Book History

Tristram Shandy’s Reader-Author Communication Circuit

Book historians have done a lot to dispel the myth of the single author. It is easy to see the appeal of the image of the single author sitting alone at a desk, preferably by a roaring fire on a rainy night with a cup of tea, typing furiously away at the masterpiece that winds up in the reader’s hands. This image, however, has never been accurate. Book production is a collaborative effort that involves the contribution of many different people ranging from the highly visible author, publisher, and bookseller to the less visible papermaker, product shipper, and proofreader. So, while the individual author typing away in a room of her/his own is an important part of the bookmaking process, it is hardly the only part that influences the finished product that winds up on a reader’s bookshelf.

The complex web of relationships involved in book production lead to such “a rich and varied field of study” for book historians that after a short twenty year period “[t]he history of books [became] so crowded with ancillary disciplines that one [could] no longer see its general contours” (Darnton 10). In order to help “get some distance from [book history’s] interdisciplinary run riot, and to see the subject as a whole,” Robert Darnton proposed a model for studying book production and dissemination that can be “described as a communication circuit that runs from the author to the publisher (if the bookseller does not assume the role), the printer, the shipper, the bookseller, and the reader” (10–11). The communication circuit that Darnton describes can be used to isolate specific portions of book production in order to examine how individual fields/occupations contributed to the evolution of print-based technology, or it can be looked at as a whole in order to understand how various specializations come together and cooperate in order to produce one of the western world’s most ubiquitous tools of communication – the book.

Darnton Communication Circuit

Laurence Sterne’s serial novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, offers a unique look into the eighteenth-century communication circuit. While the plot of the novel focuses mostly on Tristram’s Uncle Toby, as he recovers from a wounded groin and falls in love with his widowed neighbor, much of the novel’s subject matter is dedicated to the process of writing and publishing serialized books. Shaun Regan claims that “[a]mong eighteenth-century works of prose fiction, Tristram Shandy is arguably both the most concerned with, and the most dependent upon, the material conditions of its production. . . . Sterne’s text is self-conscious about the physical act of writing and the economic realities of authorship” (289). Sterne’s focus on the act of writing and publishing in his novel demonstrates what Darnton’s communication circuit might have looked like for many authors in the mid eighteenth-century. One particularly interesting aspect of the communication circuit that Sterne addresses in Tristram Shandy is the author-reader relationship that Darnton says, “completes the circuit because [the reader] influences the author both before and after the act of composition” (11). Sterne plays with this relationship throughout all nine volumes of his work by depicting his characters writing and revising based on audience feedback, by directly addressing fictionalized readers, and by responding to real-world fan letters and critical reviews in subsequent volumes of Tristram Shandy.

Laurence Sterne maintained a good amount of control over his work. From “initially specifying that Tristram Shandy be modelled in appearance on Jane Collier’s Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (1753) and printed on the same paper and type as Johnson’s Rasselas (1759)” to inserting colorful marbled pages that were unique to each copy (Keymer, The Moderns 2), “Sterne devoted almost excessive attention to matters of typographical detail. His letters to his publishers attest to his demands regarding format, quality of paper, type, and layout” (De Voogd 109). Despite his desire to control as much of the publication process as he could, Sterne’s work was not entirely his own by the time it was bound and shelved for purchase. Sterne’s pitch letters to Robert Dodsley, who published the second edition of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy as well as the first edition of Volumes III and IV, reveal the author’s willingness to revise based on publisher feedback.

In response to Dodsley’s initial rejection of his first two volumes of Tristram Shandy because “‘it was too much to risk on a single volume,’” Sterne offered to “print a lean edition, in two small volumes . . . at my own expense, merely to feel the pulse of the world” (Letters 80). After assuring Dodsley that if the first edition of his work sells well that he will return to negotiate for the rights to subsequent editions, Sterne ends his response to the rejection letter with a post script that reads, “All locality is taken out of the book–the satire general; notes are added where wanted, and the whole made more saleable–about a hundred and fifty pages added–and to conclude, a strong interest formed and forming in its behalf, which I hope will soon take off the few I shall print on this coup d’essai” (Letters 81). Sterne’s revision of the first part of his novel, even after his recognition that he will have to print it himself, demonstrates how much influence other areas of the publication communication circuit have over the appearance and content of books. Sterne chose the format and material of his novel based on the choices of Collier and Johnson because he, as a reader, appreciated them. He also decided to revise based on Dodsley’s recommendations despite the fact that Dodsley was not going to publish the first run.

