“At the origins of pop culture” by Loïc Artiaga and Matthieu Letourneux: Splendors and miseries of popular literature

Noble project of Loïc Artiaga and Matthieu Letourneux in the editions of La Découverte: to make visible the history of popular literature from the end of the Second World War to the beginning of the 1990s, by relying on two iconic publishings house, the Black River and the Presses de la Cité.

When we talk about “paraliterature” or “popular literature”, some names float around: Frédéric Dard, Georges Simenon and Gérard de Villiers. But who remembers Michel Lebrun, Paul Kenny, Kurt Steiner? Any history creates its winners and losers, and literary history is no exception to the rule: if some authors continue to be read, others, who nevertheless sell thousands of copies, are now forgotten . Loïc Artiaga and Matthieu Letourneux are interested “the story of books that everyone has read”analysis of the balance of power, publishing houses, historical events because “Literary history cannot be considered in isolation from the industrial, economic, technical, cultural and ideological histories that serve as its foundation”.

For their analysis, the two authors focus their analysis on two emblematic houses: the Presses de la Cité, founded in 1943, and the Fleuve Noir, in 1949. Therefore, the story begins just after the Second World War Globally, thanks to new methods of production. which makes it possible to produce multiple books (some printed in more than 100,000 copies!) and thanks to new novels highly inspired by the American way of life, turning emblematic genres (espionage, police, science-fiction, eroticism…) . Comparing the Black Series directed by Duhamel, the two authors show the specificity of Presses de la Cité and Fleuve Noir and highlight some of the battles between publishers to gain market share.

Popular literature is actually part of the culture industry (distribution networks different from traditional literature, the rate of publication of titles is also different, etc.). Writers under contract must produce works at a very fast pace, and respond to very specific requests that must meet public expectations. “All the authors speak about this very particular relationship to writing that assumes the profession of the professional writer with titles. They first underline the tiresome nature of such punishment. » Certain genres sell particularly well, such as espionage, because these novels reflect a particular era, the Glorious Thirties, and the climate of the Cold War.

If these popular novels are particularly influenced by the United States, Artiaga and Letourneux show that the authors are not stupidly devouring American culture, but re-appropriating its codes. The French production proved so great that the books were sold all over the world, exporting a certain idea of ​​France. Between 1979 and 1999, Georges Simenon and Gérard de Villiers were among the fifteen most translated French-language authors in the world.

Finally, in the fifth part, the authors look at the end of popular literature, the radical criticism made of these novels (notably contested by the ideas conveyed in May 68, when most of these novels is rather a conservative edge) and the reinvention of the detective genre, particularly by Jean-Patrick Manchette.

In addition to being very clear and complete for anyone interested in literary history, The origins of pop culture offers a rich iconography in color: typical covers of novels, correspondence between author and publisher, period photos of writers at a signing session… An X-ray of a certain era , which puts current pop culture in context.

“The structure of the stories clearly expresses the reasons for this sense of loss of control over meaning. This is quite simply due to the growing marginalization of France on the international scene, which keeps it away from the centers of decision-making and crisis areas. The way in which the intrigues are tied around the spy testifies to this. The secret agent is often French (Coplan, or Fred Noro’s Viscount), but he is more often American (like Paul Gaunce de Laforest or Arnaud’s Commander). And the Americans are not far from the teams that are mainly Atlanticist. Because if the intrigues often feature the Americans or the French caught in the game of alliances, it is because international crises are no longer resolved at the level of France. Thus, the irony of the new “French-style” spy novel is that in recounting the exploits of its spies, it adopts a hexagonal worldview that presents different parts of the world with topics highlighted by mainstream national media; but that, in the same movement, it shows the marginalization of France on the international scene in a collective epic in which it plays more and more a simple supplementary role. »

The origins of pop culture. The Black River and the Presses de la Cité at the center of French transmedia, 1945-1990 by Loïc ARTIAGA and Matthieu LETOURNEUX, Editions La Découverte, 192 pages, €20

Visual: Book cover

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