Literature has a critical function for civil society. In times of civil unrest—during movements such as Black Lives Matter or #metoo—the culture structure of the civil sphere is both drawn on and under invasive constraint. Literary authors provide narratives so that the society is given the hermeneutic devices for understanding, empathy, or developing solidarity. They contribute to civil repair; but they require readership for doing so, and this readership is crucially dependent on cultural intermediaries.

Cultural intermediaries are those actors in between authors and potential readers: agents, editors, critics, or members of jury boards of literary prizes. They co-produce literature, making it materially manifest and publicly visible. Particularly in times of civil unrest, cultural intermediaries have to position themselves towards the civil sphere: do they pitch, publish, or review the critical novel or do they neglect doing so in favour of less critical, potentially commercially more promising work? This moral factor in the decision-making of cultural intermediaries is not well understood.

I investigate this by employing Jeffrey Alexander’s civil sphere theory and empirically studying cultural intermediation in the US publishing industry, using a series of qualitative interviews. This will elucidate the moral factor of cultural intermediation. Public discourses of civil repair both question and foster civil solidarity; in the US, they are signified by deepening chasms, which makes this study particularly pertinent. If we subscribe to literature playing a vital role for democratic society, we need to gain a better understanding of the reasonings and justifications of its production—particularly those in the shadows of commercial interests and power.

This is a new research project, to be conducted as postdoctoral research at Yale University’s Center for Cultural Sociology, commencing in March 2023.