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.)

All the Latest

Mikael Covey, Editor of Lit Up Magazine, interviewed by The Guild of Outsider Writers, 15 June 2008:

“The Offbeats and Brutalists are among the most interesting and fun people you’d ever wanna know. I was very lucky to meet Andrew Gallix of 3:AM Magazine, who’s pretty much the central figure in this movement. He invited me to an Offbeat get-together when I was in London, and I got to hang out with all these great people like Matthew Coleman, Joe Ridgwell, Vim Cortez, Heidi James, and a number of others. All very serious artists, but also a lot of fun to drink and joke with.”

Surfing the New Literary Wave

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Am mentioned in Sam Jordison’s “Surfing the New Literary Wave”, Guardian Books Blog, 12 February 2007

There may not be many new movements in books, but that’s probably because all the action’s online

Although it’s never entirely enjoyable to be proved wrong, I was still very pleased with the response to a blog I wrote at the end of last year about the lack of literary movements in contemporary literature. My contention might have received a firm rebuff, but following the suggestions in the comments has been most rewarding. They may not signal a new movement exactly, but if our times lack a Generation to rival the Beats, there’s no shortage of energetic underground activity – in cyberspace.

Admittedly there are as many yawning chasms of dull writing as high peaks of excellent prose, but for the past few weeks I’ve thoroughly enjoyed exploring this new landscape. So, with the zeal of the newly returned traveller, I thought I’d compose a rough guide to the highlights.

One of the first stopping points has to be the excellent 3:AM Magazine. 3:AM (with apologies for straining my geographical metaphor yet further) more than delivers on its promise to provide a “dip in edgier waters”. If you scroll down the huge home page, you’ll find a healthy selection of interviews and a large array of short stories. I’d recommend Nathan Wilkinson’s Probability Anxiety for one. Elsewhere, 3:AM editor Andrew Gallix’s own work is well worth reading too.

Closely associated with 3:AM is the Offbeat Generation, a loose confederation of writers, who all – at the very least – show considerable promise. Worth investigation are: HP Tinker, Ben Myers, Paul Ewen, Heidi James, Matthew Coleman, and, especially, Tony O’Neill. The latter seems to be the figurehead for this burgeoning scene. He’s a man who has taken the phrase rock’n’roll poet to its furthest edges, as a former member of the infamous Brian Jonestown Massacre sacked for behaviour too wild even for that notorious band. Having finally cleaned up his act he’s written a memoir due out in April and (already touted as the next underground classic) and some quite brilliant, not to mention shocking, short stories.

The even more sweary cousins of the Offbeat Generation are The Brutalists, following whose trail led me into fascinatingly unexpected territory. Sure a lot of the writing was of the “I’m young! I’m in London! I’m drunk! Look at me!” genre, but there was no denying its energy. Clicking through the links on these various myspace pages was also an amusement in itself. I kept seeing a bare-chested man with a gas mask on his face called “T”, for instance.

I’m reliably informed that this is the author Travis Jeppesen, but all I got from visiting his site was horrific black metal from a band called Krieg and the information that T would like to meet “denizens of the next level” and is interested in combat boots and dwarves. Unsettling as that was, it was Mr Trippy (apparently a pseudonym of the always interesting Stewart Home); who finally convinced me I’d journeyed far enough down that particular link chain, thanks to his offer of “avant-garde porn” and “better living through chemistry”

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic resides the daddy of all online magazines, McSweeney’s. It now has as many detractors as loyal readers, but still seems to have the edge on young pretenders, the particularly user-hostile Underground Literary Alliance and the smart n+1 magazine.

The best US site that I visited came thanks to a tip-off from the editor of the (also excellent) Internet Board Poetry Community blog. It’s MiPoesias, a site distinguished by the realisation that the internet offers unparalleled opportunities to let visitorshear as well as read poetry. Their online audio show isn’t exactly a laugh a minute, but it does offer some fantastic readings from authors, as well as some fine interviews. (The best I’ve heard so far is a retrospective interview with the grand old man of American poetry, Donald Hall.)

