Literature and Society

Key terms: writing, publishing, distribution and reading; financial background, time, education; class, gender, race; patronage, subscription, literary market; censorship


Writers and readers, like all of us, live in societies, whose structures, laws, values, economic practices and technological development have an obvious effect on the writing, publishing, distribution and reading of literary works, and thus tend to inform the texts themselves as well.

As far as writing and reading is concerned, access to financial support, time, education and experience appear to be the determining factors. These factors, in turn, are largely dependent on social distinctions like those of class, gender and race. For example, an education in the classics of Greek and Roman literature, which was for centuries seen as much a prerequisite of writing serious literature as literacy itself, was at the same time virtually only accessible for males belonging to the upper and middle classes of society. (This accounts for the relative scarcity of women or ‘working class’ male writers in the canon of English literature in, for instance, the 16-17th centuries.) On the other hand, the size and quality of a work’s potential readership is also determined by similar factors. For instance, from the 18th century on, the gradual spread of wealth towards the middle classes and a spread of literacy towards the labouring classes as well as the lowering cost of publication due to developments in the technology of printing and paper production contributed to the radical broadening of the fiction-reading public by the mid-19th century. Trying to write for this very broad readership, writers like Charles Dickens could not rely simply on a readership with a solid traditional education: the frequent Homeric references that Fielding could still afford to use in the mid-eighteenth century in his novel Tom Jones (1749) could have alienated the audiences of Dickens’s popular successes like the short story A Christmas Carol (1843) or the novel David Copperfield (1849-50) a century later.

Writing being a time- and energy-consuming effort, the kind of financial support that a writer can rely on to carry out this activity can also easily affect the works themselves. Writers who had comfortable backgrounds and thus did not need to write with a view to pleasing patrons or readers had more freedom to make their literary choices. Noblemen like Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) wrote mainly as a pastime and for literary fame, and not for the larger but more impersonal audiences afforded by printing, therefore they had their works circulate as manuscripts among friends and family only. This educated and familiar readership may help explain the classical setting, aristocratic characters, philosophical and moral discussions and elaborate rhetorical language of Sidney’s prose romance Arcadia, which was written around 1580, but was first published only posthumously in 1590. Jane Austen, who lived with her family and had a secure although modest income after her clergyman father, did not seem to depend on the small independent income she made from her novels, and could easily reject both the patronage and the literary interference of the librarian of the Prince of Wales, who had tried to suggest suitable themes (a romance about the ruling royal house) and characters (an erudite clergyman much like the librarian himself) for her writing with the prospect of thus gaining advantages. Emily and Anne Brontë, whose background was similar, appear to have contributed substantially to the printing costs of Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Gray (both 1847) and received no financial return afterwards. Not living by their writing, they wrote without courting the taste of either patrons or broad audiences: Wuthering Heights was much criticised for hurting public moral sensibilities, and the commercial success of Anne’s second and last novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) was further hindered by certain circulating libraries apparently refusing to buy it on the ground of moral objections.

Many writers, however, needed to rely on the patronage of rich and powerful personages or the state. An awareness of Edmund Spenser’s dependence on income from his official posts may add to our understanding of the elaborate allegory of his The Faerie Queene, in which — among other things — the ruling queen Elizabeth I is glorified in various shapes. After the printing of the first three books in 1590, Spencer received pension from the queen herself. John Dryden (1631-1700) held the official post of the royal ‘Poet Laureate’ when with his biblically inspired political satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681) he entered the debate on the succession of the future James II on the side of the current king Charles II and his brother the heir to the throne. The post of the Poet Laureate still survives in Britain, although it no longer involves either a substantial stipend or the formal duty of producing poetry for state occasions. The function of such public patronage is increasingly taken over by writer’s grants, awards and university positions of writers in residence.

Private patronage, though convenient in giving security, placed writers into a dependent position, which they often resented. Samuel Johnson tried to elicit the patronage of Lord Chesterfield by addressing his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language (1747) to him. Chesterfield not responding, the writer worked under very difficult circumstances while he produced his highly influential Dictionary of the English Language (1755), in which he famously and unflatteringly defined a ‘patron’ as ‘Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery’. As many writers seemed to share Johnson’s view, the practice of private patronage gradually lost ground, although it did survive into the twentieth century. A famous (and perhaps somewhat uncharacteristically happy) late example of patronage is that of Dublin-born modernist writer James Joyce (1882-1941), who was enabled to keep writing and meticulously re-writing his highly innovative, influential and monumental texts Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) by the generous support he received for himself and his family from 1917 until after his death from editor and literature lover Harriet Shaw Weaver. With patronage becoming less important, dedications, which were once indicators of effective financial support (a practice parodied in the mock dedication of Henry Fielding’s Shamela), became mere gestures of literary homage (and, possibly, suggestions of shared merit). This was the case, for instance, with Charlotte Brontë’s dedication of her novel Jane Eyre (1847) to the famous novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.

