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The Rise of the Writer

Writer and Public in France: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day

by John Lough
Oxford University Press, 435 pp., $36.00

Le Siècle des lumières en province: Académies et académiciens provinciaux, 1680-1789

by Daniel Roche
Mouton (Paris and The Hague), 2 volumes, 914 pp., $74.50

If the man of letters was not born in Paris, he seems to speak French throughout most modern history; and his battle cries, from écrasez l’infâme to épatez le bourgeois, have echoed from the left bank to the right bank before circling the world. Thanks to the work of John Lough and Daniel Roche, it now is possible to trace the rise of the writer in France and to situate him within an institution that also seems peculiarly French, although it exists everywhere and nowhere—the Republic of Letters.

In Writer and Public in France, Lough concentrates on the writer’s attempt to win financial independence and social standing, a long, hard struggle against supercilious patrons, tight-fisted publishers, and an illiterate public. The most surprising aspect of this story is the staying power of patronage. It is well known that the medieval minstrels lived off scraps from their lords’ tables and that Racine gave up playwriting as soon as he won a pension and a place in court. But Lough shows that writers continued to depend on the rich and powerful until well into the nineteenth century.

Hugo received 2,000 francs a year from Louis XVIII and Charles X. Gautier got 3,000 from Louis Napoleon in addition to an honorific post as a librarian worth 6,000. Flaubert kept body and soul together in his old age from a 3,000-franc librarianship. And even Baudelaire, who declared grandly in 1855 that he would never solicit subsidies—“never will my name appear in the vile papers of a government”—begged the minister of education two years later for a pension and received a miserable 200 francs.

Writers did not liberate themselves completely from patrons until about 1880, when Zola celebrated the advent of the modern cash nexus in literature: “It is money, it is the legitimate gain realized from his works that has freed [the writer] from all humiliating patronage…. Money has emancipated the writer, money has created modern letters.”

Why did it take the writer so long to live by his pen in France? Essentially, Lough argues, because of the underdeveloped character of the literary market.

In 1973, half the Frenchmen over fourteen years of age had not read a book during the past year. Almost a third of the population could not read at all in the 1870s, and nearly two-thirds were illiterate in the 1780s. Literacy rates were far higher in Britain and America during those periods, and so was expenditure on libraries. In 1908-1909, the public libraries of Leeds spent six times as much money on books as those in Lyon, a city of comparable size.

Frenchmen have felt dubious about public education ever since Voltaire warned them that a peasant who took up books would abandon his plough. The Revolution established a system of primary schools on paper in 1793, but it probably disrupted the institutions of the Old Regime so badly that mass education was set back half a century. It took two more republics before the free, compulsory, and secular primary school began producing a critical mass of readers for the Republic of Letters.

The Third Republic represents a turning point in several other respects, according to Lough. It finally freed the press, not merely from censorship, which had plagued the printed word in various ways for three and a half centuries, but also from the insidious restraints of the stamp duty on newspapers and the restrictive licenses for printers and booksellers. The modern system of royalties took hold about 1880. At that point, writers began to cash in on the success of best sellers, because they received a proportion of the receipts from sales instead of a flat fee or a number of free copies in exchange for a manuscript.

Writers also benefited indirectly from an improvement in the lot of publishers after 1880. The Bern Convention of 1886 freed the French book trade from the pirates who had raided it from the Low Countries and Switzerland since the sixteenth century. The cost of printing books fell after the introduction of machine-made pulp paper, the rotary press, steam power, and, in the 1880s, linotype. The number of books printed and the size of the press runs increased throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, reaching a peak in the decade 1889-1899 that was not attained again until the 1960s, if the figures from the dépôt légal are to be believed.

Publishers and writers alike benefited from the expansion of journalism. With the founding of La Presse and Le Siècle in 1836, an era of relatively inexpensive newspapers, financed by advertising rather than subscriptions, came into existence. The feuilleton followed and in its wake a golden age for novelists. By 1840, editors began to bid for the rights to serialize fiction by Balzac, Sand, and Zola as well as that of the masters of the feuilleton, Eugène Sue, Dumas père, and Frédéric Soulié. A cheapening of the genre seems to have set in with the advent of the penny press in the 1860s. But “quality” fiction had two outlets, the newspaper and the book, until World War I brought an end to the belle époque in literary fortunes.

The writer’s status rose with his income. Having been a clown and a vagrant in the Middle Ages, a gentleman amateur in the Renaissance, and a curiosity in the salons of the Enlightenment, he commanded respect and sometimes adoration in the nineteenth century. Today one cannot cross a street in Paris without seeing a plaque to some man of letters or stroll through a park without confronting a poet on a pedestal. The names of schools, squares, and streets proclaim the cult of the writer everywhere in France—an odd phenomenon to anyone from the United States who has bought gas at the Vince Lombardi Service Area of the New Jersey Turnpike or driven through Bob Jones University.

