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Sarah Brouillette on marketisation, literary aspiration and the state of criticism

Sarah Brouillette teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa and is the author of four books, the latest of which is Underdevelopment and African Literature: Emerging Forms of Reading (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Brouillette’s interest in what she calls “term-setting structures”, the governance- and cultural-policy institutions that “prioritise and highlight certain forms of writing and not others” powers her work, which deals with subjects as apparently diverse as romance novels, “internet scammer” Caroline Calloway, postcolonial literature and the history of the printed book.

Brouillette is committed to “a materialist understanding of the nature of literary practices, with an eye to the transformation of current social relations and overcoming of capitalist life”. As such, the sociology of both literary production and consumption creates a theory of value – one that traces what we attach importance to and what we don’t – that lays bare the complex dynamics and forces that produce contemporary reading life. Yet hope might still remain for literature – for while it is always a mechanism for the reproduction of certain class affects and sociolects, the act of reading itself retains a liberatory, leisurely aspect and possibility.

Interview by Nell Whittaker

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Sarah Brouillette, “Print Capitalism” in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Literary and Cultural Theory, ed. Jeffrey R. Di Leo (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).

NELL WHITTAKER Is the separation of the literary and the commercial something that you would like, broadly, to reject?

SARAH BROUILLETTE Not necessarily. It’s an important idea that literature has about itself, so it informs and shapes the field of the literary. I also think that for a lot of people, the distinction is conceptually important, and it has some material effects. You can’t separate literature from commerce, commercial markets, economics; though it’s not reducible to them, it’s in relation to them all the time. What that relation is differs in so many ways, depending on what you’re talking about, and in what period and in what place. I would also push back against the idea that there’s a sure historical process through which art and culture have become increasingly subsumed under capital – I don’t think that’s true at all. But I do think that there’s change observable, just not a straightforward trajectory of subsumption or decline.

NW There are three things that you have identified as defining the contemporary relation between literature and capital. The first is marketing and the marketisation of the author and how that relates to genre, particularly autofiction. Second, the idea that the culture wars derive from the problem of the reader as a consumer, so that conflict and controversy erupt from an anxiety about access to the means of cultural expression. And then thirdly, the concept laid out by Simone Murray of the adaption economy, and content as a liquid that could be poured into one form of media or another.

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Sarah Brouillette and Christopher Doody, “The Literary as a Cultural Industry” in The Routledge Companion to the Cultural Industries, ed. Kate Oakley and Justin O’Connor (London: Routledge, 2015).

SB Oh gosh, these are huge topics. In terms of adaptation, there are two things I would say about it. One is that it’s an example of the concentration of cultural power in fewer hands. There’s perhaps a proliferation of opportunities to produce content, through the so-called democratisation of access to the online sphere, but there’s a concentration of starred and highlighted and prized and awarded positions in the hands of fewer and fewer players. The divide between the people who are getting their work published and adapted and everyone else – who are struggling to make even a little bit of money – is getting wider. That’s my sense from reading industry reports via the UK Society of Authors and the Authors Guild in the US. Adaptation is an example of that; it’s one of those things that has an effect all the way down, because some writers are aware of the possibility that their work could be optioned, and they write in a way that is designed to be available for that. I’ve also seen this in my research on Wattpad, which I’ve been focused on for quite some time. First of all, it is serialised production, just like Netflix, but authors understand their work as bingeable, and they undergo training on how to make it adaptation-friendly, like writing a hook into the end of each segment. They’re already thinking about writing itself as a form of accommodation for adaption, or almost aspirationally oriented toward adaptation.

This idea of liquid content, which Simone Murray discusses in her work on adaptation, is also connected to the way that the content gets generated, which reflects this new supply chain in literary production where fans or online audience activity plays a hugely generative role in deciding what will be optioned for adaptation and then how adaptations are received and interacted with. And so we have this situation where a particular narrative or creator builds a fan base and sells the fact that they have a fan base to a publisher before the official content production. The Heartstopper series is a good example of that, of something that went through all these different iterations and is now a million-dollar brand, in part because it was content with a proven fan base. That’s quite different from how things used to be. In a way, this also relates to marketing, and the different kinds of techniques and strategies that are used now. There’s a lot of marketing work being done by people who are not employed by publishing companies, who are making TikTok videos or whatever and not getting anything out of it, or very little other than community, that kind of affective reward. In the adaptation industry, the work has already been marketed before it’s made. I don’t know that I have that much of great intelligence to say about autofiction and genre other than autofiction reflects the longstanding historical tendency to market work by association with its author’s biography.

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Sarah Brouillette, “Sally Rooney’s Couple Form” ,June 15, 2020, www.post45.org/2020/06/ sally-rooneys-couple-form.

