Are women who write dangerous? To the point of being erased from literary history and school curricula? This is apparent from “The Revenge of the Authors”, a fascinating study by Julien Marsay, French teacher at the Lycée Galilée in Gennevilliers. We discover how much the invisibility of authors has taken perverse and various forms over the centuries: resistance, slander, insults, infamous labels, plagiarism, “declaration of incompetence”, camouflage, relegation to “minor” genres… The work, disturbing , stimulating, combative, the School also questions: should it reproduce the patriarchal order of literature and the world? is a writer being put on the programs just an “exception-caution”? should literary history be deconstructed to promote critical thinking in students?…
Your research shows how much the invisibility of women authors has taken on very different forms over the centuries: resistance, biographical slander, infamous labels of “precious” or “blue stockings”, sacralization of the muses, denials of attribution or authorship. , male camouflage , “George Sand syndrome” … Which of these male strategies do you find most destructive?
I don’t know if we can identify a more violent strategy than the others, as they are all harmful and pernicious: rather it seems to me that they combine and repeat each other, that they are entangled in the same system of violence, fruit of a patriarchal system with ancient and powerful ramifications.
Some strategies are more frontal, others more oblique. There is open violence: everything that contributes to disqualification and slander, attacks on womanhood and on the morals of authors like in the Middle Ages Jean de Meun who treats all women as “pussies” in the “Roman de la Rose” , such as Gratien du Pont in 1534 with his “Controversies of the male and female sexes” which treats women as “irrational beasts”… The rhetoric of insult, that of the whore and the witch in a sense, is very old : it is repeated over the centuries and the 19th century, which devotes a pejorative expression “blue stockings” to denoting and caricaturizing women who write, is a key moment. Therefore, referring to Susan Faludi’s thesis, what I call literary backlash: in the century when many authors claim the right to exist as such, retrograde logic is abandoned. Several authors wrote complete works to fool the “blue stockings” (Barbey d’Aurevilly, Frédéric Soulié, etc.). These attacks are based on disqualifications and biographical slander, on the rhetoric of insult; also some adopted a male pseudonym, partly as a strategy for literary existence (George Sand is the best known, but there were extremely many of those who used it in the 19th century: Daniel Stern, André Léo, Georges de Peyrebrune, Daniel Lesueur, Marc de Montifaud etc.) and many of them were victims of immediate or a posteriori backlash…
To this frontal violence are repeated phenomena of abduction: a certain habit of borrowing from women’s works, even plagiarism – Voltaire did not deprive himself (Catherine Bernard, Mme de Fontaines, etc.) – or to assert their authority over their works by attributing to men or ignoring their contribution to their husband’s work, recognized him, as was the case for Athénaïs Michelet or Julia Daudet… what the 19th century author, Juliette Lamber, called the “certificate of incapacity for work” mentions awarded to women. And there are many more mechanisms…
All this is part of a worldwide order to deny them the right to write: it is a stern reminder not to deviate from the role that men have attributed to women in society. And all of this adds to the overall backlash: The destructive violence is, it seems to me, the sum of these misogynistic mechanisms that contributed to the destruction of many of the memoir’s authors.
You also show how genres are gendered, how women authors are often relegated to the least legitimate or the most popular literary forms: can you explain how literary masculinity somehow coexists with class contempt?
I base this, among other things, on the analyzes of the academic Ellen Constans, who in her 2007 essay on “Workers of Letters” asks the question of what legitimate culture is: how do we establish it? who decides what “good literature” is, the one worth remembering? Ellen Constans is interested in the authors of the so-called popular novel: her analyzes show that there is also a form of class contempt at play, yes. There is literature that is worthy and there is literature that is less valuable, even unworthy: moreover, Gustave Lanson, the foremost gravedigger of authors, excludes letters from the field of literature in his “History of French literature”, while great letter writers clearly deserve to be mentioned in literary memory. But beyond that, we also see a kind of intersection of disdain: what about, in the 20th century, the institutionalization of women authors from the Caribbean, for example largely undervalued in our literary and institutional history?
There seems to me also a broader contempt associated with this, linked to origin: great authors such as Maryse Condé or Simone Schwarz-Bart, for example, should be much more institutionalized than they are: they do not even have a Goncourt, who, given the immense quality of their work is astonishing! When will the Nobel Prize for the immense Maryse Condé be awarded? This was the meaning of the alternative Nobel Prize she received. And here I am only talking about French authors! As for “French-speaking” authors, what about great authors like Mariama Bâ or Aminata Sow Fall in our official literary imagination, in this “heritage” we get to read?