Sterne took Dodsley’s advice because he recognized that it would make his book more “saleable.” This indicates that Sterne at the very least partially understood the value of listening to people who occupied other areas of Darnton’s communication circuit. Even without Dodsley’s constructive criticism of Sterne’s initial manuscript, his rejection of it still would have impacted the final form of Tristram Shandy. Without the feedback he received, Sterne may have chosen to publish his manuscript as it was. He might have sought a new publisher who might have given different recommendations. Or, he might have abandoned it completely in favor of pursuing another manuscript of career. Regardless of the hypotheticals, it is clear from Sterne’s early attempts at publication that the route that a book takes through the communication circuit significantly impacts its ultimate form and content.

As previously mentioned, another area of Darnton’s communication circuit that heavily influenced the production of all nine volumes of Tristram Shandy is the author-reader connection. Sterne’s decision to model the material format of his work on Collier and Johnson, in addition to his numerous references to and reworking of famous authors like Rabelais and Locke, exemplifies Darnton’s point that “[a]uthors are readers themselves. By reading and associating with other readers and writers, they form notions of genre and style and a general sense of the literary enterprise which affects their texts” (11). Sterne was influenced by past and contemporary authors in the same way that he continues to influence modern writers. According to Thomas Keymer, “Tristram Shandy was a natural touchstone for James Joyce as he explained his attempt ‘to build many planes of narrative with a single esthetic purpose’ in Finnigan’s Wake” and Sterne’s “global reach is apparent in the [postmodern] work of Carlos Fuentes, Milan Kundera, and Salman Rushdie” (A Casebook 14). The connection between author and reader is not limited to authors reading other authors.

As the case of Tristram Shandy clearly shows, authors are influenced just as much by their own readers as they are by publishers and writers. Darnton explains that “[a] writer may respond in his writing to criticisms of his previous work or anticipate reactions that his text will elicit. He addresses implicit readers and hears from explicit reviewers. So the circuit runs a full cycle” (11). Sterne utilized audience feedback to not only improve the content of each volume of Tristram Shandy, but he also turned the author-reader relationship into a subject of the novel itself.

There are many instances of Sterne taking audience feedback and reviewer criticism into account. One such instance can be found at the beginning of “Chapter VI” in “Volume IX” when Tristram recounts a digression Trim and Uncle Toby went on about a “poor negro girl” in the sausage shop where Trim’s brother Tom met his Jewish wife (Tristram Shandy 552). A note on this phrase in the recent Penguin Classics edition informs the reader that “[o]n 21 July 1766, a former slave, Ignatius Sancho, wrote to Sterne in praise of his writings and in particular a passage in sermon 10 lamenting slavery. Sancho asks him to ‘give half an hours attention to slavery’ in his next work. Sterne immediately responded that the letter had arrived just as he was writing ‘a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl’, and that he would try to ‘weave’ it into the work he was writing. We may have here part or all of that ‘tender tale’” (New 726). While it is impossible to tell whether or not this brief chapter is the entirety of the “tender tale” that Sterne intended to tell, it more than likely is part (if not all) of the story promised to Ignatius Sancho. The tone of Sterne’s response to Shancho’s letter matches closely to uncle Toby’s sentimental lecture on the humanity of those of African descent when he writes:

[I]t is by the finest tints and most insensible gradations that nature descends from the fairest face about St James’s, to the sootyest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, Sancho, that the ties of blood & nature cease? and how many tones must we descend lower still in the scale, ‘ere Mercy is to vanish with them? but tis no uncommon thing my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half like brutes, and then endeavour to make ‘em so. (Letters 287).

Toby and Trim’s exchange over whether or not Africans have souls particularly resembles this moment in Sterne’s letter to Sancho:

I am not much versed, Corporal, quoth my uncle Toby, in things of that kind; but I suppose, God would not leave him without [a soul], any more than thee or me—-

—-It would be putting one sadly over the head of another, quoth the Corporal.

