Adapt at your own risk

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure]

This is one of my French books, La louve, fabulously illustrated by Antoine Déprez:

When I say ‘fabulously’, I mean it in both senses of the term: they’re brilliant illustrations, but they also reproduce very well the fable-like feel and texture of the story. La louve is an original story, but it is what is generally called a literary fairy tale – a new story made to feel like it’s a classic folk or fairy tale.

This might be why, when La louve recently appeared in the White Ravens list at the Munich International Youth Library, it was described as ‘a retelling of a Russian folkale’. To my knowledge (and that of my Russian friends), it isn’t. There are many folk and fairy tales around the world that involve transformation, wolves and curses, but this one isn’t a retelling of any one in particular.

After La louve, however, the publisher, Alice Editions, has asked us to work on a second opus which would be an adaptation or reinterpretation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I immediately agreed, because I’ve been fascinated by that weird tale for a long time. So I started to think about how to do it. The idea was not to retell the tale, but rather to write an original story inspired from, or reactivating or reimagining, the tale.

I soon realised it was an enterprise fraught with interesting peril. First I thought I’d focus on the rats, perhaps make the main character one of the rats. But immediately, a problem emerged: the glacial contemporary political and ideological connotations of a narrative that involves hordes (“swarms”?) of rats “invading” a village, spreading an illness, being thrown out, and drowning. The portrayal of a population identified as parasitic, swarming the streets of a nice little traditional village and taken away to die – in the water – in exchange for money, has a very unpleasant ring to it; or at least, it should, to anyone who’s even vaguely concerned with what’s happening in the world today. You’d have to be the most candid person on Earth not to realise.

A simple retelling of the story just about gets away with those connotations, because the literal explanation proposed by the story – the plague – works sort of fine, and you can sort of turn off the metaphorical reading. But with an entirely new story, you can’t claim innocently that you don’t mind that extra layer of meaning. It just invites itself, whatever you do.

So of course you can play with these political connotations, and turn the story on its head, getting the rats to be the good guys in the story; the misunderstood, the oppressed and the silenced. You can even write an interesting story where the plague is an invention of the humans to create suspicion against the rats. You’d turn the story into a politically committed tale, preaching compassion towards a marginalised group.

Yeah. But it’s a really tricky thing to pull off, because in this roman à clefs you’re still identifying a group of people as rats – whether or not you’re arguing that it’s someone else’s vision, that’s pretty dangerous.

I know Art Spiegelman’s done it. I’m not Art Spiegelman though.

In other words, I couldn’t see a way of adapting the Pied Piper of Hamelin story without grappling with the metaphorical political implications. And while I’d be happy to do that in another context, it absolutely wasn’t what I wanted this particular book to be. It was supposed to be like La louve: intemporal, slightly frightening, low-key and poetic. Not political.

So I took the story differently. I decided to get rid, so to speak, of the original tale, by putting it in its entirety on the first page. The story begins with a young girl whose grandfather tells her the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And then the story starts, seemingly unconnected to the tale. But it loops back onto itself… and connects, at the very, very end, with the very, very first page.

Dealing with this adaptation, I felt like I’d spent quite a while, at least a month or two, thinking about how to catch it, a bit like you would observe a scorpion thinking of the best way to pick it up without getting stung, and getting it to do what you want it to do. Coincidentally, the YA book in French I’m currently working on is also an adaptation. And there again, I spent many train rides looking out of the window, thinking of how to catch that particular scorpion.

I’d be curious to hear your stories of adaptations, retellings or reimaginings of classical tales or novels – I’m sure there are many around, as it’s quite a common thing to do.

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News and Mayhem

It’s been a very long while since I last wrote anything here; Russian and Spanish (see post below) have enjoyed a very durable top spot on this blog. Most of the action has been happening over there on my French blog, which I keep up much more diligently than this one. But a lot of things have been happening since this summer, bookwise (academia-wise too, but I’d better talk about it separately).

Firstly, The Royal Babysitters, or rather Les royales babysitters, came out in French in August. This was the very first time ever that I ever had a book translated from English to French – and it wasn’t by me, but by the very talented Amélie Sarn. She did it so amazingly that I actually laughed when reading it, which is no small feat since I’ve read the damn book something 24540536 times in English.

royalesfrancaisesThen The Royal Bake-Off came out in September. In that third book in the Anna, Holly and Pepino tetralogy (that’s four books), the three aspiring holy-moly-holidayers go to Americanada (on an uncomfortable Kryin’Air flight), where the Emperor, Sam – who is also King Steve’s brother – has organised a huge baking competition between various royals around the world. The tasks take place in the Grand Yeswecanyon, the N.H.E.A.G.A.R.A falls (the Nobody Has Ever A’crossed the Gigantic Awful River Alive Falls), and a spaceship. Many invasions are repelled and enemies puréed.

Don't they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

Don’t they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

I also finished A Very Royal Holiday, which is the last book in the series – scheduled to come out next April – and which turned out to be my personal favourite, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing that one in print.

