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In Defense of Books: Literature, Publishing, and Reading in Contemporary Women’s Writing in French

From: Women in French Studies
Special Issue, 2012
pp. 298-314 | 10.1353/wfs.2012.0029

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At the beginning of the twenty-first century, France, in common with many other nations, is caught up in economic crisis, high unemployment, the erosion of working conditions and of personal liberty, as well as in the contradictory effects of a new Europe, globalization, and the technological revolution. The world of literature is not immune to these factors, of course. Independent publishers are being taken over by major publishing houses; small bookshops are losing out to large chains; the materiality of books is being challenged by the ease of access to, and mobility of, digitization, of e-books and downloads; and the reading public is changing.

This article identifies and explores what is potentially an emerging trend in recent women’s writing in France, in which a group of authors are responding to these challenges and transformations in publishing. The analysis focuses on Lydie Salvayre’s BW (2009), Isabelle Desesquelles’s Fahrenheit 2010 (2010), and Blandine Le Callet’s La Ballade de Lila K (2010), making reference also, in the conclusion, to Chloé Delaume’s Dans ma maison sous terre (2009).1 These works amount to a defense of literature, books, and reading. If much women’s writing over recent decades is intertextual, bearing witness to the author’s own reading (for example, the work of Hélène Cixous, Camille Laurens, Christine Angot, Anne Garréta), and if many texts incorporate writers and writing (the work of Marie Darrieussecq, Annie Ernaux, Cixous, Angot, and Amélie Nothomb, to name just a few), my corpus here engages, rather, with the relationships between publishing and literature, and between books and readers. In the tradition of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century these contemporary French female authors appear to be warning of attacks on literature as we know it, and defending it against a modern and globalized world that is threatening its future. Their texts critique changes in publishing and bookselling, and address the proliferation of e-publishing and e-readers.

The aim of the article is to investigate what is at stake in these accounts. Do they simply privilege books over digital media? Are they defending literature against modern publishing procedures and marketing or popular culture and the rise of visual and new media? Is this new current simply steeped in nostalgia for the traditional and the refusal of progress, the modern, and the new? And what value do these texts give literature and its role in society? Finally, where does this scenario leave “les femmes et la lecture?” In engaging with these questions, I consider how these authors and texts intervene into current debates on literature in the twenty-first century, what points they are making and what strategies and literary techniques they use to do so. Before addressing each text in turn, I first outline the key debates to which they are responding.

French literature suffers from perennial crises, or so it would seem from the ongoing discourse of crisis in French letters, and especially in relation to the novel.2 The second millennium is no different. Laurent Dandrieu, for example, considers literature as a “vecteur de civilisation,” and relates crises in literature to those in society. His perspective is that contemporary literature is in crisis for several reasons: (i) contemporary media and the dominance of audiovisual culture encourages mediocrity; (ii) publishing has become an industry and is run by bankers rather than literary specialists; (iii) small publishers, who support interesting and demanding work, are in decline; (iv) it is increasingly difficult for authors to live from their writing and they now have to fit it around paid employment; and (v) fewer readers can appreciate complex literary works and so the demand for quality literature is waning. His negative view of the state of French literature is symptomatic of nothing less than “une crise globale, une crise de la société y compris de la société politique, une crise spirituelle, une crise de l’homme” (original emphasis). Not all commentators are so pessimistic,3 but, as Robert Rakocevic notes, it is common for...

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