This interview is part of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.
Scholars’ Conversations: Clayton Childress, Under the Cover
By Tim Rosenkranz, The New School
I had the great opportunity to interview Clayton Childress, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at The University of Toronto. His book Under the Cover (Princeton UP, 2017) won the 2018 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in the Sociology of Culture from the ASA Culture Section.
Childress here follows the novel Jarrettsville from its creation, through its production, to its reception by reviewers and readers. We talked about his research and consumption. We also talked about exhausting projects, truckers, inspiring misunderstandings, and Rorschach inkblots.
Tim Rosenkranz: What does “consumption” mean to you in your work?
Clayton Childress: In my work consumption is either about market transactions or about the taste for and evaluation of goods that comes before or after those transactions. This spans everything from organizational theorists studying the relationship between category blending and market attention, to those working in the traditions of Bourdieu or Peterson studying the relationship between taste and social stratification, to smaller-scale studies of taste formation or practice.
That said, consumption, both analytically and as a research area, is I think the study of activities that takes place in a particular location in the creation, production, and reception of objects. That a Hollywood studio executive is “consuming” scripts when considering them for production is of course true, but the scare quotes I’m using for that are, I believe, very important, as the setting, context, and purpose of that consumption is very different from the types of consumption we study when we say we’re studying consumption. I don’t mind talk of reception being a “second production” or production being a “first consumption” for the purposes of thought experiments, but for what we’re actually interested in, I don’t find that those types of thought experiments push us forward as frequently as we’d sometimes like to believe they do.
Likewise, in my own work I hold consumption as analytically distinct from reception, which for me is expressly about meaning making. In my darker moments I sometimes worry that a lot of meaning making might just be post-hoc justifications for evaluation, but to even express that fear I’m clearly thinking of consumption and reception as siblings of the same parentage rather than as the same thing.
Tim: Your research in the fields of literature and publishing uniquely connects the processes and practices of production and consumption. How did you come to the work on this topic? What sparked your interest in this?
Clayton: My career and research interests can be explained through two anecdotes. The career anecdote is that when I was an undergraduate Bill Hoynes mentioned to us in passing that he subscribed to a bunch of magazines, and his job was basically to sit around and read magazines all day. To me, that sounded amazing. It wasn’t until later that I learned that by magazines he of course meant peer-reviewed journals and he was just translating what those were for us young undergraduates, but I was already hooked. Upon my graduation Bill told me that if I wanted I could go to grad school and become a professional sociologist, but I thought I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t know that they basically pay you to get a PhD, which was mindboggling to me. It took me a couple years to build up the confidence that Bill had in me and to apply to PhD programs, but that’s how I got on the career track.
The research area anecdote is that when I was about seventeen or so DVDs hit the market and I suddenly had access to the thing I had always liked more than movies: directors, and screenwriters, and actors talking about making movies on the commentary tracks on most DVDs. I’ve never had any interest in making art, but I wanted to make a career out of hearing and telling stories about art making, and eventually, art sense-making in reception processes too. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I wasn’t just studying production and reception, but also had to, as Wendy Griswold has written, “rediscover that forgotten soul, the author” to really understand cultural creation, production, and reception from start to finish.
This is all to say that I think I would have tried to do some variant on what I’m doing no matter what, but it’s because of Bill Hoynes that I’m doing this type of stuff as a professional sociologist rather than doing it on nights and weekends or trying to eke a living out of it in some other context.
Tim: Your book Under the Cover follows the novel Jarrettsville from the author, through the publishing industry, to the reader and back. As you say, Jarrettsville in this process had to become many things. Take us through your research process: Where did you start research? How did you decide where to go from there? What actors to include and when to stop?
Clayton: I went in knowing I wanted to follow a cultural object all the way from its initial conceptualization through its reception, but even what type of object I’d eventually study changed over time. My first few starts were false starts, which greatly benefited the project in the end. I also decided to delimit my study to those people along the way who at least somewhat cared about the object beyond its existence. By that, I mean that while it’s true that a trucker has to deliver shipments of books, I didn’t study those truck drivers, because my dad was a trucker and I already knew that beyond what it meant for his income he didn’t care what was being pulled behind the truck he was driving.
As for the twists, turns, mistakes, and times I had to satisfice or start over during this project, that’s too long of a story for this venue, but I tell what is pretty close to a full version of it in the appendix of my book. Like most good but ultimately self-aggrandizing academic advice stories, it’s a “don’t do what I did” story that still has a happy ending.
