Historical Recognition of Competition for Attention

face of a prisoner

By the early nineteenth-century, the number of potential readers for a newly composed text was enormous. Drawing an implicit contrast with reading the Bible and other long-enduring religious texts, a German clergyman in 1792 noted:

a new, universal and far more powerful reading fashion than any before has spread not just throughout Germany but over the whole of Europe too, attracting all classes and strata of society, and suppressing almost every other kind of reading matter. This is the reading of newspaper and political pamphlets. It is at present certainly the most widespread reading fashion there has ever been.^

In England in 1820, a periodical described, “a whole nation employing nearly all its leisure hours from the highest to the lowest ranks in reading – we have been truly called a READING PUBLIC.”^ ^ Even in reading newspapers and political pamphlets, the reading public was rather different from a political community. Language and literary fashion, social and commercial networks, and success in attracting attention shaped the geographic scope of readership of particular public works much more than did formal political institutions and boundaries.

A widely-noted aspect of the growing fashion for reading was reading fiction books. Printed prose fiction extending to hundreds of pages was called a “novel.” In 1700, only a few volumes of prose fiction were published in London. By 1800, printers in London, Edinburgh, and Dublin were producing 150 different novel titles (including reprints) a year.^ At one trade fair in Germany in 1803, 276 new novels were offered.^ Consistent with the rise of the novel, book production per capita in Britain increased sharply in the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century. Book production remained at a relatively high level throughout the nineteenth century.^ Novels typically had smaller circulation than newspapers and periodicals. Novels, however, promoted reading for pleasure and entertainment. They fostered a new field for imaginative representations that competed for attention.

By the early nineteenth century, most writers recognized the emergence of a new structure of competition. No longer did a writer participate primarily in competition among a few rivals for the acclaim of a socially, politically, and temporally instituted public. An English author in 1838 observed:

now, a wide and rapid torrent of literature streams throughout the country, bearing conspicuously on its surface, for some hours, whatever “waifs or strays” may be thrown in, and speedily consigning all to the unfathomable depths of forgetfulness. Scarcely a single living author carries significant ballast or anchorage to linger behind his rivals, and to retain his place in the notice of spectators, who are too eagerly watching for what follows to preserve any remembrance of what is past.^

Competition for attention replaced competition for acclaim:

If the present race of authors was to be judged from the quantity, and not the quality of their productions, the voice of censure would be wholly silenced; quarto succeeds quarto, and poem to poem, in such rapid succession, that the public has no time for pause or doubt. At the very instant they are adjusting their critical scales to weigh the merit of one production, their attention is called off to the perusal of another.^

Evaluating merit seemed to become infeasible:

As books multiply to an unmanageable excess, selection becomes more and more a necessity for readers, and the power of selection more and more a desperate problem for the busy part of readers. The possibility of selecting wisely is becoming continually more hopeless as the necessity for selection is becoming continually more pressing.^

Competition for attention implies selective attention. One way or another, not only the “busy part of readers,” but all readers, necessarily choose. They don’t, however, necessarily choose wisely according to acclaimed standards.

Early nineteenth-century authors recognized that “bad publicity” had much positive value in competition for attention. In 1817, an English author noted that, despite having not published any work for seventeen years, he had endured continuous public criticism throughout that period “for faults directly opposite” those he had. He reasoned:

the reader will be apt to suspect that there must be something more than usually strong and extensive in a reputation, that could either require or stand so merciless and long-continued a cannonading.

He himself declared the positive value of those attacks:

To anonymous critics in reviews, magazines, and news-journals of various name and rank, and to satirists with or without a name in verse or prose, or in verse-text aided by prose-comment, I do seriously believe and profess, that I owe full two-thirds of whatever reputation and publicity I happen to possess. For when the name of an individual has occurred so frequently, in so many works, for so great a length of time, the readers of these works — (which with a shelf or two of beauties, elegant Extracts and Anas, form nine-tenths of the reading of the reading Public) — cannot but be familiar with the name, without distinctly remembering whether it was introduced for eulogy or for censure.^

About the same time, another poet similarly affirmed the importance of attention, whether with good or bad valuation:

The love, the admiration, the indifference, the slight, the aversion, and even the contempt, with which these Poems have been received … must all, if I think consistently, be received as pledges and tokens, bearing the same general impression, though widely different in value; — they are all proofs that for the present time I have not laboured in vain; and afford assurances, more or less authentic, that the products of my industry will endure.^

Another early nineteenth-century English poet, who did not achieve popular success in his lifetime, warned foes from a third-personal standpoint:

let none trouble themselves to heap the dust of oblivion upon his efforts; the pile they raise will betray his grave which might otherwise have been unknown.^

In short, any publicity is good publicity.

