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.