Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF

It has been four months since I attended this year’s Congrès Boréal, so a write-up on the conference is probably overdue. Nevertheless, I would like to share some of my impressions of my first foray into this predominantly French-language science fiction and fantasy convention.

Congrès Boréal is probably Québec’s main literary fantasy and science fiction convention. It was held in Montreal at the Masonic Temple on Sherbrooke Street last May. I attended to see some familiar faces–Jo Walton and Claude Lalumière were both participating in panels in the English stream–and to acquaint myself with the Francophone writers participating in the convention.

The first panel I attended was called “L’imaginaire a-t-il une langue? Différence culturelle dans l’imaginaire anglophone et francophone” (“Does the imagination have a language? Cultural differences in the anglophone and francophone imaginary.”) The panelists included Olivier Paquet, a science fiction writer from France, Patrick Senecal, a thriller/horror writer in the vein of Stephen King, and Marie Bilodeau, whose English novels have been translated into French.

The discussion was lively and interesting. While there is perhaps less difference between French and English science fiction and fantasy literature than might be assumed at first, the panelists did spot some general trends that mark some dramatic differences. For example, the panelists seemed to agree that sensuality, graphic violence, and unhappy endings are generally more acceptable to French-speaking audiences than to anglophone audiences. Perhaps this was result of old fashioned Anglo-Saxon puritanism, or the American love for Walt Disney-style happy endings. Either way, this traits seemed to me to mark the greatest difference.

Much Québécois horror is inspired from the European horror scene, which tends toward serial killer narratives more than, say, fantastic horror. However, as Paquet explained, pessimism is not the only story in France. The country that produced the scientific optimism associated with Jules Verne continues that tradition in its brand of science fiction that focuses more on sociological issues, as well as adventure.

One interesting idea that arose: language does not inherently carry the values of a society. Rather, culture does. The different traumas and schisms that define a society do have a much greater influence on national literature. For example, Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, remarked one of the panelists, is marked by the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China. This echoes how French SF is marked by the policy of laïcité (state secularism), the origins of which go back to the French Revolution. There did seem to be truth to this observation, given how French-language SF is in a sense more “secular” in its embrace of violent and sexual themes that would religious people shiver. On the other hand, anglophone SF retains a more “puritanical” attitude in the literature it produces and censors, particularly in the United States.

This being said, certain attitudes to the French language itself do influence French SF. Patrick Senecal pointed out later in the discussion that French-language editors have a tendency to homogenize the different registers of the language, leading to less linguistic diversity. When editing dialogue, French publishers often edit out regional dialect in favour of “le Français internationale.” The result is a banal, grammatically correct French, where all characters sound the same. These editing decisions do not accommodate the regional French spoken in certain regions of Québec, for example, which leads to a more monovocal (as opposed to polyvocal) body of literature. This is not just unappealing; it’s unrealistic and unrepresentative of how French is actually spoken. As Senecal quipped, “Il n’y a personne qui parle comme Radio Canada!”

Congrès Boréal
Congrès Boréal was held at the Montreal Masonic Memorial Temple

It was fascinating to learn a little bit more about the French-language SF scene here in Québec. As a McGill student and a West Islander, I guess I’m a quintessential Anglo. I don’t read much in French. But perhaps the reason, aside from the language barrier (I read slow in French), is because I’ve never really sought out French literature I enjoy.

Back in March, I picked up Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings in Emmanuelle Chastellière’s French translation, La Chute de La Maison aux Fleches D’Argent. I’m still working through it, but I’ve managed to banish the disagreeable, singsong voice that used to play in my head whenever I would read French books. This voice is a relic from my high school experience reading in French and I’ve finally managed to suppress it. This greater maturity has helped me enjoy reading in French. Though I still have ways to go, breaking my self-imposed taboo has been one mark of progress.

I purchased several issues of Brins d’Éterinté at the con, a Quebec SF magazine, as a promise to myself to read more and expand my vocabulary. One issue had published a translation of a Helen Marshall story, which I certainly appreciated as a fan of her work. French SF writers tend to read English SF a lot more than anglophone writers read French SF, but maybe I can buck that trend. I was pleasantly surprised that several attractive revues SF were represented at the con, such as Clair/Obscure, Étranges Lectures (from France), and Horizons Imaginaries, a CEGEP Marianopolis-based publication which won a prize at the con.

Perhaps working on my French can be my excuse to dig deeper in Quebec SF. In any case, the con was an eye-opening experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in attending. The next conference will be in Sherbrooke in 2019.

 

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6 thoughts on “Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF

  1. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 9/18/18 When Lessa Told Me To Do It, I Succumbed To Weyr Pressure | File 770

  2. Vivien

    Hi, I came here through File 770, and thought I could copy my comment there :

    It is very interesting to have this outside vision on our French speaking scene. I am moderately aware of it, through my recent (and modest) role as an amateur writer, and amateur editor in a fanzine. The last especially allows me to confront to a slush pile, where cultural trends will show up even more, I think.

    Maybe adding a few personal considerations :

    -Nothing to add on what the panelist said on the relationship to violence or religion we have, or our taste for the bleak, or the sociological analysis, I think it was very well captured. On this last point I just would like to add that political culture also shows very much in the way our authors are going to approach the subject. The libertarian trend to SF that seems very influential to US SF, at least historically, is very foreign to us, even exotic, it feels like reading a western :-). And when political opinions tends to the left (what I think is in majority the case in both scenes), it will do in different ways : our left political wings here will call themselves socialists, not liberal, and no, both terms are definitelt not permutable.

