August is generally a slow month for news, and apparently that's especially true in France, where historical fiction often makes it onto the pages of newspapers. As reported by Alissa J. Rubin of The New York Times, French journalists spend the dog days of summer utilizing the so-called "sixth W of journalism": what if?
As in, what if Y2K had been as bad as we all thought it'd be? Or what if wingnut Jean-Marie Le Pen had become the country's Prime Minister? Many of these articles, Rubin explains, have only a "tenuous link to reality":
Articles on offer this summer starred the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire and that most golden of monarchs, Louis XIV, as well as a series of “interviews” with long-dead composers, and ventures into somewhat esoteric historical fiction like “what if the oil embargo of 1973 had gone on longer?”
Rubin makes the compelling, disturbing case that the well-educated French elite, who are expected to know "some Victor Hugo poetry, some Voltaire and a smattering of the work of many other literary and philosophical figures," eat this stuff up. Media critic Erwann Gaucher explains this trend, which seems to fly in the face of, you know, real journalism: “These papers are aimed at people who are clearly part of a higher class and socio-professional category. There is an aspect of being in a club of peers during the summer, so let’s talk about beautiful things, like a club of people who like the Enlightenment.”
As Gaucher put it, there are a lot of wannabe novelists in France who ended up being journalists. Summer is their time to let loose and dust off their creative skills. Unsurprisingly, this comes at the expense of real news — stuff that actually happened. He told The Times:
“There are a lot of journalists in France who are more or less consciously writers who don’t write and here suddenly in the summer they have a bit of space, they have a bit of time to address topics that aren’t journalism anymore,” he said.
“But it creates something rather strange: right now there is as much news as there is at any other time of year, most notably in Egypt, but it’s the time when they are going to write about ‘the most beautiful places in France’ or ‘great philosophers,’ or ‘our ancestors, the Gauls.’ It’s completely crazy.”
Still, readers should take this trend with a grain of salt. After all, the top subjects on Le Monde, the left-leaning paper "viewed as the country’s newspaper of record" according to The Times, are: Syria, Employment, Pension debates, the PRISM/NSA spying scandal, judo (apparently that's big there) and Iraq. Libération is covering Syria, as is Le Figaro. The French press is still addressing the who, what, when, where and whys — they just have "a bit of space" to fill with what ifs, too.
And America has its own tradition of fantasizing about the "what ifs" of politics, specifically election outcomes. Especially elections involving George W. Bush. In 2010, David Rakoff at Newsweek published an oral "history" of what would have happened if Al Gore won the presidency in 2000. Nate Silver, MSNBC, New York magazine and the Washington Examiner have also reminisced about a Gore presidency. Earlier this year Megan McArdle at The Daily Beast wondered what would have happened in the Supreme Court hadn't heard the Bush vs. Gore case that ended the Florida vote recount.
In the vein of the Y2K story, earlier this month, novelist Michael Farris Smith wrote an op-ed for The Times titled "What if Novelists Took Steroids?" He wrote:
It’ll get you on the best-seller list and keep you there, my dealer would say. In half the time, he’d say. You will write sentences that will leap off the page and slap readers until they laugh or cry and then slap them again. [...]
A week later your editor will call. And then your publicist. And then your agent. They’ll all say the same thing: Look at the front page of The New York Times.
BUT you won’t look because you know what it says, and you know there is a photograph of your formerly long, skinny fingers, next to a photograph of your current muscular digits. Your readers are already on Twitter, saying, “I knew it.” But you knew it, too. You knew it would end this way.
In other words, "what if" isn't a journalistic question unique to France. For August — while everyone's away on vacation, including sources, and a long weekend is always just around the corner — maybe that's not such a bad thing.