Romance and Readership in Twentieth Century France

Romance and Readership in Twentieth Century France

Romance and Readership in Twentieth Century France

Romance and Readership in Twentieth Century France

Synopsis

Romance in modern times is the most widely read yet the most critically despised of genres. Associated almost entirely with women, as readers and as writers, its popularity has been argued by gender traditionalists to confirm women's innate sentimentality, while feminist critics have often condemned the genre as a dangerous opiate for the female masses. This study adopts the more positive perspective of critics such as Janice Radway, and takes seriously the pleasure that women readers consistently seem to find in romance. Drawing on the social constructionist feminism of Simone de Beauvoir, the psychoanalytical theories of Jessica Benjamin, and a range of social theorists from Bourdieu to Zygmunt Bauman, the book uncovers the history of romantic fiction in France from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, and explores its place in women's lives and imaginations. Romance is not defined - as it usually is - solely in terms of its mass-market form. Rather, the history of women's popular fiction is traced in its full context, as one dimension of a literary story that encompasses the mainstream or 'middlebrow' as well as 'high' culture. Thus this study ranges from the formula romance (from the pious but popular Delly to global brand Harlequin), through 'middlebrow' bestsellers like Marcelle Tinayre, Francoise Sagan, Regine Deforges, to critically esteemed stories of love in the work of such authors as Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Elsa Triolet, and Camille Laurens. Criss-crossing the boundaries of taste and class, as well as those of sexual orientation, the romance has been at times reactionary, at others progressive, utopian, and contestatory. It has played an important part in the lives of twentieth-century women, providing both a source of imaginative escape, and a fictional space in which to rehearse and make sense of identity, relationship, and desire.

Excerpt

Writing and reading romances is generally thought of as something that women do. the association of women with romance has often been used to confirm gender stereotypes: women are the sentimental sex, by nature more interested in private, emotional matters than in political or philosophical concerns, narcissistically inclined to consume stories that reproduce and embellish their own personal dramas. I have a vivid memory of wanting to distance myself from this demeaning construction of who I was: mid-teens, newly but firmly self-identified as a serious reader unlimited by mere gender, I was asked by my grandma to change her books while I was at the library. This meant approaching the Romance section, being seen to select amongst the thin pink and blue volumes of the Mills and Boon series. I grabbed a couple, concealed them and headed straight for the serious end of the library where I felt I belonged, to choose—what? Certainly a wide range of books, from Dickens to Camus via Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace (crime, somehow, was adult and respectable in a way that romance just wasn’t), but always including a Brontë or an Austen or a Georgette Heyer, or an early Margaret Drabble, or a translated Angélique (spicy, but with the touch of seriousness conferred by being originally in French)—in other words, stories of love. If I review my current reading practices, the books I read in bed at night or on holiday, for pleasure, I find the same pattern: the majority are by women writers, and most of them are, usually amongst other things, love stories. I don’t think that I am unusual in this.

As a feminist, one’s first reaction to the generally derogatory suggestion that women just write and read about love is to prove the contrary, and this can certainly be done. Women novelists have of course ranged across genres, from the philosophical and political novel (in France, most famously, Sand, Beauvoir) to the formally experimental (Duras, Sarraute), the sociological (Ernaux), the roman policier (Fred Vargas), and so on. But once this case has been made, the fact still remains that the mass-market romance, with its almost exclusively female authorship and readership, has been the most consistently popular (even if also the most critically despised) genre of the last hundred years. Moreover, throughout the same period, there has been an important layer of very widely read ‘middlebrow’ women’s writing centred on the love story . . .

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