It would so; said my uncle Toby, Why then, an’ please your honour, is a black wench to be used worse than a white one?

I can give no reason, said my uncle Toby——

—-Only, cried the Corporal, shaking his head, because she has no one to stand up for her—-

—- ‘Tis that very thing, Trim, quoth my uncle Toby,—- which recommends her to protection. (Tristram Shandy 552)

In this moment, Toby acts as Sterne’s mouthpiece. His response to Trim’s question of why should a black woman be used any worse than a white one mirrors Sterne’s own confused disbelief that one half of the world could treat the other half so poorly based upon nothing more than the “most insensible gradations” of skin color. Modern scholars have to take Sterne at his word when he says that he “had been writing a tender tale f the sorrows of a <distressed> friendless poor negro girl” when he received Shancho’s letter. Regardless of whether or not this was actually the case, it does appear that he fulfilled his promise to not forget Ignatius Sancho’s letter.

Another less emotional, but more financially practical example of Sterne being receptive to reader feedback is a letter that Sterne wrote to Sir William Pitt, an influential politician and Prime Minister during the mid eighteenth-century, before he finalized the dedication to the second edition of “Volume I” that Robert Dodsley published. The entirety of the body letter reads, “Though I have no suspicion that the inclosed Dedication can offend you, yet I thought it my duty to take some method of letting you see it, before I presumed to beg the honour of presenting it to you next week, with the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shady” (Letters 103). The first print run of Tristram Shandy did extremely well and Sterne was beginning to become an extremely popular literary celebrity in London. The fame that came with his initial success helped spread his work even further than it had initially reached. While Sterne was not dependent upon wealthy patrons like past writers, making friends with and dedicating editions to upper-class taste makers, like William Pitt, improved his chances that they would recommend the book to their friends, which would further expand Sterne’s readership. Allowing Pitt to read the dedication before it was printed meant that, on some level, Sterne was prepared to rewrite unsatisfactory parts.

In addition to his regular readers, both famous and anonymous, Sterne also responded to increasingly popular review journals such as Smollett’s Critical Review, first published in 1765, and Ralph Griffith’s Monthly Review, founded in 1749. The objectives of these periodicals were “to summarize the contents and provide an evaluative analysis of each new production to appear in print” (Regan 293). Keymer explains that the impact that these review journals had on Sterne’s writing is noticeable in many aspects of Sterne’s work:

The classic case of this conversational dynamic [between Sterne and his readers] is the dialogue between Tristram Shandy and the Monthly Review, the first and most influential reviewing periodical of the day. This dialogue not only leaves its trace in Tristram’s various explicit appeals, challenges, and answers to reviewers and critics but also influenced the whole trajectory of the work as successive installments moved steadily away from the tradition of learned wit satire and toward the modern literary sensibility. (A Casebook 12)

Despite the fact that Sterne regularly responded to comments made by reviewers by using their criticisms as content when he disagreed with them and changing his tone and style when he did, he was not fond of the publications. Throughout all nine volumes of his work, Sterne regularly “[lumped] his critics with other imperfectly ‘refined’ reader” (Regan 295). In addition to beginning “Volume VI” by comparing his critics to Jack Asses when he says, “Did you think the world itself, Sir, had contained such a number of Jack Asses?—-How they view’d and review’d us . . . Prithee, shepherd! Who keeps all those Jackasses?” (Tristram Shandy 370), Sterne also specifically calls out the Critical Review for twisting the meaning of his work when Tristram recounts when “the manuscript of Yorick’s funeral sermon upon mortality [was] ‘rolled up and twisted round with half a sheet of dirty blue paper, which to this day smells horribly of horse-drugs” (Regan 306). The “dirty blue paper” is an “allusion to the Critical Review’s blue wrappers (and to Smollett’s medical training)” (306). Sterne might not have liked the power that review journals held when it came to influencing the literary tastes of the public, but his response to their reviews both in the content and style of his work demonstrates the importance of the author-reader relationship in book production.

