Nonfiction Takes Root in the Parisian Literary Landscape ; New French Generation Shakes Up the Capital's Narrative Status Quo

By Robinet, Fabrice | International New York Times, October 7, 2014 | Go to article overview

Nonfiction Takes Root in the Parisian Literary Landscape ; New French Generation Shakes Up the Capital's Narrative Status Quo


Robinet, Fabrice, International New York Times


A new generation is shaking up the French capital's narrative status quo.

When Adrien Bosc, the 28-year-old publisher of Feuilleton, a French quarterly that has received some buzz here for bringing American long-form journalism to this side of the Atlantic, tries to describe his publication, he is often at a loss for words. At least French ones.

Here, where fiction is often considered to be the only literature with a capital L, nonfiction remains less a genre in its own right than a hodgepodge of other categories: biographies, histories and political essays. Even the term "la non-fiction" has limited currency.

For that reason, Mr. Bosc said, "I tell French readers it's an investigation that reads like a novel," to explain the articles in the quarterly.

The latest issue of Feuilleton, which comes out on Thursday, focuses on the United States and includes translations of a New Yorker article by Raffi Khatchadourian about a secret chemical- weapons testing program run by the U.S. Army during the Cold War and a Harper's piece by Nathaniel Rich on American cults. But even past issues whose themes, like China and the Arab Spring, have nothing to do with the United States heavily feature American nonfiction writers largely because France is in short supply of them.

That, however, is starting to change now that Mr. Bosc and a new generation of young French publishers, well read in English and well traveled in the United States, are introducing more narrative nonfiction to France, translating not only American classics, but also building platforms for French writers to try their hand at the form.

"I wanted to show that the American tradition of making space for long investigations was worth it," Mr. Bosc said.

Thanks in part to the founding in recent years of about 30 quarterlies like Feuilleton -- publications that the French media has dubbed "mooks," a portmanteau for "magazines" and "books" -- long-form journalism is now taking hold. These mooks, which include XXI, Schnock, and Le Believer, the local edition of McSweeney's San Francisco magazine, are largely inspired by American and British publications and mix long investigative pieces and profiles with short stories and personal essays.

They contrast with mainstream magazines like L'Express and Le Point, equivalents to Time magazine, which focus on news coverage and political opinion, but give little room for in-depth storytelling; and smaller reviews, like Cahiers du Cinema, which focus on criticism.

Besides Feuilleton, Mr. Bosc created a cousin publication, Desports, in 2013 focused on sports writing, like Gay Talese's 1996 Esquire profile of Muhammad Ali; and a nonfiction book imprint whose first title, released in March, was a collection of Mr. Talese's writings.

Although he was familiar with a few American nonfiction writers already translated in France, including Norman Mailer and Joan Didion, Mr. Bosc didn't decide to start his own publication until he discovered the New Yorker archives online in 2004, and Harper's soon after.

With the help of Gerard Berreby, the head of the publishing house Allia, Mr. Bosc came up with the idea of Feuilleton in 2011. "I quit my job at the time and created the magazine on a shoestring, using the basement of Allia, where Gerard stocked his books," he said.

Washington Square -- another imprint specializing in American nonfiction that was started by Julien Charnay in 2012 -- made a splash last year by publishing Janet Malcolm's 1990 study about the ethics of journalism, "The Journalist and the Murderer." The book, which garnered attention after it received a rave review in Le Monde, served as a kind of introduction to the form and techniques of narrative nonfiction in France. …

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