As the readership widened, so there were more opportunities of making sufficient income from professional writing directed increasingly towards the literary market and thus independent of patronage. A convenient and prestigious combination of the advantages of private patronage and market economy was the publishing of works by subscription, which provided a secure profit for publishers while also enabling authors to support themselves and their literary activities from the advance payments of well-to-do subscribers. Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who as a Catholic could have no hope of either official posts or state patronage, managed to make a large profit and secure his financial independence by publishing his translation of Homer’s Iliad (1715-20) and Odyssey (1726) by subscription in an expensive large format, after which he was happy to write, “(thanks to Homer) since I live and thrive / Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive”. This independence did, of course, help Pope to give free vent in his later satires to his criticisms of the Hanoverian royal family for their lack of wit and culture.

From the 18th century onwards, more and more professional writers tried to base their living on publishing on the literary market. Theatre, of course, had been a scene of commercial competition much earlier: Shakespeare, who knew how to write for an audience with a wide range of social and educational backgrounds and cater for all tastes, managed to make substantial profit from his involvement with the theatre as playwright, actor and entrepreneur. A century later Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) turned to the increasingly more profitable activity of prose fiction writing at the age of 59 after a long career of being (among other things) a merchant, a secret agent and journalist to various political parties. When Defoe produced fictions like Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), he clearly aimed at commercial success by their pretence of containing reality, their action-packed plots, and their lifelike characters paralleling the potential readership in energetically fighting for survival in a world measured in material success. Another century later, Charles Dickens would base his career as a professional writer on reaching unprecedented numbers of readers by serialising his fiction first in cheap independent weekly parts (or instalments), and later still more inexpensively in his own magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. Serialisation, which with novels like Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41) reached record circulations, provided the writer with a sustained and predictable income over long periods, but it also had some inevitable effects on the texts. Thus, works published serially offered no chance for a unifying final revision or re-writing before the re-publication in volume form, which for fastidious critics like Henry James (1843-1916) resulted in them becoming “loose baggy monsters”. Moreover, the need for memorable characters encouraged exaggerated characterisation, and the need to keep up continued readerly interest encouraged the ending of instalments with unexpected turns like the revelation at the middle of Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3) that Krook must have died of ‘Spontaneous Combustion’, or the heroine’s dramatic recognition of a lying figure later in the same novel: ‘I lifted the heavy head, put the long dank hair aside, and turned the face. And it was my mother, cold and dead.’ Dickens liked to think of his relationship with his audience as one of ‘mutual understanding’, and was willing to go to great lengths to adjust his writing to readers’ preferences, as he did famously when he replaced the originally rather bleak ending of Great Expectations (1860-61) by the more hopeful one that survives today: ‘the evening mists were rising now, and in the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.’

In addition to determining access to the activity of writing and reading, social forces also tend to exercise various ways of control over the publication and distribution of literature. Such control can be called censorship in the broad sense, its most obvious form being the pre-publication censorship (pre-censorship, licensing) by state or church censors. English fiction has by now been fortunate enough to enjoy more than three centuries of largely unbroken freedom from pre-publication censorship since 1695, when the parliament deliberately failed to renew the Licensing Act. This enabled early political satirists like Delarivière (or Mary de la Rivière) Manley (c. 1672-1724) to achieve great popular success by publishing her anti-government “key novels” The Secret History of Queen Zarah (1705) and The New Atlantis (1709). As the government did try (unsuccessfully) to suppress the latter by legal means after publication, it is likely that the book could not have been published under licensing. As theatre was often regarded as more potentially dangerous and requiring more direct control, this naturally affected the lives of dramatists. The most blatant state interference happened in 1642, when under Puritan influence the English parliament had public theatres closed down, and they were only re-opened after a complete change of political power in 1660. More positively, the lasting achievement of Henry Fielding as a novelist is to some extent also the result of state interference with theatres. Fielding’s successful career as a writer of, among other plays, witty and popular anti-government satires was broken by the authorities (re)introducing the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 in order to effect censorship on dramatic productions, which made the writer turn to fiction writing for self-expression and financial support, producing first the topical literary parody Shamela (1741), then eventually his great novels Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749). (Stage censorship survived in Britain until as late as 1967. Since then, its social function has been largely taken over by the British Board of Film Classification, formerly British Board of Film Censors, which aims at classifying the moving image — especially film, video/DVD and video games — into “advisory and age-related categories” in order to help protect, for instance, young viewers from violent contents.)

