French readers appreciate superb writing, especially superb noir, especially when that noir is from the US. This has been proven time and again in the post-war period, but it first came to my attention in 2008 when I started reading New Jersey-based author, Mark SaFranko. I became a fan of his work and was surprised he wasn’t more popular in his home country. Then I learned he had a huge following in France. That story repeated itself a few times in the following years, and eventually I accepted a blanket truth: the French have great taste in books. Now, after years of being an author and a reviewer, I know more about publishing than I did back when I first read SaFranko or learned the extent to which the French love Harry Crews. I also know many more American writers with thriving careers in France. So I thought, why not ask them what they think this French love of American noir is all about?
The perfect example of this cultural phenomenon may be Benjamin Whitmer and his latest novel, Evasion, published by Gallmeister, a French publisher specializing in American noir and nature literature. Evasion has been nominated for awards and recently became a bestseller in France; it hasn’t been published in the US. Let that sink in. Whitmer, author of Pike and Cry Father, is one of the finest purveyors of noir in this country, and francophones are enjoying his latest while American publishers are sleeping on it.
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“To be honest, I’m not sure it’s especially a French thing. I think people all over the world read noir, read tragedy,” said Whitmer. “The only place where there is no place for noir or tragedy is America. As David Vann said, ‘We have the idea in America that a book should have likable characters and make us feel good by the end. This is a new and idiotic idea and erases 2,500 years of literary culture.’ No other culture is dumb enough to believe that. That takes a specifically pathological self-concept and denial of reality.”
Laura Lippman, the New York Times bestselling author of Sunburn, After I’m Gone, and many others, thinks the French obsession with American writers stems from their love of stories that depict the country as they imagine it, and not because of American noir’s gloomy, violent nature.
“I think other countries like fiction that presents the US as they think it is,” said Lippman. “And while noir is a big part of that, so is what I’ll call suburban suspense, the kind of novels that won Harlan Coben such a huge following in France.”
While I don’t disagree with Lippman and Whitmer, I think there is a special place in the heart of French readers for noir. Even the term comes from them. While there are rumors that the term had been used since 1939, the most commonly accepted origin narrative traces it back to French film critic Nino Frank, who started using it in 1946 to refer to black and white Hollywood films influenced by American hardboiled fiction.
Jake Hinkson, author of The Blind Alley, No Tomorrow, and The Big Ugly, has had his work translated to French and has won the Grand Prix des Littératures Policières and the Prix Mystère de la Critique.
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“I think the French are fascinated with American noir because they’re fascinated by America,” said Hinkson. “They view noir as a body of literature that is critical and revealing of American culture. I don’t think the French have much respect for things that Americans think are classy (your average Oscar-bait movie, for instance), and they tend to be a little weary of all the stuff that is NYC-centric or overly LA. But they’ve always had a fascination with other parts of the country, the ‘real America’ if you will. That’s why the French were the first ones to the recognize the artistic merits of things like jazz and gospel. It’s why they embraced regional artists like Faulkner. And it’s why they were the first ones to recognize that guys like Thompson and Goodis weren’t just failed pulp writers but rather authentic and unique literary talents.”