David J. Baker. On Demand: Writing for the Market in Early Modern England. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010. 199pp. ISBN 978 0 8047 3856 9.
Jonathan P. Lamb
University of Kansas
Jonathan P. Lamb, "Review of David J. Baker, On Demand: Writing for the Market in Early Modern England". EMLS 16.1 (2012): 7. http://purl.org/emls/16-1/revbaker.htm
- Books about economics and literature tend to fall into two categories: either they use economics to talk about literature, or they use literature to talk about economics. As much as he may try to belong to the first category, David Baker continually slips into the second. Citing the need for “a more inclusive ‘reckoning’ of early modern economic thought and feeling,” Baker argues that such a reckoning must include demand as a crucial, even determining, factor in the English literary economy (xiii). Shakespeare, for one, “seems to have had demand, sustained demand, on his mind as he wrote and produced his plays, and he appears to have considered it robust” (xiv). This quotation gives the impression that On Demand is a book about how Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote “for the market.” Indeed, Baker promises that if we attend to demand, we will “make sense of the economic choices of Shakespeare and his fellows” (xiv). He makes the compelling claim that the “dynamic engagement between early modern writers and audiences, where choice met choice within the available understanding of the market, was what [it] meant to write ‘for’ the market in early modern England” (xiv).
- We might expect, therefore, that the book would focus on how those writers wrote for the market—that is, how they crafted their various sorts of texts to meet, anticipate, or even provoke demand. Instead—and perhaps more productively—Baker’s five chapters describe how writers wrote about writing for the market. In a series of illuminating case studies, he unpacks the way writers responded to the shifting economic conditions of early modern England. In Pierce Penilesse (1592), Thomas Nashe turns anti-consumption rhetoric into a commodity in itself, satisfying consumer demand in the act of condemning it. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1609) stages the destabilization of an economy built on trust by one built on mistrust. Ben Jonson’s Entertainment at Britain’s Burse (1609) registers the economic uncertainties brought on by the expansion of global trade in the early seventeenth century. And the preface to Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) invites its hard-working reader to imagine—and, by plodding through the whole text of the Anatomy, to constitute—a transition from older, elitist forms of luxury to new, consumerist ones.
- Baker draws on and speaks back to economic historians, especially Jan de Vries. He takes from de Vries the notion that long before the Industrial Revolution, the English economy underwent an “industrious revolution,” in which households became industrial units in themselves and, as a result, more people began to consume an ever-increasing array of goods, often despite lagging wages. Viewed in the context of this incipient revolution, consumption is as much a cause of production as a result, and it serves as an index for demand. In other words, early modern buyers and sellers could perceive “the type and range of the signals that demand was sending” by looking at consumption. This claim may seem obvious in the context of modern economics, but it was almost unspeakable in early modern England, except in denunciations of consumption. Building on this economic history, On Demand shows just how important demand was becoming as a category of thought for Shakespeare and his fellows.
- Baker does not simply lean on the work of de Vries and others, however. With characteristically nimble prose, he pushes de Vries’ compelling claims to their limit, then makes productive inferences. The best and most far-reaching example comes in the book’s first chapter, where Baker rehearses de Vries’ conclusion that early modern buyers and sellers had “no coherent, articulated ‘theory’ of benign consumption.” People in Shakespeare’s England, the story goes, could not talk about their own widespread consumption without denouncing it. But Baker points out that the people of early modern England were themselves “trying to figure out if an ‘industrious revolution’ was taking place around them and were wondering about its genesis.” And, most important, “they were trying to find the terms in which they could most plausibly ask such questions” (21). He goes on to argue that the early modern English inhabit “a ‘consuming society’ that, ostensibly at least, does not believe in consumption, but practices it on a mass scale” (34). Baker’s description of how consumers—along with Nashe, Shakespeare, Jonson, and Burton—participate in economic practices for which their is no language or ideology is the most insightful part of this book.
- That On Demand uses literature to talk about economics hardly counts as a strike against it. (Nor is this characterization totally fair: Baker offers a particularly nice reading of Troilus and Cressida.) Rather, the book illuminates the economic world in which writing of various sorts took place, and it allows us to observe how writers thought the unthinkable about their own economic activities. Readers seeking an account of how demand actually affected literary production will not find what they are looking for—as is evidenced by Baker’s omission of such economists of language as Pierre Bourdieu. In this, however, Baker has only increased the demand for further study of literary production and consumption in early modern England.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editors at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).