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My piece on electronic literature appeared today in the Guardian books blog. Here’s an extract:

“When I first ventured online, the internet struck me as the last word in literary experimentation. I was in good company. For Kathy Acker, and other pioneers who were already pushing the envelope on papyrus, cyberspace (copyright William Gibson) was truly the final frontier. The very first novel to be serialised online — Douglas Anthony Cooper’s Delirium (1994) — made full use of the new medium by allowing readers to navigate between four parallel plotlines. Geoff Ryman’s 253, first posted in 1996, became an instant hypertext classic. A year later, Mark Amerika’s Grammatron transcended the fledgling genre by turning it into a multimedia extravaganza. This, I believe, was a crucial turning point. The brief alliance between literati and digerati was severed: groundbreaking electronic fiction would now be subsumed into the art world or relegated to the academic margins. The subsequent blogging revolution shifted the focus further away from web-based writing to news coverage of dead-tree tomes, thus adding yet another layer of commentary to the ‘mandarin madness of secondary discourse’ George Steiner had long been lamenting….”

More here.

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All the Latest

Donari Braxton was kind enough to mention me, along with Tony O’Neill and HP Tinker, in his interview with Hillary Raphael posted in Anthem magazine on 20 September 2008. He describes all of us as “enveloppe-pushers”:

“…Raphael’s novels and those of envelope-pushers under the same stamp — HP Tinker’s brilliantly progressive fiction comes to mind, likewise authors Andrew Gallix and Tony O’Neill — exist on their own accord, de-contextualized. And if you’re able to nix ‘experimental lit’s’ elitist subterfuge and instead embrace the tabula-rasa, you’ll see they read like any other, er, ‘non-experimental’ book. With pleasure.”

On 5 September, Susan Tomaselli posted my recent Dazed & Confused article in 3:AM Magazine‘s Buzzwords with added links.

The New Wave of French Urban Fiction

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 September 2008:

The New Wave of French Urban Fiction

Between mid-August and late October, the French publishing industry goes into overdrive. The current rentrée littéraire (named after la rentrée scolaire — the beginning of the school year) has seen fewer novels hitting the shelves but their subject matter is as Gallicly grim as ever — not that much of it is likely to find favour in Britain anyway. It’s not all gloom and doom, though. Besides the fact that local authors are increasingly young and female, urban fiction seems to be finally breaking out of its generic ghetto.

This new trend first hit the headlines at the Gauloise-end of the nineties when Rachid Djaïdani — a small-time actor and Thai-boxing enthusiast from the deprived banlieues — published his debut novel (Boumkeur) to rave reviews. The second milestone was the runaway success, in 2004, of Faïza Guène‘s Just Like Tomorrow, which earned her the “Françoise Sagan of the estates” sobriquet. In spite of their critical and commercial success, both books were often regarded as mere novelty hits by the snooty Left Bank literati. Djaïdani explains, for instance, that the big publisher to whom he had sent his first manuscript just could not believe he had written it by himself: after all, he came from the wrong side of town and was the offspring of immigrants. No wonder the leafless Paris suburbs erupted in 2005, just in time to commemorate the tenth anniversary of La Haine. (Incidentally, Djaïdani was part of the security team on the set of Kassovitz’s film and claims, half-jokingly, that the actors probably owe their lives to him.) Since then, many other writers from similar backgrounds have made it into print, including Hamid Jemaï, Skander Kali, Karim Madani, Mohamed Razane, Thomté Ryam, Insa Sané and Livres Hebdo points out that “More and more young authors don’t want to be published by the big houses so are self-publishing via the internet”. Antoine Dole has been instrumental in bringing them together and fostering a sense of community. In November 2006, this young writer produced the first issue of a home-made fanzine which showcased some of the “word activists” — rappers, slammers, bloggers — who were using blogs or social networking sites to bypass mainstream publishing. En attendant l’or soon became a word-of-mouth success via MySpace and a focal point for Les Décalés, a burgeoning literary movement which coalesced around Dole and Elsa Delachair. Most of the members of the Décalés group have now been published in a collection called eXprim’, launched a couple of years ago by 28-year-old Tibo Bérard. The collection addresses itself specifically to teenagers and young adults, which has proved rather controversial in recent months. Antoine Dole’s first novel, Je Reviens de mourir (“I Have Died Again”), was banned by some bookshops and libraries following accusations that it glamourised suicide.

