Victims of the Book uncovers a long-neglected but once widespread subgenre: the fin-de-siècle novel of formation in France. Novels about and geared toward adolescent male readers were imbued with a deep worry over young Frenchmen’s masculinity, as evidenced by titles like Crise de jeunesse (Youth in Crisis, 1897), La Crise virile (Crisis of Virility, 1898), La Vie stérile (A Sterile Life, 1892), and La Mortelle Impuissance (Deadly Impotence, 1903). In this book, François Proulx examines a wide panorama of these novels, many of which have rarely been studied, as well as polemical essays, pedagogical articles, and medical treatises on the perceived threats posed by young Frenchmen’s reading habits. Against this cultural backdrop, he illuminates all that was at stake in representations of the male reader by prominent novelists of the period, including Jules Vallès, Paul Bourget, Maurice Barrès, André Gide, and Marcel Proust.
In the final decades of the nineteenth century, social commentators insistently characterized excessive reading as an emasculating illness that afflicted French youth. Fin-de-siècle writers responded to this pathologization of reading with a profusion of novels addressed to young male readers, paradoxically proposing their own novels as potential cures. In the early twentieth century, this corpus was critically revisited by a new generation of writers. Victims of the Book shows how Gide and Proust in particular reworked the fin-de-siècle paradox to subvert cultural norms about literature and masculinity, proposing instead a queer pact between writer and reader.