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How not to Speak of Books You Can’t Ignore – the Trouble with Francophone Literature

From: Romance Notes
Volume 52, Number 3, 2012
pp. 279-287 | 10.1353/rmc.2012.0034

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In what follows I propose to examine two works of literary history and one treatise on the evolution of literary language in France, while focusing on the explicit arguments and the implied motivations that constitute what Nicolas Bancel calls a “blockage” but would be better termed as epistemological trouble with the “other” French literature. Before I proceed, one clarification seems necessary: my goal is not to call into question the important contribution made by these works and their authors, first, to the renewal of literary history and second, to a better and more complete understanding of French literature, but rather to invite reflection on the possibilities of overcoming certain academic reflexes which prevent them from fulfilling their intellectual promise.

The obvious and the obscured

In the introduction to their book La littérature française au temps présent in which they offer a thorough and innovative approach to the study of new forms and directions in French literature, the authors Dominique Viart and Bruno Vercier discuss at length the cultural turn of 1980 and the institutional constraints exerted upon scholars interested in working on contemporary literature, due to what they inspiringly call the “myopia” of French critics towards it. When it comes to drawing the line but also highlighting the connections between “French or Francophone literature?”, the two scholars promptly recognize the idiomatic relation between the two, based on the use of the French language. Furthermore, they state from the very beginning: “French is a shared language” (Viart 7); however the next line rules out any possibility of a shared literary space: “Several literatures, each one different from the others, are written in it.” In order to justify their refusal of a transfrontier reading, Viart and Vercier then proceed to offer a set of powerful arguments.

The first argument relies on the widespread geographical presence of French across many diverse cultures, each with its own irreducible history, political context and racial and ethnic makeup. Therefore, in order to provide an accurate overview of French-language writing in Paris as well as Quebec, Polynesia, Switzerland, Lebanon and Africa, one must, Viart and Vercier contend, have studied in depth these countries or regions and their people. The second argument contends that such a broad reading would simply lead to a superficial and purely tokenistic treatment of Francophone literatures to which other works have allotted only a “minimal section.” The third argument delves into the obstacles facing a transfrontier reading of French-language literature. The most vexing one is the fuzziness of the criteria used to categorize Francophone authors.

What criterion could tell us that a writer is French rather than Francophone? his birthplace ? his place of residence? his native publisher? his nationality? [...] Geography and political history have bequeathed us peculiar divisions: one is French in Guadeloupe and Reunion, but francophone in Haiti and Mauritius, although these islands are much closer to each other than to continental France.


The criterion of writers’ citizenship presents us with a puzzling set of situations. If only French citizens qualify for inclusion in a history of French literature, then for the last fifty years alone, Nathalie Sarraute, Pascal Quignard, Jean-Marie Le Clézio and Marguerite Duras, should be read side-by-side with Maryse Condé, Édouard Glissant, Déwé Gorodé or Daniel Vaxelaire, who were born in the non-metropolitan French territories, in the Caribbean, New Caledonia or French Polynesia. Another interesting case is that of first or second-generation French writers born of parents who immigrated to the country or of one French and one non-French parent, the classic examples here being the so-called “beur” authors such as Azouz Begag, Leïla Sebbar, and Paul Smaïl. Paradoxically, according to the argument cited above, they are to be considered less “French” than European writers who chose to adopt France and its language to produce and publish their literary works, who have thus successfully “assimilated”, like Samuel Beckett, Eugène Savitzkaya or Amélie Nothomb.

Viart and Vercier set forth a set of pragmatic parameters that fulfill the need for scientific objectivity and methodological consistency: publication and reception (8). The context of reception prompts a distinction between French-language writers who...

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