Text producers actively sought publicity. In 1830, an English literary critic declared:

All the pens that ever were employed in magnifying Bish’s lucky office, Romanis’s fleecy hosiery, Packwood’s razor strops, and Rowland’s Kalydor, all the placard-bearers of Dr. Eady, all the wall-chalkers of Day and Martin, seem to have taken service with the poets and novelists of this generation. Devices which in the lowest trades are considered as disreputable are adopted without scruple, and improved upon with a despicable ingenuity, by people engaged in a pursuit which never was and never will be considered as a mere trade by any man of honour and virtue. … We expect some reserve, some decent pride, in our hatter and our bootmaker. But no artifice by which notoriety can be obtained is thought too abject for a man of letters.^

Text producers had their books puffed in periodicals that they or their friends owned. When necessary, they bought good reviews.^ ^ Some late-eighteenth-century novels even included an early form of product placement: embedded within a novel’s narrative were descriptions of specific titles available at a particular, real bookstore.^ Advertising and promotion were understood to be crucially important to selling books.

Sales of printed works varied enormously in the early nineteenth century. Blake, Keats, and Shelley, three poets typically presented in college courses on Romantic poetry, together probably had in total throughout the Romantic period only 4,700 copies of poetry books printed. Of those copies, slightly more than 50% were sold at remaindered (excess inventory) prices.^ That’s probably fewer than the number of copies printed of a single edition of the Newgate Calendar, or Malefactors’ Bloody Register. Shelley, writing in 1820 to the publisher of his Prometheus Unbound, declared: “Prometheus Unbound, I must tell you, is my favorite poem…. I think, if I may judge by its merits, the Prometheus cannot sell beyond twenty copies.”^ Five hundred copies of the work were printed. In 1821, Shelley wrote that his Prometheus Unbound was “never intended for more than five or six persons.”^ The 500-copy print run almost surely did not sell well.^

The works of Byron and Walter Scott, in contrast, circulated in much higher numbers during the same period. Byron’s Don Juan, the best-selling work of the Romantic period, had more than 100,000 copies printed from 1819 to 1824 and perhaps 200,000 copies printed before 1840. From 1819 to 1839, 0.5 to 1.5 million persons probably read parts of Don Juan.^ Walter Scott, who authored more than thirty-two individual titles, was in total by far the best-selling author. Through 1836 more than 200,000 copies of his verse publications were printed and more than 500,000 copies of his Waverly novels.^ The reading public for Scott’s Waverley novels was much larger than those for other novels:

On the one side are each and all of the Waverley novels whose immediate sale was often in the range 6,000 to 10,000 for every title. On the opposite side are all the other novels, whose sale in the period was usually in the range of 500 to 1,500. … During the romantic period, the “Author of Waverley” sold more novels than all the other novelists of the time put together. Even by about 1850 … no novel by any other recent novelist, including Austen, had achieved cumulative sales of 8,000, a number which several Waverley novels reached in the first week.^

Through the 1860s perhaps two to three million copies of Scott’s Waverley novels were printed.^ Those figures, while large, are much lower than copies for more ephemeral texts such as broadsides and newspapers. The total number of Waverly novels printed through the 1860s is about equal to broadside copies printed for each of two penal executions in London in 1849.

Early representations of penal executions among the symbolic elite are closely related to their imaginations of competition for attention. In 1830, a prominent English poet, historian, politician, and essayist declared:

Men of real merit will, if they persevere, at last reach the station to which they are entitled, and intruders will be ejected with contempt and derision. But it is no small evil that the avenues to fame should be blocked up by a swarm of noisy pushing, elbowing pretenders, who, though they will not ultimately be able to make their own entrance, hinder, in the mean time, those who have a right to enter.^

This mythic account imagines men of merit achieving fame in the inevitable end-time when men reach their just station. Competition for attention to print, like punishment, intrudes as a sign of “no small evil” at the beginning of a journey to posterity.

Posterity and eternity figured in both authors’ ambitions and penal executions. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, executing someone was conventionally described in execution texts as that person being “launched into eternity.” Early nineteenth-century elite authors imagined that they would be honored in posterity. For example, Wordsworth, in his preface to his poems of 1815, spoke of the “judgment of posterity upon myself.” A manager of an important theater in early nineteenth-century London explicitly associated print competition with executions:

the life of a manager was like the life of the ordinary of Newgate — a constant superintendence of executions. The number of authors whom he was forced to extinguish, was, he said, a perpetual literary massacre, that made St. Bartholomew’s altogether shrink in comparison.^

Not performing a play, superintending the legal executions of persons, and killing a person because of that person’s religion (St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre) are actions with very different relations to actual political institutions of justice. Actual political acts become abstract representations in competition for attention.

Public works concerning crime, criminals, and punishment have attracted a large amount of attention from at least as early as the early seventeenth century through to the present. Crime, criminals, and punishment have been highly successful subjects in competition for attention. Producers of public works concerning crime, criminals, and punishment have sought to foster true religion, to improve the world through political reform, to make money, or to advance a combination of these and other objectives. In any case, they designed their public works with appreciation for the imperatives of intense competition for attention.