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What is an Early Modern Author?
Literary Practice, Publication, and Elite Sociability in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France
Ohio State University
Gregory S. Brown. A Field of Honor: Writers, Court Culture and Public Theater in French Literary Life from Racine to the Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). Electronic book available at www.gutenberg-e.org. $49.50. Subscription to series: $195.00.
Delphine Denis. Le Parnasse galant: institution d'une catégorie littéraire au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2001). Pp.389. €61.00.
Christian Jouhaud and Alain Viala, eds. Groupe de recherches interdisciplinaires sur l'histoire du littéraire. De la publication: entre Renaissance et Lumières (Paris: Fayard, 2002). Pp.365. €26.00.
The past few decades have seen a proliferation in research dealing with the question of the "Author," much of it oriented by Michel Foucault's focalizing 1969 lecture, "Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur?" and by its call for a new approach that would investigate the construction of the "author-function" as a paramount organizing and legitimizing principle rather than offer a "sociohistorical analysis of the author as individual." Foucault's emphasis on censorship operations and intellectual property debates as key discursive frameworks within which this principle [End Page 325] was articulated has, in turn, proven highly influential. Relevant scholarship thus often imagines the "Author" as a function of the legal, economic, and political struggles of individuals over the compensation, ownership, and control of the products of their literary labors, struggles that unfolded in the juridical spaces of the chancellery and law courts or in the commercial arena of the book trade. In the effort to map out a process of modernization by which the "Author" took form in a break out from the institutional constraints of Old Regime cultural life at court or in elite society, such a representation has been highly fruitful. However, its capacity for shedding light on literary practices whose claim to value lay in their faithfulness to the ethical and aesthetic imperatives of the established cultural spaces of early modern France—those, for instance, qualified as galantes—is considerably less clear: "nos catégories d'analyse les plus usuelles, celle du texte, de l'oeuvre, de l'auteur, se sont révelées souvent rien moins que 'naturelles' dans cette perspective, entravant plus qu'elles n'éclairent la compréhension du discours galant," writes Delphine Denis (235).
Denis' study of galanterie is one of three recent books that set out to explore early modern literary practices for which the analytical category of "Author" and its derivative, "Work," might seem inadequate to account: "l'histoire littéraire et la tradition scolaire ont retenu bien peu de textes," she points out (10). All three do so similarly, though with markedly different objects in sight, by focusing on these practices primarily as exercises in the construction of a self seeking validation in the eyes of a particular community (i.e., elite society), and only secondarily as the creation of a symbolically or economically valuable work, the significance of which would lie, moreover, in the degree to which they emanate as part of the social accoutrement of individuals looking for prestige and status. Gregory Brown thus emphasizes the "self-fashioning" and "self-presentation" of late eighteenth-century playwrights, rendering a compelling alternative to traditional portrayals of writers like Beaumarchais and Gouges as ground-breaking figures presumed to have "a fixed sense of themselves as autonomous individual making conscious and rational choices" (intro, section 1). And, though in a more varied collection of essays, it is more or less in this direction, too, that Jouhaud and Viala steer their rethinking of "publication," which they propose to understand not narrowly as the moment in which a self-possessed agent puts into circulation for the consumption of a pre-defined public an authoritative edition, but as a fluid and diffuse process that brings meanings and identities into play rather than fixes them indelibly; publication...