French culture has been enriched by some of the world’s finest writers over the centuries, from Voltaire to Victor Hugo and Marcel Proust. Now a new figure has emerged at the forefront of the country’s literary scene: a 22-year-old Internet star whose first book is a self-help guide that is outselling all France’s most eminent authors to the dismay of the nation’s intelligentsia.
Toujours Plus (Always More) by Léna Mahfouf, who uses the pen name Léna Situations, combines the author’s own experiences with advice to adolescents on such issues as avoiding toxic friends and coming to terms with their own bodies. It has sold 62,000 copies since its publication three weeks ago and Robert Laffont, the publisher, is printing a further 150,000. No other book has done so well this autumn, not even the criticially acclaimed Yoga, an intense and lofty work on meditation by Emmanuel Carrère.
A new figure has emerged at the forefront of the country’s literary scene: a 22-year-old Internet star.
Mahfouf is what most commentators call an influencer, although she prefers the term “creator of content”. Born in Paris to parents from Algeria, she earned celebrity by posting photographs and videos of herself online. Some involve tips on makeup or hair dye; others feature self-help recommendations (how to avoid procrastination being a recent example) or insights into her own life. One video shows her on holiday in Mykonos. Another is entitled: “We went shopping and it was madness.”
One Parisian bookshop owner, who asked not to be named, said: “It’s complete rubbish. It’s just a marketing gimmick. There’s nothing in it at all.”
Mahfouf has 1.6 million followers on YouTube, 2.3 million on Instagram and 800,000 on TikTok. Most of her fans are female and 55 percent are aged between 18 and 24. The French daily Libération said she was popular because she came over as sincere and warm-hearted but also because she had stood up against online hate speech.
One video is entitled: “We went shopping and it was madness.”
Her online success has earned her contracts with the likes of Dior, Balmain, Prada, Disney and Canon. Some brands pay her to use their products, others send her items free of charge. In an interview she refused to say how much her deals earned her but added that it was “enough to enjoy myself; not enough to buy a flat [in Paris]”.
Her 149-page book reads like a printed version of her Internet posts. She advises readers to believe in their dreams, to weed out toxic friends and to accept themselves as they are. One chapter focuses on the six months she spent studying marketing in New York, where she learned about the “American mindset”, which she explains in a section entitled: “Be at ease with success.”
Not everyone, though, is comfortable with Mahfouf’s success. Marie-Rose Guarniéri, owner of the renowned Abbesses bookshop in Paris, said that YouTube stars were “false prophets offering false well-being”. Ms Guarniéri, who said she had not read Toujours Plus, added: “We have got rid of religion but created idols that are worse than anything that went before. It’s a symptom of our times that such people are being carried to the pinnacle.”