The increase in the visibility of autobiographies and fiction recounting suffering in this century has gone hand-in-hand with a notable emphasis on the possibilities and limits of empathy. Contemporary French women’s writing inscribes and interrogates the imperative to witness and respond to another subject’s pain and raises questions about the relation between empathy and reading. Engaging with a range of recent texts, including work by Marie Darrieussecq, Amélie Nothomb, Camille Laurens, Delphine de Vigan and Christine Angot, and representations of different kinds of suffering (including eating disorders, the death of a child, and sexual abuse), this book engages productively with notions of empathy in relation to gender and alterity as well as with the question of what is at stake in reading narratives of someone else’s pain.
Kathryn Robson is Senior Lecturer in French at Newcastle University.
‘In this concise, fascinating book, Kathryn Robson explores text/reader relationships in a range of contemporary French women’s writing, including memoirs, fictional, and autofictional texts that relate to narratives of suffering--in particular, anorexia (chapter one), the death of a child (chapter two), and maternal filicide (chapter three), with chapter four focusing on autofictional narratives... Robson shows that it is all too easy to assume empathy, and that empathy can itselfdo damage to the other. Her study is important because it deals with why readers may feel uncomfortable towards narratives of suffering and, in interrogating empathy, offers some pointers towards newly negotiated ethical empathetic responses. We should read these narratives and try to approach others’ suffering, but we need to interrogate our responses to them and take responsibility for our readings. This is a wonderful, sensitive book, beautifully and thoughtfully written, and I whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to t’ — Gill Rye, H-France20.34, January 2020
‘A stimulating, innovative, and insightful discussion of empathy and the reading process in relation to narratives of suffering. Furthermore, as well as considering the limits of empathy, Robson also challenges the limits of the reader by compelling him/her to engage with and reflect on difficult narrative themes such as parental grief and filicide. This study will appeal to a wide range of readers and researchers from diverse areas such as French Studies, Women’s Writing, Affect Studies, Trauma Writing, and Feminist Theory.’ — Julie Rodgers, Modern Language Review 115.3, July 2020, 734-35 (full text online)
‘In this outstanding analysis on the representations of pain and suffering in contemporary French women's writing, Robson challenges the notion of empathy as a way of putting oneself in someone else's shoes, destabilizing at the same time the reader's fixed positions. In doing so, she invites us to rethink empathy as a possibility for creating alternative approaches and challenges our ways of approaching others' pain.’ — Didem Alkan, Women in French Studies 28, 2020, 149-150 (full text online)
‘This fascinating book provides a thoughtful and incisive reflection on empathetic engagement in narratives of suffering in contemporary women’s writing in French. Kathryn Robson’s brilliant analysis assembles an impressive range of contemporary authors around a selection of themes that have been startlingly prominent in recent years — anorexia, child loss, and infanticide —, offering patient, nuanced, and original readings.’ — Amaleena Damlé, French Studies 74.3, July 2020, 489–490 (full text online)