Call for Papers: Bestsellers in the Pre-Industrial Age

Received from Dr Shanti Graheli (University of Glasgow)

Bestsellers, TV series, spin-offs, fan fiction, are all deeply embedded in our perception of literary consumer culture today. Yet the notion of a bestseller with spin-offs is a very old one indeed. The consolidation of the printing press in the Renaissance led to the first major re-assessment of the book as an object of ‘mass’ consumption. Lower production costs, paired with a rise of literacy levels, brought more books to an ever-growing reading public. Printers and publishers devised marketing strategies to meet demand, such as serialisation and branding, the creation of abridgements and illustrated editions, spin-offs and games inspired by the most successful texts. Foreign and ancient texts were re-packaged in translation or alongside new commentaries. Bestsellers catered for all types of readers, or indeed users, with oral transmission playing an important part in the dissemination of texts.

While individual aspects of this production cycle have been explored – from popular print to the concept of a literary sequel, marketing strategies and readers’ reactions – there has been no attempt to investigate bestsellers as a phenomenon in the round. This conference takes a holistic approach by combining approaches to the materiality of the book, the economics of trade, and the socio-cultural factors behind bestsellers into a single interpretive perspective with the study of authorship, literary production and translation theories.

We invite proposals from postgraduate and early-career scholars for 20-minute papers exploring one or more of the following core themes:

* Profiling the corpus: what are the distinctive marks of a bestseller, on the side of production as well as consumption/reception? How can we use direct and indirect evidence, and how can we ‘fill in the blanks’ when evidence appears to be altogether missing?

* Bestsellers mean business: what is the place of the economics of the marketplace of print within a methodological framework for the investigation of bestsellers? What business strategies influenced the making of a bestseller, and how can these be pieced together from extant sources?

* Readers: how did readers influence the market, and how were they influenced themselves? How can individual readers and the wider public be investigated to gain a better understanding of the market for bestsellers?

* Genres: how do fiction and non-fiction bestsellers compare? Do they give rise to the same patterns of production and consumption? Can we consider them to be part of a cross-generic class of bestselling texts, or are there features specific to fiction that are intrinsic to the idea of a bestseller?

* Translation and translatability: how are texts re-adapted to fit a particular audience or taste across geographic and social boundaries? How are textual and iconographic narratives modified to suit a new public, and what aspects are retained and added?

* Bestsellers in the archive: how can we use documentary and archival evidence for a better understanding of the production, distribution, and consumption of bestsellers of the past?

* From bestseller to classic: how do bestsellers and their evolution as cultural objects relate to the formation of the literary canon? What factors were behind the shift of a text from the status of bestseller to that of a classic?

* Bestsellers Past and Present: Can we discern patterns for the investigation of bestsellers that are true for both pre-industrial and present-day bestsellers?

Paper proposals should be sent to Dr Shanti Graheli and Prof. Warren Boutcher by 28 February 2019 alongside a short CV.

The event will take place at the University of Glasgow on 23-24 May 2019, and is generously supported by Past & Present, the Society for Renaissance Studies and the University of Glasgow. It is organised by Dr Shanti Graheli (University of Glasgow) with support from Prof. Warren Boutcher (Queen Mary University London). Travel and accommodation subsidies will be available to speakers.

Confirmed speakers and respondents: Dr Daliah Bond (Notredame University), Prof. Warren Boutcher (QMUL), Dr Falk Eisermann (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin), Dr Shanti Graheli (University of Glasgow) Prof. Neil Harris (University of Udine), Dr Angela McShane (Wellcome Trust), Prof. Vicente Pérez de León (University of Glasgow), Prof. Jennifer Richards (Newcastle University), Dr Anna Katharina Richter (University of Zurich), Dr Claudia Rossignoli (University of St Andrews), Dr Drew Thomas (University of St Andrews), Dr Krystyna Wierzbicka (University of Warsaw), Prof. Sandy Wilkinson (UCD), Prof. Jessica Wolfe (UNC).

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Past & Present is pleased to support this event and others like it. Applications for funding to run events are welcomed from scholars working on all historical periods and subject matters at any stage in their career. 

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