilson reviewed each other with shameless enthusiasm. Mason follows this edifying vignette of Romantic logrolling with a modern instance: Amazon's swift turn from "savior" of literature into sales agent, as it merged its initially independent editorial staff with the marketing division and began to sell packaged reviews and prominent placement to authors and publishers. But Mason's purpose here is not simply to moralize over hucksterism among minor Romantic literati and today's global booksellers: he wishes to explore the connections between literary idealism and the marketplace. Fie sets out four broad claims: 1. That literature and advertising share a "common genealogy"--in fact, they "co-produced each other"; 2. That "periodical criticism and the author function were born out of the advertising logic that permeated Britain in what has come to be called the 'Romantic Century'" (5); 3. That modern advertising methods generally originate in the book trade; and 4. That this same detested advertising culture inspired and continues to inspire literary idealism.

Mason lays out his case with uncommon care, clarity, and a welcome dash of sly humor. Chapter One begins with a consideration of George Henry Francis's 1852 essay in Fraser's Magazine, "The Science of Puffing," which neatly anticipates one part of Mason's argument and confirms another. Francis clearly sees advertising as both "a system" and "scientifically employed" (12); he dates the establishment of this system to the early part of the century, and he assumes that advertising and literature are entwined. Francis does not support his claims--he apparently considers them so obvious as to need no argument or evidence--but Mason does. He carefully lays out the scholarship supporting the claim that advertising began earlier in the 19th century and that it is entangled with literature.

This effectively clears the ground for Mason's own argument. Chapter Two traces the development of puffery in the book trade. William Caxton, who not only introduced the printing press to Britain but also created the first print ad, epitomizes the common genealogy of literature and advertising. Mason then shifts to other exemplary figures, such as Alexander Pope, who benefited greatly from various publicity schemes, and Samuel Richardson, who managed to arrange for puffs of his Pamela in pulpit, in bespoke article, in the book itself (with carefully placed testimonies), and perhaps even through a denunciatory pamphlet that conveniently pointed out the lubricious passages of the novel. Mason then widens his scope to consider the Ralph Griffith's Monthly Review, which "can be said to have further accelerated the incursion of advertising logic into the production and dissemination of literature" (45). By 1770, puffing had become fairly common in the world of books and bookselling. Sheridan's 1779 The Critic makes this clear, as its satire details the means and modes of the puff sharply. By the time of Sheridan's play, advertising had become routine: there were professional critics, they worked according to a system, and they were accepted in this role. …

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