Bucknell University Press congratulates Allison Stedman on her book Rococo Fiction in France, 1600-1715: Seditious Frivolity being selected as one of Choice’s “Outstanding Academic Titles of 2013.” Choice describes Professor’s Stedman’s book as a “compelling, well-documented study of experimental texts written from the beginning of the 17th century to the end of the reign of Louis XIV.” The book’s “Outstanding Academic Title” distinction was given in consideration of criteria that included “overall excellence in presentation and scholarship” and “importance relative to other literature in the field.” We had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Professor Stedman via e-mail, where she shared with us her book’s origins and touched on the so-called “crisis” in the humanities.
Professor Stedman, who teaches French and Italian literature and culture at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, explains that her book’s origins date back to 1997, when she wrote an MA thesis at Dartmouth College on 17th-century French fairy tales. For a number of years she wondered why French authors included fairy tales in hybrids works that encompassed “novels, letters, portraits, treatises, dialogues, proverb plays, ghost stories, histories, autobiographies, confessions, psalm paraphrases, gossip, meditations, aphorisms, allegories and poetry.” Such works were “utterly rampant,” Professor Stedman tells us, “yet no one seemed to know what this literature was, why it existed, or what purpose it served.” A trip to the French National Library in Paris in 2008, where she discovered multitudes of these disparate hybrids, led her to the revelation that these texts “existed to celebrate individual creativity, originality and innovation. As such, their purpose was to bring pleasure and create communities among likeminded readers and authors.” Professor Stedman’s research has been met with critical acclaim, and she recently gave a campus and community-wide talk at UNC Charlotte, discussing the link between 17th-century literature and social media, as part of their “Personally Speaking” series.
When asked about the so-called “crisis” in the humanities, Professor Stedman had the following to say: “Part of the crisis is due to the fact that the kind of thinking done in the humanities is perceived as a kind of luxury. The greater public cannot easily see why studying the past is relevant to the concerns of today, so scholars need to articulate these connections more clearly. To use the example of my own work: I think that people are less likely to question the relevance of studying 17th-century French experimental fiction if someone articulates for them that these texts had a role in transforming the way that early modern people met, socialized and communicated, similar to the role of the internet today.”
Indeed, Professor Stedman’s book finds a perfect home in Bucknell University Press’s Transits series, which “seeks to provide transformative readings of the literary, cultural, and historical interconnections between Britain, Europe, the Far East, Oceania, and the Americas in the long eighteenth century, and as they extend down to the present time.”
For more information on Professor Stedman and her book, see the following interview conducted by Christopher Bradt:
BUP: Please tell us about your professional background: what do you teach and what are your research interests? What gave you the inspiration to write Rococo Fiction in France, 1600-1715?
AS: I teach French and Italian literature and culture at UNC-Charlotte. My research area is seventeenth-century French literature and I am particularly interested in how narratives during this period destabilize the absolutist political system. The project began as an MA thesis at Dartmouth College in 1997 on late seventeenth-century French literary fairy tales. Unlike in other literary traditions, where fairy tales generally appear as independent stories complied into collections with other fairy tales, French authors by and large published fairy tales in conjunction with other literary genres. The first fairy tale of the French tradition, for example, was published as an interpolated story in the second volume of a romance novel that also contained letters, autobiographical interludes and poetry. For about 15 years, I puzzled over why French authors would choose to publish fairy tales as components of generic hybrids, interpolating them, framing them, layering them and juxtaposing them not only with novels but also with letters, portraits, treatises, dialogues, proverb plays, ghost stories, fairy tales, histories, autobiographies, confessions, psalm paraphrases, gossip, meditations, aphorisms, allegories and poetry. Eventually it hit me that perhaps I should take the one thing that these texts seemingly had in common out of the equation. What if the purpose of these works was not to publish fairy tales, but rather what if the fairy tale was simply being integrated into a publication strategy that had existed prior. In 2008, I returned to the French National Library and discovered more examples of this hybrid trend in publishing literary fiction than I knew what to do with. These kinds of works were utterly rampant, yet no one seemed to know what this literature was, why it existed, or what purpose it served. Apart from mixing a variety of genres in a single work, no two texts followed exactly the same publication strategy, nor did they address exactly the same social concerns. To top it off, the majority of the authors seemed to have no traditional social connections to one another. After puzzling over the trend for another year, I began to realize that this radical individuality was exactly the point. The texts existed to celebrate individual creativity, originality and innovation. As such, their purpose was to bring pleasure and create communities among likeminded readers and authors who delighted in the limitless expression of individual creative potential and who were always looking to get their hands on something new and different.
BUP: Please tell us a little bit about the term “rococo” and how you conceptualize it in your book.
AS: The rococo is an international period style that flourished during the first half of the eighteenth century in France, England, Germany and Italy. The style is present in many varieties of aesthetic production, including painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, furniture, fashion, music, theatre, and literature. In France, the rococo emerged as a strategy of resistance to the classical-baroque aesthetic and to the absolutist political system, a resistance manifested by the rococo’s rejection of the organizing principles common to both. In contrast to the diagonals of the baroque and the fixed proportions of classicism, the rococo privileges serpentine lines of beauty and constructs stories by means of scenes and pictures. While the classical-baroque is preoccupied with projecting an aura of order and stability in keeping with the goals of the emerging absolute monarchy, the rococo seeks to represent the opposite of stability, taking pleasure in plurality, hybridity, variety, vivacity, worldliness, and wit. While the classical-baroque uses strong diagonals to create centralized compositions stabilized by strong triangular structures, the rococo features swirling, sensual, atectonic compositions characterized by the absence of center and a disorientation as to where the center actually occurs. While the classical-baroque privileges such grandiose subject matter as battles, religious themes, and heroic actions, the rococo seeks instead to memorialize the unique yet ordinary moments of the human experience. As I looked at this trend in publishing hybrid fiction it occurred to me that these works shared both the methods and goals of the rococo, even though, chronologically speaking, they were appearing about 100 years earlier than the rococo is typically believed to have emerged. The presence of seventeenth-century hybrid fiction thus supported a new chronology of the rise of the rococo, one that placed it in synchrony with the rise of political absolutism and the classical-baroque, rather in succession of it. Ideological centralization in seventeenth century France was thus accompanied by ideological resistance and rococo fiction is an important expression of this resistance.
