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French Cultural Studies

The Comfortable Reader: Romantic


Bestsellers and Critical Disdain

French Cultural Studies


21(4) 287296
The Author(s) 2010
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0957155810378576
http://frc.sagepub.com

Diana Holmes
University of Leeds

Abstract
In France immersive storytelling in the novel has long been associated with lowbrow fiction,
and critically disparaged in favour of more self-reflexive, experimental forms. Recently, however,
not only have critical debates begun to question the equation of literary value with the texts
intransitivity (Barthes), but the massive success of certain contemporary novels has suggested
a sharp divergence between critical orthodoxy and readers literary values. Critics responses to
the runaway success of novels by Marc Levy, Anna Gavalda and others have hesitated between
bemusement and contempt, while readers express the intense pleasure they find in these optimistic,
absorbing stories. This article contends that the critically discredited art of mimetic (and, worse
still, romantic) storytelling provides valuable pleasures, and that readers responses deserve to
be taken seriously. With the emphasis on novels by Levy and Gavalda, the article interrogates the
relationship between literary and popular taste.
Keywords
bestsellers, Anna Gavalda, Marc Levy, popular fiction, romance
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, against the background of a general decline in reading as a form of leisure (Donnat, 2008), a small group of novelists have achieved massive sales and
consequent celebrity in France. Marc Levy, Guillaume Musso, Anna Gavalda, Katherine Pancol
and (since the surprise success of Llgance du hrisson, 2006) Muriel Barbery do not in any
sense constitute a school or movement, but they share certain features: they are youngish (between
30 and 50), they are sufficiently photogenic and comfortable with media exposure to have become
recognisable to a wide public, their success is repeated from one novel to the next, and reader
loyalty is fostered by book-signings, media appearances and authorreader dialogue particularly
on dedicated websites. Their sales are in the millions (Yadan, 2008), their books are translated into
many languages including English, and in several cases adapted for the cinema. What their novels
share in literary terms is the plot-driven, absorbing nature of their stories, the transparency of both
style and narrative technique, and a fundamental reliance on the structure and themes of romance.

Corresponding author:
Diana Holmes, School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK
Email: d.holmes@leeds.ac.uk

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Though their fictions incorporate elements of the thriller and science-fiction (Levy and Musso) and
mild social satire (Gavalda, Pancol, Barbery), what is at stake is always also the question of
romance: will these two mutually desiring characters overcome obstacles to achieve a lasting
union, and if so, how?

Readers
Readers are quite vocal about their reasons for enjoying these books. Blogs, authors websites,
on-line cultural magazines such as evene.fr (sponsored by the Ministre de la culture), all place
readers responses to particular texts in the public domain. Even allowing for some selectivity on
the authors pages, it seems to be enthusiasm that prompts the majority of responses, and two
elements of reading pleasure receive the most commentary. One is the feeling of absolute absorption in story, of an urgent need to know what happens next, driven both by narrative suspense and
by empathetic engagement with the characters experience. Many comments on Anna Gavaldas
Ensemble cest tout (2004) (on evene.fr) employ imagery of irresistible appetite (Emprunt la
bibliothque municipale, en trois jours, je lai aval, englouti, ne pouvant le lcher que lorsque mes
yeux ny tenaient plus), and record an emotional engagement so intense that it produces bodily
reactions (Mon cur bat plus fort, mes sens souvrent, jai froid, jai chaud, je transpire, je sens
les odeurs, je pleure, je ris). Responses to Levys texts (on his website) echo the pleasure in being
carried away and acutely moved by story: Vers les dernires pages, jen tremblais, les larmes
perlaient sur mon visage tellement que ctait fort. Readers, in other words, delight in what literary
theorist Marie-Laure Ryan terms immersivity or the imaginative transportation of the readers
virtual body onto the (fictional) scene of events facilitated by a variety of narrative strategies
(Ryan, 2001: 133). Although readers clearly have no difficulty in distinguishing between lived and
fictional realms, for the duration of their reading they inhabit, emotionally and to some extent
sensorially, the virtual reality of the story world, and perceive this as a beneficial experience:
mes motions se font plus fortes et mon me plus sensible, as one Gavalda fan puts it.
The other reiterated source of pleasure is the sense of optimism that the novels transmit.
Reading them provides a feeling of reconciliation with the world: jai aim la faon dont, la
fin du roman, on peut tre rconcili avec le genre humain; ce livre me rconcilie avec le monde
(Gavalda readers on evene.fr). Reconciliation assumes a prior sense of conflict or alienation: the
recurring choice of this word suggests that these novels produce pleasure from the representation
of a contemporary world in itself experienced as hostile or incomprehensible. They may themselves evoke negative, painful aspects of reality, but then redeem these by the novels conclusion.
Above all, through the presence of an authoritative narrative voice and a structured plot that ends
with some degree of closure, they offer a model of reality as both intelligible and coherent.
Suspending disbelief, the reader plunges enjoyably, through language, into an invented world
peopled by imaginary yet (for the duration of the reading) real-seeming characters, the narration
of whose stories is structured both to generate suspense (what will happen next?) and to provide,
finally, a satisfying sense of resolution that includes, in the majority of cases, an affirmation of the
possibility of reciprocal, durable romantic love.

