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In the Public Eye: A History of Reading in Modern France, 1800-1940.

France is still a country which can appreciate an author--even a budding author. 'Vous etes ecrivain, m'sieur?' asks the electrician tottering on an old metal ladder, sparks flying from the wire he has ripped from behind the library shelves; 'Ah, ca c'est chouette!' But if the plumber, the baker, the doctor and the lawyer are all happy to shake hands with a writer, the world of authorship has attained nothing like the professional sophistication one finds in Britain or America. The Societe des Gens de Lettres, located in the lush Hotel de Massa in the 14th arondissement, defends 'culture' not authors, French publishers can still treat literary agents with contempt (indeed, the latter are barely in business), contracts are scandalously biased in favour of the publisher, and authors rarely know what they are signing: in France they have no one to turn to. So it would seem that the price of the social prestige and gloire, heaped on French authors by generations of avid readers, has been a certain professional backwardness.

This is just the sort of phenomenon that would interest James Smith Allen in his exploration of the relationship between authors, publishers and readers in the 19th and 20th centuries. For Professor Allen, readers represent an independent historical force affecting the structure of publishing over time, the style of criticism and even the content of literary works. It is a force, he argues, which has been ignored for too long by intellectual historians and historians of popular mentalites who concentrate on the literature of the past without fully appreciating how this literature was read in its day.

Following Robert Darnton, Allen poses six questions about reading in the past: who read what, where, when, how and why? Without marketing polls, these are obviously not easy questions to answer. The author delves into great writers' journals, personal diaries, government censors' reports, he has studied portrayals of reading in art ('artists of literate life' we are told "produced more than 500 images of reading in every available medium and format" between 1800 and 1940) and he has gleaned long novels for the descriptions of the experience of reading (yes, Emma Bovary is in there and so are the obvious examples from Balzac). But his most important sources are his exhaustive list of critical reviews of selected authors and nearly 1,500 letters written by admirers, friends and relatives to these same authors. Allen finds other guiding lights among some of today's literary critics, like Harold Bloom, Jonathan Culler, David Bleich, Norman Holland and, particularly it seems, Stanley Fish. The aim of In the Public Eye is thus a "synthetic venture in the history of reading" for as Allen puts it, "When these sources are examined carefully with the tools of critics, theorists and historians, whose concerns are closely related, a genuine history of reading becomes feasible."

A model of development emerges from all this which we soon find related to a rather conventional version of 'modernization'. What Allen calls "the twin pressures of politicization and industrialization" work to free readers from the constraints imposed by an elite culture dominated by the Church, the monarchy and the aristocracy, allowing them to develop more individualistic and diverse ways of interpreting texts. The book contains an excellent account of the transition from the artisanal craft of printing to the publishers of the 19th and early 20th centuries: the increase in print runs, the changing formats of books, the effect of the rotary press, the appearance of commercially oriented publishers like Gervais Charpentier, Michel Levy and Artheme Fayard. Allen points out the capital fact that the whole Third Republic (1871-1940) was a period--following the rapid growth in titles and print runs in the first two-thirds of the century--of stagnation for book production. He relates this 'malaise' to the fact that by 1870 the long-run increase in rates of literacy had drawn to a close because by that time most of the French were able to read; not surprisingly, the growth potential for the book market was from then on quite limited. Instead of growth, the Belle Epoque and the interwar period were marked by increasing diversity, both in terms of books and the people who read them.

It is the study of this diversity--specifically, the various ways in which people read--which is at the heart of Allen's work. One hears a lot in this book about the 'reception of literature'. 'Reception' becomes increasingly differentiated by factors relating to the reader's age, sex education, occupation, social status, whether the reader is Parisian or provincial, and so on. But Allen also detects a general shift away from the aristocratic principles which had guided readers during the Old Regime to the aesthetic ideals that characterized reading 'by the outbreak of World War I'.

Allen's social explanation for the shift is not entirely convincing. For instance, was 'neoclassicism', or this concern with order, balance, unity and tradition, so aristocratic? Allen refers frequently to the "indissoluble alliance of the True, the Beautiful and the Good" but he curiously never mentions that influential work with same ringing title, Du Vrai, du beau et du bien, by Victor Cousin. Victor Cousin was no aristocrat. Were aesthetic ideals so bourgeois? The aesthetic movement in fin-de-siecle France, as in Britain and Germany, was surely more concerned with artisanry--and there was a distinct desire in there to epater le bourgeois.

