Blog Post

To Norway! On Regionalism and the Reading Class

We’ve both been very interested in the sociology of literature, and we’ve both talked about literary-sociological issues on Arcade before; but there’s nothing like coming to grips with a full-blown literary-sociological study.

Herewith, then, our discussion of a recent book by a major sociologist of literature, Wendy Griswold’s Regionalism and the Reading Class (ebook).

Griswold’s thesis is that literary regionalism is an emergent formation, nourished and sustained by the elite stratum of regular readers she calls the “reading class.” Though this elite is seen as (and really is) geographically mobile, even cosmopolitan, its mobility does not, she argues, contribute to the bleaching-out of distinctive local cultures (“place” as opposed to “space”). Instead, regionalism, far from being a residual element of dying local cultures, is thriving in the global age, thanks to highly mobile reading elites. The core of her argument comes in a triad of case studies in literary regionalism. Her third chapter investigates what she calls “cowbirds” in the United States—people who move to a new region only to adapt to their new home by learning about and consuming regional literature. Her fascinating fourth chapter argues that literary regionalism is lacking in contemporary Italy because of the country’s distinctive social history. Chapter 5 compares the effects of state funding on literary regionalism in the U.S. and Norway. The conclusion, passing by way of fascinating anecdotes about the contemporary importance of regional labeling by the Library of Congress, speculates that regionalism will continue to thrive thanks to the cultural prestige of the reading class, even though “reading culture” is vanishing and reading for entertainment is increasingly the province of the “between one-quarter and one-third of the population…in developing countries…perhaps around 15 percent” (167) who make up the reading class.

Reading Class and Reading Culture

LK and AG, in chorus: We agree on what constitutes the most important part of the book: the description of Norwegian state support for literature! Norway buys 1000 copies of every book a Norwegian author publishes. It provides a $19,000 annual subsidy to every author who is a member of the Authors’ Union. The Association of Bookstores is allowed to have a monopoly on the sale of books—but is prohibited by law from engaging in price competition. It requires, by law, that bookstores keep books in stock for two years regardless of sales. And it exempts books from its very steep sales tax. Not surprisingly, Griswold finds, “Norwegians everywhere read, and they read a lot; Norway has one of the world’s highest reading rates” (137).

LK & AG: Wow. Let’s move there.

LK: My first reaction to the book was that its argument is relatively straightforward but has the virtue of being right. A former sociology major friend of mine complained that sociology reports what you already know, either using really elaborate terminology or a blizzard of data. One counterargument to this complaint would be, yes, that's exactly what sociology is all about.

AG: Griswold’s concept of the “reading class” is really useful (as already discussed in LK’s earlier post on an article-length version of Griswold’s argument). For me, it represents a first analytic step beyond speculation about the “reading public” and whether it exists. It’s also an antidote to the idealization of the reader in literary studies, which so often assumes that whatever the critic herself sees, “the reader” must see. (But as Anne DeWitt wrote in her post on Victorian reading, modern critical readings can diverge even from the critical readings of another time.) For Griswold, the reading class consists of “those people who read for entertainment constantly,” “modest in size but immense in cultural influence”; it can be characterized in terms of education, economic capital, social capital, demographics, cultural practices (37). The complementary concept is Griswold’s idea of a “reading culture,” a place in which “most people, over and above the demands of their job or schooling, routinely read printed materials for entertainment and information” (164). The practice of decrying the decline of reading misses, Griswold shows, that the reading class continues to read ever more. It is reading cultures, she says, which “are rare and becoming rarer” (164).

LK: She also debunks a dystopian view of reading culture—the sort of claim one finds in Gary Shteyngardt’s Super Sad True Love Story, which depicts a near future in which literally no one is reading (except the novel's protagonist). Griswold shows that a small group of us are reading more than ever before. Most of us are reading far less, of course, which is why the dystopian story can seem plausible. Still, I’m not ready to fully endorse her story about the decline of reading culture. That is, it may well be true, but where’s the data about the early 20th century? Or the 19th century for that matter? Griswold refers to the age of mass reading as an “anomaly” in history, but it’s hard to compare periods without comparable data.

AG: And the explanation is not bulletproof either. Basically the idea is that reading culture declines because reading, as a source of entertainment and information, loses out to other media: radio, film, TV, Internet. But why is it so certain that reading always loses? What guarantees this?

Regionalism?