One reason why the author-reader relationship is so apparent in Tristram Shandy is due to its serialized nature. Sterne took anywhere from one to three years to publish each new set of Tristram Shandy. The first and second editions of volumes I and II both came out in 1759 followed by III and IV in 1761, V and VI in 1762, VII and VIII in 1765, and finally IX in 1767. This is longer than Sterne’s initial hope that he would be able to publish a new book every six months (Letters 80), but, considering the fact that Sterne was suffering from tuberculosis that would eventually kill him shortly after the publication of “Volume IX,” not by much. The serialized nature of Tristram Shandy offered Sterne “a more amenable kind of process, something flexible, open-ended, potentially interminable indeed, and always responsive to whatever shifts of circumstances or priority might come into play . . . This is not to say that Tristram Shandy had no plan; but it is to say that any such plan could never have been more than provisional” (Keymer The Moderns 101). While Tristram Shandy did not maintain the immense popularity that its initial volumes established, “by reemerging at regular intervals on the publishing scene, absorbing or addressing the latest literary events, Sterne made available to himself an inexhaustible repertoire of possibilities, intertextual and contextual, on which his writing could play” (Keymer A Casebook 11). Serialization is not a requirement for a text to be influenced by the author-reader relationship aspect of Darnton’s circuit. However, the serial nature of Tristram Shandy highlights just how much influence the audience, made up of both casual readers and professional critics, has on a text.

Sterne was not simply influenced by the author-reader relationship described by Darnton’s circuit, he also had strong opinions on the nature of this relationship, part of which is demonstrated by his obvious dislike of the role review journals played in book production. Despite his distaste for paid critics, Sterne believed that the audience plays a major role in creating the meaning of a text after it has been written through the act of reading. This belief is made clear when Tristram discusses his own writing in the opening of “Volume II, Chapter XI”:

Writing, when properly manages, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation: As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all; — so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself. (Tristram Shandy 96).

This is just one example of the many instances in which Tristram places some interpretive responsibility upon the reader. As John Preston points out, “Tristram is always asking for the collaboration of his readers, and thus is creating partly through the imaginations of his readers, Sterne is in effect projecting an image of the creative act of reading” (134). While Sterne does prompt creative readings with everything from black, marbled, and blank pages to innuendo and double meaning, he does not give the reader complete interpretive freedom.

Mary Wagoner argues that “[i]f the reader participates, and by the act of reading the novel he has participated, he has subjected himself to Sterne’s control and with that control to nipping satire. He has read ‘himself and not the book.’ With the talk of Shandeans, Sterne has lured him into laughing at a parody of the conversation to which he has been party” (337–38). One reason Sterne satirizes his readers in this way is to highlight the limits of their imaginations when it comes to interpreting texts. Howard Anderson claims that “almost at once, Tristram Shandy begins to make us aware of the reductive limits that our imaginations have imposed upon a new experience. He makes us doubt the adequacy of our own imaginations to comprehend and assess accurately what is happening before our eyes” (966). Tristram Shandy forces the reader to acknowledge that their preconceived notions often lead to them misreading/misinterpreting Sterne’s text. Their imaginations as Anderson explained, are not as free as they think.

Tristram constantly points out that the readers are bringing outside meaning into the text and that they are dependent upon him to provide the truth through his digressions. Sterne reveals the reader’s inadequacy not only through Tristram’s didactic direct addresses, but also by demonstrating the danger of preconceptions with the chronology of his narrative. Tristram scolds the reader for his/her preconceptions while arguing that the events leading up to his conception were extremely influential, and ultimately detrimental, to his character. These preconception events that lead to Tristram’s birth initiated a sequence of small tragedies, the loss of his nose and his “circumcision” being two examples. Tristram’s attitude towards his audience combine with his account of the events preceding his birth links the bodily harm he experiences as a result of the events occurring before his birth to the textual harm readers inflict on the content of the novel with their preconception of what certain phrases mean and of how books should be written.

