Troy J. Bassett
Beginning in the 18th century and continuing throughout the 19th century, circulating libraries became an integral part of the literary marketplace as the chief means of distributing books. Subscribers paid an annual or per-book fee to rent volumes: during the Victorian period, the typical subscription rate was one guinea (21s) per year to borrow one volume at a time. The relatively high price of books made circulating libraries an economical means for many middle-class families to access books: for less than the price of one three-volume novel (one-and-a-half guineas, or 31s 6d), a subscriber could borrow dozens if not more volumes. Hundreds of circulating libraries existed during the Victorian period, but the two largest were Mudie’s Select Library (1842–1937) and W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library (1860–1961). Mudie’s, headquartered in London, had upwards of 50,000 subscribers, established branches in other major cities, and shipped books around the world. W. H. Smith added a library department to its pre-existing network of railway bookstalls with larger branches in major cities. Between them, Mudie’s and W. H. Smith became the largest purchasers of books and thereby had a direct and indirect effect on Victorian literature. In particular, the three-volume novel system—whereby the high price limited sales to the libraries who then had a monopoly on new fiction—encouraged British readers to become book borrowers instead of book buyers. The format of the three-volume novel led to certain generic conventions influencing areas such as characterization, plot, and style, which remained until the format was abolished in 1894. Since the libraries, especially Mudie’s and W. H. Smith, largely controlled the distribution of literature, they often exerted an informal censorship on literature which some authors, such as George Moore, advocated against.
Since the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the nation-state has risen to be the dominant form of political organization in the world through its embodiment of the principle of nationalism—that nations should be sovereign unto themselves. The post-1945 era, however, has seen an intensification in the processes of globalization, characterized by the rise of international telecommunications networks; the increasing and accelerated movement of finance capital, labor, and cultural commodities; and the consolidation of supranational and transnational organizations that operate beyond national borders. Although it is commonplace to see the era of globalization inaugurating the decline, if not altogether the obsolescence, of the nation-state, it is more accurate and useful to analyze the particular ways in which globalization has transformed the nature and functions of the nation-state, especially its cultural identities, its existence as a unified economic unit, and the scope of its political sovereignty. Indeed, reading different developments in the cultural, economic, and political realms suggests that the impact of globalization on the nation-state is uneven and partial, rather than teleological in its advancement.
Contemporary anglophone fiction has turned to addressing the complex entanglements between the nation and globalization in multiple and heterogeneous ways. Some fiction melancholically looks back to the political legacies of Third World nationalisms that promised universal emancipation to their citizens, only to chart their subsequent disappointments as the ruling elite of postcolonial nation-states continued to perpetuate legacies of imperialism. Other novels celebrate the syncretic and diasporic transnational identities—and the hybridization of national identities—that emerge through sustained contact with other cultural milieus via the processes of globalization. Still others depict the depredations that economic globalization visits on developed and developing nations alike, albeit in different ways and in different degrees. And many contemporary novels engage with the continuing political sovereignty of the nation-state in the face of human rights violations and planetary catastrophes, reflecting on the role of literature in circumventing the authority of the state and bringing distant suffering to a global audience.