AG, LK: There’s a strange non-relation between the two pieces of the book, regionalism and the reading class. Her thesis about regionalism depends on the existence of the reading class. But beyond its existence it doesn’t matter to her story about literary regionalism. Her account of the reading class, meanwhile, could very well stand alone—and could have been developed at greater length.

LK: I wanted more from her findings. Griswold shows that literary regionalism exists. She wants to claim that this regionalism is emergent (in Raymond Williams’s sense). But it could just as well be that regionalism is residual. Or, a hypothesis she doesn’t even consider, that regionalism was always and remains dominant.

AG: If anything Griswold is stronger on the residual quality of reading culture, not the emergent quality of regionalism. Have there been qualitative shifts in the status of regionalism over the twentieth century, for example? Some of Griswold’s key examples are murder mysteries with regional settings—an immediately recognizable contemporary genre. Are there early-century equivalents? (On the other hand, I do see the logic of Griswold’s claim for the emergence of regionalism: if a reading class is now again an emergent formation, and regionalism is closely tied to that class, that regionalism will have been shown to be emergent too.)

LK: For me the big takeaways, apart from Norway, are (1) the roles that state institutions can play in developing literature and reading and (2) the concept of reading class. What further research could be done? How about looking at inequality in this connection? Even crude measures, like Gini coefficient vs. book-publication / book-sales per capita.

AG: What about those weird author lists used in chapter 3’s survey of regionalism? Pretty arbitrary:

NEW ENGLAND:

Connecticut: Rose Terry Cooke; Wallace Stevens Maine: R. P. T. Coffin; Sarah Orne Jewett; Edna St. Vincent Millay; Edwin Arlington Robinson; Tim Sample

Massachusetts: Henry Adams; Anne Bradstreet; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Robert B. Parker; Henry David Thoreau

New Hampshire: Alice Brown; Robert Frost; Celia Thaxter

Rhode Island: Avi; A. J. Liebling; H. P. Lovecraft; Roger Williams

Vermont: Robert Newton Peck; Rowland Evans Robinson. (177)

LK: The list of authors in the survey is indeed weird, a mix of high-school canons, middlebrow writers, and bestsellers.

AG: Yet the middlebrow as a concept is missing from this book, whereas it seems like it’s right at the heart of the reading class vs. reading culture question. Because the “middlebrow” designates some kind of general culture that is widely known, whereas “highbrow” is by definition an elite niche. Another kind of further work that builds on Griswold would try to be more exact about the kinds of literature that have special regional audiences. Perhaps it would turn out that canonical vs. non-, high-prestige vs. low-, etc. just don’t matter to regionalism, and these weird lists are fine. But maybe not.

LK: I think the US cowbirds chapter’s claims are not as well supported as the rest of the book. Yes, it debunks the “Globalization Kills Local Culture” thesis—which needed to be killed—but what about the positive part? What, say, does the relatively higher profile of Garrison Keillor to Minnesotans say about regionalism’s changing status?

AG: Right, and the other chapters have a negative thrust too. The Norway chapter really disproves the claim that state patronage is a sufficient condition for regionalism to emerge. Maybe it’s necessary. Griswold isn’t too clear about what would be sufficient.

LK: Maybe (1) state patronage (2) reading class (3) no aspiration to nationwide hegemony in the region in question.

Life After Griswold

AG: So how do we use this book? What does it change about what we do?

LK: Like I said, I think this book can help as a specific intervention in the globalization debate. I was reading Bruce Robbins’s Feeling Global while reading Griswold. Robbins’s book is really good in a lot of ways, but it’s notable how many intellectuals who participate in globalization debates don’t make many reference to empirical evidence or data-driven sociology.

LK: All of this research, even sociology research, is clearly a mix of qualitative and quantitative, but often the literary side of the equation is all qualitative. We need to investigate further how valid our claims are. And we should certainly be supportive of literary scholarship that looks for data, empirical claims, etc.

LK: Actually admitting that we don’t know something is a good thing. I am a great fan of speculative criticism but I think it has its limitations. For example, rather than claim to have an opinion on whether globalization eradicates locality, we could say, “More research needs to be done on that question before we can make a small claim.” Even if we don’t want to be the ones to do the research! Not all of us want to be creating surveys.

AG: Because we could study it and we could try to find out.

AG: What about models of how readers actually use books? I always want that from sociology of reading.