Critics
Literary critics, writing in the pages (web or printed) of the serious press, have responded to the
huge success of these immersive, optimistic, romantic novels with a mixture of bemusement and
downright disdain. Whereas Harlequin/Mills and Boon and other explicitly mass-market series can

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simply be dismissed as beyond the literary pale, these novels seem to blur the boundaries between
trash and literature: they appear alongside respected literary authors in the catalogues of Robert
Laffont (Levy), Le Dilettante (Gavalda) and Gallimard (Barbery), jostle Goncourt winners on the
contemporary fiction shelves in bookshops, and seem to appeal to a wide spectrum of readers in
terms of both class and educational level. One critic described them as constituting a littrature
de loisirs (plus hypocrite, dguise, que les romans de gare) [qui] stimule les ventes, rjouit les
diteurs et rgale le public, whilst, he added, dans lopacit des bureaux parisiens ou la pnombre
des cafs branchs de la capitale, les critiques littraires vocifrent, dnoncent limposture (Yadan,
2008). The perception of a radical divide between reading public and critics is well founded: Marc
Levy fans, already aware of critical disparagement of their author, responded to a particularly
acerbic attack by the Nouvel Observateurs Jrme Garcin (2008) by setting up a Facebook page
Dfense Marc Levy et ses lecteurs: Nous, lecteurs de Marc Levy, sommes de plus en plus en
proie des critiques acerbes et injustifies de la part de dtracteurs frustrs et jaloux De fait,
nous, lecteurs, sommes mpriss et dconsidrs!
Critical hostility echoes, to a large extent, the anxieties around popular fiction current since the
days of the roman-feuilleton. When Thomas Yadan deplores the fact that le march de ldition
semble dornavant tributaire de la communication et du business (Yadan, 2008), he acknowledges
the very real contribution of marketing to these authors success, but also reaffirms a disquiet about
the effect on literature of market imperatives that goes all the way back to (at least) Sainte-Beuves
famous 1839 condemnation of la littrature industrielle (in Dumasy, 1999: 2543). Anxiety about
the place of literature in a market economy also means anxiety about the effect of popular taste on
literary values. The pleasures of imaginative immersion and reconciliation so valued by readers
are the very antithesis of what most literary critics, both academic and media, would consider
authentically literary.
Immersion depends on the conventions of mimetic realism: on the teleology of plot that draws
all fictional events into a purposeful pattern, on coherent characterisation, and on what Christopher
Prendergast calls negotiating and naming the world in terms of familiar, shared images and representations (Prendergast, 1986: 7). In France, most acutely since the post-war era of New Novel
theory (which itself had roots leading back to Flaubert), the hegemonic view is anti-mimetic.
The nouveau romanciers rejection of mimetic realism as a now overworked and outdated set of
conventions that aimed to impose limage dun univers stable, cohrent, continu, univoque,
entirement dchiffrable (Robbe-Grillet, 1963: 31) has continued to inform French evaluation of
what constitutes a good novel. In critical responses to the current crop of bestsellers, the recurring
use of the adjective confortable as a negative descriptor points to an underlying consensus that
easy reading is bad reading, echoing Barthes influential distinction between the supremely literary
texte de jouissance qui dconforte, and the mere texte de plaisir li une pratique confortable
du texte (Barthes, 1973: 25). Reviewing Gavaldas first bestseller Ensemble cest tout in 2004,
Philippe Lanon (Libration) objected to its easy-to-read quality: On le lit comme on descend une
piste blanche, en pente douce et sans douleur; de la prose ple, pour tout dire (Lanon, 2004).
Tlramas review of Gavaldas La Consolante (2008) described her fictional world as one of
mou bien-tre that invited readers to sinstaller confortablement (Crom, 2008), and Lanons
article on Barberys Llgance du hrisson (2006) used similar imagery to condemn a novel that
offered the reader a position confortable (Lanon, 2007). As in Barthes formulation, the rejection
of a comfortable reading position is at once aesthetic and moral: the implication is both that the
use of familiarly realist narrative techniques indulges a deluded wish to see the world as coherent
and intelligible (in Robbe-Grillets terms), and that the optimistic humanism of these novels
encourages moral complacency. By contrast, a properly literary novel would tend towards the