French-book-wise, this summer has been a busy one for my latest YA novel Les petites reines. We sold the full rights to the cinema in September, and a film script is currently being written, which is an exciting and weird thing to happen. It’s been nominated for lots of awards, and the book will also represent France for ‘Writing’ on the IBBY international honour list, nominated by the children’s literature people at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, whom I feel very grateful to for chosing it.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

It’s about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

Meanwhile, my and Antoine Déprez’s picturebook La louve, which had slipped by unnoticed when it first came out at the same time as Les petites reines, has gathered steam. It’s been nominated for one of the top children’s book awards, the Prix des Incorruptibles, and recently I saw that it’s in the White Ravens list of remarkable international children’s books at the Munich Youth Library. I’m delighted about that, because it’s a book I’m particularly fond of and which works very well with children. I love reading it to whole classes when I do school visits. Antoine and I are currently preparing another one together.

couvIMG_20140204_142431Last but, proverbially, not least, and leaping back to the English side, I can announce the release in May 2016 of a book of detective short stories in which I have a story myself – it’s with Egmont, it’s edited by the astonishingly talented and murderously imaginative Robin Stevens, and it looks fantastic, look:

Mystery and Mayhem front coverGorgeous gorgeous cover, amazing all-female crime club, and deliciously murderous stories – not all murders, also thefts and other kinds of crimes. Mine is very definitely a murder though. Or is it? Look out for Mystery and Mayhem when it comes out next year and you’ll know all about it.


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Linguistic Rivalry

In the part of my brain devoted to languages, French and English dwell in the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers.

linguistic1Well, technically French should be the only uncontested ruler, since it’s my native language…

linguistic2… but my native “academic tongue” is English, and though I don’t write perfectly in English, writing academically in French is actually much more difficult for me – the first article I wrote in French received the following reviewer’s comment:

“There are a few problems with the language, due to the fact that the author is clearly not a native French speaker”.



But then my English isn’t super strong when it comes to understanding song lyrics. And I can’t baby-talk very well in English. Anyway, French and English occasionally bicker, but they’re generally pretty reliable, and switching between the two stopped being difficult a long time ago.

In another antechamber of the language bit of my brain, however, dwell another two little linguistic daemons who are not quite so disciplined.

Meet Russian and Spanish.

These days, Spanish is happy and having loads of fun, whereas Russian is, to tell you the truth, annoyed and gloomy (and not just because of national stereotypes).

Russian, you see, has been living for almost a dozen years in the Antechamber of the Languages I Have a Basic Knowledge Of. At the beginning, it was living there with English, but English quickly upgraded to the Antechamber of Languages I’m Good At, before moving to the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers along with French.

Russian was cool with that, because I’d started to learn English two years before, so English had a big head start, and also English is a ridiculously simple language to get pretty good at, compared with Russian.

But after a few years, Russian started to realise it wasn’t progressing towards the Antechamber of Languages I’m Good At. We had an awkward chat:

Russian: What’s going on? You’ve been learning me for years and all you seem to be able to do is hold a basic conversation, carefully avoiding using weird aspects and not bothering too much about declensions.
Me: Well, you’re a difficult language and I don’t really have any time to learn all the crazy aspects and declensions. But one day I’ll pick you up again.

A few years later, we had another awkward conversation.

Russian: Hey, where’s English now? Is it still in the Antechamber of Languages You’re Good At?
Me: Um, well, English has done pretty well for itself and has sort of upgraded to the uncontested rulers chamber. But one day, I’ll work on you, Russian, and you’ll move one antechamber up.

Except I didn’t. Instead, one day, I decided (half on a whim) to pick up Spanish.

Spanish: Hola ¿qué tal?

Russian: Who the hell is this.

At the beginning, Russian imposed its rule. Once, during a Spanish lesson, the teacher said something to me that I didn’t get, and I automatically replied “Я не понимаю” (“I don’t understand”).

Russian was ecstatic. Best joke ever. That’ll teach her to bring this foreigner into my antechamber, Russian said.

So for a while I would say ‘ia’ instead of ‘yo’ (for ‘I’), ‘da’ instead of ‘sí’, etc. I also kept getting some words mixed up because they sounded vaguely similar; the words ‘vez’ in Spanish and ‘raz’ (раз) (‘a time’) were particularly difficult.

But after some time, it became desperately clear to Russian that Spanish was catching up, and then winning.

Now whenever I try to make up a sentence in Russian, such as ‘I’m reading a book’, this is what happens:

Me: No, no, move aside, Spanish – come on, Russian, I’m asking you!
Russian: Oh, you care about me now, do you? I don’t know where those words are. I’m busy.
Me: come on, make an effort!

Russian: How about those words instead?
linguistic5Me: I don’t need those! I need read and book.
Russian: How about this whole sentence? linguistic6Me: … No! That doesn’t mean ‘I’m reading a book’, it means ‘Attention, the doors are closing’. It’s a sentence you heard in the St Petersburg metro in 2002. Why did you even bother remembering that sentence?

Russian: *shrugs*

Finally, grumpily, and only if the words are on top of the pile, Russian hands me what I need. (But it doesn’t happen very often. Russian is very sulky.)

Me: OK, so now, how do you conjugate and declense those?
Russian: Sorry, I’m going to bed now.

Sometimes Russian is a bit more active and revivified, for instance if I’ve been exposed to a lot of Russian recently. But then Spanish gets angsty because it thinks I’m leaving it alone, so it slyly barges in at the most unexpected moments, replacing prepositions or innocuous little words with Spanish ones. ‘But’, for instance, which, for reasons unknown, I always want to say as ‘pero’ when I try to speak Russian.

When I do, I hear echoes of Spanish’s gleeful JAJAJAJAJAJJAJAJAJJAJAJA (which is hahaha in Spanish) because it’s such a great joke right.

