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September 22, 2017

Introducing CHI Fellow Laura McGrath

September 22, 2017 | By | No Comments

Hello! My name is Laura McGrath, and I’m delighted to be returning as a CHI Fellow during 2017-18. I’m a PhD Candidate in the department of English, working on computational approaches to post45 American literature.

My dissertation, Middlemen: Making Literature in the Age of Multimedia Conglomerates, studies the major shifts in the field of literary production in the wake of the mergers and acquisitions that roiled the publishing industry in the 1980s and 1990s—a process that resulted in the formation of what we now call The Big Five. Each chapter examines one influential figure in the publishing industry: the agent, the acquisitions editor, the publicist, and the social media manager. Too often dismissed as “middlemen” or mere bureaucratic functionaries, such professionals are powerful nodes between the artist and the corporation, mediating between the domain of aesthetic or literary value and the managerial imperatives of huge media firms. As such, these overlooked figures are not just powerful gatekeepers, but administrators of literary prestige, value, and “corporate taste” in the contemporary, shaping the form and content of contemporary fiction while providing access to mainstream publication, and cultural consecration.

To demonstrate how these changes in the field shape literary form, I weave together ethnography and text mining with close readings of fictional work by Tom McCarthy, Ben Lerner, and Emily St. John Mandel. Each chapter also involves a digital component (network analysis, topic modeling, or a vector-space model) to better map the field as a whole—a necessary undertaking for understanding literary production of the 21st century, unprecedented in both size and speed. I computationally trace networks of influence and prestige, and closely examine the texts produced in that system. Placing close readings in dialogue with distant approaches to the field at scale, I show how contemporary fiction replicates corporate taste as a result of creative collaboration with publishing’s middlemen, even while critiquing the industry’s increased commercialization and capitulation to neoliberal managerial practices.

While my dissertation keeps me quite busy, I’m excited for the change-of-pace and collaborative work environment of the CHI Fellowship! This year, my CHI project will focus on my ongoing collaboration on the Novelty Project. Collaborators Devin Higgins (MSU Libraries), Arend Hintze (Integrative Biology), and I have developed a method for measuring literary novelty. We were recently awarded a HathiTrust Advanced Collaborative Research grant to continue this project. We are now past the proof-of-concept phase, and will be replicating our study and validating our results on a much (MUCH) larger 20th Century corpus, thanks to HTRC. There’s a lot to be said about Measuring Literary Novelty, and we’re working on saying it elsewhere. For CHI, however, I will work on one small component of this project. As anyone who has undertaken such large-scale studies of literary corpora knows, the majority of our fascinating findings remain on the cutting-room floor, unable to fit into the 9,000 words allotted by academic journals. My first task as a CHI Fellow will be building a companion website for the Novelty project, where my collaborators and I can discuss the weird, the wonderful, and the wtf? findings that won’t make their way into an article.

But this is just one of the projects I will undertake this year. During my first year as a CHI Fellow, I developed a project on the Armed Services Editions, a collection of texts provided for American servicemen and women during World War II, in order to “fight the war on ideas.” This project not only provided me with insight into a crucial era in book publishing in the United States, but it also gave me the opportunity to further develop my text mining skills. I used the ASE corpus to improve my skills in R and Python, and to learn new methods for analyzing literary texts. Thus, the ASE project also serves as a record of my learning during the Fellowship year. I intend to embark on a similar project this year; I’ll continue experimenting with more advanced text analysis methods, returning to this fascinating corpus.* My hope is that I’ll not only experiment with methods and tools that my dissertation research may not otherwise require, but that I’ll also have the opportunity to reflect critically on these methods.

Cheers to the year ahead!


*It’s worth noting that most of my first fellowship year was spent obtaining, preparing, and cleaning this corpus. It was an extraordinary amount of work, and I want to make the most of it!

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