That inclines the industry towards people who are attractive or articulate, who can speak well about their work, are presentable on television, are exhibitable. This has been true even in literary fiction, which as a niche understood itself as distinct from commercial fiction, because of the association of literature with the genius author. There’s a way in which the author figure has been more important in literary fiction than in other niches. If you go into the romance pile at the bookstore it doesn’t really matter who wrote them, and a lot of the names are pseudonyms, not marketed by affiliation with writers at all. In literature, there’s an idea that the book is the expression of this singular creativity and brilliance. Autofiction is an extension of the long history of the collapse of literary production itself into an emission from the author’s own biography. Another thing that I think is true about autofiction is that its cultural status and fascination to audiences extend from deep-seated historical processes, wherein interiority becomes this important facet of literature, with people thinking that all the drama and interest in life is within. This has become so prevalent in literature and literary culture to the extent that I think people think of literature as just being about depth psychology, the human experience, the inner life, all this kind of stuff. In more recent years, it also exhibits a collapse of the broader cultural and social conditions for the production of literature – it is something that a writer can do with very little support, because all you need is the resource of yourself and your immediate experiences. People like that, that it’s exhibiting the creative act from within.

NW You identify autofiction and genre fiction as the two dominant contemporary genres, with genre fiction represented by writers like Cormac McCarthy resurrecting the Western in the 1980s through to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. That kind of writing has to be supported by a significant network of grants and access to archives and universities. Are these two genres on two ends of the spectrum, the two poles of the kind of writing that can be done – completely solo or institutionally supported?
SB That argument is actually from Dan Sinykin’s work on “The Conglomerate Era”. The idea is that autofiction and literary-genre hybrids represent two ways that literary production has gone, deeming them more profitable or likely to be a hit with audiences. The point about institutional funding is important, too, because if literature as an activity is still happening, it’s because of private money or in some rare instances some state-based support, because the market is not supporting literature in the way that it once was. There’s a recourse to other forms where these activities can live on. Why those institutions and agencies and foundations are interested in supporting literary activity is, I think, a question that hasn’t been answered fully yet. What’s in it for them?

NW Someone who pulls together lots of these ideas is Caroline Calloway, who you’ve written about as representing a new publishing paradigm. How does she reflect back much of the industry’s contemporary conditions or possibilities?

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Sarah Brouillette,“The Talented Ms. Calloway”,Los Angeles Review of Books,December 10, 2020.

SB It’s actually quite astonishing how many stories in Publishers Weekly or the Bookseller are about influencers with book deals. The culture of influencers is massively important to the publishing industry. I find a lot of things interesting about Caroline Calloway as a model. She’s not a “change agent”; she’s representative of all of these other things that are occurring. One we’ve already talked about is using fan activity to gain access to publishing opportunity or power. The slush pile is no longer as important now that you can identify what will sell in advance.

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Sarah Brouillette,“The Talented Ms. Calloway”.

But also I’m interested in the idea that Instagram is reading, and that her first writing was her producing – with help – this compelling Instagram presence that was more than pictures, it was a whole curation of a story about a life in lengthy captions. Instagram is what people do in their leisure time, or when they have a few minutes to themselves, instead of reading a book, and the reasons why people do that instead of reading a book are fascinating to me. I don’t like the reductive idea that people’s attention spans have been destroyed or their mental capacity is diminished, without including a sufficient account of what has happened to readership and reader behaviour. Your phone is available, you already have it, you’ve already invested in it, Instagram is technically free, whereas to get a book you have to go to the library, or you have to pay for it to be shipped to your house or you have to go to the store and get it, and then there’s the possibility that you won’t even like it. Instagram also feels unthreatening – you can do it for a few minutes, and it’s a temporarily satisfying escape from everything else. When I was thinking about how people are reading and what people are reading, it’s clear that they’re reading on their phones, and so this might be an emergent kind of writing. I’m also focused on the feminisation of work in publishing, and the way in which the publishing industry itself has become associated with care work and emotional labour and girl power. With Caroline Calloway, she’s selling a book but she’s also selling participation in her workshop and she’s selling wellness and she’s selling art, and she’s also showing how she does her make-up – there’s this whole culture around it. This has been attended by, or perhaps occasioned by, this broader drive to discount labour in publishing. So many aspects of publishing have become outsourced to production service companies where people are doing temporary gig work. And then so much of the work is just being done by people who aren’t being paid at all, like self-published authors, and readers on social media doing publicity work for the publisher for free. All of this describes the way that work in publishing is being transformed – becoming less prestigious and associated more with women’s work, with the commercial and with consumption. But Caroline just stood out. As soon as I heard about her I was like, yes, I have to write about this person.

NW She’s a cipher for a certain set of economic conditions as well as a route into the changes that those conditions are already effecting.
SB For sure, and someone who has readily acknowledged that she was trying to position herself to get a book deal. She said, I want to publish a book! She faked it first, getting semi-famous on Instagram by buying followers, then translated that into a publishing contract.

NW It’s interesting that that journey started at the University of Cambridge, so while she wasn’t literally using the resources of the institution, she was using its image to do this kind of Brideshead performance series.
SB For sure. You can’t say it enough times, too, that she’s conventionally attractive and white, so there’s that, and she had a creative-writing programme pedigree, so she had a sense of which networks to tap into. In many ways she has had an easier way onto the path to what she wanted, and even though it didn’t work out, in a way it exactly did. She apparently made enough money on OnlyFans to pay back her publishing advance, so it didn’t matter that she didn’t write the book. Around the same time that I was writing about Caroline Calloway I was also thinking about [Michaela Coel’s 2020 series] I May Destroy You, which I think is a fictional narrative that ends in a kind of literary triumph. It’s a fantasy of literary success. It’s about someone who doesn’t have Caroline Calloway’s cultural capital to begin with, who doesn’t have that background, that pedigree, those contacts, but who’s also engaged in that hustle to build a fan base that would eventually lead to publishing a book.

NW You’ve called this “aspirational literary labour”. What do you mean by aspirational in this context?
SB I’m using the idea of aspirational labour to describe the work that people do in anticipation of paid employment or opportunity. It’s what people often do online, like building up an Instagram or TikTok account, in order to lead to something else. It’s very useful for understanding the activity of a lot of self-published authors, because so much of the work they do is outside of the writing – it’s all of the work to try to get the writing noticed. There’s now so much formalised training in how to do these things, so you can take courses on search-engine optimisation or how to trick Kindle Direct Publishing into making your book more successful than other titles. That’s what I mean by aspirational labour; it’s uncompensated work that you’re doing in the hopes that it will eventually translate into something paying. In I May Destroy You, there’s another element of this which I just described as being fantastical. The author of the series, Michaela Coel, is of course incredibly successful, not as a writer of books, but as a content producer for streaming television. The series is almost a fantasy about being able to achieve that same kind of success in the literary sphere. It’s also a very intense and amazing critique of the diversity industry and racial capitalism functioning in the publishing industry, but it’s interesting that it ends with catharsis, where the experience of writing and publishing a book is presented as therapeutic release from trauma. The final scenes are at this wonderful, well-attended, evening book launch in this intimate setting, a dream of what a literary event should be. That’s not the aspirational part of it, but the fantasy element – the ultimate end of the original aspiration.

 

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Sarah Brouillette, “Reading After the University”, Public Books, 23 November, 2022, www.publicbooks.org/reading-after-the-university-english-departments.

NW Where is the contemporary critic? How does the same set of economic and cultural conditions that are shaping fiction impact the function of the critic?

SB That’s an important question and a huge topic. If we’re talking about the decline of the conditions that were in place when literature was at its strongest, in terms of market sales, then for criticism the parallel declining factor is the strength of universities. There are many aspects to this, but the one most relevant to the production of the critic is the absent pathways into the professoriate. That’s having a major impact on the kind of work that people can do. There has been a proliferation, as a result, of the online essay because there are a lot of people who are trying to build a reputation by publishing online. This is tremendously difficult, and still some the best-known online essayists are tenured professors! All of these outlets for public writing are proliferating, and their proliferation has to do with there being a cheap and abundant labour pool of trained thinkers and writers who don’t have academic jobs and are trying to find an alternative means of doing intellectual work, or to get known so that they’ll be more attractive to employers down the line. Being a public writer is now appealing to some hiring committees, or that’s the hope for some maybe. But it comes with a host of attendant pressures, of constant commentary, or having to have a take on all the things that go with social media. It’s also so sped up. If you publish something in an academic journal, it can take a year for it to come out, and if you publish something in an edited collection, it can take two years to come out. I think there’s increasing impatience with that process, because if you publish something in an online journal it comes out almost immediately. There’s a culture of immediacy, or a cultivation of immediacy among online critics, which produces a very different kind of criticism to before. I’m not making an evaluative judgement about one being better or worse, but you can see how this set of material conditions certainly affects the form of writing that’s being done, from the things and the topics that people are taking up and the way they’re talking about them. The basic transformation of the university is one massively important context for the production of critical life.

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Sarah Brouillette,“Reading After the University”.

