If you’ve ever wondered how a novel gets made, from the first glimmerings in the author’s imagination to what readers say about it in their book clubs, Clayton Childress’s Under the Cover is the book for you.
Childress, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, has performed a remarkable feat of investigative reporting, interviewing dozens of writers, editors, and readers, and even embedding himself for a time as an intern at an indie publishing house, to follow the tortuous path of Cornelia Nixon’s 2009 historical novel Jarrettsville from inspiration to publication and beyond. Unfortunately, because Childress is a social scientist and Under the Cover is part of the Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology series, readers have to drill through layers of academic framing and insider jargon to find the nuggets Childress has mined from his years of research.
This is a shame because, whatever his gifts as a sociologist, Childress is a first-rate shoe-leather reporter. He begins by getting inside Nixon’s head, tracing the origins of Jarrettsville back to a family story about a Maryland ancestor, Martha Jane Cairns, who fell in love with a Union soldier shortly after the Civil War, became pregnant with his child, and then, after he left her, shot him dead in broad daylight as he marched in a parade.
In these early sections, Childress occasionally gets sidetracked by his academic training, as when he suggests that “in Nixon’s writing group, recompense operates largely within an economy of time and artistic attention, a gift exchange of sorts,” as if trading story drafts were a lit-world equivalent of the exchange of shell necklaces among Trobriand Islanders. But he does a superb job of showing how Nixon’s decade-long struggle to write and publish Jarrettsville transformed a raw family story into a published book.
Nixon spent five long years researching and writing a draft of the novel, then called Martha’s Version, which she sent to 22 publishing houses, all of which rejected it. Childress, ever the social scientist, breaks out the positive and negative comments in Nixon’s rejection letters into a handy bar chart showing that while editors liked Nixon’s treatment of the time period and the issue of race, they felt the plot was too slow and the major characters needed work.
Anyone who has ever sent out a novel for publication has created their own mental version of Childress’s soul-crushing little bar chart, and like Nixon, has pored over it looking for the signal in the noise of conflicting editorial feedback. To her credit, Nixon figured out what was wrong and overhauled the book, adding a long section from the perspective of Martha Cairns’s doomed lover. Or, as Childress puts it: “Nixon took the editors’ explanations from the field of production, and first alone and then with guidance from her social circle used them to redraft Martha’s Version into Jarrettsville.”
Much of Under the Cover is written in this curiously anthropological tone, as if Childress were explaining how to eat a bowl of cereal to a race of aliens who had never seen a spoon. What is even more curious, though, is that, amid all the jargon, Childress nails the great secret of publishing, which is that it is a business fueled by special brand of infectious enthusiasm. (This might be the place to mention that Childress quotes, at some length, from a Millions piece of mine, “‘A Right Fit’: Navigating the World of Literary Agents”.)
In his chapters on Counterpoint Press, where Childress worked as an intern while it was publishing Jarrettsville, he documents how Nixon’s book passed from her agent, to her editor, to her publisher’s sales force, to buyers at major bookstores, rising and falling in value as each person in the chain fell in love with the book or didn’t. Of course, each of these people are busy professionals who can’t possibly read every page of every book that crosses their desks, so much of the time they were falling in love, or not falling in love, with the idea of Nixon’s novel.
Since each person in the chain was being paid to hype a full slate of books to the next person in line, any sign of unfeigned enthusiasm—a kind comment by a proofreader, a review of half the book from a sales rep—rippled through the system, carrying the book along in its wake. In the case of Jarrettsville, the book rode this tide of readerly goodwill straight onto the high-traffic front tables at Borders, the now-shuttered bookstore chain, where it foundered, in large part due to a single bad review in The New York Times.
Childress gets this deeply human element of publishing exactly right, so it’s disheartening to see it explained in sentences like this one:
While most sociologists, following the theory of Bourdieu, bifurcate the literary field into artistically and commercially driven poles, it is at the organizational level within the field of production in which art and commerce are harmonized as a requisite feature of being in the business of promoting and selling books.
Translated into plain English, Childress is saying that despite what people think, publishing isn’t a war between art and commerce, but a business that thrives by blending these two things. This is a core insight of his book, and he’s right, but he’s buried his point in a sentence that seems almost scientifically designed to be impenetrable to non-specialist readers.
First, there’s that single-name reference to Bourdieu, tossed in without context as if the late French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were a cultural phenomenon like Madonna or Beyoncé, so instantly recognizable that you only need the one name to know who he is and be fully up on his theories. And if you weren’t scared off by the mononymic French dude, the rest of the sentence will stop you cold, with its weakly focused main clause (“it is at…”), awkwardly placed introductory prepositional phrases (“at the organizational level within the field of production”), passive voice (“are harmonized”), insular terms of art (“the field of production”), and ornate Latinate phrases (“bifurcate,” “requisite”).
I’ve been teaching writing at the university level for more than 20 years and I can assure you no one writes like that naturally. You have to train people to write sentences like this, and when they regress and start making sense again, you have to ensure that their livelihoods depend on being consistently incomprehensible outside a narrow set of like-minded colleagues.
Therein, to my mind, lies a small, perhaps unavoidable tragedy of how knowledge is produced and promulgated in our society. Childress was able to do such a fine job researching American publishing in part because he was heavily subsidized, first as a doctoral student at the state-supported University of California at Santa Barbara, and later as a junior professor at a research university partially funded by (Canadian) tax dollars. When he began Under the Cover, Childress explains in an afterword, he was a grad student looking for a subject, and now, many years later, he is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, no doubt thanks in large part to the publication of Under the Cover.
So the deal worked out well for Childress, and it has worked out well for cultural sociologists and their students, who now have a new text to study in their classes. But for other readers who might be interested in the subject matter of Childress’s book, particularly writers and people considering a career in publishing, it’s more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Childress has given us a deeply reported insider’s look at how the sausage gets made in contemporary publishing. On the other hand, he has built such high walls of academic verbiage and doctrinal framing around his work that only a few hardy souls outside his area of specialty will ever succeed in climbing them.