The Portal Archive: France – a land of literature, and imaginary fiction?

If someone had to describe France, what features would they first choose ? The French « gastronomie » is quite famous – our cheese and wine are considered leaders of the field by many. Then the monuments, of course – our Eiffel Tower, and more or less Paris as a whole might pop into the mind.

But literature is undoubtedly another main component of French culture and identity. Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Alexandre Dumas, Balzac, Jules Verne – there have been so many great authors born in France who built their part of literature. Here we have some classics – the ones you study at school when you’re a little French boy or girl, the ones you know just because you’ve got to, even if you never read a line they wrote. Novels, poetry and theater – Molière, of course! – each field has its Famous Authors, buried now, some of them, in the Panthéon in Paris.

But . . . what about imaginary fiction? What about fantasy and science-fiction, what about horror and all the, as Hal Duncan would have it, fiction of the strange? Is France a land of imagination as well as a land of literature? In short, do we still deserve our reputation as a country where literature lives and grows?

France has an interesting background, as far as imagination is concerned. Each region – almost each village – has its own tales and folklore. Had, at least – and some anthologists make sure that the old tales are not lost. You’ll easily find an old menhir, source of different beliefs and tales, in the meadows of France.

But, most of all, the Arthurian tales were born in France during the 12th century, with Geoffroy de Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes (and so many other, sometimes anonymous, contributors). If the merveilleux* can not be called fantasy, the genre has deep roots in these old stories. Here are our knights, wizards, faeries, monsters and quests. The background was not the same, the culture and references were quite different, and religion had a lot to do with Arthurian myth – still, the goal remains the same : to entertain people with stories of magic and Great Tales of the old times. And if these stories had not been, maybe a big part of fantasy would be missing nowadays – fantasy of any country.

France is also a land of science-fiction – here we could mention Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, who in 1886 wrote about an android in L’Eve Future. This artificial woman, created by Edison himself in the novel, is the first android, by nature and by name, that appeared in fiction – a big step towards science fiction.

It might be interesting to notice that years later, another man who wrote about androids found great support in France – whereas, in his own country, he was more or less ignored – Philip K. Dick. In 1977, he was invited to a science fiction convention in Metz, where he made his famous speech known as « La conférence de Metz ». There, much to his surprise, he discovered that he was considered by French readers as a leader in the science-fiction genre, and one of the greatest SF writers.

From medieval times to the 1970’s, imaginary fiction had important markers in France, and now seems to have its place in French literature. However, here lies a strange paradox : in France, fantasy and science fiction are still not considered true literature. The media and scholars (with exceptions) will still have the same reaction towards the genre, with various arguments : it’s not serious, it’s for teenagers, it has no goal but plain entertainment, it contains no genuine literary qualities. The genre is often despised, or reduced to bad caricatures.

Scholars’ works are touchstones to understand how a genre is perceived – are there any studies, theses about it? Could you have a SF class in a French university?

Genre – fantasy as well as science-fiction and horror – isn’t part of the university’s curriculum. What’s more, it won’t even be mentioned in a literature class. As for writers like Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne, the reason given for this exception would often be that it’s too popular. That the genre is made to entertain people with stories where imagination and escapism rule ; that no deep reflection or meaning can be found in this kind of literature. As any reader of the genre could say it, these judgements are far more a matter of prejudice than a matter of true quality.

Hopefully, there’s evolution nowadays in French universities. It is now possible, for example, to write a thesis about Philip K. Dick’s work – though the student will have to find the right professor to follow him and approve of research. And these professors are scarce ; if they do not blindly despise the genre, they’ll simply confess their ignorance in that field. But there are noticeable exceptions to this assertion : scholars who find a deep interest in the genre and who, at last, make serious and scientific researches in the genre. Irène Langlet is one of them : she’s interested in science-fiction and contemporary literature. Fantasy has its scholar too : Anne Besson, whose work enlightens how fantasy (and science-fiction!) evolved from medieval Arthurian tales to contemporary fiction†. A new generation of students is coming, willing to explore these fields of research, and hopefully the situation will keep on evolving toward a better understanding of fantasy and science-fiction.

Universities are often seen as institutions as venerable and worthy of respect as they are slow to follow the movements of the present. Unfortunately, it’s true once again : whereas the genre remains marginal in the universities, it has widely grown in France in the last decade. The media and scholars may still ignore or despise it, the genre is very lively and keeps on developing. A whole community exists in France, creative and active. There’s a generation of people who were born with science fiction and fantasy, grew up with these stories and are now willing to share it and to write about it. French conventions are representative of that ; two of them, Utopiales for science fiction (Nantes) and Imaginales for fantasy (Epinal) are expanding widely. Both, born ten years ago, gather writers, journalists, editors, readers and various people interested in the genre.

The genre grows in lots of different ways – whether websites specializing in fantasy or science fiction, editors and bookstores. New French writers appear every year with their own vision of the genre : their work is sometimes recognized by one of the French prizes that were created during this decade. Lionel Davoust is among them : he has received several prizes for his short stories, and his first novel, La Volonté du Dragon, has been recognized too. Justine Niogret is another one of these new French writers – with her medieval fantasy fiction, Chien du Heaume, she received the Prix Imaginales this year. They happily follow in the footsteps of writers like Pierre Bordage, who also contributed to the quality of the genre.

In short, imaginary fiction exists in France, lives, and grows, thanks to various people, events and new institutions. The next important step will be to reach English-speaking readers : because if the genre grows in France, French writers remain unknown in the Anglophone world – while most fantasy published in France is American. A few French writers have been recently published in the US : Pierre Pevel, for example, with The Cardinal’s Blades (a fantasy novel set in an imaginary 17th century in France). But for now they remain bright exceptions.

Through the Portal, some of this French literature will reach a new audience and, hopefully, keep on expanding, thanks to reviews or articles about the conventions – completing the next step of the genre’s growth.

*This French term is widely used in scholars’ works to define medieval stories when they include wonders and supernatural elements such as angels, monsters, faeries, etc (though sometimes what was considered as magical in these stories would be understood as natural nowadays). Though the word “merveilleux” can be used to define supernatural in general (in tales, religion, myths . . . ), it can be understood as a genre when it refers to medieval literature.

*Do androids dream of electric sheep ?, of course.

†She wrote : La science-fiction : lecture et poétique d’un genre littéraire.

‡Among other works, articles and books, she wrote : D’Asimov à Tolkien, cycles et séries en littérature de genre

One thought on “The Portal Archive: France – a land of literature, and imaginary fiction?

  1. Interesting article. You forget to mention that classic French authors also wrote “imaginary fiction”. There are several examples such as “La Peau de Chagrin”, one of Balzac’s masterpieces which inspired Wilde’s “Portrait of Dorian Gray”. Jules Verne was always between adventure and imaginary fiction with books such as “Voyage au Centre de la Terre”. The Comte de Lautreamont wrote the “Chants de Maldoror in 1874, poetry which inspired many fantasy writers.
    In modern classics, Barjavel is one of the foremost French authors of speculative fiction with books such as “Ravage”, “La Nuit des Temps” and “Le Grand Secret”, written between the 40’s and the 70’s. Amongst more recent authors, I particularly like Matthieu Gaborit with his awesome “Chroniques des Crépusculaires” fantasy series.
    The only problem in France is that books in the speculative fiction genre as often considered as “bad literature”, because as a country with a very strong classical culture in literature, we are also very snob…

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