But the pattern will look familiar to anyone who has read Lough’s earlier books. Three of them, published between 1954 and 1978, contain chapters on “the writer and his public,” which Lough has sewn together, with some rephrasing here and amplification there, to form much of the present work.1

There is no harm in an author repeating himself, especially if he is as distinguished and erudite as Professor Lough. But a great deal has been written about writers and their readerships since 1954, and this work poses problems for Lough’s attempt to trace a trajectory from Chrétien de Troyes to Sartre.

Lough cites many of the recent contributions to his subject in his footnotes and bibliography, but he generally ignores them in his text. For example, in his chapter on the seventeenth century, he generously acknowledges his debt to the work of Henri-Jean Martin, Livre, pouvoirs et société à Paris au XVIIème siècle (Geneva, 1969, 2 vols). But the text of the chapter repeats what Lough said in 1954, sometimes word for word. True, it contains an aside about the inadequacy of Martin’s statistics on book production. But it steers around the mountain of material Martin has unearthed on the politics and economics of the book trade, the social position of authors, and the tastes of readers.

In the following chapter, Lough cites Livre et société dans la France du XVIIIème siècle (Paris and The Hague, 1965-1970, 2 vols.), a collection of essays by historians associated with the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, which is as important for the eighteenth century as Martin’s work is for the seventeenth. Again, however, Lough clings closely to his old argument about the continued importance of patronage and the relative improvement in the writer’s status. The Livre et société historians have moved beyond those questions to a new concern with the general topography of literary culture. By taking quantitative soundings in various sources, they try to show that “inertia” overwhelmed “innovation” in the reading habits of the Old Regime. Their argument may be wrong, but it is too important to be ignored; and it complements the work of Martin, who found that religious literature predominated in the classical age, when half the “writers” were probably clergymen.

The same emphasis emerges in recent studies of popular literature, which Lough acknowledges and then skirts. According to Robert Mandrou, Geneviève Bollème, Pierre Brochon, and Jean-Jacques Darmon, the literary diet of most Frenchmen from the late sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century consisted of chapbooks; and these were consumed orally, at fireside readings, in which the literate few regaled the rest with saints’ lives and the adventures of archaic heroes like the Quatre fils d’Aymon. These cheap pamphlets, known collectively as the Bibliothèque bleue, were generally adapted by type-setters or anonymous hacks from the “high” literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—that is, they did not have specific authors any more than readers.

Notions of the writer and the reading public quickly become anachronistic, if applied all the way back to the Middle Ages, as Lough does in his first chapter. Albert Lord and others have argued that the chansons de geste should not be understood as texts by authors but as performances by singers, who adapted a fluid repertory to particular audiences. Scribes eventually adapted those adaptations into writing, and printers adapted the scribal versions for the press.

Narrative intended directly for the press proceeded from different assumptions. By fixing texts in standard forms and by multiplying them among readers whom the writer could only imagine, the printing press transformed literature as a mode of communication. Elizabeth Eisenstein has developed this line of analysis in a series of articles, culminating in her recent book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge University Press, 1979, 2 vols.). Lough merely treats the printing press as the beginning of a long process that led to the financial independence of the writer, and “writer” for him means troubadour as well as novelist.

Questions about communication deserve a place in a general study of writers and readers. One need not line up with the supporters of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Tzvetan Todorov, Wolfgang Iser, Wayne Booth, Stanley Fish, or any other fashionable critic to accept the notion that texts can be interpreted as a form of discourse, in which author and audience play prescribed roles. Rabelais leaps onto a stage and harangues you like a barker at a fair. Montaigne chats with you at a fireside. Rousseau manipulates you into the position of a confidant, the only one in a wicked world who can understand and forgive. Voltaire winks knowingly at you from behind impieties. Rimbaud clasps you to his bosom. Flaubert pretends that neither you nor he exists. The postures vary enormously throughout French history; and they deserve a historian, for they provide clues about the ways of experiencing literature in the past.

One way was political, and it bears on the most important role played by writers in French history. While English writers enjoyed wealth and prestige early in the eighteenth century and often turned Tory, their underprivileged counterparts in France tended to become social critics—that is, intellectuals. The rise of the modern intellectual dates from the French Enlightenment, when Voltaire and d’Alembert cleared a path for the philosophes by identifying them with the more respectable category of “gens de lettres.” This strategy succeeded so well that in later generations men of letters played the part of philosophes and stationed themselves in cafes from which they could point an accusing finger at the social order. The “J’accuse” has shaped the role of the writer in the modern imagination and has given it its aura of Frenchness.

  1. 1

    An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century France (London, 1954), An Introduction to Eighteenth-Century France (London, 1960), An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century France (London, 1978). Lough also uses material from his excellent monograph, Paris Theatre Audiences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (London, 1957).

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