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Monday, May 07, 2012

Modes of Production of Victorian Novels by N.N. Feltes

Three Volume Set of Jane Austen's Emma

Modes of Production of Victorian Novels
by N.N. Feltes
University of Chicago Press
p. 1989

  Format is important in Art.   An Art Work doesn't actually exist until it takes some shape outside the mind of the creator(s).  The format in which a specific Art Work exists directly impacts the potential size of the Audience for that Art Work.

  An excellent example of this aspect of Art is in the earth sculpture/"environmental art" field- you might recall  the Gates project in New York City, the Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in Northern California, or the time he wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin.  Christo is an extreme example of an Artist using the format of his/her work (large scale, interacting with the location itself) being decisive in creating the relationship between Artist and Audience.

  Of course, most Art Works are not so bold in their choice of format.  Many Artists utilize existing formats because those formats have established Audiences.  You can consider the 3:00 45 single OR the use of the three volume Novel format in the late 18th and 19th century in England.

  The three volume production format of the novel is the starting point for Feltes analysis in his book, Modes of Production of Victorian Novels.  Modes of Production purports to offer a "dialectical analysis [which] leads to a comprehensive explanation of the development of novel production into the twentieth century."  I would call shenanigans on that conclusion, i.e. Feltes FAILS to provide a comprehensive explanation of the development of novel production into the twentieth century.

    However, Feltes does provide a well researched back ground of the novel formats themselves, of which he identifies five:

1.  part-issue
2. three-volume
3. bimonthly
4. magazine-serial
5. single-volume

    Each of these formats created a different relationship between the Artist, his Audience and the intermediaries between the Artist and Audience. The two stand-outs are the three-volume format and the temporally later magazine-serial format.  Feltes places his analysis of the three-volume format in the 1850s, but of course the three-volume format was in use when Jane Austen was publishing a half century before.

 Feltes' formats are temporally organized- chapter one, the part-issue examines the cultural "moment" of the publication of Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers in 1836.  Then after the three-volume format he proceeds in order, arriving at the modern tradition of the single-volume novel.

  It's somewhat endearing that even as Feltes provides materialist explanations for Artistic products, he adheres to the mid 1980s conventions of Marxist literary criticism, providing little exegesis' of novels like Middlemarch in the middle of a discussion of the economic negotiations between Eliot and her publisher.

  The weakness of the Marxist analysis in this book is his placement of the formats in historical sequence.  First of all, this is simply inaccurate.  Jane Austen and her contemporaries were published in three-volume format in the early 19th century, well before the 1852 production of Thackeray's Henry Esmond.

 Both the magazine-serial format and single-volume format continue to exist side by side in the modern world.  The emergence of the Ereader in the last year suggests the potential emergence or re-emergence of prior formats.

 The Marxist idea of there being successive periods in history culminating in a final phenomenon is the part of their theory that has been shown false by recent historical events, so the part of Modes of Production that adopts that analysis is bogus, but the rest of it is really useful in that it contains in depth discussion of the importance of format for Art Works.

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