Though I’m no linguist, my guess is that only in the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers can languages cohabit fairly peacefully. All the other languages are Darwinistically condemned to a ruthless war, finishing each other’s sentences, layering over each other’s words, and being generally mean and petty about who gets used more and why.

It’s quite an exhausting battle. Maybe I’m atypical, but my experience seems to contradict the oft-repeated mantra that you get ‘better at learning languages’ if you already know a few. I haven’t seen much of that kind of politeness in my own cerebral antechambers.Sometimes, it’s true, English and French help me understand Spanish a bit better, but only on a lexical level, because some words are closer to English and some to French.linguistic7So yeah, poor Russian is very gloomy these days. Well, at least, to cheer itself up, it can still go for a nice little stroll across an even darker part of the linguistic corner: the silent, eerie, scary, Cemetary of Completely Dead Languages.
linguistic8RIP, Hours and hours and hours of repeating rosa, rosa, rosam, rosae, rosae, rosa.

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France’s Zoella

(First published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure)

France has its very own Zoe Sugg: she’s called Marie Lopez but goes by the name of Enjoy Phoenix, and she’s a beauty, make-up and life vlogger. Like Zoe Sugg, she’s written a book, which was published a few days ago and is called #EnjoyMarie (the title sounds only slightly less weird in French). I wasn’t the only ‘old person’ to discover her works on that occasion, but she’s been fabulously popular online for a while.

Le livre d'Enjoy Phoenix, numéro un des ventes la première semaine.

Hardly had #EnjoyMarie been published that the press started mocking the book, with the trendy magazine Les Inrocks devoting an article to ‘The 27 sentences that will make you think Enjoy Phoenix is the new Flaubert’. Each sentence is escorted by a sarcastic comment:

3.We are a generation of words created by an ever-sharper technology and, without noticing, we’re living under the attractive power of the webs of the Internet.” EnjoyPhoenix > Edward Snowden.

17.I shudder as I imagine drinking my first glass of alcohol… I hope there will be some.Spoiler alert: there was.

Etc. It’s funny in some ways, but it’s also a bit facile to mock a 19-year-old who started a blog five years ago as a means of dealing with school bullying, and who picked the phoenix as her animal of choice to express her desire to be born again and different. But then French adults are always cruel to teenagers, as I well remember.

Lopez’s book is in many ways a bizarre phenomenon in a country which is far from having a literary landscape as cluttered by author ‘brands’ and celebrity books as the Anglo-Saxon market, even in children’s and teenage literature. As the title of the Inrocks article indicates through the direct and snarky comparison with Flaubert, there is something distinctly disasteful, for the French mindset, about a book so obviously commercial.

It’s worth saying here that Les Inrocks is in many ways culturally snobbish, but as regards edgy pop culture – they’re not at all protective of highbrow culture; you would never find an article on Flaubert in there, so the reference sounds a little bit out of place. But even they, faced with walls of fuschia pink #EnjoyMarie books in each Fnac (the French franchise of cultural supermarkets), felt defensive enough to remind their readers of our literary canon, which in France would be packaged between white or cream covers. (Judging a book by its colour is very much a thing in my country.)

L’Express, meanwhile, has decided to compare the sales of #EnjoyMarie to those of the other best-selling non-fiction books of the moment, which are: a sociological study of the Charlie Hebdo demonstrators by an academic; a political study of Germany by a politician; an apology of blasphemy post-Charlie-Hebdo-massacre by a feminist intellectual; and a book on health and nutrition by some doctor. ‘Enjoy Phoenix sells more books than all those people!!!!!’ L’Express marvels.

And provides a diagram to prove this astonishing fact:


My French writer and illustrator friends are watching all of this with some amusement and not much anxiety. But some are mildly incredulous too, in part because of the unashamed money-making dimension of the enterprise. As I’ve written about before, the French market is much less commercially-oriented and there’s much less money to be made; books cannot be discounted, and they are generally quite expensive (my latest YA novel retails at 15,99€).  

In a publishing world where advances for teenage novels are generally between 500 and 2000 euros, and there are never any announcements along the lines of ‘NEW AUTHOR GETS FIVE BOOK DEAL FOR AN UNDISCLOSED SIX FIGURE SUM’, #EnjoyMarie feels like an odd import from Britain or the US – it’s no coincidence that the name sounds English. Interviewers and journalists spend a lot of time telling their readers about Marie Lopez’s supposed salary.

Another interesting thing is that, as far as I can tell – I might be wrong! – Marie Lopez probably wrote her own book mostly on her own; unlike, as everyone here remembers, Zoe Sugg. Keren David wrote a great blog post on the matter a while back. Keren was annoyed “that no one from Zoella’s management team or publishers –  let alone Zoella herself –  wanted to give the ghostwriter a co-writing credit, or admit up front that Zoella needed a hand to get her ideas down in print.” Like Keren, I think it would be far healthier if the world was actually told that writing is a proper job, which not everyone famous is always necessarily qualified to do.

It’s time to confess that I haven’t actually read Zoella’s book (sorry), but it sounds to me like it was well-received by her fans. By contrast, Lopez’s book is getting mixed reviews, including from its target audience. I think this is the first time a French publishing company has given a book deal to a teenage celebrity in this way, and I wonder if they underestimated the need to hire professional help to bulk up the content of the book.

