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“I look forward to a roman noir about Guantanamo or the Ferguson scandal!”

For the past 70 years, the Série noire has been the French publisher of the great American detective writers. In doing so, it has paved the way for the emergence of French authors, helping shape a French school of detective novels that is both political and engagé. Three questions to Aurélien Masson, the director of the collection at the Gallimard publishing house :

How would you define the roman noir?

For me, a roman noir is a novel that, through a spirited, pleasant and addictive narrative, engages in a hidden form of social critique. The roman noir was born in America in the 1920s thanks to authors like Dashiell Hammett, at a time of economic crisis. It is a kind of literature that tries to make sense of a chaotic world. In a classic detective novel, society is confronted with a criminal who generates chaos. To stop him, an investigator, a journalist or a private detective is sent in to solve the problem. At the end of the book, order has to be restored, and society has to be better off. A roman noir operates along the same principle, but in the end, you realize that evil cannot be eradicated, that it is as inherent to the novel as it is to society. A roman noir is successful if it amplifies our awareness of reality. In that sense, I believe it is a political genre that deals with public affairs, with society.

When you took over the Série noire in 2004, what were your key challenges?

The greatest challenge was to move the Série noire from the pocket format to the larger format, to set up contracts with the same authors as those of the other collections. For me, this meant declaring my love to the authors, and emphasizing that noir literature was a form of literature but, above all, of literature with a capital L. Cab Calloway used to say, “There are two kinds of music, the good and the bad. I like the good.” It’s the same with literature. I don’t think in terms of categories. It’s whatever moves me that excites me first and foremost. Today, people read less, but maybe they read better. Perceptions of the roman noir have become more refined. The Série noire produces less, but we are better publishers.

You are known for having narrowed the Série noire to French titles; was that a conscious choice?

A publisher never chooses. He or she is a lightning rod who endures rather than chooses. For me, there was no primary objective. I came across manuscripts, on individuals who I wanted to support to help release their works, and I told myself that that was what kept my heart beating. In a world where publishing increasingly consists of networks, I like to meet my authors in bars, in little streets, in literary salons. That being said, I also believe that in France, the roman noir is in great shape. Among the books that I recently published, there’s a novel that takes place in Afghanistan, another that focuses on growing poverty in the countryside, and a third that tackles the world of finance. Often, the American novels that I receive limit themselves to recycling the pre-existing mythology. I look forward to a roman noir that will talk to me about the Ferguson and Baltimore scandals, that will evoke Guantanamo, the drone attacks, or Obama’s advisors. In my view, the French have a much stronger urge to address reality. I prefer submissions that are maybe less perfect, but have kept more of their venom.

Interview published in the March 2016 issue of France-Amérique.

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