Perhaps Professor Allen would say that this is confusing authors' intentions for readers' interpretations. For Allen, reality lies more with the reader than the author. His argument with intellectual historians, after all, is that they have failed to see the 'lag' between what authors wanted their readers to find and what readers actually found. For example, according to Allen, readers (and here he refers essentially to reviewers and correspondents with the author) continued to apply 'neoclassical' principles to literature right through to the middle of the 19th century. So the whole Romantic movement, in this account, is reduced exclusively to an affair of authors, passing ordinary readers right by. The transition into the modern age of aesthetics was not marked by authors touting their ostentatious red waistcoats, flowers and poetry as Gautier would have had it. The real transition, the readers' transition, came later in the form of a public obsession with morality--beginning around 1850 and lasting for about thirty years. Allen explains: as "the collective ideals embodied by the aristocracy faded from view" readers became unsettled, they had lost the 'well-established sentiments' of the earlier small elites and, finding 'new and unseemly details' in the literature of their time, they turned on the authors in an outburst of moral fury. Allen cites, among other examples, the treatment meted out to Flaubert and Baudelaire, as well as the row over Zola's La Terre. This last case was the climax. By the end of the century the threat of innovation and diversity had worn off, readers became more tolerant and actually began to identify with the author's stylistic individuality. Writers like Anatole France and Proust did not have to face the sort of hostile public Zola had.

Allen's explanation for the moral obsessions of the mid-19th century are original and well worth pondering over. But there is a danger in this history of readers of going too far. "Where does meaning reside?" ask Allen's favourite literary critics. Is it in the author? the text? or the reader? Most of them have read the works of Jacques Derrida and would argue that 'logocentrism', or the apparent meaning in writing, is pure illusion. Don't look at the author, they say, but at the reader--and for most deconstructionists this means the professional, theoretically trained university reader: 'me'. Allen, not as immodest, concentrates on readers of a more mortal kind. None the less, it is the reader who is his source of reality and truth, not the author. "Clearly, a work has no meaning until readers make of it what they can," he says.

Is this so clear? If you want to know the meaning of a work, do you ask the author or the reader (or, for that matter, the publisher or the copyeditor)?

Allen is very good at describing the inevitable gap between the author and his readers. He points out that an author almost never realized the audience that he wanted--he quotes Flaubert claiming that twenty intelligent readers were all he expected. He cites one young lady writing to Anatole France who was patently more concerned with herself than she was with the book she had just read. He gives a marvelous analysis of Michelet's L'Amour and La Femme showing that both the critics and Michelet's personal correspondents completely missed the point. But does recognition of this gap mean that we should elevate the mistaken ordinary reader above the author? Don't traditional intellectual historians have a few good reasons on their side when they concentrate on the 'twenty intelligent readers' or, better still, on the author himself? Allen doesn't quite go to the end of the deconstructionist road. In his conclusion he stops half way: "It appears from historical study that meaning lies more in a dialogue between the world of the text and that of its audience."

But the whole exercise looks rather mechanical and the conclusion a little absurd. This curious compromise between text and audience (which he refers to repeatedly as a 'dialogic relationship') hints that he has looked a few miles ahead: he can see that his literary critics are leading him into a dead end, a wasteland. Others have been there, and they are turning back. One thinks particularly of the extraordinary current revival of interest in the works of Charles Peguy, a writer much misunderstood by readers in Second World War and its aftermath. The validity of Peguy's mystique surely cannot be ignored where great works of literature are concerned. His argument that history has no pre-determined direction is a timely warning--as Europe once more is shaken by great changes--to students of the processes of modernization. And his comments on individual creativity make a certain resonance within the 'context' of this book.

Was it the thought of Peguy? When I finally closed James Smith Allen's well-worked printed pages an old-fashioned idea entered my head that an author should be absolute master of his text and show an even more absolute determination to defend it.
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Author:Dallas, Gregor
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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