10/9 Gender and the Reading Public

In the assigned section of  Q.D. Leavis’ Fiction and the Reading Public, there is only a passing mention of the role gender plays in the creation of the reading public. Though Leavis counts Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë among the great novelists, she is not concerned with how gender affects the making of the canon or bestsellers. In fact, Leavis argues that reading habits are created by whatever is most affordable in the marketplace, and thus class-based (an answer for Moretti?). However, the issue of gender does make a striking appearance when Leavis quotes one of the anonymous bestselling authors she interviewed, who says, “‘I imagine the bulk of my readers to be fairly simple people (mostly women) who want to read of romance in a form not incompatible with their own opportunities’” (58). While pondering Leavis’ larger concerns about who reads what and why, I was concerned by the implicit (and seemingly accepted) alignment of women–as both writers and readers–with “lesser” fiction.

Significantly, this “lesser,” commercialized fiction is singled out as detective fiction. Leavis claims that, because the masses enjoy the mental relaxation found in the act of reading, detective stories enjoy a certain popularity: “for the reader of to-day a not unpleasurable way of relaxing is to exercise the ratiocinative faculties on a minor non-personal problem. It is chiefly this use of fiction that has commercialised novel-writing” (50). Detective fiction achieves its association with mass culture, rather than highbrow literature, because of its approachability for the masses, perhaps the “simple” female reader the anonymous author anticipates.

Detective fiction being tied with mass culture carries with it concerns about not only the gender of the audience, but also the gender of the author, something that Andreas Huyssen addresses in After the Great Divide. Taking Flaubert and Madame Bovary as his example, Huyssen claims that the mass culture debate at the heart of modernism is largely concerned with gender: “woman (Madame Bovary) is positioned as reader of inferior literature–subjective, emotional, passive–while man (Flaubert) emerges as writer of genuine, authentic literature–objective, ironic, and in control of his aesthetic means” (46). Highbrow literature is clearly within the realm of male writers, since in this dichotomy, women are not even considered as authors; they are readers only, and readers of “inferior literature.”

All that is to say that Dorothy Sayers is a female author, writing the alleged “lesser” fiction known as the detective story. Herself an incredibly accomplished woman (one of the first to receive a degree from Oxford, multiple translations of Dante), Sayers, in my opinion, seems aware that her readership will have these opinions of her work. So what do we do when one of her characters, Parker, actually says, “‘you’ve been reading detective stories; you’re talking nonsense’” and “‘if this were a detective story’” (20, 29). Is Sayers trying to distance herself from the mass culture that is so often feminized? Or do we see her poking fun at the elitism of highbrow literature?