7 October 09 | Chad W. Post

Published by Hamish Hamilton in pdf format and distributed free of charge through their website, Five Dials is a pretty amazing publication that doesn’t seem to get nearly as much attention as it deserves. I mean, in just this 45-page issue there are pieces by Ali Smith, Geoff Dyer, Susan Sontag (on Camus), John Updike, Lauren Elkin, and Steve Toltz. And issue 5 (31 pages) has pieces by W.G. Sebald, Stephen Dunn, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Paul Wilson, and Alain de Botton. This is substantial.

(Case in point re: the lack of widespread attention: the Five Dials Facebook Page has a total of 59 (now 60) fans. This seems impossibly small for a Facebook page that’s been operating since May.)

Anyway, the article that really caught my eye in this latest issue is Lauren Elkin’s look at why there are 792 bookshops in Paris. Actually, this is more about the Parisian literary scene and how government regulations, fantastic sounding events, and a general attitude about books (le livre n’est pas un produit comme des autres or “a book is not a commodity like any other”) “keeps it literary” at a time when one out of every four French people claim to have not read a book in the last year.

If only 75% of Americans read a book last year . . . There’s an interesting statistic that Lauren pulls out: France spends 1.5% of its gross interior product on cultural activities, whereas in the U.S. that figure is 0.3%.

And in terms of that vast number of bookstores thing—here’s a bit of perspective:

A search in the Paris yellow pages for “bookstores” yielded 792 results: 101 in the 6th, 100 in the 5th—although these are the traditionally literary neighbourhoods; still there are 63 in the 11th, 28 in the 19th, 36 in the 16th. When you consider that there are only 10 independent bookstores in all of New York city, these figures are astounding.

There are over 3,000 independent bookstores in France, employing approximately 13,000 people. The largest French retailer of books—the Fnac—was founded by communists.

Nevertheless, French indie bookstores face a lot of common challenges—“high rents, low return on investment, high social fees to be paid for their employees”—all of which led to some seriously un-American innovative government interventions:

The Minister of Culture, Christine Albanel, introduced a “plan livre“—book plan—at the end of 2007 which aims to help out independent bookstores who fit a certain profile. The label “LIR”—librairie independente de reference—was launched in 2008. In order to qualify, there are a list of requirements, notably: the bookstore must not have access to a centralized warehouse from which their stock is replenished, the stock must contain a majority of books in print for more than one year, and the bookstore’s owner must have total autonomy over the bookstore’s holdings. Once the label has been bestowed, the bookstore becomes eligible for a variety of subsidies from the Centre National du Livre (CNL)—interest-free loans for development projects, funds with which to acquire stock (up to 500,000 euros per year of the CNL’s budget have been earmarked for this purpose), reductions on social fees for employees, tax relief, and funding to sponsor readings, festivals, and other activities. (The funding of the CNL increased in 2008 from 1.3 to 2.5 million euros.)

And this is all in addition to the “fixed book price” policy:

A book is not a product like any other, the French government affirmed when they adopted the Loi Lang, regarding the fixed price of books, in 1981. The law stipulates that the publisher has to print the price of the book on the back cover, and retailers are not allowed to offer more than a 5% discount on that price. It is the reason behind the quality of books published and the abundance of independent bookstores in France; it prevents large retailers like the Fnac or Amazon from putting small bookstores out of business; in theory it is also meant to prevent consumers from going to small bookstores to check out a book and then buying it in discount stores or, now, online.

There’s a lot more to her article than this “business of bookstores” stuff (which, yes, is my hobby horse, I admit), including a cool bit about the various book events in Paris, like Jacques Jouet’s “Attempt to tire out an author,” for which he spent four days writing a novel in the Place Stalingrad, or the Exercises de Style bus, “on which actors read from Queneau’s famous collection of ninety-nine versions of the same story: man gets on a bus.”

As someone who will be going to Paris for the first time later this month (actually as part of a study group to look at the future of publishing in France and America, so, um, that bookstore business obsession is pretty fitting), this issue of Five Dials has me all giddy. Definitely worth checking out . . . and becoming a fan of on Facebook.

Comments are disabled for this article.
Rambling Jack
Rambling Jack by Micheál Ó Conghaile
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“50 pages?”
“Including illustrations.”
“And this—what. . .

Read More >

The Things We Don't Do
The Things We Don't Do by Andrés Neuman
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .

Read More >

Private Life
Private Life by Josep Maria de Sagarra
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:

When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .

Read More >

Dinner by César Aira
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .

Read More >

We're Not Here to Disappear
We're Not Here to Disappear by Olivia Rosenthal
Reviewed by Megan C. Ferguson

Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .

Read More >

The Queen's Caprice
The Queen's Caprice by Jean Echenoz
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .

Read More >

French Concession
French Concession by Xiao Bai
Reviewed by Emily Goedde

Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .

Read More >

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .

Read More >

The Cold Song
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann
Reviewed by David Richardson

Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .

Read More >

This Life
This Life by Karel Schoeman
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >