- Middlebrow Matters: Women’s Reading and the Literary Canon in France since the Belle Époque by Diana Holmes
Middlebrow Matters by Diana Holmes, which recently won the MLA’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione prize for French and Francophone Studies, takes up the category of the middlebrow in French literature. This nebulous space between the Bourdieusian poles of high and low culture is, Holmes writes, “composed of all those hybrid novels read by most readers for a—usually unexamined—mix of reasons” (1). These are novels that are “beguiling but serious, pleasurable but instructive, singular—not formulaic—but accessible” (1). Focusing principally on women writers and readers, Holmes reclaims the middlebrow “as a positive term” in an effort to think productively “about narrative itself, and to interrogate the relationship between academic critic and ordinary reader” (31). Middlebrow novels, in her view, are characterized by “mimesis, immersivity [. . .] and plot” (29) and “they also shift at different historical moments, and with different modes of production and distribution” (30). Holmes’s important study not only deepens our understanding of the French literary marketplace from the fin-de-siècle to the present, her readings also shed new light on well-known writers and their less-famous counterparts.
Holmes locates the origins of “large-scale production of middlebrow fiction” in the Belle Époque, when the expansion of literacy rates, the development of the publishing industry, and overall economic growth led to a sizeable bourgeois reading public eager to find works that would “provide that paradoxical combination of self-recognition and escape from the boundaries of the self” (32). It is worth pointing out that many of these forces shaping the mass literary marketplace had already begun to appear by the early-to-mid nineteenth century. To illustrate how Belle Époque [End Page 465] middlebrow authors targeted their audiences, Holmes delves, in her second chapter, into the works of Daniel Lesueur (née Jeanne Loiseau) and Marcelle Tinayre, whose literary careers were “motivated by an inextricable mix of literary aspiration and financial need” (54). The fictional heroines of these fin-de-siècle authors “carried the readers on virtual journeys through contemporary land-and-cityscapes, and through moral terrain that was at once familiar and heightened into greater intensity and coherence” (59). These early examples showcase, for Holmes, characteristics of middlebrow fiction that are located to some degree in the works she examines through the balance of her study.
In two subsequent chapters, Holmes focuses on individual authors and their status as middlebrow writers. The clever title of the third chapter—“Colette: The Middlebrow Modernist”—aptly captures the complexity of categorizing this well-known author’s place in the literary field. Holmes argues that, unlike her male modernist contemporaries, Colette “managed the very unusual feat of writing as a modernist, in terms of challenging themes, experimental style and play with genre, whilst simultaneously remaining accessible to a very large, devoted and non-intellectual readership” (61). In addition to the best-selling Claudine cycle, whose appeal lay in its “very contemporary agenda” (68), Holmes investigates the rest of the author’s corpus to understand what made these works both “formally innovative and immensely readable” (72). Through analysis of novels from Chéri (1920) and L’Étoile Vesper (1946) to Le Fanal bleu (1949), she concludes that Colette’s novels were “situated” in their historical moments, focused on the senses, and examined different stages of women’s lives. These traits, alongside Colette’s generic experimentation and stylistic talents, place the author between high and low literary extremes. Françoise Sagan’s work is the subject of the book’s fifth chapter and an example of “successful middlebrow fiction [that] captures, through compelling stories, some vital element of the mood, aspirations and anxieties of the era” (126). Sagan’s popular works from the 50s and 60s (Bonjour Tristesse, of course—which Holmes calls the “blueprint for much [. . .] of her subsequent fiction”  but also Un certain sourire and La Chamade among others) appealed to readers through their “articulation of a female subjectivity...