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France’s feminist literary revolution

France’s feminist literary revolution

by host

Alice Kantor is a French journalist who grew up in Paris.

The #MeToo movement never quite took off in France the way it did in other Western democracies. The world of politics, academia and other institutions in the country have refused to reckon with testimonies of sexual assault.

But a revolution is brewing in the realm of literature.

Long the purview of white male writers and a male-centric worldview, over the past five years, the literary industry has flourished with a swath of original feminist content, attracting a wide range of readers suddenly captivated by the topic of female empowerment.

“Feminist authors have started appearing everywhere in literature, with essays, novels, social science papers, graphic novels, sci-fi books covering the topic,” said Stéphanie Chevrier, an editor at publishing house La Découverte. “It used to be that feminist books only showed up through specialized editing houses. Now, every large publishing shop and bookstore has a feminist section.”

Combined with the launch of a growing number of specialized bookstores and a new feminist book festival, this rise in interest and readership for feminist authors has not only led to an increase in the number of books on the topic, but it has been fueling a change in previously held notions regarding gender in France.

Publishing agent Ariane Geffard is among those who have noticed the change. Only a few years ago, when she was suggesting feminist titles to publishers in France, editors would think of it as a “niche” topic without an audience, she said. Now, they jump at the commercial opportunity, publishing feminist titles and specialized series left and right.

“For the longest time, people were afraid of the word ‘feminist,’ they associated it with radicalism and angry women,” she said. “Now, that’s changed. A young generation of women is deeply interested in these questions, and the topic itself has become the center of the public debate more often than not.”

And in what seems a sign of institutional recognition, last year, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to French author Annie Ernaux, while the Angoulême International Comics Festival — historically focused on the works of men — granted the Grand Prix to a woman for the third time in its 50-year history.

That is a significant turnaround. Long the preserve of older white men, the French literary industry clung to old patriarchal traditions of storytelling for far too long, highlighting French notions of “chivalry” and men’s role in society.

Authors with a misogynist or abusive views of women were often heralded as part of the sexually sophisticated intellectual elite, with titles like far-right politician Éric Zemmour’s “First Sex” — a macho retort to feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s book “The Second Sex” — having no problem finding a publisher.

Even changes to the French language — suggestions to make it less masculine — have been rebuffed by the Académie Française, the official arbiter on what constitutes the French language, which argued that such adjustments would put it in “deadly peril.”

But feminist authors have seen their audience grow despite this resistance.

According to analytics company Livres Hebdo, between 2017 and 2020, there was a whopping 72 percent increase in feminist books sold in the well-being and health genre, a 44 percent uptick in feminist children’s books and a 15 percent increase in feminist non-fiction books.

A growing number of feminist titles have been bestsellers in France too, with Titiou Lecoq’s “Le Couple et l’Argent” (2022), Mona Chollet’s “Réinventer L’Amour” (2021) and Virginie Despentes’s “Cher Connard” (2022) topping the country’s charts for consecutive weeks in the past two years.

Meanwhile, specialized bookstores have popped up in Lyon, Paris, Toulouse, Nantes, Nice and Lille, and a feminist book festival — Salon du Livre féministe — that launched in 2021 was held for a second time last October, boasting 3,000 daily visitors in Paris.

“It’s great to see women — young and old — and men reading up on feminism and educating themselves,” said Juliette Debrix, who opened a feminist bookstore called Un livre, une tasse de thé (A book, a cup of tea) in Paris in late 2020. “There’s a real buzz going around. More people call themselves feminist and bring issues of gender equality to the fore.”

Among those names is Chollet — a journalist and now one of the most widely read feminists in France — who has also noticed the growing enthusiasm of young women, eager to write about their experiences and support each other in their pursuit of equality.

The #MeToo movement helped Chollet, who felt encouraged by it when writing her book and enjoyed strong support when her essay “Sorcières” was published in 2018 — it sold 350,000 copies and was later translated in a dozen languages. Buoyed by the growing audience and media attention, Chollet was able to pause her journalism career to focus on her books, something she said would have been impossible a few years ago.

“#MeToo changed my life, professionally. It allowed me to devote myself to this important work and be self-sufficient financially,” she said.

And books on feminist issues and #MeToo-related abuse have shaken powerful institutions in France, often becoming the center of public debate, their impact slowly trickling up the echelons of politics and media to change perceptions around equality in the country.

For example, published in 2020, Pauline Harmange’s “I Hate Men” became the epicenter of attention when a member of French President Emmanuel Macron’s government tried to censure it.

Released in 2019, Vanessa Springora’s “Le Consentement,” in which she revealed how praised author Gabriel Matzneff preyed on her when she was 14 and he was 50 years old, led to the self-recognized pedophile facing criminal charges and publishers stopped printing his books.

Meanwhile, Camille Kouchner’s “Familia Grande,” which came out 2021, revealed the rape and abuse of her brother by her stepfather and prominent lawyer Olivier Duhamel. It led to him and another powerful intellectual losing their jobs and becoming persona non grata in cultural spheres.

“Books can open people’s minds and change things. There’s hope that all this work can impact the world of politics and that institutions will start redressing gross gender inequality in the country” said Geffard.

And feminist books have helped launch political careers now too.

Lesbian activist and politician Alice Coffin’s book “Le Genie Lesbien” helped raise her profile; and eco-feminist Sandrine Rousseau’s 2019-release “Parler,” a book about sexual violence, helped boost her female electorate during her campaign for president last year.

For all the progress, however, one issue remains: Feminist books about minorities and race are still considered marginal or sectarian by many publishers in France.

Laura Nsafou, a French Black graphic novelist who puts Black women and girls at the heart of her stories, said editors and mainstream media in the country have been quick to criticize her work as “niche” or “anti-universalist,” while other countries have embraced her output.

Nsafou said she’s been lucky to receive support from independent publishers, and the popularity of her biggest hit, “Comme un million de papillons noirs” — which sold 30,000 copies — showcases the need for such stories to be told. Another of her graphic novels, “Fadya and the Song of the River,” was also translated into English and published by art gallery Tate Britain last year, where she was invited to read excerpts — a level of institutional recognition she said she never encountered in France

“At the end of the day, what matters is that readers are finally finding stories that place Black women at the forefront,” she noted. “It’s been great to see feminist stories gaining popularity. I’m hoping there will be a similar appetite for anti-racist feminist books [in France] in years to come.”

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