Monstrous Times Call For Monstrous Fiction: A French Manifesto

Against the omnipotence of 'reality-show novels' and costume fiction, a group of young French authors want to reassert the novel as a contemporary art.

An 'axe for the frozen sea inside us'
An "axe for the frozen sea inside us"
Aurélien Delsaux, Sophie Divry and Denis Michelis


PARIS — For a number of years, more and more French novelists have succumbed to a pair of troubling trends.

The first is the reality-show novel, a degraded form of autofiction reduced to narcissistic testimonies that satisfy the voyeurism of readers and fill the pockets of publishers. The other is the costume novel, which responds, in a simplistic and backward-looking way, to our need for fiction by limiting itself to a history already understood, without looking at the one that is, the one that comes, a history that is frightening and elusive, certainly, but not indescribable.

Both types of novels are overused. And both prevent new writers from both inventing new forms of writing and expressing contemporary sensibility.

Tearful voyeurism

Each autumn, it's the same: Publishers put out these small stories that, in reality, are nothing more than critically acclaimed egotistical reality-shows sold as "novels," both by abuse of language and to avoid any legal annoyance.​

Autofiction was born 40 years ago, and the genre has had some extraordinary wordsmiths, such as Annie Ernaux. But that's not a standard everybody can attain. Today, writing about oneself comes down to a sort of mannerism that most often produces nothing more than pathetic testimonies wrapped in a digestible style that is justified only in the display of small misfortunes. What triumphs in such books is what Nathalie Sarraute used to call the "small true fact." It's a literature, in other words, that elicits a kind of tearful voyeurism to dictatorially impose experience on the reader.

Make no mistake about it: This is indeed a trend. Some publishers even place orders for such books, in which the author's figure matters more than the text. And they couple it with a well-conducted media plan, one that sometimes feels like a literary knighting for the writer. Honestly, though, we no longer want to see these reality-show novels, even if they are "well written" prize winners and take up so much space in the media sphere.

Enough, give us some air!

Rear-view mirror literature

Also doing contemporary novelists a disservice is the fashion for costume novels. The formula here is to put the past back in the spotlight. Each new literary year brings with it frescoes and "exofictions' (a sort of biographical novel) in which heroes, victims, executioners and Nazis — all in their period costumes — play with psychological clichés and descriptions that are truer than life ("you'd think you were there!"). The approach is akin to the way pompier painters of yesteryear represented gods, virtues and principles on giant canvases.​


Autofiction is becoming French authors' go-to genre — Photo: Maia Habegger

What used to be called the historical novel has become a lucrative business, one that in recent decades has imposed on the landscape a real rear-view mirror style of literature. Certainly, World War I and II and the events of May 68 (your choice) are devilishly fanciful, and it is tempting to write stories about them. But in the end, the result is commemorative literature in which the writing disappears before the gravity of the subject.

Enough, give us some air!

It must be remembered that writing a narrative is not enough to write a novel. The novel is a voice, a style, symbols, metaphors, an artistic coherence. The novel is the art of lying, of artifice, of the imaginary; it is the search for a sensitive form that will tell the reality in a mediated and not immediate way, in an original and not simply individual way.

Seeking new images

For us, a novel is not just a pitch, let alone a topic. We do not do storytelling. The novel is neither a show, nor a confidence, nor just a scenario. And, if writing has a therapeutic virtue, this should not be central. The important thing is not only to tell, but how you tell.

Finally, the contemporary novel exists within the scope of a literary history. This history is far from over. Indeed, we are looking to extend it. And so we look for new images, a shocking new syntax. We want to continue this fight with and against language. This struggle is our way of telling the reality. Without it, journalism, which cannot do everything, will remain the only way to speak about the contemporary.

We want to write what has not yet been written.

Is this contemporary so impossible to write? Today, France is cracking on all sides. It is being skinned by those who are supposed to protect it. Violent death can take us away on the next street corner. Europe is disintegrating. The Mediterranean has become a cemetery. To defend a piece of forest, young people are risking their lives. Chaos is rising. Powers are collapsing. Some people are charming. Others are scary. We do not understand everything. But it is in this time and place that we reach adulthood and write novels.

We want to write what has not yet been written, what is waiting to be understood, to be put into words. This is an emergency. Readers of the future will ask themselves how it was possible that the writers of the 2010s were able to turn their gaze so far away from an era that so urgently required their work.

And yet, the desire and need for fiction are very much intact. Thrillers and crime novels have never sold so well. The same goes for so-called "imaginary" literature: fantasy and science fiction. And among English-language writers, there are plenty of outstanding storytellers.

So why should we French authors give up? What are we afraid of?

The answer, it seems, is finding a way to convey how difficult things really are right now without just transposing it flatly. This is first and foremost a question of seeing the problems, of making ourselves sensitive to them, of not reducing their gravity or avoiding their brutality. Rather than hide from these contemporary realities, we need to face them by tapping into our artistic sensibility.

Finding an audience

But for that to happen, we still have to give ourselves space. And that means that the literary world must adapt, and quickly, so that our research and attempts at a kind of living literature — when they do yield results — are properly considered rather than thrown into the "experimental literature" unit. Literary critics need to be able to look for less obvious, more difficult books, to recognize their importance, and thus give them a chance to find an audience.

It will be necessary that, out of the hundreds of novels that are published at the beginning of the new literary season, the media no longer insist on always talking about the same 15. That the issue of style is no longer buried at the bottom of the articles, or even ignored entirely in some.

That festivals try to invent other forms of literary debate than around "themes' that reduce the book to just one topic.

That the members of literary juries no longer remain in their position for more than two or three consecutive years. That the juries are equal.

That they don't despise books from small publishing houses.

That they no longer get paid by major publishing houses.

That they courageously demonstrate autonomy, both from the media and from commercial successes. So that they simply retain a judgment of their own: that they may revolt us, but above all, that they surprise us.

Finally, let us not stop at the sacrosanct list of prize winners. Let us resist editorial fashions and set phrases, like "French novelists don't know how to, or don't want to write fiction."

Burning issues

We are novelists, but also poets or playwrights. We are still young. We devote our time and minds to literature. We are passionate about it. We want to write novels because, in the face of this reality that some people flee and others reduce to their navel, we believe that fiction has a role to play. For us, fiction displaces reality: it has the double power to change our gaze on the world and to move us.

We are novelists, but also poets or playwrights.

Of course, this often results in disconcerting books. But perhaps, for these monstrous times, we need monstrous novels: deformed novels that border on catastrophe, dare poetry, that are not afraid of the unpublished and the unspeakable. We want to awaken the monstrous power of the novel, its formidable power of demonstration. We want books that, as Kafka wrote, can be an "axe for the frozen sea inside us." Otherwise, we will all end up reporters, suffocated between autofiction and exofiction.

We are not a school, because there is no panacea in literature. We don't all agree. But there's one thing that brings us together: We want the novel to be not just a commodity, not even a means to make people read, but a burning and necessary issue. A contemporary art.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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