“Not just the white man anymore. Can French literature make room for new voices?


The French book industry releases around 200 new titles per day. It has thousands of editors vying for authors and readers. But the face of French literature has long been that of a white writer. Only 12 women writers have won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 118 years of history.

Now, a deluge of new writing is hitting the shelves, with titles from established publishers and niche publishers trying to open up the field. Over the past decade, this has led to a shift in the publishing world towards greater diversity, including more titles by second-generation French authors and other writers of color.

Why we wrote this

French society is increasingly diverse and its publishing industry needs to expand to reflect this diversity in new titles and a wider literary conversation.

Writing workshops are increasingly popular in France, as are graduate degrees in creative writing. The pandemic may have accelerated this change, as more and more people found the time to write during the shutdowns.

The result is uproar and opportunity in an industry steeped in tradition that tries to find new ways to represent the reality of its diverse society.

“There is really a strong desire to be the most open, the most curious,” specifies Anne-Sophie Stefanini, literary director of JC Lattès. “French publishing houses, large or small, are currently thinking about diversity. It is a concern for all literary publishers of this generation.


There’s no candle lighting or finding the perfect spot in the house when Sandy Geronimi sits down to write. It could be when her toddler is taking a nap, or late at night when inspiration strikes. But thanks to the pandemic, she is finally devoting time to her passion.

“I have always liked to write, but I never did it seriously until the first confinement,” explains Ms. Geronimi, who works for the National Geographic Institute of France in Toulouse. “Until then, I never knew much about the literary world or how to write a book. ”

Ms Geronimi now follows several literary experts on social media and has submitted four short stories to national writing competitions. She is not alone: ​​more than 5 million French people launched a writing project during the first confinement of the country, according to a May 2020 online survey.

Why we wrote this

French society is increasingly diverse and its publishing industry needs to expand to reflect this diversity in new titles and a wider literary conversation.

French publishing houses have been so overwhelmed with submissions that top publisher Gallimard told the public last month to stop sending unsolicited manuscripts.

The deluge of new writing follows a decade-long shift in the publishing world in France, from an elitist, male-dominated field to one that is increasingly accepted and diverse. Major publishers have created special collections to promote first-time writers and ethnic minorities while new publishing houses are opening up the field to a wider range of writers, styles and subjects. At a time, self-publishing exploded during the pandemic.

At the same time, writing workshops and graduate degrees in creative writing – once considered a North American concept – are popping up across the country and serving as gateways to publication for burgeoning writers. Taken together, these efforts oblige change in an industry rooted in tradition and pushing French literature to represent the reality of its diverse society.

“There is a real development in terms of racial and gender diversity in French literature. The French author is no longer just the white man, over 50 years old, ”explains Frédérique Anne, a French writing coach who divides her time between Paris and Normandy. “There are also more people writing for the first time who realize that they don’t need divine intervention to do so. The field opens definitively. ”

A space for marginalized voices

French literary institutions have long struggled with a problem of diversity. Although France does not collect statistics on race and ethnicity, the majority of the best editors and writers have historically been white. Its literary awards largely favor men: since the first literary prize in France, the Prix Goncourt, was created in 1903, only 12 women won.

The integration of marginalized literary voices, in particular those of second generation French people or people of color, has taken place in spurts. Until the 1990s, literature written by children of immigrant parents of Maghrebi origin was categorized using a pejorative term for Arabic.

The publication in 1999 of a novel by Rachid Djaïdani, which described daily life in housing estates in France where many immigrants live, was a milestone in breaking the mold. Another was the publication in 2007 of a controversial literary collection by second generation French writers on their complex relationship with France.

But progress has been gradual. Publishers still look to books by people of color from French-speaking Africa or the United States, rather than minority writers who grew up in France.

“I have always been struck by the lack of representation in French literature of my reality: what it means to be Black in France”, explains Gladys Marivat, literary journalist based in Paris.

In 2015, she interviewed all the major Parisian publishing houses as part of a survey on the lack of diversity in French literature; his report has not been published.

“When I asked [publishers] why this was the case, ”explains Ms. Marivat,“ the answer was always the same: a total misunderstanding of my question. They said: “But we publish authors from French-speaking Africa. But it is not the same thing.

Publishers have struggled to find the best way to expand their range of titles. Publisher JC Lattès uses his label “Grenada” – created last year by acclaimed author and child of Turkish-Kurdish refugees Mahir Guven – to promote the work of socio-economic and ethnic minorities, and publishes a novel by month of a first-time author. Gallimard’s “Black Continent” collection presents literature by and on Africa and its diaspora.

These imprints face competition from a new generation of publishers, like Face Cachées and Hors d ‘attache, who focus on stories on topics such as feminism, rap or racism.

“There is really a strong desire to be the most open, the most curious,” explains Anne-Sophie Stefanini, literary director at JC Lattès and published author. “French publishing houses, large or small, are currently thinking about diversity. It is a concern for all literary publishers of this generation.

Courtesy of Terence Samba

Parisian writer Terence Samba decided to forgo traditional publishers and self-published his first book, “Carpe Diem”, last year.

Niche labels find an audience

For some people new or struggling writers, niche labels are preferable to well-known publishing houses. After several refusals from mainstream publishers, Bordeaux writer Thomas Andrew turned to Juno Publishing – specializing in love books – for his fantastic and LGBT romance novels.

“A few editors have told me my story is good, but could I turn the romance between two men into a man and a woman? I thought, not at all, ”says Andrew, who has published nine novels with Juno. “But publishers aren’t going to invest money in something that deviates from the norm and that won’t sell.”

While some 10,000 French publishers collectively publish nearly 200 books a day, some writers choose to go it alone. In 2017, one in five books printed in France was self-published, compared to one in 10 in 2010, according to the National Library of France.

Terence Samba, a 24-year-old writer who is black and grew up in the Paris suburbs, self-publishes its first novel in December after being rejected by several publishers. “It’s a closed world and literary houses keep the same writers for years,” complains Mr. Samba. “Often I have been asked to include a photo with my manuscript. This creates a very delicate situation.

Part of the challenge is also to encourage marginalized French voices to write in the first place. Since 2013, the University of Paris VIII has offered one of the few graduate diplomas in creative writing in the country and aims to accept a wide range of candidates, from young graduates to professionals in their forties.

And although the focus is not on how to break into the publishing industry, around 30 graduates have worked since the start of the program, including Fatima Daas, a renowned Franco-Algerian lesbian writer who grew up. in the Parisian suburbs.

“Our goal is to help give permission to those who have not felt legitimized in the past to tell their story,” explains Sylvain Pattieu, a published author who teaches within the program. “We try to give them confidence that it’s not about talent, it’s about finding their voice and honing their craft.”

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William D. Babcock

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