In 2017, Reese Witherspoon partnered her with her media company Hello Sunshine to form Reese’s Book Club, an organization dedicated to promoting “a truer, newer narrative for women” (Reese’s Book Club Website). Since its creation, RBC has launched dozens of unknown female authors into literary stardom. And Kristen McLean, an executive for the publishing data provider BookScan, argues that a selection is “the equivalent of winning the lottery” (Grady). This paper attempts to produce a sociological study of RBC by exploring the honorific of “RBC pick” and charting the commercial journey of one or more of its selections.
In his book on popular 20th-century British fiction, Joseph McAleer explains that “escapism…[was] the principal motive in reading” (1) for working-class adults from 1914-1950. He adds, “Reading as a means of escape intensified in times of adversity such as the war and the depression” (1). While reading E.M. Hull’s popular romance novel The Sheik (1919), I found myself wondering what would’ve made this book appealing to its main audience: working-class women. McAleer cites a passage from The Times (1917) that maintains, “The tastes of the working-girl reader incline to the adventurous and romantic. She wants something that is not wordy and will hold her attention” (14). While The Sheik is a “romantic” adventure—one that takes place in an “exotic” setting that would be likely to intrigue and attract female readers—it is also a deeply troubling story about female confinement and sexual assault. For in Hull’s novel, Diana doesn’t simply fall in love with a charming Arab Sheik. She falls in love with an Arab Sheik who entraps and rapes her.
I found it interesting to learn that in the 1921 silent film adaptation of The Sheik, Ahmed doesn’t rape Diana. But in an entry on the film for Turner Classics, James Steffen explains that this decision was made in order to “preempt the censors” (Steffen), not to revise the novel’s troubling gender politics. In fact, according to a review of the film from Variety, it was actually the omission of these rapes that made the film less successful: “The same novel, preposterous and ridiculous as it was, won out because it dealt with every caged woman’s desire to be caught up in a love clasp by some he-man who would take the responsibility and dispose of the consequences” (qtd. in Steffen). I wonder what other kinds of “desires” Hull’s novel may have elicited from its audience. Would female readers have found Diana’s androgynous identity thrilling? Would they have identified with her longing to escape from her oppressive life and brother? How, though, do such desires manage to exist in a narrative that romanticizes rape?
I appreciated our selected readings this week as they provided me with an opportunity to think, in ways I perhaps have yet before, about prizes, merit, and the commodification of art in the marketplace. In his essay “The March of the Novel Through History: The Testimony of My Grandfather’s Bookcase,” Amitav Ghosh describes the unorthodox style of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s first known fictional work Rajmohun’s Wife and remarks “the fact of the matter is that I don’t think Bankim was writing for anyone but himself” (23). Ghosh later conjectures that Bankim was actually writing for “the very vastness and cosmopolitanism of the fictional bookcase that requires novelists to locate themselves in relation to it; that demands of their work that it carry marks to establish their location” (23). Reading these words—and reading them alongside James English’s The Economy of Prestige, a remarkable contextualization of the various structures (cultural, political, and socioeconomic) that judge, value, and promote art—made me wonder what “writing for one’s self” would mean in a literary market in which value is determined by readability (i.e. popular, “trendy,” ready-to-be-adapted for Hulu or Netflix fiction) or prestige (i.e. the type of work that ends up being considered for the National Book Award, Booker Prize, Nobel Prize in Literature, etc.) Are these two “destinies” for literary success the ultimate “listener[s]” whom Ghosh describes? In other words, is “writing for the bookcase” the only choice one has?
To pursue a somewhat different train of thought in my limited space here: English writes that “we continue to be discomfited by…a conception of art as a contest or competition from which there must emerge a definite winner” (2). I wonder what a dismantling of that worldview would entail. Could it perhaps first involve widening the categories in which we judge art (e.g. giving Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize for literature or doing away with gendered awards for acting at the Oscars)? A true dismantling would, of course, go much farther. But, when it comes down to it, will we ever be ready to lose winners?
In a correspondence to David Garnett in 1916, Virginia Woolf wrote, “novels are frightfully clumsy and overpowering…still if one could only get hold of them it would be superb. I daresay one ought to invent a completely new form” (qtd. in Marcus 125). Given our discussion of form from a few weeks ago, particularly in the context of Bennett’s narrator’s mastering the “rules” of various literary forms as a means of advancing his career, I was wondering what we make of Woolf’s oppositional desires for the novel. On the one hand, Woolf’s comments bear somewhat of a likeness to Bennett’s narrator’s: she wants to “get hold” of the novel. However, Woolf’s words also, and I would argue, mostly, express an eagerness to expand (perhaps we could even say “to transcend”) the novel rather than “dominate” it. As our reading of “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” made clear, Woolf’s criticism of certain authors and of certain styles of writing are informed by her philosophy of fiction, a philosophy that privileges fiction’s ability to amplify the voices of characters, characters like the “threadbare old lad[y]” Mrs. Brown (6). While reading A Room of One’s Own, I found myself not only thinking about Mrs. Brown, and about Woolf’s philosophy of fiction, but also about Woolf’s thoughts on gender and the novel. For instance, in the third chapter of her extended essay, Woolf discusses history’s silencing of female stories and ponders whether or not they might ever be reclaimed. She declares, “All these facts lie somewhere” and asks “could one collect it and make a book of it” (45). For Woolf, then, it seems as if “get[ting] hold” of the novel is really about getting hold of other things: lost women’s stories, an elderly lady on a train, the “frightfully clumsy and overpowering” (qtd. in Marcus 125) state of female subjectivity. I hope we can bring Tuchman and Fortin’s “empty field” into this conversation and dig deeper into some of these questions. For whom and what does the novel have room? What would moving beyond it entail?