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.
“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.”
“And this—what. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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.. . .
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. . .
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. . .