SB The anxiety about legitimacy and the sense of the humanities and English literature and literary study, being in perpetual crisis, the endless crisis – it’s never the final crisis – is the underlying material, so every piece of writing has the crisis somewhere in there. I recently had dinner with a colleague from another university and he was saying how he was annoyed that the whole discourse around literature and literary study is so meta, that it’s always all about the conditions of its production. I was like, I feel like it’s appropriate that those are the areas of concern, because the sustaining conditions for people who want to study the humanities are threatened. It’s no wonder that people are interested in talking about that. It’s also related to a whole host of other social threats and transformations, and many people are subject to more than one at a time. When you talk about the status of the critic, there’s the meta-critical interest in the legitimacy of the form itself. And doesn’t that go back to autofiction, which is so selfreferential? It’s so much about itself, and its own nature and tendency, its own ways of being. It’s particularly hard to escape those modes when so much of thought is mediated by social media, which in and of itself is so recursive and reflexive. These things become constitutive of thought. It seems better to tackle that head on, and not to pretend that these things don’t exist and just lament – oh, we used to be able to do this or that, or we used to talk about things, we used to debate ideas. Who did? Which ideas? Where? I wasn’t there! Sometimes I think there’s a generational aspect, where the pervasive idea is that these young up-and-coming scholars are angry because they don’t have faculty positions, and the people in faculty positions are like, remember when we didn’t have to defend ourselves all the time? Wasn’t that great? Obviously, I’m on the side of the people who are attacking the defended positions.

NW You write about literature as not just reflecting but also organising social life. What possibilities are there for organising thought differently?

SB There is a lot of activity going on right now. I’m trying not to be pessimistic about its outcome! The labour agitation in universities is one of those things to be onside with, even if you’re not optimistic. If I’m on a sinking ship, I want to be one of those people who’s there saying, “This ship is sinking!” But in general, I don’t know. “Literature” is probably too big a thing to generalise about. I usually think of literature and culture as secondary socialisation, by which I mean that they often support the ways you’ve already been socialised. But this also means that sometimes literary communities are useful for helping to make and sustain certain kinds of truths, values, struggles – if not organising social life, at least supporting its organisation. An example might be, if you look at the last 10, 15 years, communist poets with their own communities of articulation of what poetry can do in terms of expressing a way of seeing or finding a communist poetics, but also how it can help coalesce and cohere a community committed to doing other things. Literature becomes a supplement to, or a voice for, other kinds of primary struggles – like trans rights, renters rights, rent strikes or university labour strikes. It’s useful as a tool in those larger struggles in part because of its community-building function. Then in terms of organising thought, I often hear that when you read a book, that’s just rest, that’s not productive time. There’s something in that that I think is worth mentioning, though I’m not going to say holding on to or celebrating. It’s a form of being against what is, because you want to go somewhere else. Even if you couldn’t articulate it in those terms, it’s still the desire to be elsewhere.

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Sarah Brouillette and Christopher Doody, “The Literary as a Cultural Industry”.

That’s what I hear when talking to readers of romance and young adult fiction, which is what I’m studying right now – the emphasis on non-productive affective states. This was evident in the pandemic, too, when everyone was turning to their creative pursuits, and realising that they preferred them to their jobs. So much of daily life is toil and misery, and culture sometimes isn’t! It has a little bit of a utopian kernel. There’s something in it that’s already antiwork and communal. Passivity and inactivity are also areas of imagining.

NW Which literature performs that function for you?

SB I’m having trouble right now; I keep starting books and not being able to finish them, so I haven’t finished a longer book in a while. But the most recent one I read would have been – and I reread it because I was teaching it to my first-year literature seminar – a book called Best Young Woman Job Book by Canadian author Emma Healey. It’s about her own experience trying to make it as a writer between Montreal and Toronto and some writing workshops, but also about all of the strange jobs that she had to take because writing is expensive. She worked for a search-engine optimisation company, a closed-captioning company, a porn company, doing all these things that are like writing or that used her skills and training as a writer, but are not her own writing work that she wants to be doing. I like how it envisions that all writing now is just gig work, even your own writing. Healey wrote a viral essay about having a relationship with one of her creative-writing professors who was significantly older, and the relationship got hard and troubled and abusive. Because of her viral essay, she was asked to write all these other essays, and she was asked to be on the radio, and so even her own writing became gig work, churning out things so that she could get the $250 check that would get her through a couple more weeks. She had to trade her desire against material necessity. I love it because we started the course with Joyce back in September, and with Joyce the writer figure is like, “I’m going to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race!” In Healey’s book, it’s like, “I’m going to try to get $50!” It also charts her struggle with writing in a coherent narrative, and how she keeps returning to the same thing over and over again, so it has an anti-Bildungsroman character because there’s no growth or development – you’re just trapped in this pit, doing the same thing over and over again. It’s the most wonderful refutation of the modernist mythos. ◉