Is this the beginning in the French publishing world of a more Anglo-Saxon way of doing things? Well, you can tell from the way in which people are reacting that it isn’t something they’re close to getting used to. But after all, ex-First Girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler’s memoir on François Hollande sold hundreds of thousands of copies earlier this year. Maybe France is slowly edging towards this brave new world after all.

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The Royal Wedding Crashers

The Royal Wedding Crashers is out!

look how nice they look together!

and it’s bigger than its older brother

I celebrated by writing a blog post for LoveReading 4 Kids about Ten French Children’s Books that are Available in English!

But don’t buy all those French books just yet or else you’ll have no time to read the most excellent second instalment in the adventures of Holly, Anna and Prince Pepino, illustrated as always by the royally energetic Becka Moor.

The Royal Wedding Crashers takes our three jobseekers all the way to Parii, in Francia, to help organise the wedding of Princess Violette to the mysterious King Dentu of Romany. Any resemblance to real people or places is of course purely coincidental.

P1060888Mademoiselle Malypense and her poodle Kiki-Bisou are the new employers of Holly, Anna and Pepino, and they occasionally protect the little prince against the beheading tendencies of the vicious Pariisians:

P1060820Parii is the favourite city of Tourists; Holly, Anna and Pepino will encounter one or more flocks of this strange tribe:

TouristsWill the three children figure out what Mademoiselle Malypense’s true intentions are in organising this wedding?

Will Pepino survive being trapped in Catacombs for several hours without ice-cream?

Will they manage to avoid the mobs of angry Francians who demand their daily bread?

Will they finally get paid?

To know all this and much more (such as how to steer a rooster-drawn carriage through the skies), there’s only one solution, and you know what it is…

And if you like posters and colouring packs, head right there on Bloomsbury’s website, where you can download those things, and also read the first chapter of the book…

And if you’d like to know a bit more about the French translation of the books, I wrote a blog post about it a little while ago. I’m sure the French will be delighted to translate the second one as well. I’m sure they won’t expel me from the country forever. I’m sure they won’t try to behead me. I’m sure they’ll let me eat cake.

A bientôt!


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Characters’ faces

The lovely Helen Fennell, in a blog post which you can find here, asks other readers if they actually ‘see’ characters’ faces precisely. She says, ‘faces seem to elude me for the most part, I imagine almost the “essence” of a person rather than any great detail’. She then goes on to wonder, ‘Do authors have a very clear idea of what their characters look like? Can they create an image in their head akin to a photo?’

And then asks (in the Britishest way possible): ‘If it isn’t too impertinent a question, what do you imagine when characters from books take their place inside your head?’


One solution: hiding faces under huge hats.

This topic chimed with me because I, like Helen, never see detailed characters’ faces when I read – nor when I write. This is all the stranger as, firstly, I’m a very visual person, an amateur doodler and an avid reader of comics, and, secondly, I ‘see’ places and surroundings in a very precise way, however little they might be described.

Unlike Helen, I’m not very easily influenced by film adaptations (though when a book is heavily illustrated, I’m influenced by the drawings), so the Harry in my head isn’t in any way Daniel Radcliffe . However, he isn’t either a very different person with precise features; his face is just a blurry ovoid thing, with glasses and a scar and a ‘shock of jet-black hair’.

harryglassesI’m very sensitive to colour in my everyday life, and mildly synaesthetic (colour/ letters, /numbers and /sounds). Some characters are patches of colour rather than faces; this seems to be triggered by the writing style and atmosphere. Characters in novels by Colette, Beauvoir, Larbaud, Nabokov ’emit’ a lot of colours for me.

In my own books, I very rarely describe main characters. There’s strictly no physical description of Sesame Seade in any of the books, for instance. For me, she wasn’t much more than a mass of hair whooshing around on purple rollerskates. When we were ‘briefing’ Sarah Horne for the illustrations, my editor called me to ask what Sesame looked like, and I didn’t really have an answer.

Yet when Sarah sent the first illustration, I immediately ‘recognised’ her.  It was ‘as I’d imagined her to look like’, yet I hadn’t imagined her to look like anything specific.

Sarah's first drawing of Sesame

Sarah’s first drawing of Sesame

French philosopher Clément Rosset talks about those moments when we think that someone looks like someone else, and then are incapable of saying who; we resort to saying ‘he’s got one of those faces’. Or when we see on screen an actor playing a character from a book, and we scream, ‘that’s not what she looks like at all!’. And yet we don’t have in our head any precise idea of ‘what she looks like’.

Or, we see for the first time the face of a radio presenter, and it can’t be them, surely not! That’s not the face we assigned to that voice. But what was that face? Not much more than a blur – but we’re adamant that it’s not that one.

This is, Rosset says, moments which evidence the ‘existence’ of invisible visions; an intimate conviction that we are referring to something (a perception, a thought, an image) when we are in fact referring to nothing at all, or not much. This ‘thinking about nothing’ is much stronger than reality, because reality is unfavourably compared to it: Daniel Radcliffe is much less Harry Potter than the not-much in my mind.

In Rosset’s view, which is connected to his wider theory of reality and its double, the invisible is eminently superior because it is ours, infinitely malleable, and always future; reality, in its visibility, is solid and boring. It is ‘the thing that we dream of when it is far, and which disappoints when it is close’ (45).

Better look at things far away than at this repulsive husband.