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self-reflexive and the formally experimental,1 and present a darker, more conflictual view of the
world. The cover design of Ensemble cest tout, with its picture of pastel-coloured chalks, was
invoked by the critic of LExpress to ridicule the novels upbeat romanticism: Manire dindiquer
quelle ne donnera ni dans le trash ni dans le gore, mais dans les sentiments. Les beaux. Les bons
(Martin, 2004).

In defence of the texte de plaisir


The common reader is not alone in her or his defence of the mimetic, immersive, optimistic bestseller. Some prominent voices have recently been raised in France in defence of the kind of fiction
that invites a whole-hearted if provisional suspension of disbelief, including surprisingly that
of Tzvetan Todorov, founding father of the structuralist literary theory that accompanied and
promoted the New Novel. In his polemical La Littrature en pril (2007), Todorov championed
the value of plot-driven narratives (from Harry Potter to the Three Musketeers) and empathetic
relationships with fictional characters, against what he termed the narcissism and formalism of
much contemporary French fiction. Reading novels, for le lecteur ordinaire (2007: 72), represents
an largissement intrieur, linclusion dans notre conscience de nouvelles manires dtre, ct
de celle que nous possdions dj (2007: 77). Novelist Nancy Huston also made a strong case for
the mimetic novel in LEspce fabulatrice (2008). In Hustons view it is precisely the illusion of
reality in characters and plot, and the readers willing participation in this illusion, that provides the
novel with its ethical charge: sa manire dencourager lidentification des tres qui ne nous ressemblent pas lui perme(t) de jouer un rle thique (Huston, 2008: 1823).
Todorov and Huston attribute value to the very process of fiction reading, including that of
lowbrow texts (Harry Potter), in so far as this implies the imaginary adoption of other subjectivities and thus the widening of experience. In this they concur with theorists such as Marie-Laure
Ryan (2001) who makes a compelling case for the pleasure and value of getting lost in a story,
arguing that although opposition to immersion runs rampant in contemporary criticism (2001:
175), both the writers capacity to make language coax the imagination into simulating sensory
perception (2001: 122) and the readers willing entry into the virtual world, are the very opposite
of facile or low-level cognitive processes. Despite the continuing hegemony of the anti-mimetic
position in France, there is also a significant strand of French theory in support of the view that
consuming stories, or absorption into literary fictions, constitutes more than a form of comfortable
passivity and is actively good for us. Paul Ricur defines fictions simulations of the real as an
irreducible dimension of self-understanding (Ricur, 1991: 30). Michel de Certeau likens readers
to nomades braconnant travers les champs quils nont pas crits (Certeau, 1980: 251), insisting
that reading is an activit silencieuse, transgressive, ironique ou potique (1980: 249) not just for
literary critics, (1980: 245), but also for popular readers: les lecteurs et lectrices de Nous Deux,
de La France Agricole (1980: 251). Il est toujours bon, he concludes, de se rappeler quil ne faut
pas prendre les gens pour des idiots (1980: 255). Jean-Marie Schaeffers Pourquoi la fiction?
(1999), Raphal Baronis La Tension narrative (2007), and a growing body of academic work on
French popular fictions,2 all converge in viewing the reading of mimetic, immersive stories as an
active exercise of both cognitive and affective faculties: as what Jacques Migozzi (in this issue)
terms storyplaying rather than the passive consumption of a narcotic prt--penser.
At any rate, what the current wave of hugely profitable bestsellers demonstrates is the continuing
demand in France for storytelling in the form of the novel. How exactly do these texts provide that
sense of being lost in a story and reconciled with the world so appreciated by readers? How far
do they position the reader as passively comfortable, as most literary critics would maintain, or
offer a relationship to the story that involves active engagement and an enjoyable broadening of

