It is convenient to think of fiction threading through four frames on its way to existence. Least obtrusive is the legal frame established by copyright, libel, and obscenity laws. Second is the commercial frame: the considerations of production, patronage, and market-consumption. Less easy to define is the ‘ideological’ frame. In totalitarian regimes, fiction is frankly an instance of the state’s propaganda; in liberal democracies, publishing houses may also, despite their supposed autonomy, connive ‘gutlessly’ with state aims (this was Orwell’s conclusion after the near universal boycott of Animal Farm). Finally, there is a fourth frame which I can best call ‘aesthetic competence’. Novelists, that is, cannot work far in advance of the narrative equipment bequeathed them by their predecessors or on loan from their most ambitious contemporaries. Put absurdly, Fielding – however innovative – could not have devised a stream of consciousness technique. Or in the familiar jargon of literary criticism, the individual talent has only a very restricted scope within the tradition.
Within the incongruities of these frames, the novelist strives to maximize the area of his freedom. In this note, I want to look at the space currently afforded by the commercial apparatus which delivers fiction to the Anglo-American marketplace and its customers. I am making, of course, two large initial assumptions: first that fiction must necessarily be delivered by the machinery of commerce; second that one can – for various purposes of discussion – lump Britain and America together. Briefly, to justify these assumptions: the novel is, by virtue of its length, the most expensive of current literary forms. It requires inordinate investments of authorial time and publishers’ capital, both laid out on a hazardous chance of success; of all forms, novel publishing is most akin to gambling (advertising and various play-safe strategies have only a limited capacity to lower odds). Hence the novel is closely tied to the progressive technology, commercial management, and dictatorship of the market. If it comes to the Blakean dilemma of making his own system or being enslaved by the other man’s, the novelist usually has little alternative to slavery, mitigated by whatever Joycean resource of cunning he can muster. There is always, of course, the drastic resort to samizdat. Current practice suggests that this alternative supply system only flourishes where there is a coercive establishment whose censorious rigidity leaves no aperture for even moderately subversive literature. One of the interesting features of alternative publishing houses in the West – say the American Fiction Collective, the British Writers and Readers, or the feminist presses, Virago for instance – is that they either defy the conditions of the marketplace and go under, or they survive and compromise principle. (Each of the aforementioned, for example, have made accommodation with the ‘straight’ publishing world to get distribution and access to retail outlets.) Fiction, then, is less detachable from the dominant commercial system than poetry or drama, which have self-publishing and fringe facilities. Nor given the general trade publishing pattern, with its elaborate cross-subsidizations, is fiction entirely detachable from what is happening with other categories of book.