Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel

Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel “This is a fucking AWESOME book!” Ayelet Waldman offered as a blurb for the book jacket of Cynthia Nixon’s novel Jarrettsville, the central subject of Under the Cover. The publishers at Counterpoint Press recognized this as an unserious quote, ultimately using Waldman’s more conventional, but equally effusive, blurb for the cover. Waldman’s two quotes did important, but distinct, work for Counterpoint. The blurb Counterpoint used on the cover positioned the book for audiences, as Waldman’s reputation in the name economy legitimated Jarrettsville as “literary.” Waldman’s unusable quote did just as important work. It offered to Counterpoint yet another indication of the enthusiasm they might expect from literary peers and reviewers. Given Counterpoint’s razor-thin profit margins, this blurb affirmed the staff’s enthusiasm for Jarrettsville, facilitating the consequential decisions they had to make in advance of the book’s launch. When the market is unpredictable, small indicators like this go a long way in giving Counterpoint confidence in their decisions. This is the world of Under the Cover, a detailed, revealing, and often dramatic account of the life of Jarrettsville. Through this device, Childress teaches us a great deal about the art worlds of authors, the changing nature of the publishing industry and its environs, and the ways readers take novels to make sense of the present. More than just a great biography of a book, with Under the Cover, we’ve reached peak sociology of culture. The book develops insights from many of the most influential works on production and reception. We see Becker’s Art Worlds in action, showing how the field of creation influences the writing process and product. From Nixon’s personal history to literary agents, fellow writers, university gigs, and even routine interactions with a Starbucks manager, Childress reveals how creativity is a “social collage.” We see publishing houses struggle with the fact that “all hits are flukes” (Bielby and Bielby 1994) and yet devise ways to control the process and outcome in an unruly marketplace. Counterpoint radically restructured Jarrettsville to avoid it being pigeonholed in a genre. They crafted passionate, but believable, pitches to field reps and retailers. They pored over covers and blurbs, and hired a famous photographer to snap the author’s photo. The book also reminded me of Radway’s Reading the Romance in the ways audiences intertwine Jarrettsville with their own experience, using novels as sources of personal reflection and reconsideration. What makes Under the Cover unique is the ability to demonstrate how the authorial intentions of Nixon, inflected by editors’ suggested revisions, come to shape and influence the meaning-making by audiences. In this way, this book is an important synthetic statement. Under the Cover does more than simply build upon and extend foundational insights from the sociology of culture. Childress brings these insights into maturity. He productively interlinks the fields of artistic creation, production, and reception, convincingly demonstrating how choices made in one field concatenate across the other fields. Systematically following one single object allowed Childress to show how these fields operate under distinct logics (arguing against the notion of a single “literary field”) while also highlighting the inextricable connections across the fields. Childress has gone full diamond by hitting all the points and connections of Griswold’s (1986) cultural diamond—something very few culture scholars have done fully, or to as great an effect. More than just pushing the sociology of culture forward into the next stage of development, Childress offers correctives to blind spots of these approaches. Childress makes too many interventions to address in this space, but let me highlight three. First, unlike much work from the production of culture approach, Childress is not allergic to biography. Given that Jarrettsville describes events from Nixon’s family past, her personal and family history intertwine in crafting the narrative of the book. Under the Cover could have ignored these personal details, solely focusing on more institutional factors. While Childress analyzes occupational, organizational, and industry factors—like the challenges of authorial careers or the changing landscape of literary agents—he brings these structural concerns to life through Nixon’s experience as an author. More importantly, we see how biography guides Nixon as she navigates these field constraints. Second, there is much to learn by disaggregating the field of creation from the field of production. Too often scholarship collapses these fields, but by breaking them apart Childress reveals the different logics of legitimation at play, from literary acclaim to sales figures. Given these different rules of the game and different coins of the realm, homologies across these fields may be messier than Bourdieu’s theories predict. Third, reception theory often ignores the intentions of the creator, assuming cultural objects are “empty vessels” to be filled with the meanings the audience brings to them (Carragee 1990). Childress wisely considers how the intended meanings might constrain interpretation, showing consensus between meanings intended and meanings made. Certainly, audiences breathed life into the novel through their own interpretations, but Under the Cover shows that by bringing the fields of creation and production into conversation with the field of reception, scholars of culture can tease out when intentions had more power than audiences (and vice versa) in establishing meaning. For all the analytical insight Childress brings to this biography of a single object, I was left wondering, “Is this really an account of a single text?” I ask this as a provocation, something we could (should!) discuss over a beer, not as a critique of this excellent work. Childress states that as objects move from one field to another, “their values must be translated so that they can make sense in ways that are familiar rather than foreign to their new hosts” (11). Childress considers, for instance, how editors and agents translate manuscripts into commensurate types called “comps,” likening Jarrettsville to other, better-known novels to divine market expectations. He notes that “What a manuscript “is” must be interactively and conversationally constructed through shared understandings about what different books “are”” (91). When Jarrettsville is pitched through the language of comps, is it still a manuscript in this moment? Actors in the field of production stopped talking about the book, and instead spoke of a representation of the novel made from amalgams of other books. Even as Under the Cover empirically traces how the book is translated from a book, to a blurb, and a pitch, and a cover, and a comp, and an author photo, and a review, and on, and on, its ontological status as a book is left unconsidered. My provocation here is important, I think, because it raises questions about when one cultural object ends and another begins, and how we go about analyzing such phase transitions. Under the Cover is a significant contribution to work on cultural objects. Readers, prepared to be bowled over by the wealth of data Childress collected and the depth of his analyses. I certainly was. If you know you’ve read a good book when you’re jealous that you didn’t write it yourself, then color me green. To sum up, permit me to poach the words of Ayelet Waldman: “This is a fucking AWESOME book.” References Becker , Howard . 1982 . Art Worlds . Berkeley : University of California Press . Bielby , William T. , and Denise D. Bielby . 1994 . “ All Hits Are Flukes: Institutionalized Decision Making and the Rhetoric of Prime-Time Program Development .” American Journal of Sociology 99 : 1287 – 1313 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Carragee , Kevin M. 1990 . “Interpretive Media Study and Interpretive Social Science.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 7 ( 2 ): 81 – 96 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Griswold , Wendy . 1986 . Renaissance Revivals: City Comedy and Revenge Tragedy in London Theatre from 1576 to 1980 . Chicago : University of Chicago Press . Radway , Janice A. 1991 . Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Romance . Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Social Forces Oxford University Press

Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel

Social Forces , Volume Advance Article – May 30, 2018

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0037-7732
eISSN
1534-7605
D.O.I.
10.1093/sf/soy047
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Abstract

“This is a fucking AWESOME book!” Ayelet Waldman offered as a blurb for the book jacket of Cynthia Nixon’s novel Jarrettsville, the central subject of Under the Cover. The publishers at Counterpoint Press recognized this as an unserious quote, ultimately using Waldman’s more conventional, but equally effusive, blurb for the cover. Waldman’s two quotes did important, but distinct, work for Counterpoint. The blurb Counterpoint used on the cover positioned the book for audiences, as Waldman’s reputation in the name economy legitimated Jarrettsville as “literary.” Waldman’s unusable quote did just as important work. It offered to Counterpoint yet another indication of the enthusiasm they might expect from literary peers and reviewers. Given Counterpoint’s razor-thin profit margins, this blurb affirmed the staff’s enthusiasm for Jarrettsville, facilitating the consequential decisions they had to make in advance of the book’s launch. When the market is unpredictable, small indicators like this go a long way in giving Counterpoint confidence in their decisions. This is the world of Under the Cover, a detailed, revealing, and often dramatic account of the life of Jarrettsville. Through this device, Childress teaches us a great deal about the art worlds of authors, the changing nature of the publishing industry and its environs, and the ways readers take novels to make sense of the present. More than just a great biography of a book, with Under the Cover, we’ve reached peak sociology of culture. The book develops insights from many of the most influential works on production and reception. We see Becker’s Art Worlds in action, showing how the field of creation influences the writing process and product. From Nixon’s personal history to literary agents, fellow writers, university gigs, and even routine interactions with a Starbucks manager, Childress reveals how creativity is a “social collage.” We see publishing houses struggle with the fact that “all hits are flukes” (Bielby and Bielby 1994) and yet devise ways to control the process and outcome in an unruly marketplace. Counterpoint radically restructured Jarrettsville to avoid it being pigeonholed in a genre. They crafted passionate, but believable, pitches to field reps and retailers. They pored over covers and blurbs, and hired a famous photographer to snap the author’s photo. The book also reminded me of Radway’s Reading the Romance in the ways audiences intertwine Jarrettsville with their own experience, using novels as sources of personal reflection and reconsideration. What makes Under the Cover unique is the ability to demonstrate how the authorial intentions of Nixon, inflected by editors’ suggested revisions, come to shape and influence the meaning-making by audiences. In this way, this book is an important synthetic statement. Under the Cover does more than simply build upon and extend foundational insights from the sociology of culture. Childress brings these insights into maturity. He productively interlinks the fields of artistic creation, production, and reception, convincingly demonstrating how choices made in one field concatenate across the other fields. Systematically following one single object allowed Childress to show how these fields operate under distinct logics (arguing against the notion of a single “literary field”) while also highlighting the inextricable connections across the fields. Childress has gone full diamond by hitting all the points and connections of Griswold’s (1986) cultural diamond—something very few culture scholars have done fully, or to as great an effect. More than just pushing the sociology of culture forward into the next stage of development, Childress offers correctives to blind spots of these approaches. Childress makes too many interventions to address in this space, but let me highlight three. First, unlike much work from the production of culture approach, Childress is not allergic to biography. Given that Jarrettsville describes events from Nixon’s family past, her personal and family history intertwine in crafting the narrative of the book. Under the Cover could have