BUP: The book begins with a description of very colorful story by Jean Donneau de Visé about a Parisian nobleman who successfully woos his love interest via a “properly administered enema.” How does this story and its publication history tie into your book’s argument?
AS: In many cases, the unconventionality of rococo fiction on the level of form is also reflected in these works on the level of content. I chose to begin the book with this story because I wanted people to realize how radically different this type of fiction is from the pastoral, heroic and historical novels that people generally associate with salon literary production. Works that came out of salons were subversive to political absolutism because they resisted the generic mandates of the French Academy, but these works were still bound to uphold standards of propriety and verisimilitude so as not to offend the “honest” people of polite society. Rococo authors by and large ignored external standards of every sort and Donneau de Visé’s story presents a good example of how they did this.
BUP: What do you hope that readers, either scholarly or general, take away from your book?
AS: That the kind of resistance to political absolutism normally associated with the French Enlightenment evolved in tandem with the rise of absolutism, not just after Louis XIV’s death; and that the aesthetic expression associated with this resistance, the rococo, is thus in many respects a seventeenth as well as an eighteenth-century phenomenon. There is more to seventeenth-century France than just the court and the salon. The culture of the period is much more complicated than we had originally thought and the preponderance of rococo fiction attests to this complexity.
BUP: What were some of the challenges of writing this book?
AS: My literary historian colleagues would ask me questions like: What genre of literature is it? What literary circle is it associated with? What social concerns did it engage with? Rococo fiction incorporates almost every known literary genre of the time period. The works were written by men, women, aristocrats, commoners, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, court favorites, salon animators, pre-teens, septuagenarians, Parisians, provincials, French and foreigners. As such, the works engaged a variety of social concerns not specific to any one group or traditional social category. One author might use a rococo text to articulate the social concerns of the salon, while another would use the same literary strategy to mock the same institution. Before I realized that diversity, novelty, originality and innovation were the point of this type of literature, I wasted a lot of energy trying to make these texts fit together into categories that are just not applicable.
BUP: We’re intrigued by a headline we saw for a talk you’ll be giving on the seventeenth century and social media. Could you tell us a little bit about the talk?
AS: The talk is part of a faculty-author series sponsored by the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UNC-Charlotte aimed at giving faculty-authors an opportunity to present and discuss their work with the greater Charlotte community. Faculty members are supposed to introduce themselves, describe their research area and then focus on an aspect of their work that has the most potential to resonate with the general public. One of the interesting things about rococo fiction is that the authors who adopted this literary strategy did not share traditional social connections. They came from different social backgrounds, inhabited different geographic locations, and had different education levels, but they united with one another because they shared a common desire to resist ideological hegemony and to celebrate individual creative potential through the production, consumption and circulation of rococo literary fiction. As such, these texts created a community of likeminded individuals that was mediated completely by texts. At the time that these experimental texts were written, social interaction in France was dependent upon one’s ability to be physically present in a particular space. Exile from court was not surprisingly tantamount to social annihilation for members of the upper nobility. But even in the more inclusive salon network, one still had to be physically present at a particular time and in a particular space in order for social interaction and participation to occur. And the invitation to participate in any social setting had to take into consideration a variety of external social signifiers so as not to circumvent the rules of decorum. The idea that people who shared no traditional social connections, and who as a result had never met and would never meet one another, would suddenly have a way to address one another, to pay one another respect and even to etch out the rudimentary basics of an intertextual conversation was previously unheard of. While letters had always provided a way for individuals to communicate with one another during moments when one or both people were unavailable to meet in person, these epistolary connections only served to reinforce traditional social ties, continuing relationships that had begun within the bounds of traditional social interaction. With rococo fiction, you have a body of texts that was actually creating, sustaining and recruiting a completely new kind of social interaction. For the first time, social connections were not being merely supplanted by the circulation of texts; the texts actually were the sole social common denominator. This was radical for the seventeenth-century and served a function similar to that of blogging today where people meet, converse and create communities that have no tangible referent in the material world. The connection is based on the discovery of a common interest and as such can include participants from all walks of life.
BUP: What, if anything, can eighteenth-century studies contribute to ameliorating the current “crisis” in the humanities?
AS: Part of the crisis is due to the fact that the kind of thinking done in the humanities is perceived as a kind of luxury. The greater public cannot easily see why studying the past is relevant to the concerns of today, so scholars need to articulate these connections more clearly. To use the example of my own work: I think that people are less likely to question the relevance of studying seventeenth-century French experimental fiction if someone articulates for them that these texts had a role in transforming the way that early modern people met, socialized and communicated, similar to the role of the internet today. Suddenly people are intrigued to see what this previous shift can teach us about the direction in which we are currently moving, and thus are more likely to see the relevance of the project.
BUP: Are there any words you’d like to leave us with?
AS: Thank you for featuring my book!