Part of the reason Sterne points out the creative role of the reader and addresses the inadequacy of the audience’s interpretive ability is to fight the increasingly popular idea that “men should read for profit rather than pleasure” (Matuozzi 459). Sterne certainly had some women in his audience, and he does address a fictionalized female reader, whom Tristram calls Madam, on many occasions, but many of the problematic reading strategies that he resists in Tristram Shandy were taught to upper and middle class men at university. In fact, while Tristram Shandy does seem to depict a variety of eighteenth-century reading practices, it only represents the reading habits of Tristram’s father, Walter, and uncle, Toby, and their associates. There are some instances of conversation between servants and women represented, but, while conversation and reading and writing are explicitly linked in Sterne’s novel, they are few and far between. All instances of the characters physically reading or writing in Tristram Shandy are reserved for the men. This, of course, is not reflective of the reality of eighteenth-century reading practices.

Sterne’s novel does show “that private, solitary reading was neither only, nor perhaps the dominant form of reading during this period, and that readers also regularly read aloud to perfectly literate people in public, social and private spaces” (Bannet 123). Toby did read many of his war history books silently during his recovery, but he also enthusiastically reads reports of battles to Trim as they work on the bowling green. A more prominent example of this kind of social reading occurs early on in the series when Trim reads Yorick’s sermon to Walter, Toby, and Dr. Slop while Mrs. Shandy gives birth to Tristram upstairs. While this scene does accurately depict one kind of social reading that was commonly practiced in the eighteenth-century, it very obviously occurs in the absence of women. Mrs. Shandy and her midwife are upstairs in the midst of the decidedly female process of childbirth. It is most likely an accurate depiction to have the women absent during periods of male socialization, but this segregation along gender lines was not law. As Naomi Tadmor explains in “Women, Reading, and Household Life,” it was common for wives to read to their husbands and vice versa. It was even normal for husbands to read to their wives in mixed company, particularly if what was being read was a sermon. Tadmor illustrates this point with several journal enteries from the working class Thomas Turner and upper class Samuel Richardson. One such entry written in 1756 by Thomas Turner reads, “‘my wife read to me in the Even 4 No. of the Freeholder’” (qtd. in Tadmor 166). The many journal entries from both men mentioning their various reading practices, many of which included their wives and female children proves that it was not uncommon for men and women to read in mixed company. Yet, women are consistently left out of social reading in Tristram Shandy.

Despite this disparity, Sterne does depict and advocate for many different kinds of reading practices that were popular in the eighteenth-century. Tadmor explains that “[s]ociable reading, devout reading, intermittent reading and the combination of reading, discipline and work, formed part of the encounter of readers and texts in [the cases of the Turner and Richardson families]” (174). It is these varied kinds of reading practices that Sterne was trying to encourage with Tristram Shandy. Matuozzi argues that Sterne’s “text solicits a desultory and leisurely–perhaps even lazy–form of reading, and that it inhibits those methods of reading that upper- and middle-class men would have learned in eighteenth-century public schools and universities” (490). Matuozzi explains that by repeatedly instructing the reader to skim and take breaks, by indicating important passages with pointers, and by repeating plot points in such a way that is “at times so over stated that it appears to be an attempt to irritate the reader into skimming” (507), among other things, Sterne is attempting “[t]o encourage–better yet, to teach–eighteenth-century gentlemen to read desultorily” (513). As Tadmor shows, Sterne certainly did not invent desultory reading. Readers of different classes and genders regularly read sporadically and non-linearly, especially when it came to religious texts. However, Tristram Shandy’s experimental style did seriously impede the scholarly reading practices of the eighteenth-century. Indeed, it even continues to frustrate students today who are unused to reading material that seems to actively resist interpretation.

At the time Sterne was writing, the “expanding book industry contributed not only to greater literary enthusiasms and the wider circulation of print, but also provoked alarmist reaction which required defensive emphasis on the exclusiveness and significance of reading” (Raven 178–79). Walter’s painstaking construction of his “Tristrapedia” is Sterne’s commentary on the rigid construction and implementation of reading plans that were meant to wipe out so-called “arbitrary or irresponsible reading attributable to the uneducated or ruder classes” (Raven 179). Walter’s failure to produce anything of value with his Tristrapedia for Tristram’s education despite his painstaking efforts of compiling and revising what he thought was appropriate reading material for his son’s indicates that Sterne believed such obsessive efforts were not only futile, but ultimately detrimental to the reader. Sterne does not just poke fun at obsessive scholars for inventing ridiculous reading programs. He also teases booksellers who encouraged this behavior by taking “care to advertise new works as instructive and not merely entertaining” (Raven 187–88). Sterne repeatedly claims that his volumes are meant to enlighten his readers. Tristram even scolds critics who accused his text of being nothing more that idle entertainment and claims that “I write as a man of erudition;—that even my similes, my allusions, my illustrations, my metaphors, are erudite” (Tristram Shandy 76). Tristram’s claims that is text is educational for his readers are not completely false. While Sterne actively works against the typical modes of eighteenth-century scholarly reading practices, Tristram Shandy does reinforce other, less obsessive, reading habits.