Finally, in case anyone is feeling overwhelmed by all this enthusiasm, here’s a healthy dose of cynicism about the whole myspace phenomenon from the excellent Scarlett Thomas. For this link – and several others – I have to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Brunner, a poster on my movements blog. Thanks! I do consider myself enlightened – and, as you suggested, chastened. If anyone else would like to point out significant sites that I’ve missed, please go ahead.

Literature For the MySpace Generation

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Am mentioned in Sam Jordison’s “Literature For the MySpace Generation,” The Guardian, Wednesday 7 February 2007

Sam Jordison discovers how a new wave of publishers and writers are harnessing the power of MySpace and print on demand to bypass their bricks-and-mortar competitors to find new audiences

Journalists have an appalling track record when it comes to predicting revolution in the publishing industry, particularly when related to new technology. It was only at the turn of the millennium, for instance, that we were confidently forecasting that the rising “e-tide” would wash away the old publishing houses. Electronic books were going to make the traditional ink and paper product seem as ludicrously old-fashioned as Moses’s stone tablets. Meanwhile, the free transfer of data on the internet was going to make publishers’ distribution networks entirely redundant and loosen their grasp on copyright so completely that most of their revenue streams would dry up.

Of course, since then, almost the exact opposite has happened. Numerous mergers and acquisitions have ensured that the big houses have a tighter grip on the market than ever before, while the internet has actually generated new millions and new markets as blogs and popular websites have been bought up and turned into successful product. And has anyone ever seen an e-book?

Bearing all this in mind — and remembering that it takes a special kind of fool to augur change in the book world anyway — it’s with considerable nervousness that I’m now going to make my own assertion. A shake-up may well be coming — and it’s thanks to the opportunities opened up by new technology and the internet.

Leading the charge is Heidi James, the 33-year-old owner and sole employee of Social Disease, a new kind of publishing company. It does most of its marketing and talent scouting on the internet and relies on new print on demand technology to keep its costs sufficiently low to ensure that, even if it can’t compete with the publishing behemoths, it won’t be crushed by them anytime soon either.

James sums up Social Disease’s raison d’être as: “Zadie Smith is not fucking interesting”, and neither are Monica Ali and the dozens of other writers of similar social comedies that emerged in the wake of White Teeth’s huge success. “All this postmodern irony is just so dull,” James explains. “And I realised that I really hate the homogeneity of the publishing world where it’s next to impossible to get genuinely interesting work published. The big publishing houses would have you believe that there isn’t a market for new and exciting work that takes a few risks and makes a demand on its readers, but that’s bollocks. Absolute bollocks.”

To prove this point she set up her own company, taking its name from the Andy Warhol quote — “I have Social Disease. I have to go out every night. If I stay home one night I start spreading rumours to my dogs” — and promising to bring back the element of risk that James claims has all but disappeared from conventional publishers’ lists.

“I don’t believe that people are stupid,” she declares. “I do believe that readers are out there. I know that people are interested and like to be challenged, it’s just that no one is prepared to challenge them at the moment. And if the product’s not there, how can they buy it?”

The plan of how to do this is beguilingly simple: there isn’t one. James is the only person in the company, so there are no shareholders to answer to. Social Disease’s costs are negligible: a small amount for cover designs and the time investment necessary to edit the books; and because it’s print on demand, there are no setup costs associated with each print run, the writers receive a healthy royalty for each book sold and profits can be ploughed back into design and marketing.

James claims there has been a significant takeup from independent booksellers, including such major players as Foyles. Meanwhile, the books are easily obtainable through Amazon and a growing community on the social networking site MySpace is already clamouring for the kind of writing that Social Disease promotes.

The implications of all this are intoxicating. Next time a John Kennedy Toole — whose suicide has been directly attributed to the fact that no one would print his masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces — comes along, their work can not only be published online, but stand a significant chance of finding a home with publishers like Social Disease who would risk nothing by promoting them.

