The novel is the first large-scale example of “mass art”

As practical men, the new middle classes found literature frivolous; as pious ones, they found it idolatrous; as class-conscious citizens, they felt it too committed to court and salon. Yet they could not live without it; a lust for images of their own lives, projections of their own dreams and nightmares moved them obscurely. They demanded a form that would be really their own, a mass-produced commodity to be bought or rented in the marketplace like other goods, a thick and substantial item to be placed on the table with other evidence of their wealth and taste. The novel is the first large-scale example of “mass art.” It is quite different from “folk art,” with its handmade appearance and its air of knowing its place, for folk art is rooted in the country and in agriculture; it changes slowly and almost imperceptibly, its chief appeal being its resemblance to what has come before. “Mass art,” on the other hand, is urban art, changing with the rapid changes of fashion, and seeming as much the product of new advances and technique as in any profound shift in the imagination. Like the wood-block engravings of 18th-century Japan, or the movies later on, or jazz on records, its triumphs depend chiefly on developments in manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. Like other mass-produced products, it tends to drive out of existence craft objects, which cannot survive the class structures which demand them and the class-consciousness which defines their consumers. Just as the spectacular rise of the novel is inconceivable without the perfection of printing, its final victory is inconceivable without the invention of the circulating library; mass-produced, it is also mass-circulated like any commodity in an expanding mercantile economy.

From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).

2 thoughts on “The novel is the first large-scale example of “mass art””

  1. Partially true still today, I guess just the method of mass circulation has changed. With the heavily marketed page turners reducing our choice on one side and the literary prizes reducing our choice on the other side. Could e-books and word of mouth (blogs) be the answer to more choice?

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  2. I do like Fiedler’s characterization of the novel in general, though I think there’s a bit of a conflation between content and object when he talks about mass-produced vs. craft objects. Still, he is correct that the novel is largely a genre made possible by the technology of mass production.

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