April 10, 2012

Small fates: Félix Fénéon, Teju Cole, and a twist on journalism


Felix Feneon

The spirit of Félix Fénéon lives on. Remember Luc Sante‘s brilliant 2007 translation of his faits divers? Novels in Three Lines collected the French anarchist and art critic’s beautifully and hilariously condensed reporting of true crimes and happenings in Le Monde newspaper in 1906. A selection:

With a hook a washerwoman of Bougival fished out a parcel: a healthy newborn girl floating downstream.

Le Verbeau hit Marie Champion right on her breasts, but burned his eye, because acid is not a precision weapon.

In Cozes, 150 soldiers who had marched from Rochefort on maneuver were unable to keep going. The heat. And they were colonial troops.

NPR reports that Sgt. Jennifer Shockley is following in Fénéon’s footsteps by making art of the police blotter. In Unalaska, also known as Dutch Harbor, Shockley is developing a following for her funny renderings of call-outs, which are published in the Dutch Harbor Telegraph. A few here:

Animal (17:22 hrs, 1/24/12) —An exasperated, exhausted immature eagle which had entrapped itself inside a crab pot was able to fly to safety after an officer climbed a stack of crab pots and cut a raptor-sized hole in the netting.

Noise Disturbance (00:24 hrs, 3/3/12) — Caller reported hearing a fight in progress at a neighboring residence. A wet woman clad only in a bath towel abashedly explained to responding officers that the “fight” they were investigating at her house was simply loud intimate relations.

Teju Cole is working in the genre too: he regularly tweets Fénéon-worthy short news stories. Speaking to NPR, he said:

I had started doing research for a book that I’m writing, which is about Lagos, Nigeria — a narrative of contemporary life in the city. But as I was doing my research I found that there was certain material that I couldn’t really put into the book. Odd stories, news of the weird — strange little things of the kind that would happen in any complicated modern society. And what was I going to do with this material? So I started writing short stories based on those narratives. I found that Twitter was a perfect place to post them.

Here are a few of his best::

Two women threshing corn. Two babies strapped to their backs. Lightning descended in Bauchi, and took all four.

Joining the fight against AIDS, armed men in Edo carted away a shipment of anti-retroviral drugs.

As the deeds of the former Speaker of the House were being brought to light at the Federal High Court, there was a power outage.

Cole has a great essay here about his own inspiration by Fénéon and the potential of the form — which he calls ‘small fates’ — in a postcolonial context:

These pieces are generally not events of the kind that alter a nation’s course. They are not about movie stars or, with exceptions, famous politicians. They are about the small fates of ordinary people. The idea is not to show that Lagos, or Abuja, or Owerri, are worse than New York, or worse than Paris. Rather, it’s a modest goal: to show that what happens in the rest of the world happens in Nigeria too, with a little craziness all our own mixed in. In this odd sort of way, bad news is good news because these instances of bad news reveal a whole world of ongoing human experience that is often ignored or oversimplified.

They might be small, but these tiny reports pack a surprising punch. They’re also the polar opposite of the kind of reporting that requires phone-hacking and bribery of police, reports of which have ravaged the British media over the past year. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see more of this inventive form of reporting, as new technologies democratise communication, and as the unscrupulous and damaging practices of some sections of the press come to light.

As a side-note: there’s a cameo from none other than Félix Fénéon in the forthcoming Melville House steampunk novel Luminous Chaos, the sequel to Aurorarama and the second in Jean-Christophe Valtat‘s Mysteries of New Venice series. Fingers on the pulse, that’s us.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.