What this small DH project shows is that in late nineteenth-century France, the birth of a collaboration, a relationship, between a publisher and a writer, could hinge upon where in Paris both agents were located.
The fin-de-siècle literary and publishing scene was changing and these transformations influenced the working relationship between both writers and publishers who were looking to make a living. The second half of the nineteenth-century saw a dramatic increase in literacy rates and declining production costs for publishers. The former resulted from the Jules Ferry laws, named after the minister of Public Education and Fine Arts, which mandated free, secular schooling in the early 1880s. These laws reduced the illiteracy rate from 18% to 10% in two decades and dramatically increased readership (Thiesse, 2000: 9). In addition to that, technological innovations in printing such as the introduction of steam machines or the development of lithography made it possible for publishers to produce more books for a lower price. Together, these changes created a growing demand for books, accompanied by increased competition among an expanding number of publishers. Facing intense rivalry, publishers relied on specialization to maintain their place in the literary field – with some focusing on best-sellers, others on theater, and so on.
Writers found it difficult to navigate this diversifying publishing scene and identify a suitable collaborator. Finding the perfect fit was challenging with so many publishers to choose from, each of them devoted to a particular specialty. As sociologist and critical theorist Pierre Bourdieu explains in Les règles de l’art,
Le choix d’un lieu de publication (au sens large) – éditeur, revue, galerie, journal – n’est si important que parce qu’à chaque auteur, à chaque forme de production et de produit, correspond un lieu naturel (déjà existant ou à créer) dans le champ de production et que les producteurs ou les produits qui ne sont pas à leur juste place (…) sont plus ou moins condamnés à l’échec. (…) les éditeurs d’avant-garde et les producteurs de best-sellers s’accordent pour dire qu’ils courraient inévitablement à l’échec s’ils s’avisaient de publier des ouvrages objectivement destinés au pôle opposé de l’espace de l’édition (1992: 235).
Indeed it was crucial for writers to work with publishers who had similar goals, and vice versa. If one wanted to sell poetry, for instance, one would not work with education publishers Belin nor would it make sense for Belin to publish a Parnassian poet. Publishers and writers thus needed similar strategies for a collaboration to work, which is why Emile Zola, for instance, worked with Georges Charpentier, who was regarded as the publisher to the Naturalists. And if a writer decided to transition from poetry to romans de gare, he or she typically changed publisher and found one who would be a more logical collaborator.
Some of the factors shaping collaborations between writers and publishers in the late nineteenth century were therefore purely artistic. Others involved friendships and personal relationships. These are the terms in which scholars have typically analyzed fin-de-siècle literary collaborations. Consider, for instance, several examples relating to the Decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. Constance Baethge, in her discussion of Huysmans and his choice of publisher, argues that the writer’s strategy was to go ‘against the grain’ in choosing his publishers in order to attract a broader readership. According to her, he often chose unlikely collaborators, publishing his Decadent novel with a Naturalist publisher and his more mystical ones with a prominent Dreyfusard. He did so, Baethge argues, to preserve the autonomy of his work in a period where publishing became increasingly commercial. Another scholar, Eric Walbecq, focuses on the relationship and friendship between Huysmans and his publisher Pierre-Victor Stock from 1885 until the writer’s death. He analyzes how both men met each other through a common friend and how, as Huysmans became more successful, the writer managed to impose his bibliophilic tastes on Stock, convincing the latter to print rare editions of some of his books. These two examples suggest that the study of the collaborations between writers and their publishers has mainly focused on analyzing the economic strategies behind the writers’ choices or the more personal aspects shaping collaboration.
This project takes a different approach. I argue that writers’ geographical location in Parisian social space played an important and often overlooked role in determining their relationships with publishers. To support this claim, I focus on four writers – Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Marcel Schwob, and Rachilde – who were leading figures in Decadence, a late nineteenth-century French literary and aesthetic movement that found its artistic inspiration in notions of social and political decay. Using digital maps, showing their places of residence (and, in some cases, work), as well as the location of their publishers, I argue that one of the most important reasons for a writer and publisher to start collaborating resided in a remarkably simple factor: shared physical and social space. What I mean by a shared physical space is simply that writers and publishers were living and working extremely close to one another, sometimes no more than a few meters away, which made the collaboration between them very easy: one only had a few minutes to walk to meet with his or her publisher. Social space, meanwhile, refers to one’s neighborhood network of social and cultural institutions. These were often closely associated with – but not the same as – one’s arrondissement. Indeed, the Parisian “arrondissements” carried, and still carry, economic and cultural weight. Though not rich, the well-educated Decadent writers of this study congregated in neighborhoods like the 6th and 7th arrondissements – vibrant centers of intellectual and artistic activity, not far from many of the city’s publishers (located on both sides of the Seine, in the center of Paris). What the maps reveal is that these authors were using spatial location strategically to advance their careers and collaborations.
In the Story Maps that follow, I will focus on each author, analyzing how, for each of them, location played a role in shaping their relationship to their publishers.