A Chat with Jonathan Paine about Selling the Story

by Jonathan Paine

Today we sit down with Jonathan Paine to talk about his book Selling the Story: Transaction and Narrative Value in Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Zola, out today with Harvard University Press.

Paine_CoverBK: Jonathan, first, please tell our readers a little about your book. What is it about? And how does Dostoevsky feature in it?

JP: Selling the Story is a book about the economics of literature. It asks how writing for money changes what is written, and how we can mine texts for evidence of this process. It concentrates on the 19th-century ‘professional turn’ when authors for the first time began writing for money rather than patronage. It focuses on a 50-year timespan from the 1830s to the 1880s when, and especially in France, publishing in serialized periodicals became far more profitable for authors than publishing in book format, and so catapulted writers into a journalistic context which catered increasingly to a newly developing mass market. The techniques and genres of journalism leach into prose fiction, giving rise to entirely new literary genres – thrillers, detective stories, courtroom dramas.

Dostoevsky, of course, was famously and vocally indigent – hardly a letter goes by without a request for money or a complaint about its lack. Writing for money was an inevitability. But who was his readership? The Russian market was decades behind its West European counterparts – no mass market would develop till the early 20th century, and the ‘thick’ journals , Russia’s book format version of the serious monthly periodical, rarely reached an audience of more than 5-6,000 in Dostoevsky’s lifetime. Yet Russian publishers imported mass market techniques as soon as they were developed in the West – the boulevard newspaper , a precursor of the modern tabloid, took just one year to travel from France to Russia in 1864. Dostoevsky was well travelled, well read, and an enthusiastic follower of French literature, to which his early translation of Balzac’s Eugènie Grandet attests. So should a contemporary Russian author write for the tiny, demographically restricted, actual readership which paid the bills, or for the new mass market which was visibly developing outside Russia? Selling the Story argues that it is impossible to appreciate the literature of the period in Russia, particularly that of Dostoevsky, without an understanding of this publishing context.

BK: Your section on Dostoevsky is called “Who Buys the Story?” and there you specifically discuss the novel as a form. What insight does your research provide on Dostoevsky’s writing practice?

JP: If, as my book argues, the publishing context made it difficult for Russian writers to know whether to write for a very restricted contemporary audience or for a mass market yet to come, it makes sense to hedge your bets. Selling the Story suggests that all of Dostoevsky’s work, from Poor People to The Brothers Karamazov, is an extended experiment in the art of writing for multiple audiences. Did a formula in writing fiction exist which allowed the drama of the courtroom to be combined with the intellectual weight which Dostoevsky found no problem in introducing to his own mono-journal, Diary of a Writer?

Selling the Story offers an extended, book by book and serialized instalment by serialized instalment reading of The Brothers Karamazov which links it closely to its publishing context and shows how the text can be read as a literary ‘reinsurance policy’, attempting to combine the dramatic momentum of the murder mystery at the heart of the plot with the philosophical detours of the Grand Inquisitor or Alyosha’s life of Zosima. It argues that Dostoevsky even turns conventional literary devices, such as iteration, into economic tools in an attempt to broaden the reach of his text to different audiences and shows how the central story of the murder itself is iterated no less than 38 times through the mouths of the in-story characters. It shows how Dostoevsky used his characters to model their own in-text acts of literary creation, tested against in-story recipients who mimic the reactions of real readers.

And finally, it suggests that the increasing frequency of episodes showing a loss of control by the novel’s characters – Dmitry’s dream, Alyosha’s epiphany, Ivan’s madness, and most importantly Smerdyakov’s epileptic fit – mirrors Dostoevsky’s own problems in achieving anything but the most transient equilibrium between these competing forces.

BK: Your book isn’t just about Dostoevsky, though. It also features studies of Balzac and Zola, contemporaries of Dostoevsky’s. How has reading the three together enhanced your understanding of Dostoevsky?

JP: Understanding how the publishing context influences artistic output adds a new dimension to our appreciation of any text, and all the works I have selected contain seminal records of the conditions of their own creation. Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes [The Splendors and Mysteries of Courtesans] took 12 years to write and covers a period from 1835 to 1847 in which the French publishing market changed beyond recognition. Prose fiction migrated from its traditional historical book format to the feuilleton, at the foot of the first page of the newly emerging and popular daily newspapers. Balzac and his contemporary Eugène Sue competed head to head over whose work generated the most subscribers for its publishers. Selling the Story reveals how Balzac’s extended creation can be seen as a commentary on the evolving trends of the publishing industry; he starts with an exuberant celebration of the industry’s new-found freedoms, continues through an experimental disassembly and parody of his rival Sue’s techniques, and finishes in an end-of-career sabotage of his own work to see how far readers could be pushed before they stopped reading.