So what is this “littérature urbaine” lark really about, then? Above all, it reflects the advent of a new generation; a changing of the guard: Faïza Guène was only 13 when Georgia de Chamberet edited her anthology of fresh French fiction back in 1999. Giving voice to the vernacular of the banlieues — with its backslang (“verlan”) and borrowings from Arabic — may not seem a big deal in post-Trainspotting Britain, but it is truly novel, and perhaps even revolutionary, given the conservative nature of the French literary establishment. Antoine Dole believes that this movement actually represents a long-awaited “democratisation of writing,” which is why some (like the Qui Fait la France? collective or guerilla micro-publishers Impact Verbal) see it as inherently political. The conception of what a writer should be is also evolving: urban fiction authors often see books as just one means of expression; many of them are also musicians, actors, painters or film directors. Their works are saturated with references to pop rather than high culture — yet another trait which brings them closer to their Anglo-American counterparts.

Although urban fiction is a reaction against the very kind of navel-gazing autofiction that puts off so many British readers, a literary entente cordiale still seems a long way away. The pervasive influence of hip hop and slam poetry on many of these young French writers leads to a stylistic inventiveness which seldom goes down well on this side of the Channel. Another major obstacle is that literary movements — especially when they have a socio-political dimension — are usually met with derision over here. Let the scoffing begin.

Young Writers Les Décalés Are Upsetting The French Literary Establishment

This was published in the September 2008 issue of Dazed & Confused (vol. 2 issue 65, p. 76):

Young Writers Les Décalés Are Upsetting the French Literary Establishment

In one of his early stories, the French advertising executive turned writer Frédéric Beigbeder imagined Saint-Germain-des-Prés — the ultra-posh heartland of Parisian publishing — overrun by hordes of vandals from the deprived banlieues. It ends with the pope of French letters, Philippe Sollers, dangling upside down à la Mussolini from the local church steeple.

This carnivalesque tableau foreshadows the literary revolution that is gaining ground across the Channel. “We’re witnessing the democratisation of writing,” explains 26-year-old Antoine Dole who instigated the movement two years ago. “What used to belong to an intellectual elite is being reclaimed by the people”.

When Dole was doing the rounds with his first manuscript, the big publishing concerns advised him to ditch his dark romanticism in favour of the kind of books people read on the beach. Instead, he decided to go it alone and was met, predictably enough, with accusations of vanity publishing. He drew the conclusion that authors, particularly in France, need authorisation to be admitted among the happy few.

In November 2006, Dole produced the first issue of a home-made fanzine which showcased the growing number of young writers who, like him, were using the internet to bypass mainstream publishing. It proved so successful that, early last year, an indie publisher (Editions du Cygne) helped him launch a bona fide literary journal called En Attendant l’or. It immediately became a word-of-mouth success via MySpace and a focal point for sundry “word activists” — bloggers, slammers, rappers — who did not fit within the conventional definition of what a French writer is meant to be. In the space of two issues, a new literary scene emerged — “Les Décalés” (“The Offbeats”), a group of writers who reject high culture, embrace multiculturalism and set great store by friendship. “We don’t hang around book launches to shake hands,” says Dole. “We don’t do public relations. This is primarily a human adventure”.

For the next issue of En Attendant l’or, which will be released in book form by Autrement, Dole has teamed up with 22-year-old novelist Elsa Delachair who is busy establishing links with similar movements abroad. Dole himself is involved in many other projects — a second novel, an anthology of French hip hop and a micro-publishing venture called Impact Verbal. Its mission statement is highly political, since it defines the kind of writing it intends to champion as “a form of resistance against a patriarchal and authoritarian establishment”.

Another major development was the launch in 2006 of eXprim’, a book collection published by the cheekily-named Sarbacane (peashooter). 28-year-old Tibo Bérard (the former editor of a now-defunct literary magazine) wanted to focus on fiction written by young people for young people, but which can also appeal to older readers. The result is the coolest of collections — a kind of Two Tone Records of the publishing world. Antoine Dole’s debut novel, Je Reviens de mourir (“I Have Died Again”), which they have released, is currently at the heart of a controversy reminiscent of the recent emo death cult Daily Mail campaign. It has been accused of being a misogynistic apology for suicide and is consequently being banned by some bookshops and libraries. The collection’s rapidly-expanding stable also includes authors like Edgar Sekloka, Hamid Jemaï and Insa Sané who represent the painful birth of a new multicultural French society, from which this whole movement has sprung.

(Illustration by Hayley Hutton.)