Better look at things far away than at this disappointing husband. (Caillebotte again)

Rosset’s explanation, though, fails to explain why I, on the other hand, immediately ‘recognised’ Sarah Horne’s Sesame, and why I do sometimes (and I’m sure many of you do too) ‘recognise’ book characters in the form of the flesh-and-blood actors, with no or very little effort.

Helen is right to say that the ‘essence’ of the person (or character) is important. I ‘recognised’ the spirit of Sesame in Sarah’s drawing, and it’s precisely because I had no vision of her – because she was ‘invisible’ or ‘not-much’ in my mind – that the image was so cosily accommodated by my imagination.

What about when characters are heavily described? I’ve noticed that I tend to skip or not take into account physical descriptions. There are ideological problems, though, with this tendency. Infamously, the character of Rue in Hunger Games was at the centre of a racist storm in recent years when it emerged that she’d been Black the whole time. This was news to many readers, who had masterfully avoided the moments in the text where this was made clear. Rue had been by default white.

We’re often asked by students and pupils ‘who we would cast’ as our book characters (presumably also because many people think that having one’s book adapted into a film would be a writer’s deepest joy, and it’s very hard to convince them otherwise). Recently I did a school visit in France for one of my teenage books, where the students had ‘cast’ famous actors and actresses in the roles of the main characters, and asked me whether I agreed. It was an interesting exercise but I didn’t feel I could help much.

ImpressionIn the book, there’s absolutely no physical description of the narrator. Her name isn’t even mentioned. The teenagers had tried to imagine what she might look like. They’d had a poll in the class, saying how many people ‘saw’ her as having ‘short hair, mid-length hair, long hair’; ‘blond hair, brown hair, black hair’; whether she was ‘short or tall’ (she was by default white). They asked me for the right answer, but of course, I didn’t know.

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Just kidding? The latest academic ‘hoax’ and its consequences for cultural studies

The Sociology corridor of the French ivory tower is under siege: a few weeks ago, two academics pulled a rather uncomfortable prank on the academic journal Sociétés, by managing to place in the prestigious publication a ‘fake’, or rather ‘hoax’, article.

The story is quite complex, but to sum it up: two sociologists, Manuel Quinon and Arnaud Saint-Martin, wrote an article on the Autolib’ cars, which are electric cars available to the general public for short-time rentals in Paris (think Boris bikes, but cars). They submitted the article, entitled ‘Postmodern automobilities: When Autolib’ makes sense in Paris’ under a pseudonym to Sociétés, where it was immediately accepted and published. So far, so good; except that, as Quinon and Saint-Martin explained in a long and fascinating article, their analysis is a hoax, a hollow and meaningless text, full of – they say – ‘inanities’, written by scrupulously following the methodological and epistemological line of Sociétés.

Autolib's in their natural environment (c. Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)

Autolib’s in their natural environment (c. Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)

To give you an idea of what the ‘hoax’ is like, here’s a representative sample from the introduction, translated by me (I’ve done my best to convey the academic ‘wordplay’, sometimes changing the ‘meaning’, but, as you shall see, the ‘meaning’ is pretty obscure anyway):


It is hard for the man in the street not to notice them: in Paris, the “Autolib’s” have now settled in the urban ecosystem. They do not fail to interrogate our relation to the city and to driving – a driving of/in the city. In many ways, they foretell a new paradigm. In this double movement of an electrified urban mobility and of a sharing of common vehicles, we indeed find at play a (sub?)terranean postmodernity. Although communication campaigns, political marketing and economico-industrial aspects escort the deployment of those little grey Bluecars® conceived by the Bolloré group, we can nonetheless note that they mobilise us, as much as we mobilise them: in the contemporary city, the sovereign subject gives way to the nomad, to the puer aeternus.
Because the flux of urban Lebenswelt is woven into a series of perfectly connected socio-technical webs, it is now indispensable to work towards a comprehensive, or rather “formist” sociology of (de)ambulatory contemporary sociality. […] We will detect in Autolib’ the mark of a libido mobilis, a libidinal self-centred energy, a kind of “subterranean centrality” which is literally automobilistic. All this expresses, maybe, the impulsive need to reconnect with a “je-ne-sais-quoi” which is that of the matrix, of originary, vital energy […] The Autolib’ indeed participates of the contemporary imaginal; it reshapes not just forms of sociality, whose tribal future goes without saying, but also contributes to the creation of a new “semantic pool”, for which we need to elaborate a hermeneutic sociology.


The point, of course, was to ridicule Sociétés and a certain school of French sociology; to show that there is nothing in such studies behind a façade of jargon, preconceived ideas about contemporary society, and smattering of Deleuze and Derrida. As such, the researchers followed in the footsteps of Alan Sokal, a physicist who published in 1996 a prank article in cultural studies journal Social Text in order to denounce what were, according to him, the pretences and unsoundness of much French-theory-inspired American cultural studies.

Importantly, the hoax was also an attack on a particular person. Sociétés is headed by, and federates the disciples of, a charismatic Sociology professor called Michel Maffesoli. The ‘Maffesolian’ school of sociology (I would personally call it ‘cultural sociology’ or ‘cultural studies’) has a particular appetite for French-theory-heavy descriptions of everyday objects, practices and behaviours, basing their analyses on a conception of the ‘postmodern individual’ – a fragmented, non-rational and nomadic subject.

