French Study Trip
We’ll have a few other sorts of posts going up this week (like maybe, finally, a few new book reviews—this fall has been rather rough on our schedule, but I have pieces in the works on Anonymous Celebrity by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao, The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, and Running Away by Jean-Philippe Toussaint), but for the most part, I think I want to explore some of the ideas, themes, events, and jokes of the French Study Trip I was on last week.
And unlike my normal long, multi-part posts that are organized in some semi-coherent format, I think I’m going to go all Parisian on this experience and just start from a few simple diagrams and see where everything leads me. I can already feel a record number of digressions coming on . . .
But actually, this is an important point: When we were at our first lunch, I sat across from Aimee from the Maison des Cultures du Monde (the organization responsible for the program itinerary) who got to talking about her school experience at a bilingual school where some classes were taught in French, others in English. The differences in the two sorts of classes went beyond language to conceptual structures though. In English classes, essays had strong theses that were stated up front, backed by three or more pertinent examples, concluded in a precise, summarizing form. In French classes, essays started from point A with a question, then drifted, touching on various points and hopefully coming to some sort of opinion/answer about the original question by the end.
I know, I know, that’s so French, but also starts to sort of explains the reasons why both American and French readers are so dismissive of contemporary French literature. I can’t tell you how many times people—publishers, editors, critics, ministry officials—made self-deprecating comments about how French literature (especially post-Nouveau Roman) was self-indulgent and written for other intellectuals, not for readers.
Personally, I don’t think this is very fair . . . Writers like Jean-Philippe Toussaint, like Jean Echenoz, like Lydie Salvayre, like Mathias Enard, have created interesting, readable books that are rather engaging. But they do tend to drift . . . The other French book I’m reading right now — Jacques Roubaud’s The Loop — is almost a perfect example of the overly-intellectualized writing that contemporary readers shy away from. Not that The Loop isn’t good — it’s pretty damn fantastic, in fact — but it’s a book without a solid, singular plot/thesis that can be traced from point A to point B to point C.
This is something I’ve noticed all over the world during my various editorial travels: Wherever I go, it seems that the local publishers apologize for the recent literary history (“during the 70s, our writers were rather, um, how should I put it, experimental, but now . . .”) and claim that the more contemporary writers are heavily influenced by the American and British writers that have been published in translation (“he’s like an Icelandic/German/Czech/French Jonathan Franzen!”).
To get back on track and to provide a bit more of a framework: This week-long study trip was organized by the French-American Foundation (and the amazing Emma Archer), the French Ministry of Culture & Communication, and the Maison des Cultures du Monde (special shout-out to Juliette Farcy and Mariska de Jonge), to provide seven American publishing professionals (myself, Molly Barton from Penguin, Julia Cheiffetz from HarperStudio, Eli Horowitz from McSweeney’s, Maja Thomas from Hachette, and Todd Zuniga from Opium) with an opportunity to explore the future of publishing on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in relation to the growing eBook market. Over the course of the trip we met with government officials, publishers, bookstores, database developers, people who create eBook platforms, magazine editors, and each other to talk about business models, gadgets, economic theories, and literature.
It’s no surprise that looking back on this week of meetings things are still a bit hazy . . . There was a hell of a lot of information—and opinions!—shared over the course of the five days, and personally, my trip got off to a rather rough start. Due to “weather-related events” (oh, and a busted bathroom), I spent seven hours at the airport in Rochester, waiting to board a flight to JFK, where I totally missed all flights to France and was forced to sleep on the floor of Terminal 4 and wait till 8pm the next day to catch a flight to Paris. For those keeping score, I was in an airport or airplane for almost 40 hours prior to showing up halfway through the first official meeting of the study trip. I was like a Toussaint character: bumbling, discombobulated, in a permanent state of jet-lag with a shirt whose collar was a bit dingy. (This too is exceedingly French: Everything is autobiographical.)
But once settled in, I found the other people on the trip (a couple of whom I already knew) to be extremely interesting and cool. (I believe the phrase used by all the organizers was “Best Study Group Ever.”) I’ll describe them in more detail over the course of this week, but one thing worth noting right from the start is how odd it was that all four guys were from indie presses/magazines and all three women hold powerful positions at huge corporate publishers. We all got along swimmingly—as should be expected—but it was interesting to see the interplay between all the different points of view: from those wanting to charge hardcover prices for eBooks to those wanting to use technology to cultivate larger readerships to those wanting to smash the current publishing system.
Maybe the best way of getting into all of the knotty issues surrounding digital, the future of publishing, French “fixed book prices,” and whatnot is with a series of graphs that we drew on placemats at our final lunch of the week . . . But I’ll save that for tomorrow. The only other thing I want to say in terms of scene setting is that Paris is the first world city I’ve ever visited that is even more beautiful than people had described it. Stunning. Grand. Bigger than life. And filled with beautiful buildings, artwork, and people.