The Poet Turned Journalist: Alexander Pushkin and the Reading Public
In January of 1838, Faddei Bulgarin published an article titled “Readers and Writers” (Chitateli i pisateli) in The Northern Bee (Severnaia pchela), the newspaper he edited jointly with his long-time collaborator Nikolai Grech. Structured as a casual conversation between a professional writer, who is a stand-in for Bulgarin, and his friend who, it is indicated emphatically, is not a cultural producer, the article treats lightheartedly the position of writers in relation to their audiences, which is described as follows,
[it] is not the writer, but the reader who reigns, legislates, and judges in literature; and where does the reader pronounce these judgments? At the lectern, in journals? No, at the whist game, at dinner, at tea, near the fireplace; and the verdicts uttered by the reader sotto voce, sometimes with half a phrase [vpolfrazy] disperse throughout society and strike the proud writer in the most sensitive place – the pocket!
Given Bulgarin’s reputation as a second-rate writer with an unapologetically commercial interest in the middling segments of the reading public, the commodification of culture implicit in the statement that the reader’s poor appraisal results, first and most importantly of all, in a loss of profit are unsurprising. Such assertions as “he is your reader — end of story! He is your master [khoziain]; he has every right to announce to society whether you are clever or stupid, engaging or boring, educated or an ignoramus” reiterate Bulgarin’s publicly and frequently articulated orientation towards his audience, whom he tends to address as one comprised of his social equals or even superiors throughout his career. However, the inflation of the average reader’s role — and that, in the episode above, the readers utter their evaluative words not at the lectern but over tea or a game of whist underscores the non-institutional character of this audience of private citizens — functions primarily as a rhetorical tactic. The readers who are empowered to make all-important judgments about the quality of literature on the pages of Bulgarin and Grech’s periodicals are largely fictive; and they are ventriloquized in a series of moves that ensure not the reader’s but the journalist-critic’s position as an arbiter of middlebrow taste and a major force capable of directing the period’s book market. As I will outline briefly in the pages below, Bulgarin and Grech wrote into being what appeared to be a robustly influential audience, a discursive construct which they then wielded with gusto according to the exigencies of the moment.
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