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mental and emotional scope, as certain theorists and readers themselves assert? To explore these
questions, I propose to concentrate on bestselling novels by the two major stars of contemporary
French popular fiction: Marc Levy and Anna Gavalda.

Marc Levy
Marc Levy has been the top-selling French novelist in France and worldwide (translations of his
10 novels have appeared in 41 languages) for most of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Intelligent marketing of the Levy brand suspenseful, glamorous romances tinged with the supernatural has undoubtedly contributed to sales: though characterisation, setting and to some extent
plot show a distinct family resemblance to Harlequin romance, the foregrounding of Levys status
as a well-educated, professionally successful man counters the pejorative stereotype of the romance
writer and broadens potential readership. A photo of the youthful, darkly handsome Levy, gazing
intensely towards the reader, hand to chin in thoughtful pose, fills the inside cover of each novel,
opposite a biographical sketch and an invitation to view his (very professional) web pages, the site
of his dialogue with readers. Levy appears frequently at book festivals, book-signings, and in
media interviews; Spielbergs 2005 Hollywood adaptation of Levys first novel, published in 2000,
Et si ctait vrai (Just Like Heaven) provided further international publicity for his work.
Clever marketing, though, cannot in itself explain the enormous and continuing popularity of his
novels: they clearly provide their readers with considerable pleasure. Like Harlequin romances, most
Levy novels invite their readers into a globalised, mobile, affluent world exotic, thanks to its
geographic and social distance from that of the average reader, yet sufficiently familiar, if only from
other fictions, to facilitate imaginary transportation to the scene. Thus the names San Francisco (Et si
ctait vrai), Paris, London, Crete, Peking (Le Premier Jour, 2009a) offer compressed images and
descriptive shortcuts that emulate the instantaneous character of immersion in the space of visual
media (Ryan, 2001: 128). Exotic locations can be conjured up with relative economy of descriptive
means, and provide the pleasure of vicarious travel. This world is inhabited and traversed by characters whose Alpha attributes (good looks, high-status professions) also recall Harlequin, and whose
quests for love, happiness and knowledge constitute the plot: in a typical Levy novel, a suspenseful
adventure narrative is neatly sutured onto a framing structure of romance. Thus in Et si ctait vrai,
architect Arthur meets doctor Lauren when she suddenly and inexplicably appears in the apartment
he is renting. What he sees, it transpires, is in fact Laurens magically embodied spirit, for her real
body is lying in a post-accident coma in a neighbouring hospital. Lauren, the owner and previous
resident of the apartment, has returned in spirit to her former home. The mutual attraction between
Arthur and Lauren is made obvious to the reader, though less immediately to the couple, so that what
is at stake, as in all romances, is the possibility of their happiness together. However, to achieve this
means to resist plans to turn off Laurens life-support machine, through strategies that include the
kidnapping and concealment of her comatose body and a series of attempts to frustrate police pursuit.
Successfully concluded, the thriller plot leads to the return to consciousness of the real Lauren and
to a romantic closure strategically suspended to allow for a sequel (Vous revoir, 2005).
In Le Premier Jour, the two key protagonists are drawn together both by mutual attraction and
by their converging scientific quests: Adrian, an astrophysicist, seeks the origins of cosmic life
while Keira, an archaeologist, seeks those of human life on earth. Their quest for knowledge defers
any resolution of their romance by involving them in a thriller-like search for the meaning and
origins of a mysterious ancient stone, a search which takes them across the world pursued by a
sinister international cabal of scientists and politicians. Again the pleasures of romance are neatly
woven into those of the adventure story, and the dnouement of the love plot is deferred with the
promise of a return to Adrian and Keiras story (La Premire Nuit, 2009b).