According to the two authors of the prank (and here I can’t take sides, knowing very little about the politics of French academia) Maffesoli’s influence on French sociology and on the media is undeserved, toxic, almost guru-esque. Worshipped by his disciples, who write article after article according to the ‘Maffesolian’ formula, the professor, they say, failed to notice even in his own journal the grotesque exaggerations of his own theory and concepts. Indeed, the hoax article goes to great lengths to celebrate the works of Michel Maffesoli with energetically sycophantic sentences, using what the two authors identify as Maffesoli’s key contributions to sociology: the drama of postmodernity, the meaningfulness of the quotidian, the hedonistic subject, ‘presenteism’, etc.

To sum up, Quinon and Saint-Martin’s aims with this hoax were to bring into disrepute Sociétés, Michel Maffesoli himself, but also, through him, the kind of sociological study that he represents. That is, as far as I understand the issue:

  • Studies which emphasise everyday practices and objects, finding meaning in apparently meaningless familiarity;
  • A jargon-heavy, French-theory-heavy, pompous language, relying on ‘keywords’ (buzzwords) coined by French and German theorists and/or Maffesoli(ans);
  • Predictable conclusions, ‘confirmation bias’ for the school of thought’s vision of postmodernity;
  • A strictly non-empirical methodology. The two authors are very clear that this was, to them, a major issue. Maffesoli’s motto appears to be that ‘no fieldwork’ is needed in sociology – so, in this particular case, there is no data collected on users of Autolib’s, for instance. Instead, the ‘empirical’ part of the sociological study should lie in the researcher’s felt experience of the studied object. The hoax article conscientiously respects this dismissal of fieldwork, explaining instead that the author ‘experienced’ the Autolib’, exploring what it ‘feels like’ to the driver. Of course, neither researcher actually bothered getting into an Autolib’ car; their ‘phenomenological’ approach was entirely imaginary.
  • A sloppy peer-review process, letting through slapdash and absurd articles; it was later revealed that one reviewer had rejected the manuscript, but that the editor had gone with the positive opinion of the second reviewer.

The revelation of the hoax caused a modest but palpable stir in French academia as well as in the media, with Le Monde in particular amply covering  the story (see also here and here). Michel Maffesoli, it was announced yesterday, has resigned from his Editor position at Sociétés, acknowledging that the article should never have been published, and that he had been careless not to have read it. But he refutes  the accusations of intellectual sloppiness and academic mystification, denouncing what he felt was the ‘jealousy’ of Quinon and Saint-Martin; for Maffesoli, in short, this hoax is a spiteful attack on an eminent figure of sociological research from two frustrated younger colleagues.

Where does this leave us? Beyond the fact that the story itself is quite revealing of the legendary cliqueyness and ruthlessness of French academia, it is difficult not to feel uncomfortable when reading the hoax article and the accusations levelled at the type of sociology it represents. While there is no doubt that the article was profoundly silly, it raises an important question: to function as a hoax, was the article principally relying on 1) meaninglessness, or 2) ridicule?

Meaninglessness is easy to pinpoint. When the article states: “in the contemporary city, the sovereign subject gives way to the nomad, to the puer aeternus”, the use of the Latin expression is simply meaningless; ‘puer aeternus’ means ‘eternal child’; it makes strictly no sense in the context there; it is pure mystification.
If the article was entirely meaningless, it would be, in some way, less problematic: its publication could be put down to a tired reviewer and editorial oversight.

But it isn’t entirely meaningless. Instead, most of the article instead works as a hoax because it sounds, in some way, ‘ridiculous’. For instance, here’s the description of the use of the Autolib’ as opposed to owning a car:

No contract; just nomadism. No property; just use and reliance. No petit-bourgeois trophy, pretentiously exhibited to neighbours, parked/ parking class, sex and age identities, but a grey, floating medium, open to alterity, to différance as well as to differing views, silently and ecologically passing from a “high place” of the city to another…

There is certainly meaning in this extract. In fact, it makes a relatively interesting point: the Autolib’ allows the contemporary petit-bourgeois individual to be liberated from the cumbersome and ‘blingy’ external sign of wealth that a car represents, offering himself, instead, the luxury of a flexible and eco-friendly vehicle.

So why can it be considered ‘ridiculous’? For three main reasons, which I think can be categorised as ‘language’, ‘interpretation’ and ‘subjectivity’.

  • Firstly, language: it plays on many clichés of French theory language and rhetoric: bizarre declensions of words separated by slashes or brackets (‘parked/ parking’), conscious misspellings heavy of Derridean extraction (‘différance’), random italicising, poor wordplay (‘différance’/ ‘differing views’ (‘différends’ in the original text)) etc.
  • Secondly, interpretation, or rather overinterpretation: if the passage sounds ridiculous, it is in part because we are made to feel that the authors are overinterpreting a banal everyday object – that they are spending too much time and intellectual effort trying to decode and decrypt an object that isn’t there for that purpose. This is what many people who want to dismiss academic research call intellectual masturbation.
  • Thirdly, subjectivity: the researchers having not done asked ‘real people’ what they think, their claim that the Autolib’ users are rejecting conspicuous consumption appears spurious; there might be many other reasons for not owning a car in Paris, including cost and general needlessness in a well-connected city.

The fact that most of the hoax’s power comes not from its utter meaninglessness but from the feeling that the language is vacuous and the study (over)interpretative and unscientific asks really quite problematic questions for cultural studies or cultural sociology scholars.

