Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1943, is one of the most famous French books in the world. Did you know it has been translated into more than 450 languages and dialects? It was originally written for children, so the language is simple to understand while still discussing deep themes. That’s why it’s a perfect book to start reading in French. But luckily for all you French learners and readers out there, it is far from the only French book we recommend. Read on to discover some of the best French writers, classic and contemporary alike.
Best classic French writers
Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French philosopher, author and journalist. In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His work deals with the themes of the irrationality of the universe, the nature of human revolt, and the absurdity of human existence. His most famous work is L’Etranger (The Stranger or also published as The Outsider), written in 1942. Its beginning is well-known for its first lines: “Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.” One of the major themes of The Stranger is the irrationality of human actions and decisions.
Kamel Daoud, an Algerian writer and journalist, published The Meursault Investigation (Meursault, contre-enquête) in 2013. This retelling of Camus’ novel was awarded the Prix Goncourt for Premier Roman.
Jules Verne (1828-1905) was a French novelist, poet and playwright. He is also often referred to as the founder of the Science Fiction genre. Jules Verne wrote about adventure, travels to unknown places, inventions and technology. His descriptions are stunning in detail and eloquence.
We recommend you read: Around the World in Eighty Days (Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (20 000 lieues sous les mers). Just to start!
Romain Gary (1914-1980), born Roman Kacew, was a French novelist, diplomat, film director and World War II aviator. He is considered one of the best French writers of the 20th century.He is the only author who won the Prix Goncourt twice! The first time under his own name for Les Racines du Ciel (The Roots of Heaven) and a second time under the name Emil Ajar for La vie devant soi (The life before us). Gary’s work is about idealism, loss of innocence, and moral choices.
We recommend you read La Promesse de l’Aube (Promise at Dawn) and then watch the movie of the same title with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Pierre Niney.
Simone de Beauvoir
How could we write about the best French writers without mentioning Simone de Beauvoir? Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French existentialist philosopher, writer, social theorist and feminist activist. Beauvoir was very prolific and wrote multiple novels, essays and biographies. She is most known for her treatise Le Second Sexe (The Second Sex) a detailed analysis of women’s oppression.
We recommend you read Les Mandarins (The Mandarins), for which she won the Prix Goncourt in 1954, and her memoirs Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée.
Best contemporary French writers
Delphine de Vigan
Delphine de Vigan (1966-) is a French novelist, screenwriter and director. Her most well-known novel is No et moi (No and I), which won the Rotary International Prize in 2009. It has been translated into 20 languages and was adapted into a movie by the talented Zabou Breitman.
We recommend you read Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (Nothing holds back the night), which deals with a family coping with a woman’s bipolar disorder and Les enfants sont rois (Children are kings), published in 2021.
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt (1960-) is a Franco–Belgian playwright, a writer as well as a film director. He is also a member of the Goncourt Academy. Leave some for the rest of us, Schmitt! He became famous with his play Le Visiteur (The Visitor) about a meeting between Freud and God. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt writes about faith, seeking happiness, and mythical figures.
We recommend you read La Part de l’Autre (The Alternative Hypothesis), a novel that explores what would have happened if Hitler had been granted entry to the Fine Art Academy in Vienna instead of being rejected.
Olivier Norek (1975-) is a novelist, a screenwriter and… a police captain! He is one of the best contemporary French crime writers and also has an international reputation. Norek draws on his own experience as a detective and his stories have a strong plotline.
We recommend you read Entre Deux Mondes, a novel that deals with migrants in the Calais Jungle and the series of the Captain Coste.
Best female and feminist writers
Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) is considered by many the first French feminist writer. She was a playwright and a political activist. She was openly against the slave trade in the French colonies. Olympe de Gouges started her literary career in 1784 with an epistolary novel inspired by Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Choderlos de Laclos (which we also strongly recommend!). She was executed during the Reign of Terror.
We recommend you read her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen), published in 1791, which denounces male-female inequality.
Annie Ernaux (1940-) is a French novelist and a literature professor. Her works deal with body and sexuality, intimate relationships, social inequality and memory. Ernaux incorporates her own experiences in her works.
We recommend you read La place (Man’s place), an autobiographical novel that deals with her relationship with her father and her transition to adulthood, as well as L’événement (Happening) in which she describes her abortion.
Leïla Slimani (1981-) is a Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist. She is also a French diplomat and the representative of the International Organisation of Francophony. Slimani is one of the best French writers of the 21st century. She published Chanson Douce in 2016 and she won the Prix Goncourt. The novel is an international success and has already been translated into 18 languages. Chanson Douce was adapted into a movie in 2019 with the talented French actresses Karin Viard and Leïla Bekhti.
We recommend you read Chanson Douce and Leïla Slimani’s latest novel, Le Pays des Autres (The Country of Others), the first novel of a trilogy about the author’s family.
Which one will you choose?
Reading in your target language is such a good way to improve your grammar, widen your vocabulary and get steeped in a new culture. We also realize it can be daunting to face a 300-page book in a foreign language. Our most important advice would be to pick something based on your own interests and not just because it’s a classic. While we do love Victor Hugo, we would not recommend it as a first French book! (Pardon, Victor Hugo.) However, classics are not always linked with difficulty. Why not also read some poetry?
Above is only a small selection of the best French writers, there are so many more to discover!
Louise is a French teacher who lives in the UK. She is a keen traveller (she lived in Europe, the United States and Australia) and loves meeting people from all over the world. She is also passionate about how learning a new language opens doors to so many different cultures, and this is what she wants to share with her students. She comes from Burgundy-Franche-Comté, a region in the East of France, and loves everything there is about it, from the Macvin to the cancoillotte!