Merve Emre is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) and The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (New York: Doubleday, 2018).
What sociological knowledge do we possess of contemporary literary culture? Very little, as Amy Hungerford points out, for the basic reason that the objects of sociological study are “virtually unreachable by the ordinary means of scholarly inquiry.” The fine-grained interactions of living, breathing social actors—writers and editors, publishers and booksellers, students and teachers, all going about their business as you read this sentence—cannot be recovered from historical archives or extrapolated from literary texts. Partially, the methodological problem is one of contemporaneity. We cannot arrest the flow of the present to study it any more than we can raise the dead from their graves and order them to speak. But in the ever-expanding field of contemporary literary activity, the problem is also one of number and scale: more people are reading and writing than ever before in more socio-institutional settings and in more disparate ways. Given the massive profusion and diffusion of literary culture, how does a literary scholar select the texts and readers she will study from among the many that are available to her in any given social context: a publishing house, an MFA program, a literature classroom, a book club, an online forum? How can the analysis of a single text or reader or institution, marked by the innumerable and ephemeral contingencies of time and space, scale up into a general theory of contemporary literary production or reception.