One way Sterne attempts to train his readership to give up their scholarly reading experiences in favor of the more leisurely, desultory style is by directly addressing fictionalized readers. Much like concerned scholars of the day who “criticized readers for reading in unsuitable places, or for reading badly, quickly, insensitively, or too much” (Raven 180), Sterne has Tristram admonish fictionalized readers for their improper reading habits. Madam is reprimanded for “inattentive” reading when she fails to deduce that Tristram’s mother was not a papist from the digression on pre-birth baptism (Tristram Shandy 51–53). After he sends Madam reader to reread the previous passage to look for the clues she missed, Tristram explains to the male reader why he was so harsh towards his female counterpart:

I have imposed this penance upon the lady, neither out of wantonness or cruelty, but from the best of motives; and therefore shall make her no apology for it when she returns back:–‘Tis to rebuke a vicious taste which has crept into thousands besides herself,–of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them. (Tristram Shandy 52).

Tristram’s explanation of why he made Madam reread the previous chapter probably makes sense to the male reader. This kind of strict enforcement of proper reading practices is something that he most likely would have experienced in public school. Matuozzi explains that in the eighteenth-century, repitetion “was a crucial component of scholarly reading. Waterland [a prominent reading and writing handbook author] states that while some texts might be read but once, others ‘must be read over and over, for patterns and models to formyour own style’” (494). However, the ridiculous conversation and twisted logic that follow Madam’s return signal Sterne’s belief that this particular practice does not actually fit with this particular text. Scholarly reading strategies are fine for texts like Richardson’s Clarissa, but in Tristram Shandy they lead to nothing more than bizarre and nonsensical digressions on everything from intrauterine baptism to buttonholes.

Madam reader is not the only fictionalized audience member subject to Tristram’s censure. Matuozzi notes that “[p]oor Sir is chided for failing to understand why a woman shouldn’t ask questions during sex, and then subjected to a lecture on the fetus’s perilous journey from ovum to womb” (492). Each instance of Sterne directly addressing a fictionalized member of his audience, either to scold or to praise, is meant to instruct the reader on how to appropriately read Tristram Shandy. Sterne emphasizes what he believes to be poor reading behaviors by linking his fictionalized readers to his ridiculous characters. According to Wagoner, “the point of the narrative about the Shandeans is that none of them, neither My Father, My Uncle Toby, My Mother, Yorick, Slop, or Trim, is in very safe position for jeering at others’ intellectual muddle, for all are error prone. By the same token, the reader who has accepted his assigned role in the dialogue with Tristram can ill afford condescending laughter at them” (343). By making the Shandeans enact the four types of general errors that Locke identifies in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding to absurd degrees and then linking it to fictionalized readers that real readers can identify with, Sterne points out that when the eighteenth-century audience obsessively clinging to rules of proper reading practices, they become no better than the characters at which they laugh.

