Over the past months I have discovered a strange phenomenon in French literature. I had to read over twenty novels of living authors (and one dead one) and most of them don’t read as novels at all, because the autobiographical elements are so strong that the reader invariably gets the impression these are simply the writer’s experiences in life, a little rehashed, with other names than the real ones, playing in different places and years than when and where the events really took place. This impression is reinforced by the frequent use of the first person and a lack of dialogue, which is sometimes total.
I was reminded of an American article about university courses in the US that claim to teach people how to write fiction. Beginners were “grappling with the question of how to hide autobiographical details”. Like tens of thousands of amateur writers who just want to write down their life, these students had no literary imagination and what is perhaps more important, no reaction to “significant others” in their lives.
On the other hand, all good novels are built on personal experiences and a deep-felt need to communicate them. In the courses the students will probably pass plenty of hours to understand the need for thinking about the narrative’s perspective. Is there an outside narrator who tells the story and what kind of narrator could that be? the son, the friend, the one who found grandpa’s letters? someone with an outspoken judgment about the characters? Is the outside narrator able to know what the characters are thinking or not? Or do all main characters tell their own story in the first person? Or do you choose a combination?
It cannot be a coincidence that most of these autobio-writers are women and many of them journalists. Women’s books since the sixties have built a long tradition of ego documents for feminist use. These ego documents were not meant to be literature. Their aim was to put certain everyday experiences of women in the public arena. Although the prose of the novels is not journalistic, it is a kind of language typical for observers, who in these novels observe themselves and their reactions to things said and done by others and to events. So, unavoidably these novels produce a small world. An ‘I’ can only think and feel that much. Most of these novels could be called ‘long novellas’ or ‘not so short stories’ or something like that. As pocket books they fill 100-200 pages.
It could be that these short ‘novels’ absolutely don’t want to be entertainment and cut everything out that is usually supposed to please the readers – witty conversations, original descriptions of the weather and landscapes and other such time-consuming elements. For sure, more often than not they don’t show any sense of humor. Humor needs a wide environment with many details to take place and these books are extremely focused on ‘the problem’.
Once a critic wrote about Hemingway that he probably would have preferred to write essays but that in his time publishers didn’t like essays. So, Hemingway produces a novel where men sit outside their tents in Africa and discuss life’s problems. These French novels are not like this, it is almost as if the writers want to limit their choice for the form of the novel to the strictly necessary.
Despite the moderate number of words in these autobio-stories French critics and the writers themselves use the qualification ‘novel’ without any hesitation or side remarks. Instead of turning this into a literary problem, I think it is best to assume French publishers think short stories, even long short stories don’t sell well. Calling these books ‘novels’ sells them better. It is just a matter of marketing. Wasn’t 2013 the first year in the history of the Nobel Prize for Literature that the glory went to a writer (a woman, Alice Munro) who has only written short stories all her life? Well then! a publisher might say.
Publishers are always right.
Among the novels discussed here are:
L’amour est très surestimée (Love gets overrated), and Nico by Brigitte Giraud
Pour une vie plus douce (For a sweeter life) by Philippe Routier
Une question d’age (A matter of age) by Evelyne Pisier
La donation (The gift) by Florence Noiville
Les derniers jours de la classe ouvrière (The last days of the working class) by Aurélie Filipetti
Je ne connais pas ma force (I don’t know my strength) by Stéphanie Hochet