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The use of sequels adds a dimension of the serial to Levys fictions, and in other ways too his
storytelling deploys techniques similar to those of the roman-feuilleton, and lastingly typical of
popular fictions. Style (clear syntax, extensive use of dialogue) and narrative technique are on the
whole transparent, directing the readers attention away from the surface of the text and towards
the sequence of events, both material and emotional, that make up the plot. Narrative voice is for
the most part omniscient, switching between external focalisation (Lappartement de Lauren
surprenait par la tendresse qui sen dgageait, Levy, 2000: 7) and internal focalisation mainly,
but not solely, from the perspective of the two principal protagonists. Even where first-person
narration alternates with the omniscient voice as in Le Premier Jour where Adrians sections of
the story are self-narrated the sense of a controlling consciousness remains, with its implicit
promise of the ultimate coherence of the fictional world. Characters can be sketched in rapidly
because they correspond to familiar fictional types: the central couple each have the physical beauty,
exceptional intelligence, energy, and moral integrity that connote hero and heroine; secondary
characters include devoted, wise (and generally dead) mothers and fathers, loyal, often comical
friends, sage old men who provide vital clues to the mystery, sinisterly evil opponents. The text
plays on existing familiarity with narrative conventions to establish economically the central oppositions and goals of the plot, and above all to provide a fictional world suffused with meaning, in
which all elements, from apparently chance encounters to the weather or an overheard sentence,
are guaranteed to prove significant. We know, as we read, that lived experience offers no such
satisfying coherence, but the pleasure of such fictions surely rests in part on provisional absorption
in a world that is wholly meaningful and ultimately comprehensible. The merely successive
character of events (Kermode, 1967: 56) is transformed by the teleology of story into purposeful
pattern, producing, in Ricurs words, configuration out of a succession (1991: 22).
The patterned signification of story contributes in itself to the sense of reconciliation reported
by readers, but the content of Levys tales is also decidedly upbeat. Popular romance is an optimistic
genre, in which the desire for passionate union with another overcomes a series of obstacles to
reach ecstatic fulfilment. In Levys novels love overcomes not just social and emotional hurdles,
but mortality itself. Arthurs determined devotion and Laurens will to live defeat death in Et si
ctait vrai, while in La Prochaine Fois (2004) love survives the centuries through reincarnation,
and in Le Premier Jour the love between two scientists produces a collaborative quest for knowledge that promises to uncover the origins of life itself. Levys fiction is hyperbolically romantic.
Critical hostility tends to disparage readers demand for the basic pleasures of story, and the skill
involved in supplying these: using well-tried and tested narrative techniques, Levys novels offer
readers an agreeable interlude of fictional immersion in a glamorous, exotic world where good
reliably triumphs over evil, and love over death. To see readers not as mystified idiots but as
selective poachers (Certeau, 1980: 255, 251) is not to attribute to these novels a literary value that
they clearly do not have: the characterisation is thin and stereotyped, the supernatural elements
often make for facile plotting, and trite moralising takes the place of any moral vision implicit in
the narrative. Levys texts do not create rich fictional worlds, but by combining the narrative
urgency of adventure with the affective quest of the love story, they offer their willing readers both
an articulation of fundamental desires and an easy journey to an exotic elsewhere.

Anna Gavalda
Precise knowledge of readership is notoriously difficult to obtain, but the style of readers
on-line responses to Gavalda and Levy novels suggest that while the two constituencies may
overlap, Gavaldas extends further upwards in terms of level of education and acquired cultural

