The Society for Critical Exchange
  MLA 2000
SCE Program
  Economies of Writing I

Judging a Book by Its.Price, Distribution, and Lesbian Representation in 1928

Deborah Cohler
Department of Women Studies
San Francisco State University

In the last months of 1928, four novels were published in England that each take female sexual deviance as its topic. Yet Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Djuna Barnes's Ladies Almanack and Compton Mackenzie's Extraordinary Women were received as radically different texts materially and ideologically.
Hall's novel, now heralded as the "classic novel of lesbian love" was subject to immediate banning in Britain and scrutinized at obscenity trials in London, New York, and elsewhere. Orlando was both Virginia Woolf's most popular book published to that date and of these four, experienced the least public controversy over its subject matter. Barnes published Ladies Almanack privately both to allay her concerns over the text's possible censorship and to control its pricing and distribution. Extraordinary Women holds the least extraordinary history of these four texts: though it was tentatively issued with only a small initial run, its modest success amongst reviewers and the court's disinterest in it led to later larger runs of the satire.
By analyzing the publication, pricing, and distribution strategies of these four texts in conjunction with an analysis of their receptions, critical questions about the status of "obscenity," "art," and the emergent category of the lesbian can be answered. What made Woolf's text seemingly immune from the legal and social castigation which Hall experienced? It is, I assert, not only the realist polemic of The Well of Loneliness which provoked public outcry in contrast to a more "coded" or avant-garde rendering of same sex desires in Orlando. For Mackenzie's satire is as explicit as Hall's bildungsroman, yet its pricing and distribution placed it out of the dangerous waters into which The Well of Loneliness slid. Similarly, Barnes' eclectic Almanack indicates what might only be possible outside of the public sphere of publishers, distributors and government oversight.
Differences in critical, legal, and popular receptions of these four novels must, I argue, be read in the context of their marketing, as well as their textual, strategies. For example, in England, the price at which books were sold in the early twentieth century indicated as much about their content as their production. Books which were viewed as "dangerous" or in some way unsuitable for children and/or uneducated classes of readers were priced higher than their production and demand would warrant as a method of limiting the book's circulation. Extraordinary Women, for example, was sold initially at the extraordinarily high price of twenty-one shillings (compared to the typical price of 7s. 6d. for most novels). By pricing the novel so steeply, salacious content was signaled.
Yet reviewers steadfastly refute this connection when discussing Extraordinary Women's price. Indeed, the New Statesman ends its review of the novel by advocating another printing, with an outrageously low price (3s. 6d). Published on August 25, six days after the storm broke over the Well of Loneliness the editors of the New Statesman were clearly differentiating Extraordinary Women from legal flurry gathering around The Well of Loneliness. No objection could or should be made to this book, they argue, so lower the price. Thus price provides an indicator not only of a novel's expense or perceived marketability, but of the estimation by its publisher of its moral or cultural content.
By examining the novels' production, marketing, and textual strategies in the context of inter-war Britain this paper argues that we can learn more about both the limits of representation of female homosexuality specifically in 1928, but also about how rhetoric functions in relation to subject matter, and how the extratextual productions of novels determine not only its readership but produce the text as a cultural object and event as surely as the words on its pages.
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