However, if the advantages of this kind of small-scale, DIY publishing are clear, so too are the drawbacks. Print on demand is not yet able to provide the economies of scale of traditional print runs (the unit cost of a print run of one book is the same as for 10,000) and Social Disease is never going to make the kind of profits or pack the same marketing and distribution punch as the big publishing houses.

It’s also worth noting that James’s first novel, Carbon, is to be published by more conventional methods (via Wrecking Ball Press), although she does point out that one of her writers, Paul Ewen, recently declined the overtures of a bigger publisher to sign with Social Disease. More importantly, she says, her aim isn’t to make money and sell a product. It’s to nurture new talent, promote new writing, give writers a platform and at the same time offer the public choices that big publishers can’t or won’t.

Alongside James there now stand a growing number of like-minded readers and writers, exploiting MySpace’s networking and self-promotion opportunities as confidently as their counterparts in the music industry. Away from the prying eyes of the marketing departments and bean counters, the kind of community that publishers would love to create for themselves has been spontaneously growing up.

Most attempts have been doomed to failure because the website just doesn’t offer the same advantages to the printed word as it does to music (after all, it’s far easier to listen to a three-minute song than to read a novel, or even a short story, on the site’s notoriously badly designed blog interface). Nevertheless, these literary MySpace pages, complete with links to samples of their work, attract a large network of online “friends” who share similar tastes and interests.

Chief among these are the Brutalists and the Offbeat Generation, who between them boast hundreds of MySpace contacts (including countercultural figures like punk renaissance man Billy Childish, as well as the usual handful of bizarre tribute pages to dead heroes such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs), and whose message boards contain adverts for a bewildering array of literary events and websites offering samples of all manner of new and obscure writers’ work.

The Offbeat Generation is not, as its spokesman Andrew Gallix (the editor-in-chief of the long-running online literary magazine 3:AM) points out, strictly speaking “a generation” (since its writers range in age from 18-40), rather it is a bunch of people “united” because they “feel alienated by a publishing world dominated by marketing”.

The Brutalists, meanwhile, is a cheerfully sweary conglomerate of writers who also claim to be “united by our disgust with mainstream publishing world that consistently rejects us.” As they explain in their online manifesto, Brutalism “means writing that shows no quarter. Writing that rages and burns across the page — writing that doesn’t worry about causing offence, breaking taboos, cutting to the heart of it. Writing that may shock and shake the reader into submission rather than gently caress them. We’re not anti-intellectual or anti-literary but we are anti-apathy and we exist in a highly agitated state.” Pleasingly, they also note: “When they call Pete Doherty a poet — arguably a near contemporary in terms of age/background/interests/location — we can’t help but laugh.”

Both groups have a growing MySpace presence, are widely read on the net and — crucially — both are using that impetus to publish their own anthologies and launch their writers through independent publishers (including, naturally, Social Disease).

At the moment, much of the material you’ll find if you trawl through the links on their MySpace pages are reminiscent of the kind of mini-zine literature that used to be sold in places like the ICA and Tate Modern shop, demonstrating an overpowering influence of Huysmans and Bukowski and labouring under the belief that getting drunk is some kind of artistic statement.

However, as Heidi James points out, web publishing has the distinct advantage in that it’s free. And, whereas in the old days you had to spend your £5 before discovering that you didn’t like the writing in the mini-zines, with the net the worst that can happen is that you’ll hurt your eyes. “There’s also every chance that you’ll be find something you like, you can put it in your favourites to watch how the writer develops and follow the links he or she provides to more like-minded authors. That’s the beauty of it.”

What’s more, while there is a lot of chaff, there’s definitely also some wheat to be found, particularly around both the Brutalists and Offbeat Generation. Even the best writing could arguably benefit from the nurturing attention of a stern editor, but there’s no denying the abundant energy, passion and pleasingly warped imagination of writers such as Matthew Coleman, Ben Myers, HP Tinker, Tony O’Neill and Andrew Gallix — not to mention Heidi James herself. There’s every hope that soon one of them might produce something rather special — and that, if they continue to expand their influence as rapidly as they have been doing in recent months, mainstream publishers will have to sit up and take serious notice.