Are women who write dangerous? To the point of being erased from literary history and school curricula? This is demonstrated by “The Revenge of the Authors”, a fascinating investigation by Julien Marsay, French teacher at the Lycée Galilée in Gennevilliers. We discover how much the invisibilization of authors has taken perverse and diverse forms over the centuries: backlash, slander, insults, infamous labels, plagiarism, “certificate of incapacity”, camouflage, relegation to “minor” genres… The work, disturbing, stimulating, combative, also questions the School: should it reproduce the patriarchal order of literature and the world? is a writer put on the programs only an “exception-caution”? should literary history be deconstructed to promote critical thinking in students?…
Your investigation shows how much the invisibilization of female authors has taken very varied forms over the centuries: backlash, 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 masculinist strategies do you find the most destructive?
I don’t know if we can identify a more violent strategy than the others, as they are all deleterious and pernicious: it seems to me rather that they combine and echo 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 the fact of being a woman and on the morals of authors such as in the Middle Ages Jean de Meun who treats all women as “pusses” in the “Roman de la Rose”, like 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 way, is very old: it is repeated over the centuries and the 19th century, which devotes a pejorative expression “blue stockings” to designate and caricature women who write, is a key moment. Hence, in reference to Susan Faludi’s thesis, what I call literary backlash: in the century when many authors are claiming the right to exist as such, retrograde logic is unleashed. Several authors wrote entire works aimed at making fun of the “blue stockings” (Barbey d’Aurevilly, Frédéric Soulié, etc.). These attacks are based on disqualifications and biographical calumnies, 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 them 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…
Added to this frontal violence are repeated phenomena of abduction: a certain habit of borrowing from the works of women, even plagiarizing them – Voltaire did not deprive himself (Catherine Bernard, Mme de Fontaines, etc.) – or of denying their auctoriality of their works by attributing them to men or by ignoring their contribution to the work of their husband, recognized him, as was the case for Athénaïs Michelet or Julia Daudet… which the 19th century author, Juliette Lamber , calls the “certificate of incapacity” awarded to women. And there are many other mechanisms…
All of this is part of a global injunction to deny them the right to write: it is a stern reminder not to derogate from the role that men have attributed to women in society. And all of this contributes to the overall backlash: the destructive violence is, it seems to me, in the sum of these misogynistic mechanisms that have contributed to annihilating many of the authors of the memoirs.
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 masculinism somehow joins class contempt?
I base myself, among others, on the analyzes of the academic Ellen Constans who, in her 2007 essay on “Workers of Letters”, poses the question of what legitimate culture is: how do we establish it? who decides what is “good literature”, the one worthy of being remembered? Ellen Constans is interested in the authors of the so-called popular novel: her analyzes show that a form of class contempt is also at play, yes. There is worthy literature and that which is less worthy, even unworthy: moreover, Gustave Lanson, the chief gravedigger of authors, in his “History of French Literature”, excludes epistolary from the field of literature, whereas great letter writers clearly deserve to figure in literary memory. But beyond that, we can also see a form of intersection of contempt: what about, in the 20th century, the institutionalization of women authors from the Caribbean, for example, largely undervalued in our literary and institutional history?
To this, it seems to me that there is also a broader contempt, linked to origins: great authors such as Maryse Condé or Simone Schwarz-Bart, for example, should be much more institutionalized than they are: they do not didn’t even have a Goncourt, which in view of the immense quality of their work, is staggering! When will the Nobel Prize for the immense Maryse Condé be awarded? This was the meaning of the alternative Nobel that she received. And here I’m only talking about French authors! As for “French-speaking” authors: what about great authors such as Mariama Bâ or Aminata Sow Fall in our official literary imagination, in this “heritage” that we are given to read?
All these data are intertwined, operate by accumulation of layers for some of these authors, and, with a few exceptions, the enthronement in the heritage of the majority of them is (still) far from self-evident. . The history of the invisibilization of women authors reveals a broader history, I believe, than that of class contempt: there is a combination of all the logics of domination.