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knowledge. The difference between the texts bears this out: though Gavaldas novels are equally
immersive and optimistic, her style, narrative techniques and thematic concerns make more
demands on the reader.
Born in 1970, Anna Gavalda was a teacher when she published a well-reviewed short-story
collection Je voudrais que quelquun mattende quelque part in 1999, followed by a romantic
novel, Je laimais. It was the 2004 Ensemble cest tout, published by the small publishing house Le
Dilettante (with whom she has remained), that became an unexpected, word-of-mouth success,
rapidly achieving sales of over two million in France, widely translated and adapted for the cinema
in 2007 (by Claude Berri, with Audrey Tautou starring). La Consolante (2008) also topped the
bestseller lists. As an ex-teacher and an articulate star of book festivals and media interviews,
Gavalda, to a greater extent than Levy, straddles the popular/high divide and bemuses literary
critics: Comme toujours, cest frais, lger, plein de bons sentiments, et pourtant tout le monde
laime (Crignon, 2009).
Gavaldas novels conform to the basic conventions of popular romantic fiction: they offer a
reassuring intelligibility, whereby all textual elements are guaranteed to cohere into meaning; a
happily concluded love story forms the central narrative thread; a benign logic means that good
intentions always ultimately produce good results, and human differences can always be reconciled. Not only do the plots themselves carry us from vicarious lack and solitude to reciprocal love
and happiness, this broad movement from negative to positive is repeatedly played out in miniature, as characters suffering from cold, sickness or loneliness are rescued by kindness and returned
to warmth, health and community. The reiterated passage from negative to positive contributes to
that visceral sense of reconciliation appreciated by readers.
Within this observation of the codes of immersive, upbeat reading, Gavalda uses a variety of
narrative techniques more demanding of the reader than Levys functional, transparent prose. The
omniscient narrative voice is certainly present, but the extensive use of style indirect libre focalises
the fictional world from a sometimes rapidly changing series of viewpoints, not always clearly
identified by name. In La Consolante the central protagonist, Charles, is narrated in a shifting mix
of third and first persons: transitions between an external perspective and Charless subjective
voice demand attentive reading and interpretation. The narrator herself occasionally breaks cover
to signal her presence through a direct address to her characters: (Eh ben alors? Quest-ce qui ne
va pas mon grand?, Gavalda, 2004: 255), or an ironic, complicitous address to the reader, referring
to Charles in La Consolante as notre hros (Gavalda, 2008: 82), commenting as he returns in
memory to the case de dpart of his story, Nous aussi (2008: 145). On occasion she may even
break the mimetic novels fourth wall to reflect, for example (with an ironic nod to her critics?)
on the difficulty of dramatising happiness:
Ce qui suit sappelle le bonheur et le bonheur est trs embarrassant.
Ne se raconte pas
Le bonheur ennuie le lecteur.
Si lauteur avait deux sous de jugeote, lauteur procderait donc une ellipse. (2008: 554)

Without disturbing the illusion of her characters reality, Gavalda enlists the reader as accomplice is
the construction of the imaginary world. Hers is also a more localised and immediately contemporary universe than Levys, closer to its readers lived reality: in place of Levys generic international
modernity, Gavaldas stories are set in a busy, restless, urbanised France, a place of reconstituted
families, insecure employment, fast-moving technologies, intense consumerism, nostalgia for a
rural past and a rich multi-cultural soundtrack of popular music.

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What is at stake, what structures the plot, is nonetheless romance, but a kind of romance that
manages to combine the traditional heterosexual love story with a collective drama that addresses
(albeit in utopian vein) real contemporary issues of social organisation and national identity. The
love story in its mass-market form evokes and pleasurably resolves the problems of respecting yet
reconciling difference, and of combining individual freedom with emotional commitment.
Gavaldas novels play out the romance script: attraction is triggered yet complicated by radical
difference (in Ensemble Camille is an articulate, educated artist with a tendency to anorexia while
Franck is a working-class, apparently boorish trainee chef), lending tension and conflict to the plot,
but the couples affinity develops, their differences finally proving complementary as well as the
source of a continuing mutual seduction. But Ensemble is more than a couple romance, it is also
the story of Paulette, Francks ageing grandmother, whose dilemma is how to deal with the physical
dependence of age when family support systems have fragmented, and Philibert, the eccentric heir
of impoverished aristocrats, a misfit in modern France. Each of the four characters is, in their way,
adrift in a socially atomised, fast-changing world: Gavaldas novel enacts a sort of collective
romance by having this odd foursome form a social unit, a chosen family based on mutual dependence and liking, which later develops into the shared project of a restaurant. La Consolantes
romance between the unlikely couple of jet-setting Parisian architect Charles and Kate, surrogate
mother to a motley tribe of children and animals on a broken-down farm, also concludes with the
convergence of romantic union and communal project.
If postmodernity in highly developed urban cultures brings fears of fragmentation, isolation and
the loss of traditional forms of community, Ensemble, cest tout and La Consolante (the titles
are evocative) offer a provisional immersion in a world that enacts the successful re-invention
of communal values. It could also be argued that they address pleasurably, through imagined
solutions anxieties about the loss of values closely associated with French national identity.
Through Francks creative commitment to good cuisine, which has wholly beneficial effects, the
endangered relationship between the French and good food is reasserted; the rural past is integrated
into the urbanised present as Paulettes village home with its kitchen garden is preserved to supply
food for the restaurant and holiday space for the re-invented family, whilst the site of happiness in
La Consolante is a derelict country estate restored to chaotic but vibrant life by Kate and her tribe.
The fragile possibility of uniting different cultures and identities within one indivisible Republic is
played out in miniature in the multi-generational, cross-class, and (in La Consolante) international
households that end both plots on a note of invented community and reconciliation of the personal
and the collective.