ignored these personal details, solely focusing on more institutional factors. While Childress analyzes occupational, organizational, and industry factors—like the challenges of authorial careers or the changing landscape of literary agents—he brings these structural concerns to life through Nixon’s experience as an author. More importantly, we see how biography guides Nixon as she navigates these field constraints. Second, there is much to learn by disaggregating the field of creation from the field of production. Too often scholarship collapses these fields, but by breaking them apart Childress reveals the different logics of legitimation at play, from literary acclaim to sales figures. Given these different rules of the game and different coins of the realm, homologies across these fields may be messier than Bourdieu’s theories predict. Third, reception theory often ignores the intentions of the creator, assuming cultural objects are “empty vessels” to be filled with the meanings the audience brings to them (Carragee 1990). Childress wisely considers how the intended meanings might constrain interpretation, showing consensus between meanings intended and meanings made. Certainly, audiences breathed life into the novel through their own interpretations, but Under the Cover shows that by bringing the fields of creation and production into conversation with the field of reception, scholars of culture can tease out when intentions had more power than audiences (and vice versa) in establishing meaning. For all the analytical insight Childress brings to this biography of a single object, I was left wondering, “Is this really an account of a single text?” I ask this as a provocation, something we could (should!) discuss over a beer, not as a critique of this excellent work. Childress states that as objects move from one field to another, “their values must be translated so that they can make sense in ways that are familiar rather than foreign to their new hosts” (11). Childress considers, for instance, how editors and agents translate manuscripts into commensurate types called “comps,” likening Jarrettsville to other, better-known novels to divine market expectations. He notes that “What a manuscript “is” must be interactively and conversationally constructed through shared understandings about what different books “are”” (91). When Jarrettsville is pitched through the language of comps, is it still a manuscript in this moment? Actors in the field of production stopped talking about the book, and instead spoke of a representation of the novel made from amalgams of other books. Even as Under the Cover empirically traces how the book is translated from a book, to a blurb, and a pitch, and a cover, and a comp, and an author photo, and a review, and on, and on, its ontological status as a book is left unconsidered. My provocation here is important, I think, because it raises questions about when one cultural object ends and another begins, and how we go about analyzing such phase transitions. Under the Cover is a significant contribution to work on cultural objects. Readers, prepared to be bowled over by the wealth of data Childress collected and the depth of his analyses. I certainly was. If you know you’ve read a good book when you’re jealous that you didn’t write it yourself, then color me green. To sum up, permit me to poach the words of Ayelet Waldman: “This is a fucking AWESOME book.” References Becker , Howard . 1982 . Art Worlds . Berkeley : University of California Press . Bielby , William T. , and Denise D. Bielby . 1994 . “ All Hits Are Flukes: Institutionalized Decision Making and the Rhetoric of Prime-Time Program Development .” American Journal of Sociology 99 : 1287 – 1313 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Carragee , Kevin M. 1990 . “Interpretive Media Study and Interpretive Social Science.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 7 ( 2 ): 81 – 96 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Griswold , Wendy . 1986 . Renaissance Revivals: City Comedy and Revenge Tragedy in London Theatre from 1576 to 1980 . Chicago : University of Chicago Press . Radway , Janice A. 1991 . Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Romance . Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

Social ForcesOxford University Press

Published: May 30, 2018

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