Through the selection, hierarchy or categorization that they operate, French programs participate in the invisibilization of women authors: how does your investigation shed light on these processes of making a school representation of literature and therefore of the world ?
It seems to me that the survey is a direct and severe response to the programs: it sends back their reflection, that of the sclerotic gaze of what they seek to perpetuate. I’m talking about the French Bac programs (it seems to me that those of college are more free, the works are not imposed). And this goes beyond the question of gender: girls, and in general young people of North African, African or Asian origin, feel that they are hardly represented. For some, it’s the accumulation.
Here is what one of my former students of Humanities, Literature and Philosophy wrote to me: “In the final year, with the two works we studied [un livre de Maya Angelou et un de James Baldwin], I felt represented and I was touched by your desire to represent me”. Before the terminal thus and the school reading of these works, this black boy never “felt represented” by the books which one made him read: the question of what and of which one gives to read is paramount. The reading in progress must go beyond the framework of a strictly academic relationship to it and bring about encounters with literature, encounters with works: to do this, everyone must at some point feel represented- e by the choice of books that we will have made. This joins the larger question of the school as a place of reproduction or emancipation, and of the artistic and intellectual weapons that the school offers or not.
Yourcenar, Lafayette, Olympe de Gouges, soon Colette appeared on the program of 1st, Sylvie Germain is proposed to the writing of the EAF: should we see there in your opinion 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, instituted this portrait of literary history in which rare women have a say! With Lanson, we are in the middle of the Smurfette syndrome: the share between authors and autrices is totally disproportionate. The same goes for this program: out of the number, how many authors will be studied? From then on, we can only see them as what I call exceptions-cautions. 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 lost in the middle of a whole village of men, it is an exception which, in the imagination, serves as a guarantee for the fact that writing is essentially a man’s business! More is needed, it’s obvious.
The title and conclusion of the book are resolutely combative. At the end of your research and reading, if you had to suggest 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 put in place a sufficiently free educational system that would allow students to introduce me, thanks to this research system, to three authors unknown to me. It happened once that said: a former student offered me the great news of an Italian author of which I was totally unaware of the existence, 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 makes 4, because there are Jeanne and Paulette). Olympe Audouard, incredible author of the 19th century who published a tasty pamphlet “War on men”, because she crystallizes all the charge of invisibilization and the backlash against women authors, what I call the Olympe Effect in reference to the Matilda effect expression which designates the invisibilization of women in science; Madame de Villedieu, a great author of the 17th century, who was completely erased from memory when she was the inventor of the memoir novel; the Nardal sisters, formidable theoreticians of negritude and avant-garde thinkers of intersectional questions at the beginning of the 20th century, relegated to the cupboards of oblivion…
Your fascinating investigation is dizzying as it also shows how much literary history, the one we have been taught and that we are asked to transmit, is indeed an ideological construction: you would think it desirable to teach history of literary history to foster students’ critical thinking? what avenues for such work?
Clearly, showing how literary history has been constructed and showing that it is an ideological construction seems important to me. Somehow, I believe that a certain number of us are already doing it: by investigating, discovering, taking steps aside from the programs…
But it seems to me much more difficult to do when you are overwhelmed by the pressure of the Bac to prepare in classes where the hours are sorely lacking (3 hours of French in 1st technology classes!), where whole class lessons are legion (from year to year, the drastic reductions in DHG reduce the courses in 1/2 group in a staggering way) and where the program to be completed is heavy: for my part, I kick in touch, I no longer take classes of 1st common core since the reform of the former minister who sought to restore this pantouflard report to literature while the old program left us more freedom.
Interview by Jean-Michel Le Baut
Julien Marsay, “The revenge of the authors, Survey on the invisibilization of women in literature”, Payot Essays 2022, ISBN 978-2-228-93112-0
Julien Marsay in The Educational Café