Most literature works with, rather than against, the way the world is, according to French writer Édouard Louis, author of the autobiographical novel The End of Eddy.
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday evening, Louis explained: “When we talk about Literature or Arts, we always have the impression that they are kind of structurally liberal and fighting the system, fighting the way the world is. When you go to a literary event, you see in the way people act that they believe that they are challenging the world. But we have to acknowledge that, most of the time, Arts and Literature play the same games as governments.”
Louis’s book explores growing up gay in a small village in Picardy, a particularly impoverished area of Northern France. The problem with much of today’s literary field, Louis suggested, is that it focuses on the “educated middle class bourgeoisie—more or less white, more or less straight.”
Not that he feels the life of “white straight men” should never appear. “All life deserves to be represented,” he said, “but the problem is when we end up believing that life is the life of all of the people”.
When originally published in France three years ago, The End of Eddy proved controversial, not least for its portrayal of poverty and violence. “My father was a kind of schizophrenic because he loved me as his kid but he hated me as a faggot,” Louis said.
“It was really difficult for him to deal with that, and so we couldn’t build a relationship together. The only time we could talk is when we would take the car to do the shopping; my father was—still is—a big fan of Celine Dion and so we would sing Celine Dion together.”
Yet books themselves were themselves, Louis admitted, a form of violence. “When I was a kid, a book represented a life that we would never have—a life for people who study, a life for people who have the time, tools, and skills to read ‘difficult’ books. We would see a book, and it would mean: ‘You are not part of us. You are not part of that life. You don’t deserve that.’”
It was a violence he was himself willing to use as a teenager. “I would go home during the weekend with a book and I would read it on the sofa in front of my parents,” he explained. “It was a way of saying ‘I’m not like you any more.’
“So what kind of literature do we produce?” he asked. Sometimes I even ask myself: can we call what Toni Morrison does literature? When you see the state of literature in general, for me it works with the system, it’s part of the system, and the few people that write against literature are those that make important works.”
PAUL F COCKBURN