Let’s take language first. I am no French theory fan at all, and I understand the frustration that comes from ploughing through lines of undecipherable words, random puns and sporadic brackets. Some writers, like Derrida, are particularly annoying, because they are both eminently incomprehensible and worshipped by all the cool kids. It’s difficult not to believe that they’re all just pretending to understand and actually part of a worldwide conspiracy, like those people who thought the dress was gold and white.
But let’s have a little faith here. There’s no reason why academic language should be directly accessible. I do use thinkers who have specific jargon and sound difficult: Bourdieu, for instance, is legendarily obscure… at first sight. Once you get into it, and understand what it’s about, and read it carefully with the help of secondary texts, it’s not obscure anymore. It makes sense. The jargon makes sense.

I’m always very wary of attacks on jargon, because jargon is only ‘difficult’ if you don’t know the field. Jargon sums up decades of research in one word or expression. Once you know and understand it, a word of ‘jargon’ becomes a neat little package for years of intellectual work. It’s actually quite a beautiful thing.

But then, of course, what Quinon and Saint-Martin denounced is the empty use of jargon – they accuse the Maffesolians of quoting the necessary keywords with no knowledge of the texts and intellectual history behind them. If it’s this easy to mystify everyone, and to use keywords to hide a lack of original thought, then yes, we do indeed have a problem with jargon.
It’s particularly tricky in cultural studies because the jargon is ‘applied’ to everyday objects – so jogging becomes a way of being-in-the-world, washing-machines are a sublime object of ideology and dog-walkers are a new type of rhizomatic subject. The suspicion is strong that the ‘big word’ becomes a way of concealing the pointlessness of the studied object, and that the researcher is solely engaging in intellectual play verging on surrealism – Quinon and Saint-Martin actually compared their own hoax article to an ‘Oulipian exercise’.

This leads us to the question of overinterpretation, which is particularly stingy for people who, like me, have studied children’s books, comics, ludicrous social phenomena like the Mozart Effect, and routinely use secondary sources from newspapers, pop culture, visual culture and educational documents. This kind of (now not so trendy, but still sexy) research is based on the notion that these different types of discourse are equally worthy of interest. But the Quinon and Saint-Martin academic hoax seems to ask: is it ridiculous to study such things?
Reading it, I was reminded of those Amazon reviews of Mr Men picturebooks by a (bored and highly entertaining) parent with more than a smattering of literary theory. These reviews are of course hilarious, but, from the perspective of a someone who has just published a book on existentialist approaches to children’s literature, they can be a little uncomfortable:

An infant’s primer in Existentialism, we find in this book a weighty treatise on the personal politics of agency and empowerment, taking ownership and authorship of one’s own life. (Mr Bounce)

And many a children’s literature article from a Marxist perspective concludes to the conservatism of much children’s literature in the very manner of the Amazon reviewer:

In a thinly-veiled reference to the oppression of the workers by the ruling class, we are told that Mr Uppity is rude to everyone, and the detail that he has no friends in Bigtown explicitly informs us that the masses are on the brink of revolution. Are we about to bear witness to class war, Hargreaves-style? To see Mr Uppity brought to account by the revolutionary power of the proletariat? Vanquished and overthrown by the party of the workers?

Not so. Mr Uppity is no Marxian analysis, no Leninist prescription for class action. As always, Hargreaves’ inherent and essential conservatism comes to bear. His critique of the bourgeoisie comes not from the proletariat but from the feudal aristocracy.

Well, to be honest… he’s right. If there was a systematic study of the Mr Men series, it would probably be along those lines. Would such a study be ridiculous?
I don’t think so. I bemoan the lack of studies of highly commercial, ‘trashy’ children’s books like the Mr Men series; given their huge success, there should be more effort to study them. But researchers in children’s literature are understandably wary of studying such texts – they (and I include myself here!) prefer to study ‘good’ picturebooks, so-called postmodern picturebooks, because they are understood to have artistic and literary content – while the Mr Men series are principally interesting as a cultural studies/ popular culture phenomenon.

So in children’s literature for instance, there is a striking lack of scholarship on humour, on seriality, on chapter books; and a huge amount on highly sophisticated texts, realistic YA, political fiction (guilty) – which are by no means the most popular nor the most influential. Even authors like Roald Dahl or Jacqueline Wilson have been shockingly underresearched (there are exceptions, of course: much has been written on Harry Potter, dystopian YA, etc).
But it’s hardly surprising, given the amount of suspicion we’re under – by ‘we’, I mean people like me who are perhaps more interested in the cultural sociology than in the literary/aesthetic aspects of popular culture – when we study ‘banal’ texts. In an already-marginalised subdiscipline, we often don’t want to further marginalise ourselves.
Yet such studies can be immensely interesting and revealing, and should absolutely be conducted, however ludicrous it might sound to do a Butlerian critique of Gossip Girl.
Hoaxes like the Quinon/Saint-Martin article are useful to denounce specific people, journals and schools of thought, but also problematic because they weaken the credibility of an array of subfields – popular culture studies, media studies, film studies, video games studies, etc – which they didn’t actually target, but which are already constantly under threat because they sound ridiculous – which shouldn’t mean they are.