Tim: How long did you take in publishing this research since you first conceived the project?
Clayton: I first conceived of the project while talking to a friend in 2005. Like any decent idea I’ve ever had, it emerged out of a conversation, and was developed through many more conversations with many more people. My work on the project finally came to a close with what I assume will be my last two papers from these data (Childress & Nault 2019; Rawlings & Childress 2019), which came out this year. In all that’s 14 years. Along the way I’ve fallen in love, gotten married, had a daughter, moved to a new country, and learned to be less hard on myself sometimes. After 14 years I’m glad to be mostly numb to this project. I’m still proud of it, but if I’m being honest it feels like the accomplishment of a different person that I happen to know extraordinarily well.
Tim: After 14 years you have exhausted this research project. Do you mind giving us a short teaser of what you are working on now and what to look forward to?
Clayton: To be fair I think this project exhausted me more than I exhausted it, but that’s probably the way it should be. Right now I’m working on three things. With Dan Silver, Monica Lee, Adam Slez, and Fabio Dias I’m working on a paper on the relationship between unconventionality in genre combinations and popularity for about 3 million bands in the United States. With Shyon Baumann, Craig Rawlings and Jean-Francois Nault I’ve spent the past few years creating, launching, and analyzing a survey.
At ASA this year we presented a paper from it on the configurations through which individuals balance democracy and distinction in their cultural tastes, which seemed to be well received, and which we’re all very excited about. Saving what might be the biggest for last, with Erik Schneiderhan I’ve spent the past two years collecting data in Johannesburg, South Africa for a project on the creation and production of Nelson Mandela’s two autobiographies. Just last week we signed a book contract for that project. I’m very excited about it, but also overwhelmed and a little scared about the scope of it. At this stage in a project this big I think a little bit of fear is a good thing.
The running theme on these three projects is that my interests remain my interests, but I prefer collaborating, mostly because I think it makes the work better, but also because it’s an outlet to spend time with people. The romantic ideal of a simple, independent, isolated Walden Pond-style life is for me bullshit. When compared to his actual life even for Thoreau it was mostly bullshit.
Tim: What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work?
Clayton: Whether we’d like to admit it or not, there’s a whole generation of us who have made careers off of DiMaggio (1987). The terrifying brilliance of that piece is best seen by the fact that so many of us have been able to make different careers off of it. For my own work and thinking about consumption, it’s probably that piece and the work of Wendy Griswold that have been most influential. She has kept her feet firmly planted in what she thinks is the right way to do things as different paradigms and trends have fallen in and out of favor, which is both admirable in itself, but I probably also find particularly admirable because I believe her to be right. Terrence McDonnell’s Best Laid Plans, which is a massive achievement in our subfield, has led to the most recent shift in my thinking on consumption and reception.
Tim: From your perspective on the scholarship of consumers and consumption: What are the areas that need more attention; or what are some new/emerging phenomena that have to be studied?
Clayton: Somewhere along the way I think meaning making in reception processes hit somewhat of a methodological and theoretical roadblock. I’d like to see more work that really pushes our thinking forward on reception and meaning making processes, as we’ve seen with studies of taste and evaluation in cultural consumption. My recent paper with Craig Rawlings was an attempt to do that. Rachel Sherman’s last book, Uneasy Street, does that. Michaela DeSoucey’s last book, Contested Tastes, does that. Claudio Benzecry’s last book, The Opera Fanatic, does that. I also think, or at least hope, that the era of treating cultural objects as if they’re Rorschach inkblots in evaluation and meaning making processes is coming to an end. This doesn’t mean that every study has to formally take into account the constraints of objects or the general directions that objects pitch us in, but when not formally taking those into account, I hope having not done so will have to be acknowledged as the limitations that they are.
Despite wanting more attention paid in these areas, I really don’t think there’s a shortage of great work out there, just as there’s not a shortage of really smart and inspiring scholars of consumption out there. While I do want those things, If everyone was doing what I wanted I wouldn’t have anything to complain about or to contribute to, and I’d also lose access to some of the great stuff that people are doing that pushes my own thinking forward.
Photo credits: Neda Maghbouleh (portrait); Amanda Weiss (book cover)
About the interviewer:
Tim Rosenkranz is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at The New School for Social Research