Whitaker on Absalyamova and Stiénon, eds (2018)


Absalyamova, Elina, et Valérie Stiénon, editors. Les voix du lecteur dans la presse française au XIXe siècle. PULIM, 2018, pp. 360, ISBN 978-2-842877-71-2

Jena Whitaker, Michigan State University 

Technological advancements and flourishing economic growth following the July Revolution of 1830 set into motion an unprecedented expansion of the French press, a substantial diversification of journalistic forms (provincial papers, satirical papers, a working-class press, feminist journals), and also the emergence of newspaper stands, a development that was, in large part, an outcome of capitalist financing. The nineteen essays comprising this volume co-edited by Elina Absalyamova and Valérie Stiénon focus on how the increasing dissemination, diversification, and availability of magazines, periodicals, and newspapers over the course of the nineteenth century significantly altered the roles of readers, transforming passive readerly-subjects into active citizens who could participate in the struggles and conflicts of public life. Focusing its attention on readerly voices, the volume shows how different French newspapers articulated the views and opinions of the particular social groups and audiences they sought to represent. These readers could, in turn, react and express their opinions by writing and sending in articles. Due to these interactive exchanges, the editors theorize the press as a dialogical, polyphonic, and interactive space in which language acts test the boundaries between contributors, commentators, and “récepteurs.” 

To make out these different readerly voices, or “dis(cerner) les voix” (15), the volume adopts four different methodological approaches. The first approach is a sociological study using archival documents to construct a profile of readerly consumers and a typology of public newspaper-reading spaces (coffee shops, book stores, intellectual circles, cénacles, theaters, cabinets de lectures)which were decisive sites for the forming of public opinion. Additional topics explored include subscriptions costs, competitions among different newspapers, disputes related to intellectual property, and the commercial power of readers. The second approach is a study of cultural history, which aims to establish, and also examine, an archeology of different media with a particular focus on the iconotext (i.e. stamps and caricatures). The third approach involves a poetic analysis of the newspaper and focuses on paratext, advertisements, and the metadiscursive status of readers. Finally, the fourth is an analysis of discourse, highlighting how the press serves as a medium of communication that preserves oral forms of exchange like poems and songs. 

With five essays, the first section of the volume, “Émergence et continuité des lectorats,” draws attention to the rising visibility of new readers, including workers, women, children, foreigners, and French citizens living outside of Paris. Anaïs Goudmand’s essay, for example, shows that socialist readers inspired Eugène Sue to develop the political dimension of his roman-feuilleton Les Mystères de Paris, published in the Journal des débats (June 1842–October 1843). By creating characters who embodied “la voix du people,” Sue exposed the social and political realities of his readers, notably the living conditions of the poor. Goudmand stresses that Sue nevertheless served as a mediated representative of the voice of the people since his writing generalized and homogenized the diverse views of popular classes, thus reducing a plurality of opinions to a unified “cri.” Sue’s fiction accordingly carried out an unequal exchange between author and reader, and consequently, reinforced social hierarchies. 

The articles in the second section entitled “Vedettes et lecteurs” analyze how famous journalist-authors—including Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, Alphonse Daudet, and Timothée Trimm—blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction by staging fake dialogues with invented “readers.” For instance, Nicolas Estournel’s essay illustrates that, as a means to promote and give expression to her socialist perspectives on education and the economy, Sand adopted the role of a fictitious reader writing to two newspapers that she had founded: the Révue indépendante (1841) and L'Éclaireur de l’Indre (1844). Under the pseudonym Blaise Bonnin, Sand assumed the identity of a plowman, disguising her own voice as that of a reader-writer who represented the rural community and popular opinion. In the volume’s third section, “Circulations et constructions des discours,” Stiénon’s essay eloquently explains that “[l]a signature de lecteur engendre sa propre poétique de jeux identitaires par périphrases, pseudonymes et cryptonymes qui perdent l’identification plus qu’ils ne l’assurent” (177). Furthermore, Stienon stresses that editorial boards often strategically created these signatures and voices so that they could control their newspaper’s semiotic and discursive content.    

In a particularly edifying essay entitled “Les voix du lecteur de faits divers dans le journal: approche énonciative,” Laetita Gonon illustrates how the mounting attentiveness given to effect over the course of the nineteenth-century transformed passive readers into active ones, thus turning readers into objects of discourse. By carefully crafting an effect within a text, writers aimed to provoke readerly reactions. “De passif, le lecteur devient actif, est incité par le journal à collaborer à l’enquête et à son écriture, non plus seulement à son commentaire” (203). Gonon notes that the formulaic equivalence “journaliste lecteur policier” exemplifies the act of readerly participation and collaboration. Although several fictional works by French writers depicted this modern and active reader, Gonon duly observes that Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin served as a model of the detective as reader and the reader as detective: “le lecteur à la Dupin, agent de sûreté imaginaire, véritable policier ou journaliste expert, contribue ainsi à l’écriture des faits divers, dans une mise en abyme des pratiques d’enquêtes et de lectures” (204). Using the Troppmann affair in 1869 as her prime example of a “fait divers” that  led to a significant media response, Gonon emphasizes that this discursive moment largely depended on active readerly interaction and a shift in connotative function.

In addition to its essays, the collection provides a comprehensive bibliography referencing studies on the social, historical, and cultural contexts of the act of reading and the press. A table of illustrations and a thorough index of nineteenth-century French periodicals is also included, affording scholars a well-organized inventory. Taken as a whole, this volume not only illuminates the function of readerly voices in the nineteenth-century French press, but it also offers a lens through which one can compare nineteenth-century media to the rapid interconnections and global communications that have come to define collective exchange in today’s digital age.