All this data is intertwined, working by layering for some of these authors, and, with a few exceptions, the enthronement of the majority of them is (still) far from self-evident. The history of the invisibility of women authors, I think, reveals a broader history than that of class contempt: there is a combination of all the logics of domination.
By the selection, hierarchy or categorization they perform, French programs participate in the invisibility of women authors: how does your research shed light on these processes of making a school representation of literature and therefore of the world?
It seems to me that the research is a direct and serious response to the programs: it returns their reflection, that of the sclerotic gaze of what they are trying to perpetuate. I am talking about the French Bac programs (it seems to me that the ones of the university are more free, the works are not imposed). And this goes beyond the issue of gender: girls, and in general young people of North African, African or Asian descent, feel barely represented. For some, it’s the accumulation.
This is what one of my former Humanities, Literature and Philosophy students wrote to me: “In the last year, with the two works we studied [un livre de Maya Angelou et un de James Baldwin], I felt represented and touched by your desire to represent me”. So before the terminal and reading these works at school, this black boy never felt “represented” by the books he made him read: the question of what and from what to read is paramount. The current reading must go beyond the framework of a strictly academic relationship with it and establish encounters with literature, encounters with works: to do this everyone must at some point feel represented by the choice of books that we will have made . This ties in with the larger question of the school as a place of reproduction or emancipation, and of the artistic and intellectual weapons that the school may or may not provide.
Yourcenar, Lafayette, Olympe de Gouges, Colette soon appeared on the program of the 1st, Sylvie Germain is introduced to the writing of the EAF: in your opinion, should we see a positive evolution of the school institution or new exceptions guarantees, a literary Smurfette syndrome?
This program is clearly the legacy of Gustave Lanson who, in the 19th century, created this portrait of literary history in which rare women have a say! With Lanson we are in the middle of the Smurfette syndrome: the relationship between authors and authors is totally disproportionate. The same goes for this program: how many authors will be studied out of number? From then on, we can only see them as what I call exception alerts. What projections, what representations does this send back to the students? Ok, there is indeed a woman who wrote but she is the only one who is lost in the middle of an entire man’s village, it is an exception that serves in the imagination as a guarantee that writing is essentially a man’s business! More is needed, that’s clear.
The title and ending of the book are resolutely combative. If at the end of your research and lecture you had to propose three little-known authors for our students to discover, who would they be and why?
Three would be insufficient: the choice is not easy. Ideally, I would especially like to set up a sufficiently free education system that allows students, thanks to this research system, to introduce me to three authors unknown to me. It happened once that said: A former student offered me the wonderful news of an Italian author that I was completely unaware of existed, Clarice Tartufari!
But if it is absolutely necessary to give you three names, I would give you the following: Olympe Audouard, Mme de Villedieu and the Nardal sisters (ok that’s 4, because there are Jeanne and Paulette). Olympe Audouard, incredible author of the 19th century who published a tasty pamphlet “War against men”, because she crystallizes all the accusations of invisibility and the resistance against women authors, what I call the Olympe effect in reference to the Matilda effect expression that indicates the invisibility of women in science; Madame de Villedieu, a great 17th century author who was completely wiped from memory when she invented the memoir novel; the Nardal sisters, formidable theorists of negativity and avant-garde thinkers of intersectional issues at the beginning of the 20th century, relegated to the closets of oblivion…
Your fascinating research is staggering because it also reveals how much literary history, the one we have learned and must pass on, is indeed an ideological construct: would you find it desirable to teach literary history for the sake of critical thinking? what opportunities for such work?
It seems to me clearly important to show how literary history is constructed and to show that it is an ideological construction. Somehow, I believe some of us are already doing it: by exploring, discovering, taking steps beyond the programs…
But it seems much harder to do when you are overwhelmed by the pressure of the Bac to prepare in classes where the hours are sorely lacking (3 hours French in 1st technique lessons!), where whole class lessons are legion (from year after years, the drastic cuts in DHG reduce the courses in 1/2 group in a staggering way) and where the program to complete is tough: for my part, I kick in contact, I no longer take classes from the 1st common core since the reform from the former minister who wanted to restore this pantouflard report in the literature, while the old program left us more freedom.
Interview by Jean-Michel Le Baut
Julien Marsay, “The authors’ revenge, Investigating the invisibility of women in literature”, Payot Essays 2022, ISBN 978-2-228-93112-0
Julien Marsay at The Educational Cafe