Ohmann, Richard

Assigned: Ohmann, Richard. “The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-75” (1686-1701). Also read the editors’ introduction (1684-86).

“The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-75” (1983)

1. On 1686-88 (“Categorical names such as…”), Richard Ohmann lists a number of literary categories such as “The English Novel” and “American Literature” (1686 bottom), and points to a growing understanding in the early 1980s that “such concepts pose problems…” (1687 top). What problems does he identify, and how does he characterize them? (1687) How does he describe the task he has set for himself in “The Shaping of a Canon…” and, in brief, what conclusion does he say his research will support (1687-88)?

Reading and the Book Market

2. On 1688-89 (“People read books silently, and…”), Ohmann writes that reading is not an isolated, solitary act but “a social act” (1688). What is the logic underlying this claim? How does the social nature of reading play out, according to Ohmann and the researcher he cites, Simone Beserman, with respect to the way best-sellers on the book market get to be so popular that they qualify for such a denomination? What class or group of people tend to read books in such volume that the books end up topping the charts? (1688) According to Philip H. Ennis, whom Ohmann cites, what are these influential people looking for from their reading experiences—what three key benefits do they hope to gain? (1688-89)

3. On 1689 (“The values and beliefs of a…”), Ohmann lists and discusses two facts about the book market that he says deserve attention. First, what happens if a book fails to catch on very quickly once it goes to market? How does the answer to this question, according to Ohmann, indicate the great importance of “the early buyers of hardcover books”? Second, what makes “best-sellerdom” so important in its own right, quite aside from how many hardcovercopies are sold in bookstores? In what venue, according to Ohmann, are the greatest number of best-seller copies in any form actually sold? Ultimately, then, what is the significance of the initial round of hardbound copies?

4. On 1690-91 (“A small group of relatively…”), according to Ohmann, what role do literary agents and editors at the larger book publishers play in the process known as “canon formation” that begins even before books are sent to market (1690)? Why do they play such a significant role? In what sense, according to Ohmann, does what happens at this stage amount to “a nearly closed circle of marketing and consumption” (1690)? What role does the New York Times Book Review play in bringing promising books to the attention of influential readers? Who are these “influential readers” (1690)? What is the relationship, according to Ohmann (referring to a 1968 study; see 1691, footnote 1), between advertising and reviews in the Times Book Review? More specifically, what is the correlation between publishing houses placing ads in this publication and getting their books reviewed?

The Next Stage

5. On 1691-93 (“So far I have been speaking…”), why, according to Ohmann, do some American novels live on in readership after their fellow best-selling books have faded from view? Why can’t we simply refer to the principle of “excellence” to answer this question? (1692 top) How is the New York Times Book Review significant in the process that earns a book the status of serious literature? How do the elite intellectuals who read this publication (and several others that Ohmann mentions on 1692) help ensure that a book is treated as an intellectual force to be reckoned with rather than as mere entertainment? According to Ohmann, how is Erich Segal’s novel Love Story an example of a book that did not make the transition from best-seller to the status of serious literature? (1693)

6. On 1693 (“In talking about the New York …”), what influence does Ohmann accord to the journal that many consider “the most influential among intellectuals,” the New York Review of Books (not to be confused with the New York Times Book Review)? In what specific ways does this prestigious journal help certain novels along towards “serious literature” standing? What correlation does Ohmann find between advertising and reviews in the success of such books? How does a novel, once it begins to be regarded as serious, make its way into college classrooms? What two-part qualification, ultimately, does Ohmann advance for a novel to become “canonical”? With what other theories about canon formation does this hypothesis conflict?

7. On 1694-95 (“Clearly, I need an independent…”), how does Ohmann assess the evidence from a poll of professors taken by the Wilson Quarterly around 1978 regarding the top ten American novels since 1960? In addition, how does he judge the journal Contemporary Literary Criticism for the commentary it offers on the works it has considered important over a ten-year period through 1982? (1694) On the whole, how much support do these two sources lend Ohmann’s theory that canon formation occurs “in the interaction between large audiences and gatekeeper intellectuals” (1695)?