Conclusion
The popularity of romantic bestsellers from Levy to Gavalda demonstrates a resilient appetite in
France for transparently told, mimetic, immersive stories in literary form, despite the apparent decline
in reading, and despite the downgrading of these qualities by the majority of academic and critical
writing. In Boulevards du populaire, Jacques Migozzi suggests that popular fictions provide une
antidote provisoire linstabilit blessante du monde (Migozzi, 2005: 148). As readers reactions
eloquently affirm, these novels draw on and develop the optimistic genre of the romance in order to
provide, through the skilful deployment of traditional narrative techniques, pleasurable immersion in
a fictional world where that wounding instability is evoked in order to be resolved and cured, where
lack or loss is deliberately experienced for the pleasurable reassurance of recovery. Readers enjoy
the texts reconciliatory optimism, one aspect of which is certainly what Robbe-Grillet and his
successors see as a deceptive and imposed representation of reality as coherent and legible.

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But the word provisoire is also important in Migozzis formula: rather than imagine the reader
as passively lost in their story, we can imagine her or him as Certeaus poacher, provisionally
inhabiting the fictional world to glean its pleasures, without taking this universe for a true image of
the one they inhabit when the book is closed. Mimetic, immersive narrative would not then be a
form of dangerous mystification, but rather an invitation to the reader to deploy their acquired
generic skills in the pursuit of an enriching pleasure. Nor does the attribution of agency to the
reader have to lead to an undiscriminating deference towards whatever sells well: without reverting
to a high/low binary, the distinction between the stylistic texture and thematic scope of Levys
novels and those of Gavalda is very real, as is that between Gavaldas fiction and that of, for
example, Marie Ndiaye or Nancy Huston. What such an approach does mean, though, is the inclusion in our model of what constitutes literature of what most people actually read, for only then
can we seek to understand the relationship between narrative technique and reader response, and
the novels continuing role in the construction of social meanings.
Notes
1 Jean-Marie Schaeffer argues that critical opinion in France favours uvres qui subvertissent leur
fondement mimtique, and condemns celles qui, au contraire, mettent en valeur les techniques imitatives
(Schaeffer, 1999: 24).
2 Much of this work emerges from the Limoges-based Centre de Recherches sur les Littratures Populaires
et les Cultures Mdiatiques (CRLPCM), directed by Jacques Migozzi.

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Diana Holmes is Professor of French at the University of Leeds, where she teaches twentieth-/twentyfirst-century French literature and film. She has published widely on womens writing in France from the
late nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries, including monographs on Colette (1991), French Women Writers
18481994 (1996), Rachilde Decadence Gender and the Woman Writer (2001), Romance and Readership
in Twentieth-Century France: Love Stories (2006) and the co-edited A Belle poque? Women in French
Society and Culture 18901914 (2005). Her second research field is cinema: she co-edits the series French
Film Directors in which she co-authored the volume on Franois Truffaut, and has published on Brigitte
Bardot in Stardom in Postwar France (2007), a book co-edited with John Gaffney. She is deputy director of
the Leeds-based Popular Cultures Research Network.

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