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.

A History without a Canon, a Literature with Conflicting Readings

“Long” Trends of Russian Literature: Research Novellas

RusLitHistDenis Larionov, a Moscow-based critic and poet, conversing with Andrew Kahn, Irina Reyfman, Mark Lipovetsky, and Stephanie Sandler – authors of A History of Russian Literature, 2018.

–What prompted the creation of such a detailed history of Russian literature, practically the only one of its kind (particularly now, a moment of new tensions in the relations between our two countries)?  How did this book come into being, and how long did it take?

–The original idea for creating this book was a scholarly one, although it may seem illogical.  We felt that a moment had arrived when the coherence and neutrality of literary histories were being interrogated from various theoretical perspectives, while at the same time practically all of the information had become accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.  This challenge was difficult to resist.

We needed to find a way to create a history of Russian literature which would comprise information on the literary process, on authors and schools, but would offer something more than a collection of facts.  How could we tell the story of Russian literary evolution in such a way that it would make a single whole, while tracing not only the patterns and internal “rhymes” but also the essential differences and moments of rupture?

Our conversations about the future book – on e-mail, on-Skype, and in person – began in 2009.  Oxford University Press’s interest in this project encouraged us from the outset.  Although the original contract was for a short history, Jaqueline Norton, our editor, kept enthusiastically approving our increasingly comprehensive proposals and extending our submission deadline, which allowed us to write a much longer and more detailed history.

Our work was aided by an exceptionally useful symposium at Oxford in 2012, which gathered together historians of various national literatures. Together, we were able to discuss the theoretical and practical difficulties of writing a literary history in the 21st century.  The symposium participants shared their own experience of working on similar projects. They also read through, and commented on, our pilot case studies.  They recommended that we introduce a wider scope of issues in our potential case studies, including discussions of schools of theory and rhetorical tropes. They also suggested unexpected new approaches to individual authors and significant national cultural phenomena.

This advice resulted in the literary historical “novellas” about holy fools, “word-weaving,” duels between writers, and Dmitry Prigov’s “Militsaner” [“P’liceman”].

In 2012, we already had a plan to use case studies and keywords – terms such as Romanticism or “life-creation.” We defined their specific use in the Russian tradition in a “text box” and then used them throughout the volume, as the foundation for the main narrative.  At first, the list of keywords was very long, but gradually it was shortened: some of the words turned into case studies, and others were incorporated into the main text.

We started serious work on the drafts of the main text after the 2012 symposium.  By the fall of 2015, we were close to having a complete draft.  At that point we were helped greatly by a discussion of the history of literature as a genre at a roundtable we organized at the ASEEES (Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies) conference.

Among the round table participants were scholars who had authored their own histories of Russian literature as well as colleagues who devised practical suggestions and articulated their ideas about what kind of history would be helpful for them and their students.  Shortly thereafter we asked several colleagues to read drafts of a few sections of our history, which they did, with generosity and thoroughness.  The publisher also read and commented on the complete draft of the book.  The review by an anonymous reader selected by Oxford University Press as well as detailed comments and corrections by our colleagues guided us in further editing.  At the end of 2017, our manuscript was sent to the printers.  Thus, we spent eight years working on our history, while the most intensive work and revision took place in the last five years.

–Your book is not the first in a series of “histories of Russian literature,” many of which you mention in the Introduction.  At the same time, it seems exceptional in its scope and methodology.  Where in your book do you see a similarity/influence or a distancing from earlier models (for example, Sviatopolk-Mirsky’s classic history, but not only that one)? 

— Histories of Russian literature come in different shapes and sizes; they differ in the amount of detail and in the ratio between close readings of literary texts and broad surveys of the literary process. Of course, they also use essentially different methodologies, which, in turn, result in concrete approaches to the literary canon.  We are not trying to present the existing histories as obsolete, and in order to give them their due and to show that they themselves have become a part of the history of Russian literature, we have included a brief survey of those histories in our Introduction.

You ask specifically about the History by Sviatopolk-Mirsky: this classic, although it follows the methods and interpretations of its time, still deservedly has its readers, due to its profound literary judgments and vivid perspective on the authors discussed.  In addition, we have always valued, and continue to value, the elegant brevity of Mirsky’s History.  Considering the length of our book, it is hard to believe that we also started with the idea of writing a short history of Russian literature.  Our first reviewers, however, strongly recommended that we broaden and deepen our approaches.  While following their advice, we found that focusing on the peripheral areas of the Russian literary tradition, on the one hand, and in-depth consideration of particular works, authors, and literary phenomena in the case studies, on the other, not only gave us great pleasure, but also led us to new and often unexpected discoveries.

Three features characterize all sections of our book and thus define its direction.  They grew out of our individual views and took final shape thanks to numerous collective discussions.

Thus, in our book we emphasize 1) Russian literature’s openness to external influences in almost every period, from the Middle Ages to our time, an openness that even political barriers do not prevent; 2) the important function of narrative in literature itself as well as in literary history; and 3) we are also convinced that the role of poetry in the national narratives and institutions of Russian culture needs to be seriously revisited.

Thus we strove to redefine the accepted view according to which prose and poetry exist in complementary distribution, i.e., when prose rises, poetry declines, and vice versa.  Drama also appears in our history and represents a third type of literature undermining the binary opposition between prose and poetry.  Furthermore, our history includes visual materials and such genres as documentary narrative, memoir, journalistic essays on social and cultural themes, and various types of translations.