Class and the Canon

8. On 1696-97 (“To return to the main theme…”), how does Ohmann sum up the sketch he has thus far offered of the process whereby a novel in American culture becomes “precanonical” (1696 top)? Furthermore, how does he judge the effect of “monopoly capital” (1696) in the realm of book publishing—that is, what has been the effect of huge corporate entities buying up publishing houses just as they have bought up so many other cultural products in recent decades? Although Ohmann is generally considered a Marxist-inspired critic, how does he reconfigure traditional Marxist notions about culture “as a reflex of basic economic activity…” (1696)? Why, according to him, would it be inaccurate to describe culture in such terms in his own time, the 1980s? (1696-97)

9. On 1697-98 (“To return to the instance at…”), since he rejects a traditional Marxist  base-superstructure model, what thesis does Ohmann advance regarding the role of socioeconomic class in the formation of an American literary canon for novels? How does he describe the “professional-managerial class” (1697, a term he borrows from Barbara and John Ehrenreich) to which he attributes great importance in helping determine which books will become part of a more or less permanent American novelistic canon?

10. On 1698-99 (“People in the professional-managerial…”), according to Ohmann, how do the novels chosen by the professional-managerial class sort with the values and sensibilities of that class? (1698) How does Ohmann describe the basic plots and value system at work in these novels? In what way do they, for example, privilege “individual consciousness” as more important than “the social or historical field…” (1698)? How does this “precanonical fiction” express what Raymond Williams, whom Ohmann cites, would call a “structure of feeling,” and to what extent did that structure of feeling persist and contribute to the turbulent era of the 1960s in the United States?

11. On 1699-1701 (“In retrospect it is easy to…”), how does Ohmann explain the historical and cultural background he says informs the sensibilities and ideas of the influential “professional-managerial class” responsible for the making of the American novelistic canon? (1699-1700) Why, according to Ohmann, did the prosperous and superficially harmonious post-World-War-II Era from 1945 through the 1950s nonetheless fail to banish the personal unhappiness of a great many individual Americans? (1700-01) Why did this unhappiness often result in the sufferers blaming themselves, as individuals, for their supposed failure to enjoy the relative peace and prosperity of the times? (1701)

12. On 1701 (“What I hope to have accomplished…”), how does Ohmann sum up what he believes his study of America’s novelistic canon-formation process has achieved? What four main points does he reiterate, and in what sense does his summary amount to a rapprochement with the Marxist theory of the role of social class in cultural production and evaluation or, as he puts it, the notion that “aesthetic value arises from class conflict”?

13. General question: In “The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-75,” Richard Ohmann explores the process by which certain American novels are selected and promoted as “canonical”; i.e., as serious works of literature deserving long-term respect and close attention by scholars, students, and intellectuals. Name a few recent novels (or other kinds of literature, if you prefer) that you know well and consider worthy of respect as serious literature. In responding, remember that Ohmann’s thesis involves (in part) the role of a fairly well-defined “professional-managerial class” tasked with informing the taste of other readers as to the relative value of one novel or another. So try to do both of the following things: (a) set forth the qualities that you think makes a literary work “serious” and worthy of durable respect; and (b) reflect, as far as possible, on how you came by the opinions and readerly values that inform your response. In other words, what factors do you believe have gone into the making of the reader that you are today?

14. General question: In “The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-75,” Richard Ohmann explores the process by which certain American novels are selected and promoted as “canonical”; i.e., as serious works of literature deserving long-term respect and close attention by scholars, students, and intellectuals. Of course, Ohmann’s study itself was published nearly four decades ago, and the period it covers goes back nearly a lifetime. How similar do you think the canon-formation process is today? Does it still work in more or less the same way as it did fifty or sixty years ago, or have things changed considerably since that time? There is plenty of research available online about the overall wellbeing of the book publishing industry and of bricks-and-mortar bookstores as well as the reading habits of the American public, along with factors such as the rise of the internet, e-books, audio books, and so forth, so it would be a good idea to factor in some of this material in your response.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake