Below is a piece I wrote for an international newspaper about the 2014 French literary season back in September last year. Here it is in its full, unadulterated form. Many thanks to the kind contributors.
When memories of lazy, sunny summer afternoons sipping pastis by the pool start to fade, the Paris literati braces itself and plunges headlong into the yearly rentrée littéraire. This is the season where the French publishing world kicks back into life in earnest and sees publishers large and small issue a cornucopia of new titles in what amounts to a three-month long nationwide book festival. This year’s jamboree has been part-rocked, part-electrified from an unexpected source: Valérie Trierweiler. The ex-partner of beleaguered French president François Hollande has published Merci Pour ce moment [Thank You for This Moment], her insider account of life with the head of state. Café terrace gossip is naturally Trierweiler related, but there is also a concern that her publication, inevitably taking up much of the time and space reserved for book discussion in the media, will occlude the “really” literary in what actually amounts to a promising 2014 crop of new writing.
This year’s rentrée littéraire sees 607 novels – new and in translation – published in France between late August and early November. The season, a uniquely Gallic phenomenon, which has gradually emerged since the 1950s, generally expects some kind of headline-grabbing scandal. In recent years, these have reliably been instigated by the notoriously provocative writer Michel Houellebecq, variously accused of defamation, plagiarism and Islamophobia. Houellebecq isn’t publishing this rentrée, his latest novel is planned for release in January, but no one anticipated that France’s ex-first lady was going to take his place and dominate press coverage. Her launch was a stage-managed publishing coup that effectively kept her book a secret until two days before it hit the shelves to ensure maximum press impact and, with a reported 200,000 copies printed, her team undoubtedly hopes for maximum sales too.
When I sat discussing la rentrée with Natacha de la Simone, manager of the Atelier bookstore in Paris’ edgily fashionable Belleville district, she was dismissive: “Trierweiler has absolutely nothing to do with it, her book is just a political document, not real literature. The problem is, it might wipe out any intelligent discussion of the other, more interesting, books”. Despite Trierweiler’s media maneuvering there is a real sense of optimism around the 2014 book season. This is vital for independent bookstores such as the Atelier which traditionally does 60% of its yearly business in the run-up to Christmas, making la rentrée a crucial showcase for literary talent. The optimism is perhaps surprising in an industry that is still recoiling from French publishing group Hachette’s ongoing dispute with Amazon. The French government has recently also taken steps to protect independent bookstores, such as reinforcing the 1981 Loi Lang, which already bans retailers from discounting books by more than 5%, by forbidding online sellers from also offering free delivery on their book sales. De la Simone, however, isn’t impressed by the legislation: “it’s a complete joke. Independent bookstores aren’t protected at all by the government”.
Leaving aside the politicking, the optimism in literary circles comes very much from the feeling that the crop of new novels could mark 2014 as a vintage year. Nelly Kaprièlian, literary editor for the influential culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles, herself publishing her debut novel this rentrée, Le Manteau de Greta Garbo [Greta Garbo’s Overcoat], told me she regards the wealth of new texts as a “sign of life” from French writing, “the literary season is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on literature. France is the only country in the world to give as much attention to new writing as it does and I’m proud of that”, she added. Buzzed about writers this year include Emmanuel Carrère, whose Le Royaume [The Kingdom] explores the early days of Christianity, Éric Reinhardt, whose L’Amour et les forêts [Love and Forests] is a stylish novel about a woman in an abusive relationship and Frédéric Beigbeder’s fictionalised young romantic life of J.D. Salinger, Oona & Salinger. This year also sees volumes from Thomas Pynchon, David Peace and Haruki Murakami published in translation.
This spotlight alluded to by Kaprièlian takes the form of literary prizes, such as the coveted Prix Goncourt, but also an unprecedented breadth of newspaper column inches and even mainstream TV and radio exposure. There is, however, a literary hierarchy that tends to dictate affairs, as writer Aurélien Bellanger, publishing his second novel, L’Aménagement du territoire [Regional planning] confides, “out of the hundreds of authors publishing, it’s only a select ten who feel the full glare of attention. This turns the rentrée into a bizarre game where a competitive spirit dominates, but to which no one dares admit. Such hypocrisy can be tiring, but hating each other without admitting it is a French national pastime”, he adds, playfully.
Aside from Trierweiler, who might get the sales, but is unlikely to win any prizes, the chosen few who jockey for the Goncourt and the prime coverage, traditionally do so with the support and behind-the-scenes lobbying from the heavyweight Parisian publishers: Gallimard, Grasset and Seuil. Kaprelièan doesn’t necessarily agree that such influence always prevails: “I found L’Amour et les forêts magnificent, much better than many other novels published for the rentrée and that’s why we put Reinhardt on the cover of our magazine. The size of his publishing house [Gallimard] didn’t come into it”. Carrère’s novel, published by the smaller P.O.L house was, according to the trade magazine Livres Hebdo, leading the sales charts in early September, at least before Trierweiler’s book hit the shelves.
Reinhardt, one of the forerunners for the Goncourt, is relishing the literary season, which he describes as “une fête nationale de la littérature”. Reinhardt is a seasoned campaigner, having attracted a great deal of media attention for his 2007 novel Cendrillon [Cinderella]. He is highly conscious of the possible benefits and pitfalls of the season: “Cendrillon was the most talked about novel of the season in the media and I became known as a writer almost overnight”. Reinhardt is also frank about the risk the rentrée poses for a writer: “It is a gamble. Publishing during the rentrée littéraire can make you a star, but if you aren’t one of the chosen few, if your book isn’t discussed by critics and enjoyed by bookshops, then it’s very simple: your book is still-born, it doesn’t exist; you are invisible”. Bellanger shares a similar, if more philosophical, view about the unforgiving literary machine: “because of its inherent cruelty, there is something almost sacrificial about the literary system. But publishing a book remains a very honourable sacrifice, all the same!”.
The centrepiece of the season is the announcement of the Goncourt, which takes place on November 5, at the Drouant restaurant in central Paris. After then, Paris will take a deep breath, start daydreaming about next year’s long summer break and begin to assess the impact of l’effet Trierweiler on this year’s season.