–I would like to ask about the structure of the chapters and also about the logic of their composition (practically every chapter includes, besides the scholarly narrative, individual keywords and a case study).  Were individual chapters created jointly or by single authors?

–The structure of the book is quite complex for the very reason that we attempted to combine a chronological with a conceptual approach.  Moreover, we abandoned the “portrait gallery” – a crucial structural feature of all existing histories of Russian literature.  That is, we do not have monograph-style chapters devoted to great writers, although we do include a few case studies which offer a more detailed look at an author’s biography and reputation, or a genre, or a cultural phenomenon, or a text, or a certain aspect of a text.  Those case studies are very important for us.

As was mentioned above, we started the process of writing precisely from case studies and keywords.  We needed some landmarks and orientation points, and it was around them that the narrative was constructed (­­or spooled): some of those case studies later entered the main text, while other case studies had to be added as we went along.

Of course, we distributed chapters among ourselves, but in the process of writing, all of us not only read each other’s work but also completed, corrected, and edited parts written by colleagues more than once.  All of this was, it goes without saying, discussed in our e-mail correspondence, which is probably as voluminous as the book itself: 5,700 messages by one count.  We bear collective responsibility for the whole text.

The book consists of five parts.  The first section is devoted to medieval literature through the XVIth century, followed by sections for each century: seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and then, together, twentieth and twenty-first.  It appears purely chronological.  Inside those sections, however, chapters are organized conceptually.

Obviously, each section has its own priorities, but certain themes run through all sections, e.g., institutions, subjectivity, poetics, national narratives – and, of course, their interactions.  For example, the section on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is structured in such a way that the history is told several times, in several cross-sections.  First, there are institutions, from the Silver Age salons to the modern transformations of the literary field.  Then comes poetics and the subjectivities it engenders – first in poetry, then in prose and drama.  And finally, the narratives in which the culture’s self-awareness takes shape: the narratives of revolution, war, terror, and the intelligentsia.  In each of these chapters, history begins in the 1900s and ends today.

Other sections are similarly organized.  We hope that a multi-level picture emerges as a result.  At the same time, we suspect that only a few people will read our history from cover to cover.  Some will need an individual section; others will need certain chapters or even one chapter.  The structure we have created seems convenient for partial reading: having read even one chapter, a person will receive a picture of the whole century, albeit a somewhat skewed one.

–In the Introduction to your book, a question emerges: how necessary are histories of national literatures today, in the epoch of globalization?  How do you answer that question?  Has your answer changed in the course of working on your History of Russian Literature?

–Our subject is the literary history of Russia; that subject includes many texts written in Russian, but outside of Russia, and texts written by Russians, but in other languages.  Moreover, we see the relations between the Russian literature and literatures of other nations as a history of productive cultural interactions.

We do not assert that there exists a specific set of national traditions; rather, we attempt to demonstrate that the creation of shared national narratives is a constituent part of Russian literature.  What is now called an era of globalization is but a continuation of centuries-long intensive processes that cross national borders.  Russia actively participated in those interactions, despite periods dominated by isolationism and accentuated by Russia’s separateness from the West.

Unquestionably, no great national literature has ever been completely divided from the rest of the world. Russian literature’s “borders” have always been permeable, whether the influence came from close by (such as the South-Slavic cultures or Poland) or from far away (such as Japan or the US).  There is always an international element present in debates on national literature – recall the criticism of French influence evoked by the imitation of French models.  We strove to include a discussion of these debates in our book.

Our ideas on how the history should be written kept changing as we went along, although the basic principles remained unchanged: an overall chronological structure, yet a thematic organization within each section; “case studies” and “keywords” as significant points within the historical narrative; and, instead of lists of isolated facts, a discussion, in every section, of institutions, subjectivities, national narratives, and the role of the intelligentsia — as the unifying imperative of the whole book.  Our emphases, on the other hand, did change as we moved forward.  For example, authors discussed in the later parts of the book would sometimes change our view of how to present earlier periods.  Thus, while working on the sections on poetry and prose of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we decided to radically expand the discussion of the seventeenth century.  Instead of presenting it as the conclusion of the medieval period, we emphasized its connection with the modern: after all, it was precisely in the seventeenth century that Russian poetry and prose based on fiction emerged.  We also significantly expanded certain parts of the first section in order to show the lasting and formative influence of the Baroque, on the one hand, and of such genres as folk “spiritual verses” (dukhovnye stikhi), on the other.

–To continue the preceding question: do you discuss the problem of the (Russian) (literary) canon in the book, and if so, from what methodological perspective?

–It goes without saying that we had no intention of creating a new canon of Russian literature.  On the contrary, we strove to write into this history as many as possible strange texts and persons who are far from being in any canon.  On top of that, we include contemporary writing, and “canonization” in this area is by definition risky.  We are interested in the “long” trends, ones that cover many decades or even centuries.  Not everything that belongs to those trends necessarily becomes part of the canon.  And in general, what canon are we talking about?  There are many canons, and they belong to the history of literature in the same way as the texts that they contain.  For us, the canon is one of the institutions of literature, along with journals, salons, and the mythology of the national genius.  We write about it in our history.  In other words, the canon is our object of study, and not our goal.


Translated by Svetlana Grenier. The volume A History of Russian Literature was published in June by Oxford University Press. This discussion originally appeared on Gefter on May 16, 2018 and its translation and publication on our site were done with the editor’s permission.