I’ll end with what Quinon and Saint-Martin denounced as a ‘non-scientific’ type of sociology. According to them, sociology proper should include empirical research and be strictly field-based. Maffesoli, again, refuted these accusations, by saying that he never understood sociology to be a science. According to him, sociology is ‘a knowledge’, and sociological research can absolutely stem from the researcher’s particular sensitivity to the world and interpretation of it; it doesn’t need to be ‘objective’ nor quantitative, as it is, again, not a science.
Here we need to remember that Sociology is in France very much still considered a ‘soft’ subject – Bourdieu described sociology in the 70s as the discipline picked by lazy middle-class kids with a charismatic disposition. So it is unsurprising that some sociologists should strive to establish it as a ‘science’.

But, however little I want to side with Maffesoli [EDIT: I’ve just seen that someone has tweeted this post ‘quoting me’ as saying ‘I side with Maffesoli’, which is completely absurd: learn to read, espèce d’imbécile], I agree with him that it is pointless to argue that sociology is a ‘science’, or at the very least to base our defence of the field on that claim; and (of course I would say that, being a non-empirical researcher) I certainly reject the notion that fieldwork is the only type that should be ‘valid’ in the field. This notion relies on an extremely naïve view of what constitutes internal validity, ‘objectivity’, and ‘data’.
Sociology, since its inception, has striven to downplay the ‘scientific’ portrayal of individuals as rational decision-makers, to transcend the objective/ subjective dichotomy, and to highlight the biases of any observation – ‘scientific’ of not. Its ‘data’, from the start, has been gathered from a wide array of various sources, giving a voice to types of texts that were not considered useful before. Internal rigour has been ensured not just through testing of hypotheses and replication (though of course many sociological studies do do that), but also through academic debate, intense work on concepts, multiple methodologies, a breakdown of the quantitative/ qualitative divide, and, yes, a phenomenological or even poetic approach to the world.
A lot of the most interesting work conducted in sociology is not falsifiable, not replicable, not, in short, Popperian in the least. A lot of it, specifically in the cultural subfields of sociology, is not scientific. Nor should it be.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding around what cultural theorists do. It’s quite similar to what cultural historians do: they might study the cultural and social changes brought by the democratisation of cycling in the 19th century, and we might do an analysis of the cultural and social changes brought by the Boris bikes now. Cultural historians do not do ‘fieldwork’, and similarly cultural theorists do not have to. They could – you could tackle the topic by doing a case study of Boris bike users, but you could also not do that.
It’s also quite similar to what literary scholars do, except that what is considered ‘text’ is more elastic, encompassing objects, practices, behaviours, etc. You can ‘read’ such things much in the same way as you read literary texts, focusing on their metaphorical content, on their aesthetic aspects, on their embedded ideological assumptions, on their history, etc.
If you don’t do ‘fieldwork’, and if you do use jargon, and if you do focus on the banal and the ordinary, it doesn’t mean you’re basking in your own ability to spout out caustic Barthesian analyses of anything under the sun, and despising the man in the street.
However, it could mean that, in certain cases; and that’s why academic hoaxes such as the Sociétés one are sometimes much needed.


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On Charlie

I haven’t been here in a long time – my 2015 plans included living less in the now; leaving Twitter (you noticed, didn’t you? No? Thought so), writing fewer blog posts, not checking the news compulsively, and burying myself in good books and in work even more than usual.

But the Charlie Hebdo attack happened, and living less in the now sounds like a hollow decision. It was a huge shock for me and for the community of French and Belgian writers and illustrators who make up most of my Facebook feed. We did a strange kind of online mourning, talking, swearing, joking, breaking down, reading news articles communally, sharing good and also less good cartoons about the terrible news, ridiculing the cartoonists who clearly hadn’t understood a thing about Charlie and were drawing twee little children, nice gods, French flags and cutesy pencils, all of which would have been relentlessly mocked by the departed. But whatever, people express their sympathy as they see fit and their hearts are in the right place.

On the British side, it was quite hard for me and my fellow expats to read reactions on the walls of Facebook friends and articles in the press. Everyone condemned the attack, but there were many buts. I adore Britain, I chose to live here and I wouldn’t live anywhere else, but the cultural clash between Britain and France is much greater than most people who haven’t actually lived in both countries would imagine. In particular, ‘being left-wing’ is a very different thing here. ‘Being feminist’ is a very different thing. Even ‘secularism’ isn’t the same as ‘laïcité’, so technically I’m not a secularist, because even the National Secular Society is a bit too mild for my taste. I’m a laïcarde by default here.

The Charlie events exacerbated those differences. Many of the comments reflected what I already knew about incompatible beliefs and attitudes between the two countries. But there was also a lot of laziness in those reactions, with cartoons taken entirely out of context and read literally – idiotically – with no respect for the webs of visual and verbal references which would have been instantly recognisable to any French person. Us French lefties in the UK who liked Charlie Hebdo felt, all of a sudden, like we’d been outed as Daily Mail readers, which is pretty ironic.

Anyway, I thought I’d post here a few articles in English which reflect my feelings more or less accurately:

– My friend and colleague Olivier Tonneau’s hugely successful Comment Is Free column, and the original (and longer) version on Mediapart.

– Kenan Malik’s ‘Je Suis Charlie? It’s a Bit Late’ blog post

– Leigh Philips’s very developed argument, with comments on specific cartoons.

– Along the same lines, Lliana Bird’s article.

– Finally, it’s worth having a look at The Charlie Hebdo Cartoons No One Is Showing You. 

I’ll be back here soon enough to talk about The Book, and about Other Things, I’m sure.

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