The Literary Market: Authorship and Modernity in the Old Regime

The Literary Market: Authorship and Modernity in the Old Regime

The Literary Market: Authorship and Modernity in the Old Regime

The Literary Market: Authorship and Modernity in the Old Regime


A central theme in the history of Old Regime authorship highlights the opportunities offered by a growing book trade to writers seeking to free themselves from patrons and live "by the pen." Accounts of this passage from patronage to market have explored in far greater detail the opportunities themselves--the rising sums paid by publishers and the progression of laws protecting literary property--than how and why writers would have seized on them, no doubt because the choice to do so has seemed an obvious or natural one for writers assumed to prefer economic self-sufficiency over elite protection.

In The Literary Market, Geoffrey Turnovsky claims that there was nothing obvious or natural about the choice. Writers had been involved in commercial book publication since the earliest days of the printing press, yet had not necessarily linked these activities with their freedom to think and write. The association of autonomy and professionalism was forged, not given. Analyzing the literary market as a key articulation of the association, Turnovsky explores how in eighteenth-century polemics a rhetoric of commercial authorship came to signify independence for intellectuals. He finds the roots of the connection not in the claims of entrepreneurial writers to rights and income but in a world to which that of the modern author has been contrasted: the aristocratic culture of the seventeenth century. Aristocratic culture, he argues, generated a disparaging view of the professional author as one defined by activities tainting him or her as greedy and arrogant and therefore unworthy of protection and socially isolated. The Literary Market examines the story of the "birth of the author" in terms of the revalorization of this negative trope in Enlightenment-era debates about the radically changing role of writers in society.


Two brief and understated anecdotes can frame this study. They illustrate the ambiguities that will be at the core of my account of the “modernization” of intellectual identities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly to the degree that this book explores the historical process of the “birth of the modern author” in light of continuities with the values and behaviors of the early modern period rather than, as is more traditionally done, in terms of a sharp break with them.

The first is told by Paul Pellisson in the history of the Académie française, which he wrote in the late 1640s and early 1650s at a time when he was lobbying for a seat in the assembly. Remembering the strong interest in theater of the Académie’s first patron, Cardinal Richelieu, Pellisson recounts how the cardinal brought together five of the leading dramatists of the day in the mid-1630s—among whom the best known was Pierre Corneille—and commissioned them to write a series of plays based on subjects and arrangements of his own inspiration, including a 1635 Comédie des Tuileries, celebrating the palace next to the Louvre that Catherine de Médicis had built after the assassination of her husband Henri ii in 1560; a now lost Grande pastorale from 1637; and a tragicomedy called L’aveugle de Smyrne, which was performed a month later. Each of the cinq auteurs was assigned to write one act of each play. For this, Pellisson observes, the writer received a pension from the minister, along with “considerable gestures of generosity [quelques libéralitez considérables], when they succeeded to his liking.” To explain what he means by “libéralitez,” Pellisson reveals what one of the playwrights, Guillaume Colletet, had confided to him:

Thus M. Colletet assured me that, having brought to him [Richelieu] the Mono
logue from Les Tuileries, the latter was especially drawn to the following two lines
[sic] from the description of the Carré d’eau:
                  [At the same time, I saw on the banks of a stream]
      The female duck dampened by the muddy water,
      With a hoarse voice and a flap of her wings,
      Reinvigorate the male duck which languished at her side,

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.