LK: I guess it’s complicated. In the agent-structure debate, for example, Griswold seems to be a structure person. But we have to have that debate in literary studies too. It’s not like we just import findings from sociology, point to our hard-won facts and say to our fellow humanists “Look! Facts!” We should treat sociological methods and results critically—but critical out of respect and from a serious desire to think about the claims being made.

AG: I’m right with you there. But I’d go even further and say we should import not just the findings but the methods. If we ask sociological questions, we should be prepared to give sociological answers (quantitative and qualitative).

AG: Anyway, there’s a lot of further work to be done on either or both sides of the disciplinary divide. I’m particularly keen to know what would happen if we expanded beyond this book’s near-exclusive focus on fiction. A lot of the argument is premised on a kind of absorptive, solitary reading that seems prototypically novelistic. Indeed laments about the death of reading in the age of TV often seem to fixate on the threat to long-attention-span activity. But fifty years ago this cultural battle was fought in different terms. For Practical Critics and New Critics, it was intensity, not extension, that mattered most about reading. And the key genre for intense reading, for defeating “stock responses” and embracing ironic complexity, was lyric. Is there a “poetry-reading class” that has a distinctive trajectory from the reading class in general?

LK: For me, the big open question is about inequality. Also, we need more detailed studies of individual reading practices. Griswold cites a few of these in her discussion of “How People Read” in chapter 2.

AG: I was particularly intrigued by the ethnography of reading she mentions, David Barton and Mary Hamilton’s Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community.

Is Reading Culture Good?

AG: Is there a normative claim in favor of reading culture? Griswold is pretty careful not to make one.

LK: I think we should value reading culture. And if reading culture depends on state support or subsidies or non-state institutional arrangements, we need to think about what that means about the “politics” of literature departments.

AG: On the other hand, as Griswold points out, mass literacy is not the same as reading culture. What if we had just the former? How bad would it be if everyone could read for information and for work, but reading for entertainment became a minority pastime?

LK: It depends on what you want to say about the transferability of reading skills from one domain to another. There is a set of claims of dubious merit that recur. Reading long-form literary texts enable democracy. A reading culture is about more than mere entertaining. I think we should admit that replacing a reading culture centered on detective novels with a television culture centered on CSI won’t have much to do with democracy-promotion. If we’re talking about long-form attention-intensive reading, then there are arguments like Steven Johnson’s that modern media is increasingly sophisticated and requires complex forms of engagement. So Lost might be as good for democracy as Conrad by that theory.

AG: To me the debate sounds like a retread of Q.D. Leavis-style attacks on the fiction enjoyed by the reading public. Before television and the Internet became the villains, it was popular fictional genres that were held to be stultifying, anaesthetizing, inauthentic, bad for you. Yet 1920s Britain is a close as you could possibly get to a full-on “reading culture.” I wonder whether there isn’t, submerged in the argument about entertainment genres, in any medium, an argument about the genres of information and debate: is this really about looking for a viable public sphere in mass-mediated modernity?

AG: Anyway, Griswold keeps her hands off. The funny thing is that sociology books often make policy recommendations, and this book does tell you how to support reading culture. Look at Norway! But that’s not what Griswold says.

LK: The simplest version of the argument would be: I like books, I like reading them. I want other people to read and like them too. If we all agree that reading culture is good, this is what we have to do make it real.

LK: Another possibly useful finding from this book is about the prestige of reading for all, even non-readers.

AG: Even in a non-reading culture. 

LK: The ubiquitous prestige of reading teaches something about where support for investment in reading might come from. Everyone says they support reading and desire reading culture. Fewer people seem to be living up to their hopes and ideals. Which might either be a form of mass hypocrisy or, more likely, a sign of how bad our institutions are at helping us live our desires. Again, Norway will lead us!

LK: The most persuasive argument, I think, is that the preconditions that enable reading culture—leisure time, disposable income, the capacity and space to focus, engage critically, form memories, deliberate—also facilitate political democracy. By that theory, a healthy reading culture is more symptom than cause of political health. And yet the “politics of the literature department” remain more or less the same. We fight for those preconditions.

AG (wearing “Non-tenured Radical” t-shirt): Agreed! As long as the reading class commands its material and symbolic resources, people who are committed to justice should want to see those resources fairly distributed. A fair distribution of the reading class’s forms of capital would probably be the utopian version of reading culture. And we are not being somehow extrinsically “politicized” if we fight for those preconditions: we are intervening in the name of the integrity of what we do.

Arcade contributors Andrew Goldstone and Lee Konstantinou occasionally blog jointly.