The Elizabethan Top Ten: Defining Print Popularity in Early Modern England is an extraordinary and exhilarating collection of essays edited by Andy Kesson and Emma Smith. The volume sets out to challenge our ideas about what constitutes “popularity”, and in the process offers the potential to reshape the boundaries of Early Modern literary study. Essays on topics including news pamphlets, friendships, wallpaper, psalms, Shakespeare and household manuals continually provoke the reader to justify their mental map of the era’s literary and printed culture. Almost anyone reading The Elizabethan Top Ten (and it is astonishingly readable) will find themselves intrigued by the case studies in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture, as well as challenged to rearrange their own literary priorities.
The introductory essay begins the process of taking apart “popularity” by pointing out how bestseller lists seem to confuse qualitative with quantitative measures of value. This is neatly exemplified by the New York Times Book Review’s decision in 2007 to weight their own lists to ensure that the kind of books they reviewed showed up as most popular, in place of those which had simply sold more copies. Popularity is both exciting and “suspect”, which Smith and Kesson suggest may be a lingering trace of the Tudor “stigma of print” (2). They trace popularity through the Early Modern period: its religious connections with the idea of “credulous” Catholics, the seditious potential contained in political popularity which might provide “a mechanism for power on the part of the apparently powerless”, and the ideological contortions of an establishment which saw popular ideas as those which must be kept from the people for the people’s good (4).
These are brought into dialogue with modern scholarly perspectives on the popular as non-elite culture, the elements excluded from canonical accounts, material and practices which cannot be accounted for by the images maintained by dominant social groups. This is further complicated by reflections on drama’s distinctive place between print and performance, and the multiple means of consuming printed words which hide inside the notion of literacy/illiteracy (“delegate”, “surrogate”, “artisanal”, “contextual”…) This introduction opens up a space in which diverse approaches and topics can enrich (and destabilize) the idea of popular print. The essays which follow, Kesson and Smith explain, “[bring] together book history and literary criticism not merely to nominate or enumerate bestsellers, nor even to problematize them, but rather to try to understand their hold on the market, and with that, the gap between our own literary assessment and those of the past we seek to understand” (3).
The first section of the book offers four chapters on methodologies, which outline “the conceptual and evidential issues associated with popularity” (14). Zachary Lesser and Alan Farmer provide a reading of the Short Title Catalogue which not only tracks the popularity of various subjects through time, but produces four categories of publishing practice, showing ways which printers treated different kinds of books. Lucy Munro examines the paradox of pre-Elizabethan works offered as novelties because of their age in an essay surtitled ‘O Read Me Because I Am Of Great Antiquity’. Helen Smith situates books within networks of borrowing, friendship and personal exchange, making some striking comparisons with the idea of “popularity” in the playground. Neil Rhodes describes the way Shakespeare negotiated exclusivity and popular success, and relates this to the formation of the canon.
The second section offers ten case studies which exemplify, complicate and interrupt ideas of popularity. A quick run-down cannot do them justice, but the chapter titles are: “Almanacs and the Idea of Popularity” (Adam Smyth); “Print, Popularity and the Book of Common Prayer” (Brian Cummings); “International News Pamphlets” (S.K. Barker); “Spenser’s Popular Intertexts” (Abigail Shinn); “Household Manuals” (Catherine Richardson); “Damask Papers” (Juliet Fleming); “Sermons” (Lori Anne Ferrell); “The Psalm Book” (Beth Quitslund); “Serial Publication and Romance” (Louise Wilson); “Mucedorus” (Peter Kirwan). Each one deals with a rampantly popular item of printed material, with angles that variously attend to book history, circulation, genre, reception and material culture. To pick a few highlights: Kirwan’s enjoyably paradoxical account of Mucedorus, a play apparently made unpopular by its association with Shakespeare’s name and ret-conned into appearing more out of date that it actually had been; Fleming’s investigation of how seditious papers were overprinted with interior design patterns in decorative redaction, but not so overprinted that it couldn’t be seen that they had been seditious once; Smyth’s description of satirical almanacs printed with foolish marginalia.
The issue of how we draw our map of the period, or the narratives we tell about it, is tackled throughout, with contributors worrying, sniping and undermining established models. Lesser and Farmer remind us that even if we could account for all the books in circulation, “print popularity is only one way of thinking about the centrality or marginality of texts, books, and discourses and is not straightforwardly indicative of which had the most profound cultural effects” (16). Ferrell remarks on the curious fluctuation in attitudes to Calvinism “with observers then and scholars now assailing its doctrines – predestined election, limited atonement and perseverance in particular – as either off-puttingly unpopular or destabilizingly populist” (197).
Perhaps most subversively, Cummings cites Leah Price’s attack on the “bookish liberalism” of assuming that “acquiring a book implies choosing it” (qtd 136). This works as an effective counter to the idea of print numbers as an index of popularity: as he demands, “Do we want to call Acts of Parliament a form of popular literature?” (136). However, it also opens up a line of thought which questions the liberal market-laden assumptions which frequently underlie discussion of literary history in the university, implying that imagined autonomous economic agents acquiring literary items via rational choice is the best way to conceptualise aesthetic value, pleasure and popularity. Homo economicus and homo lectio part company when works which were not selected in this way (if many could have been) appear so strongly in the culture and language of the era: scholarship regularly points this out, but it isn’t always reflected in the practices of teaching and discussion.
The Elizabethan Top Ten is a rigorous, entertaining and provocative set of studies in the print culture of a defining era. Given the number of avenues it opens up, and the new lights it throws upon an apparently familiar scene, Smith and Kesson’s wish that it will prompt more debate seems certain to be amply fulfilled.
The Elizabethan Top Ten: Defining Print Popularity in Early Modern England, Ed. Andy Kesson and Emma Smith (Ashgate, 2013, as part of the series “Material Readings in Early Modern Culture”). ISBN 978-1-4094-4029-1 I am grateful to Ashgate for providing a review copy of this volume.