From 3rd to 5th April, the 2020 edition of the Lyon Quais du Polar Crime Fiction festival was held online, due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Festival director Hélène Fishbach reflects on the rise of a French « noir scene » and the challenges faced by the festival as it expands internationally.
You run the Quais du Polar Festival, which took place online this year due to the coronavirus. What is the story behind the festival?
The idea first arose in 2004 and 2005. Although Lyon is a city with a very significant cultural influence, it did not have any major literary events. The Quais du Polar association was born out of the idea of creating a strong event, to engage new audiences and highlight independent bookshops, which form an active network in Lyon.
Focusing on crime fiction was a bold move at the time: while there were many major collections dedicated to the genre (Série Noire or Rivages for example), it was not yet at its peak, and was not nearly as successful as it is today! We were riding the wave of The Da Vinci Code. At the time, English-language crime novels dominated the market.
In France, crime fiction is on the rise. What is the publishing scene like for this genre?
The latest survey by the National Book Centre showed that crime fiction has become French readers’ favourite genre. In publishing we have seen the emergence of new collections and publishers specialising in the genre. There is a real race to conquer noir: each year around 1,900 titles are published, including around 20 specialist collections and more than 20 million books are sold. The genre is very diverse, as is its audience, which includes both men and women and readers of all ages. The world of crime fiction displays modern society in all its diversity. Its success can be seen as a rejection of the more introspective literature which was popular in the late twentieth century. TV series, too, have completely changed the genre. The authors themselves make reference to them and the writing has become more cinematic. We also created the Polar en Séries Prize, which recognises a book which we feel is particularly well-suited for TV adaptation.
What are the major trends in the genre - and its many sub-genres?
There is of course a trend towards thrillers, embodied by Franck Thilliez and Maxime Chattam, and a trend of « traveller » crime novels, launched by Caryl Férey and Olivier Truc, who takes readers to Lapland. Though I don't like the term, there is a kind of Gillian Flynn-style « women's » crime novel which works within a more closed-off universe, from the domestic sphere to small towns. Other authors work in a realistic vein, incorporating facts into their plots. They also sometimes present journalistic investigations under the guise of a crime story. This is the case for Pauline Guéna, who has just published an in-depth investigation into the French police headquarters at 36 Quai des Orfèvres (18.3 Une année à la PJ). There is also rural crime writing, with Franck Bouysse and Nicolas Matthieu, which focuses on less urban areas and the people who get left behind. Another example of a trend is the rise of environmentalism and digital technology, as well as darkly comedic takes on crime fiction.
Not to mention young adult crime writing, for which you have also created a prize…
Crime stories offer a playful introduction to reading, engaging younger children through solving puzzles and teenagers through various social themes. There are several collections dedicated to this sub-genre, notably at Syros and Gulf Stream editions. With the Quais du Polar team, we feel strongly that meeting authors can inspire a love of reading, and there are many authors who write for both adults and young people. We work with middle school students on TV adaptations of crime novels, and with high school students on the notion of translation, of adapting a story from one language to another.
Do French crime novels export well? Which countries enjoy French authors the most?
Tastes vary depending on the literary tradition. In Germany, the krimi genre lends itself to police investigations, as well as a certain « postcard » version of France. There is a particular demand for crime fiction which takes place in Paris, Provence or Brittany. In Italy, the genre is known as giallio (« yellow »), and has a real social and political dimension. Further north, Norwegian publishers have recently started looking for French authors to translate. In Asia, French crime writing is doing well in Korea.
You know these markets well, given that the Quais du Polar Festival is very internationally oriented...
From the very beginning, we wanted to invite foreign authors and put them in dialogue with French authors. We have welcomed authors who are English and American, Nordic, Israeli, Indian and Japanese, among others. In this spirit, in 2014 we created « Polar Connection », a section reserved for professional encounters which allows us to promote French crime fiction abroad. In addition, we are increasingly partnering with book fairs: The Franshhoek Book Fair (South Africa, 2016 and 2017), the Leipzig Book Fair, the Una marina di libri Festival in Palermo and the France-Romania Season in 2019. In 2020, we are looking to Korea and the Seoul Fair.
The health crisis forced you to redesign the Quais du Polar, offering a digital version of the festival this year. Is this an opportunity to expand the festival?
In response to the crisis, we organised a virtual festival offering video content, texts, meet-ups, etc. We also organise the Polar en Vacances children’s event each year during the summer holidays and, in October, we arrange encounters with foreign authors in partnership with the city of Pau. Not to mention all the events we partner with in bookshops, cinema previews, school outreach operations and activities in prisons and detention centres. To which we would like to add themed weekends, like the one we are currently putting together around the theme of food...
What are your favourite crime novels?
I would say Richesse oblige by Hannelore Cayre, who is a lawyer by profession and who writes the kind of darkly humorous crime fiction I mentioned. In her novel, she denounces a society which has been dominated by the rich and privileged since the nineteenth century. I also enjoy Andrée Michaux, known for Bondrée, which received the 2017 Quais du Polar award. She is an extremely literary writer from Quebec who has wonderful descriptions of the great outdoors And finally, Only the Animals are Left (« Seules les bêtes »),by Colin Niel, which was recently adapted for the big screen by Dominik Moll.
In the context of the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic, Institut Français wishes to continue offeringyou portraits, meetings with creators fromall walks of life, works and portfolios. We hope these few pages will bring some breathing space back into an everyday shaped by lockdown.
Partner of the International Festival Quais du Polar (in Lyon) since 2015, the Institut français, co-organizes the « Polar Connection » day produced within the framework of the Lyon festival as well as an International Polar Focus.
These meetings are an opportunity to bring together French and international professionals from the book, film and digital sectors to celebrate the appeal and vitality of detective literature.