In addition to using the fictionalized reader to make an argument about the detrimental side effects of obsessive scholarly reading, Sterne addresses the fictionalized reader several times in “Volume XIII” in order to explain his organizational choices or to make some aside referencing the previous eight volumes of Tristram Shandy. One example is in the first paragraph of “Chapter XXV” when the narrator explains how eyes are like cannons: “I don’t think the comparison a bad one: However, as ‘tis made and placed at the head of the chapter, as much for use as ornament, all I desire in return, is, that whenever I speak of Mrs. Wadman’s eyes (except once in the next period) that you keep it in your fancy” (Tristram Shandy 524). While there are certainly longer instances of Tristram speaking directly to a fictionalized reader in previous volumes, this one stands out because it is a direct instruction on why the writer chose to organize his chapter in the way he did. Metadiscourse moments throughout the novel such as this emphasize the constructed and manipulated nature of the book. Sterne’s books already make the reader aware of its intentionality by defamiliarizing the newly popular novel format. Missing chapters, dedications that appear in the middle of volumes, unique textual additives, nonlinear plot diagrams, along with many other textual subversions make the reader acutely aware that the author of the Tristram Shandy series is making choices that do not conform to the then still forming novel genre. By making his eighteenth-century audience realize that his textual choices do not align with other popular novels, Sterne teaches them that the other novels are making choices too.


In addition to addressing fictionalized readers and responding to real world feedback, Sterne also represents the act of storytelling and writing throughout Tristram Shandy. As previously indicated, “Tristram actually thinks of his style as a form both of talking and writing” (Piper 24). “Chapter XIX” of “Volume XIII” is one instance where Sterne shows his characters attempting to tell a story and revising it as they go along. In this chapter, Trim attempts to tell Toby a story called “King of Bohemia and his seven castles,” but each time he begins his story, Toby comments on some aspect of how Trim introduces it. Trim begins the story several times, changing the introduction each time, before he eventually gives up and relates an entirely different story, on which Toby offers no feedback. This chapter depicts the frustrating process of trying to write/tell a story based on the feedback of another person. Each time Trim attempts to satisfy Toby by including a date, changing the date, or leaving out the date of the event, Toby interrupts with a new criticism of the change. This chapter is a commentary on the futility of trying to satisfy all of the critics of Tristram Shandy. Sterne valued reader feedback as seen by his inclusion of the narrative of the “poor negro girl,” but he also had a strong dislike for professional critics who criticize creative works without attempting to produce anything of their own. This absurd scene of Toby and Trim demonstrates what can happen if authors give too much credence to audience feedback. Each revision brings about new criticisms until the author/storyteller is left with nothing to do but move on to another story without inviting audience feedback.

Tristram Shandy might have been an experimental novel, but its author-reader relationship was not unique. Many early novels came out in serial installments. And even those that were not serialized still benefited from the author-reader portion of Darnton’s circuit that Sterne’s work demonstrates. Whether authors were releasing serialized novels and paying close attention to fan letters and critical reviews, or whether they were simply active readers themselves, the author-reader relationship was critical in the book production communication circuit. Despite its longstanding importance, this relationship is not sedentary. How readers and authors influence each other changes with the technology available and the reading/writing practices of the time, which explains Sterne’s strong feelings about the prioritization of scholarly over desultory reading practices. After examining Tristram Shandy through the lens of Darnton’s communication circuit, it is clear that the reading practices of the mid-eighteenth century and the author-reader relationship greatly influenced how books were produced in the early years of the novel genre.

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Works Cited

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  6. —. Sterne, the Moderns, and the Novel. New Yory: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
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  8. Piper, William. Laurence Sterne. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966. Print.
  9. Preston, John. The Created Self: The Reader’s Role in Eighteenth-Century Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970. Print.
  10. Raven, James. “From Promotion to Proscription: Arrangements for Reading and Eighteenth-Century Libraries.” The Practice and Representation of Reading in England. Eds. James Raven, Helen Small, and Naomi Tadmor. New York: Cambridge Press, 1996. 174–201. Print.
  11. Regan, Shaun. “Print Culture in Transition: Tristram Shandy, the Reviewers, and the Consumable Text.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 14.3/4 (2002): 289–310. Project Muse. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
  12. Sterne, Laurence. Letters of Laurence Sterne. Ed. Lewis Perry Curtis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935. Print.
  13. —. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
  14. Tadmor, Naomi. “‘In the even my wife red to me’: Women, Reading and Household Life in the Eighteenth Century.” The Practice and Representation of Reading in England. Eds. James Raven, Helen Small, and Naomi Tadmor. New York: Cambridge Press, 1996. 162–74. Print.
  15. Wagoner, Mary. “Satire of the Reader in Tristram Shandy.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 8.3 (1966): 337–44. JSTOR. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

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