Books About Books: Clayton Childress on Under the Cover

Books About Books: Clayton Childress on Under the Cover

Since he can remember, sociologist and bibliophile Clayton Childress has been enchanted by process rather than product. That is, he has always loved to learn how things are made. “In elementary school the first thing I ever spent my own money on was an Entertainment Weekly subscription—this was back when EW was doing profiles on producers, screenwriters, etc., and covering entertainment business news.” 

  Cover Design: Amanda Weiss

Cover Design: Amanda Weiss


Today, he is still a sucker for stories about stories.  An Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, Childress has combined his loves for fiction and cultural production in his new book Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel. The book, which was released this year by Princeton University Press, focuses on the life of a single work of fiction from its creative infancy to its publication to its reception by reviewers and readers. The subject is Cornelia Nixon’s Jarrettsville, a historical novel published in 2009 and based on an actual murder committed by an ancestor of Nixon’s in the postbellum South. Superstar sociologist Howard S. Becker calls Under the Cover “innovatively imagined, deliciously detailed, and exhaustively explained,” while Childress himself calls it “an academic work of sociology, and hopefully one with its more inscrutable edges smoothed off.” We call it a must-read for anyone who, like Childress, wants to see the moving parts of a seemingly fixed product like the novel.

Childress is one of those writers whose childhood obsessions blossomed into a rewarding academic career (may all geeks be as blessed). “I've always loved fiction and read a lot—and when signing up for freshman courses for college my mom told me that I should take sociology because I'd like it. I was lucky in that in sociology at the time—and largely, still now—the dominant framework through which to study media was called ‘the production of culture approach.’” This framework, which considers how businesses and business relationships make media, helped shape Childress’s ongoing study of the novel as a cultural product: “It was basically a spot-on perfect academic equivalent of reading Entertainment Weekly and listening to DVD commentaries a lot!”

Some writers are quick to rattle off their odd, personally sacred creative processes. Childress’s take on the (academic) writing life is refreshingly realistic: “I write in the mornings. Most of what I write is crap. Good ideas come at weird times. On the second look, most good ideas were actually bad ideas and by the next day I'm perplexed at how I ever could have mistaken them as good ones. I think that's all pretty typical, and knowing how typical it is didn't make any of it any easier for me.” Also, he is quick to admit that writing Under the Cover wasn’t all suffering. In fact (can it be?), he found parts of the writing process enjoyable: “To be fair, though, as I argue in the book, when writers are speaking with other writers about their agonies in writing they are being truthful, but these types of stories are also a form of bragging. Writers are suspicious of other writers for whom the writing always come easily, as for writing to truly be ‘art,’ there's the idea that the artist had to suffer for it. To be clear I don't think of myself as an artist or even as a professional writer—I'm a professional academic writing what is ultimately an academic book that I've worked really hard to try to make accessible and interesting for non-academics too—but while telling stories about how challenging I found the writing process to be (which I did), it's also prudent to say with all honesty that some of it didn't feel difficult at all, and it was actually really fun.”

As a scholar and a writer, Childress retains his childhood enthusiasm for process, this time with a more analytical approach to cultural production. Why do writers write novels? Why do publishers publish some novels and not others? Why do we as readers gravitate to certain novels as we browse local, national, or online bookstores? Childress claims that the world of the novel is rooted in ambiguity and risk, areas he thoroughly and musingly explores in Under the Cover. “Most broadly, as a scholar, I’m interested in how people decide what to do when the answer isn’t obvious, and when the outcomes of their decisions can’t be known. Studying the authoring, publishing, and reading of books is really the perfect place to study that type of question because there’s so much uncertainty.” 

In addition to addressing uncertainty in the world of novel production, Childress also wrote Under the Cover in an attempt to close the gaps among writers, publishers, and readers by using the novel as a common denominator. “Beyond what their agents or editors relay to them, most authors really don't know too much about the ins-and-outs of book publishing, just as they only really have a vague sense of how readers make sense of their books or what they actually mean to them. It's the same deal with publishers, who are generally pretty aloof to the nuts and bolts of their authors' writing processes.” The only thing that writers, publishers, and readers have in common is the physical thing itself: the novel as a material object. So not only is Under the Cover a book about a novel (Nixon’s Jarrettsville), it is also a book about the novel and the disparate, yet vital, factions that make it come alive.

“The goal of this book is to recognize those divisions [in the novel industry], but also acknowledge that they’re not total. We as people usually don’t go across them with too much frequency, but books, by definition, are REGULARLY [emphasis his] traveling across them. How neat!” It is Childress’s contagious ‘how neat!’ approach to the sociology of the novel that makes Under the Cover an irresistible meditation on the multiple meanings and functions of the novel. 

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Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.