The happy freedom of English literature from official pre-publication censorship has not meant, however, complete artistic freedom from other kinds of control. As English law allowed the prosecution of the printers and publishers on grounds of the blasphemous, obscene, seditious and defamatory content of what they published, prosecution or the threat of prosecution made printers and publishers cautious and this affected writers and works alike. For instance, the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses stopped in England when the printers refused to set type to it in late 1919, more than a year before the American publishers were fined and the novel was legally banned in the United States following a prosecution for obscenity. The book thus being practically banned in the English-speaking world, the writer reacted by extensively revising the book for its eventual publication in France in 1922, introducing even more formal experimentation, more literary allusions — and even more sexual candour, turning it into the masterpiece we know now.

In addition to legal considerations, writing has been much affected by the economic and moral considerations of publishers. The nineteenth-century ideal of virtuous family readings gave rise to the idea that the female readership of ‘respectable’ literature must be protected from exposure to potential sexual corruption through the text. Thus editors of family magazines saw it as their duty (partly moral, partly financial) to ensure a broad readership (including young women) by exercising censorship over potentially objectionable words and passages which could, in Dickens’s words, ‘bring a blush into the cheek of the young person’. Thus, Thomas Hardy’s great novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) was first rejected by three serious magazines on grounds of its ‘improper explicitness’, and could only be published in the more populist Graphic on condition that the writer would make several changes. These included the (by now rather ridiculous) introduction of a wheelbarrow so that the male hero could carry some milkmaids across a flooded path without the shocking indecency of holding them in his arms. More painfully, Hardy had to cut out the crucial scene of Tess’s seduction and possibly even rape by Alec d’Urberville, replacing it with a fake marriage, and leave out the tragic story of Tess’s struggle for the survival and then salvation of her baby. Although Hardy restored his original text for the volume publication, the narrator’s silence on what exactly happened between Tess and Alec is a reminder of Victorian sensibilities. Hardy’s next novel Jude the Obscure (1895), which also had to be altered before it could be serialised, excited devastating criticism and was publicly burned by a bishop. After a career of 25 years, Hardy decided to give up novel writing for the remaining 33 years of his life.

Similar moral censorship was also exercised in the 19th century by the private subscription libraries called circulating libraries, which were the other major source of affordable fiction. The fashionable, respectable and high-status format for first publications of novels in the 19th century, the three volume “three-decker” was too expensive for anyone except for the wealthiest to buy regularly. Publishers would therefore not risk money in publishing books unless they could be sure of large orders from circulating libraries. As owners of these libraries tried to ensure respectability and wide readership by enforcing strict morals, the dilemma of writers wishing for greater freedom of literary expression was reduced, as novelist Walter Besant (1836-1901) said, to ‘a question of money – shall he restrict his pencil or shall he restrict his purse’. After Anglo-Irish novelist George Moore (1852-1933) had his novel A Modern Lover (1883) rejected by several circulating libraries, he decided to challenge their monopoly by publishing his 1885 novel A Mummer’s Wife in much cheaper single volume directed at a market of buyers rather than borrowers, setting an example that soon became the standard practice. However, circulating libraries did manage to transfer some of their moral caution to British public libraries, which became widespread after the 1850s: as late as 1949, it was still apparently a valid concern for many British public librarians whether they should ban Fielding’s Tom Jones from the shelves altogether or just to place it under restricted access.

Since publishing is still a commercial activity in which securing a large readership is a primary concern,educational authorities and literary critics can also have their influence on what is printed and what is not. Most obviously, editions of a work which is declared to be part of the literary canon and therefore features on school or university curricula will hardly fail to meet with widespread demand. Thanks to the efforts of, for instance, feminist literary criticism to broaden the range of books that are or should be read at a university level, many noteworthy books which had been out of print for a long time have been brought back into print by serious publishers. As for contemporary works, literary prizes (like the Booker Prize) provide publicity which can (like the Academy Award in the case of films) help them reach larger audiences. Finally, the availability of texts has been dramatically increased by technological advancement enabling us to access digitally stored texts via internet sites.

Excercises