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A Non-Deal at Frankfurt

This post originally appeared on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog. (And hopefully this situation will be written up in the near future by someone with more info and journalistic skills.)

In addition to talking about Marguerite Duras at the Frankfurter Hof (as Ed mentioned below), Anne-Solange, the rights director for Gallimard, also spoke at length about Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, his latest book, and her decision not to auction this to American publishers during the fair.

Although a number of French writers have won the prize over the years (fourteen, I believe), this was the first Gallimard author to win during Anne-Solange’s tenure. And Le Clezio is most definitely a Gallimard author–all of his forty plus titles are published there, beginning with Le Procès-Verbal (The Interrogation) in 1963. His most recent book is Ritournelle de la faim, which came out earlier this year.

His books have been translated all over the world, and a number of titles have even been translated into English and published in America. Most recently, Godine published The Prospector and Curbstone did Wandering Star. Nevertheless, American journalists shrugged their shoulders in confusion when he was announced as the Nobel winner last week, and at the fair, a very important American publisher referred to Le Clezio as “unknown” to Anne-Solange. (Coincidentally, Le Clezio’s Dutch publisher was there to speak up about the seven titles he has in print.)

That’s where this story gets interesting to me. Rather than jumping on the Nobel buzz and trying to auction the rights to the new Le Clezio book to a commercial U.S. publisher, Anne-Solange decided not to even try to sell the rights at the Fair. “When an American publisher asks me about the book I reply with ‘Why are you interested in this Le Clezio? What do you know about his other books?,’ ” she said, clearly getting some well-deserved pleasure out of the baffled responses. “I tell them that I’ll note their interest, but this is a new book, I don’t need to rush the sale, I’ll sell the rights later. Instead I want to focus on getting a lot of Le Clezio in print.”

That’s the crux of the situation: Simon & Schuster have the rights to four titles, but isn’t really jumping at the chance to make these available. This is in contrast with Le Clezio’s German publisher which put ten titles back in print (and in bookstores) three days after the Nobel announcement. As is common in the U.S. publishing scene, most publishers are only interested in the new book and hesitate to go back to do an author’s older work. (Which is ridiculous and emphasizes how the commercial market trumps quality in America.)

After speaking with her for a while, it’s clear that Anne-Solange wants to do right by Le Clezio’s work, rather than simply cashing in on his current fame. To me, this is a very valid approach, but one that most people will react badly to. (Anne-Solange has a bit of a reputation for criticizing American publishers and their resistance to French–well, any foreign country’s–fiction.) The desire to “create a context” for an author’s work is very admirable, and was echoed in my conversation with Carles Torner of the Ramon Llull Institut who wants a wide range of classic and modern Catalan authors translated into English rather than just a few contemporary books.

Whether or not Anne-Solange’s plan will work out and allow for a slew of Le Clezio books to become available to American readers remains to be seen. This is pure speculation, but I think it’s going to take some time and an independent press to bring Le Clezio to the U.S. market. Big presses have the ability to put books in print virtually overnight, but it doesn’t seem like they think of Le Clezio as a potentially profitable author. (Which seems strange, but there are those French Nobel winners–cough, Claude Simon, cough–who don’t sell very well in America despite the quality of their works.) They would also be adverse to translating some of the past books. An independent press might have a different viewpoint, although it would be more difficult for a smaller press to get a bunch of titles in print and in stores in a short period of time.

But all this could change come Monday when a Le Clezio story appears in the new issue of the New Yorker . . .



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