    – Quebec SF scene is very lively, especially taking into account the relatively small population pool that represents french-speaking canadians, compared to France for instance. It is inspirational to us French on what our scene could look like if we did things just a bit better.

    – However, we are tiny, and it is often difficult for english-speaker to grab just how tiny we are. This goes far beyond simply being proportionally less french-speaking readers then english-speaking readers in the F&SF genre. The mechanisms are known, with the heavy market-shares that the anglophones F&SF are able to conquer even in markets where there is a solid potential for domestic authors to bloom. Just to give you a figure : I work as a slush reader for AOC, which is a french equivalent of the “Brins d’Eternité” fanzine Matthew is talking about. I don’t know their figures, but we sell around the 300 copies, and I would be very surprised if they outrange us by an order of magnitude. And the only ones less tiny then us are the generalists magazine (“Galaxies”, “Bifrost” in France) who try to do both reviews, some short stories… with an important proportion of translations. That does make a very, very tiny scene for short story writer to bloom. Needless to say we are completely amateurs.

    – I think the “tiny” thing is part of the explanation for the homogenization of language that the panelists complain about. As I said, I have huge respect for what the french-speaking Canadians are able to achieve, but it is most likely they could not do so well without getting read by french speakers outside Canada, and the biggest chunk of those readers is probably in France. I said we are tiny, and I can understand the temptation, for Canadian authors and editors, not to pile up on this by publishing in a language that will at least puzzle the majority of the reading base. It is part of a sad trend that more generally does not favor risk taking when publishing french F&SF.

    – I was confronted once to the issue, on what I think was a more complicated case then one of our transatlantic friends speaking a bit weird. We, very (too) rarely recieve short stories in the slush pile from African authors. I remember reading one and bumping off heavily on the language. Local turn of phrases, but also, I must admit sadly, heavy grammatical mistakes which showed a lack of formal education. But the voice was definitely… from somewhere else. We didn’t publish it. It was original, but really lacking too much on many aspects to be a contender. But it really stroke me : could we have reckognized its value was it just a little better, or would I have been too estranged by the language ? Even on this one, was I finding some excuses not to publish it ?

    – On a shameless self-promotion point of view : , do not forget French publications in your explorations, starting by our own AOC : we even do ebooks most recently so no dead tree will have to cross the atlantic. Just don’t mistake us for who we are not : they are some pro editors (in novel format) and a few French authors which are at least tending to be pro or semi-pro, but on my side I am a R&D engineer with a knack and taste for reading and writing SF when I have time to do so. And I will have a short story coming up in one of the next issues of “Brins D’Eternités” if you stick to the Canadians. It will be bleak, sociological “fantastique” : I hope you appreciate it, but I’ve got little doubt you will find it very french :-).

    1. Thank you for the insights, Vivien. I value your input. French SF certainly seems to be a highly devoted, but a much smaller field than Anglo SF. It’s a similar story with Canadian literature being drowned out by the American market, though mainstream Canadian lit is of course a much bigger market than Quebec SF. Personally, I never really connected with the libertarian SF from the States, so if French SF is more socialist, I hardly think that’s terrible! In addition, my impression of the SF community in the States in recent years is that it is steadily moving towards the left, as marginalized authors push for more representation and more and more novels foreground systemic issues. Have you seen the same trend in the States? Is there something like that in French SF? Do you think American SF will begin to resemble French SF, at least politically, more and more as time goes on?

  3. Vivien

    Hi Matthew, thank you for your answer.

    Your panelists had a good say, on how language didn’t carry the values of a society, but culture did. So I do not expect any convergence on SF scenes without a full cultural convergence. And it is not happening now (and I am not actually wishing it, diversity is great ^^).

    For instance, SF being “left-winged” can have a very different meaning. Here in France it mostly means, from what I have seen, tackling themes such as capitalism as evil, egalitarian utopia, environmental awareness, fear of colonialism/nazism/religious fundamentalism… Race and gender as a theme is much less present, and the evolutions of the US scene you describe is actually more a drift away then a convergence on this point of view. Even if we see some timid evolutions, driven I think by people being aware of the evolution of the US scene.

    It gets even more delicate when it come to celebrating authors for their “maginalized background”. You can see some of it, but mostly in general litterature or other creation fields because sadly those voices are not very present in our small F&SF field (apart from women). It goes against very deeply rooted feelings that racism, sexism or homophobia,are best fought by learning to ignore the matter then by “positive discrimination”. We are mostly raised learning it is very rude pointing at someone’s race, even in what would be a positive manner. For instance, I would say that publishing a women-only anthology would be here highly controversial, LGBT+ or “colored” only unthinkable. And not only because conservatives would take outrage, far from that.

    I am myself part of this culture, and I have got mixed feelings. I think we could definitely use some more awareness on the issue in France, and welcome initiatives in this direction. But I am not at ease with how Americans deal with the matter, and quite frankly I tend to find the American scene a tad obsessive on that topic right now, contributing to the tense political atmosphere around F&SF. One example is that in our slush reading here at AOC, we insist in making the texts fully anonymous to the first readers. I know it will prevent us from actively promoting an author for his/her background, except if it influences the writing too much to be ignored. But it resonates deeply with what me and my colleagues consider to be a fair treatment of our authors.

    P.S. : Hard to tackle this subject honestly without giving from where I am speaking from. Contrary to I think the majority of French authors, I am a Bayrou or Macron supporter. Making me a moderate right-winger (especially because I am moderately supportive of economic liberalism). But voting democrats without a second of hesitation if I had too in a US election because “Are you nuts?” and “How can a society could possibly function without a public healthcare insurance system ?”.

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