Zola, by contrast, was writing almost half a century later. The boulevard newspaper, introduced in 1863, had revolutionized journalism, catering to a mass market which industrial revolution, urbanization and the spread of literacy were creating. Roads, railways and canals had changed the French corporate landscape just as much as they had altered its geography. Big business had arrived, and Zola was its archivist. Two of his novels, La Curée [The Killing], 1872, and L’Argent [Money], 1891, deal with the rise and fall of his arch-capitalist, Aristide Saccard. But over the same period Zola had himself become big business. At the time of La Curée he was a literary nobody, forced to follow the dictates of the market to establish himself as a writer. By the time of L’Argent, Zola was the most successful writer of his age with print runs in the hundreds of thousands, publishing in a resurrected book format because he no longer needed the visibility of the feuilleton to promote his output. And his novels, inevitably, record and comment on this, the means and process of their own creation, from the importation of the literary devices of the boulevard newspapers in La Curée to Zola’s assumption of literary control over his readership, as the managing director of his own successful publishing business, documented in L’Argent.

And amidst this publishing revolution sits Dostoevsky, writing in a market far removed from France but acutely aware of the potential of his own literary legacy in the shape of a mass market yet to arrive in Russia. Selling the Story traces the influence of this on Dostoevsky as a writer, not least by adding a new dimension to the constant critical theme of memory and legacy in his works, and at the same time demonstrating that the techniques of economic criticism can be shown to travel across geography, time and culture.

BK: You situate your book within the emerging field of economic criticism. What is economic criticism and how does engaging with it enhance your book’s argument?

Economic criticism essentially asks whether treating a text as an object of economic exchange can generate worthwhile new critical insights. Almost all texts have an economic function in that writers ask readers to exchange their time for the writers’ creative output. This is a genuine transaction and can be considered as such.

In the 19th-century any author writing serialized installments for a periodical or newspaper becomes by default part of the publisher’s sales strategy. So, considering the publishing context is the starting point for economic criticism. The technique I find most useful is what I call ‘point of sale’ analysis. This asks what we can deduce from a text about the author’s perception of the market for which he or she was writing, based on a wide range contemporary evidence from successful (or unsuccessful) literary trends to genres and stylistic devices, from cultural evolutions or constants to the prosaic influence of pay per line of printer’s copy. Understanding how authors might have understood and addressed their markets is an underdeveloped aspect of literary criticism and a necessary element of reception theory.

If an author is indeed part of a transaction with the reader, then we can also apply forms of economic analysis to that transaction. Authors describe transactions in their works, few more so than the three I have chosen. Examining how they represent in-story deals can tell us much about how the author approaches his or her own transaction with the reader. Selling the Story also suggests that all texts fall into one of three categories: prospectus, auction or speculation. A ‘prospectus’ text implies that its value is set by its author- all religious works, for example, follow this pattern. Auction implies a value set by the recipient, in this case the reader, and highlights the importance of the iterative approach, which typifies the serialized works common to 19th-century literature, as a means of establishing value over time. Speculation, a metaphor which Dostoevsky uses repeatedly, implies transient value, and suggests that the strategy of iteration which I identify in The Brothers Karamazov is in fact a way of cumulatively increasing the chances of its success.

Historically, economic criticism has had a bad rap. Even today some scholars still argue that treating works of literature as economic commodities is unacceptable. But of course they are, and to ignore their economic context is to omit an important dimension of scholarship. Equally obviously, they are more than that: economic criticism is a useful new tool of analysis which complements, rather than challenges, aesthetic approaches.

BK: Obviously you’ve spent a long time studying these authors, their works, and their historical context. What’s been the most interesting thing you’ve learned while he researching this book?

JP: One of my investment banking colleagues, learning of my academic plans, said ‘You’ll have to learn to concentrate’. I was a bit miffed: what had I been doing, then, through all those years as a banker? But he was right. Banking meant keeping twenty balls simultaneously in the air, so little time for each. Literary scholarship meant a slow process of unpeeling an onion, layer by layer. In the process I’ve learnt to think in a completely different way. And I’ve discovered lots of new friends in the academic community who I would never have found otherwise. And, best of all, I can enjoy all the good bits of scholarship without needing to earn a career from it!


Dr. Jonathan Paine is a Supernumerary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and Senior Advisor and former Managing Director at the investment bank Rothschild & Co. He serves as the treasurer of the International Dostoevsky Society. He is currently researching the art of authorship in Dostoevsky and on ways of promoting the relevance of the humanities in business.

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