No French stuff, please, we’re British

So, the BBC has produced a thoughtful take on what is, unfortunately, a depressingly familiar question: Why do modern French novelists struggle to sell to the English-speaking market? 

It’s not a new story: us Anglophones no likey French novels. Or rather, we don’t like modern, post-war French novels. While we revere a whole of bunch of France’s eminent dead, white, male, canonical writers (Flaubert, Proust and Voltaire regularly make it into top ten lists) we apparently have no interest whatsoever in reading modern French fiction.

Duras and Barbery books

Some French books I love

It’s an interesting conundrum. There are have been lots of theories advanced for why contemporary French writers don’t do well in the US and UK book markets. They seem to revolve around a question of image, as the Beeb’s article explains. There’s an impression that French writers are too cerebral, too overly philosophical and obsessed with theory and form over content. Our own writers think so too – even avowed Francophiles like the brilliant Louis de Bernières. The thing is, we Anglophones read for plot, and the pleasures of genre fiction, so we’re told. And there’s a perception that that’s scarce in France.

It’s true that France has produced some of the greatest (read: scarily difficult) literary theorists (hello, Barthes, Lacan, Saussure, Foucault…) the world has ever seen. Perhaps French writers are still paying the price for the experiments of nouveau romanciers like Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, who sought to dismantle features like linear narrative and traditional characterisation. (I confess that I didn’t get on with Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, but Duras I love…must write about her too in the future.)

It’s probably a whole lot more complicated than that. There must be French writers out there who write the kind of fast-paced, plot-driven narratives that would appeal to US and UK readers, we just don’t know about them. Maybe it is, as the Beeb suggests, due to the prejudices and wariness of Anglophone booksellers.

But there have been breakaway successes in the past – Gallic Books’ The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbéry was a bestseller a few years ago. Perhaps it’s a question of publicity, then. And beyond the alarmist headlines, there are small initiatives that are making headway and doing important work. Like Le French Book, a digital-first publisher, who have translated some brilliant thriller writers like David Khara and Bernard Besson. I heartily recommend exploring some of their other titles, like the very funny and warm Winemaker Detective series.

The President's Hat

My copy of Le chapeau de Mitterand (The President’s Hat). It’s done its rounds among my family and friends, all in the cause of showing that French Fiction Is Not Boring. Really, Gallic Books should employ me as their publicist…

I was also (hey, still am) rooting for Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat that came out earlier this year (you can read my review of it here). Come on, Antoine, I thought, surely this is the one to crack the Anglophone market. It’s got a quirky, zippy plot and projects that kind of picturebook, faintly whimsical image of France that somehow so appeals to Anglophone armchair travellers (myself included!). But there are ideas here too; there are other things to enjoy. Its intertextuality, for one: the whole book is like a cheeky little retort to Balzacian tales of Parisians finding fortune and misfortune. Its ending even seems like a correction to Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin. Or maybe I was reading too much into it. But isn’t that a mark of a good story – you know, that thing that modern French writers aren’t meant to do well?

Allez les Bleus! 

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11 thoughts on “No French stuff, please, we’re British

  1. I am sure a large part of the problem is due to accessibility, it is hard to find out about French books that might appeal to us, because there is very little dialogue between French speaking and English speaking language readers, who like similar kinds of books. I live in France and love to read and wouldn’t know how to find anything in a bookshop that appeals to me, because of the blandness of the covers and lack of association with previous works of an author.

    It has taken me years of meeting many French people to find those who love books and to question their reading habits and to find that person who has similar reading tastes to me, but when I do, what a treasure trove of recommendations I uncover. The recommendations include contemporary French writers, Chilean, Columbian and Russian writers, and when I ask why they read books from all those cultures, they answer just as we would, “I saw it in the bookshop and I liked the sound of it.” The difference here being, they are so much more likely to be offered books translated from other languages and cultures.

    Even though I have been blogging for a couple of years and live here in France, I only discovered the existence Gallic Books mere weeks ago. These kinds of initiatives are at least giving those of us who read in English more choice, as are initiatives like Peirene Press who publish contemporary European novellas. Readers in France aren’t so different to readers elsewhere, the difference is they are offered so much more choice and have a much more eclectic range. And when they share their word of mouth recommendations, they are sharing them with each other and not the English speaking world. To tap into this is like finding the oasis in the desert, it takes a long time to get there and much perseverance.

    I can’t believe the media is falling for anecdote and stereotype to suggest we wouldn’t be interested in French novels, it’s not francophiles we should be talking to, but avid French speaking French language readers of similar profiles to our own. I think its more a question of economics, but as subscription models start to become more popular and niche offers/publishers attract their loyal readers, access may begin to improve.

    • Hi Claire, many thanks indeed for your insightful and nuanced comments. I think you are absolutely right in what you say about accessibility – I think this is probably want I was driving at when I mentioned ‘publicity’ in the blog post – and about French readers being offered more choice. More dialogue between French-speaking and English-speaking readers would be wonderful – perhaps we can set up some sort of project??

  2. Pingback: They’re Reading Thousands of Great Books Here, Cité du Livre – A Local French Cultural Centre and Library | Word by Word

  3. Thank you, Claire, for drawing my attention to this and to the original BBC article. I am very passionate about more literature being translated into English in general (and particularly French, because I currently live in France), because it does become such a one-sided affair. Everyone but the English speakers have access to a much wider selection of literature and styles, but the English language authors of course have much higher sales figures worldwide. There are many reasons for this – I started exploring some of these in a blog post a couple of months ago, if you don’t mind me posting the link here. An additional reason may be that French writers don’t stick as religiously to a fixed genre as Anglo-Saxon ones have done traditionally (luckily, Kate Atkinson and some others don’t).
    http://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/who-has-the-larger-audience/

    However, I make a timid claim that this may be changing as we speak: partly through the efforts of wonderful publishers such as Le French Book, Gallic Books, Europa, Peirene, Persilia Press etc.I don’t think I have ever seen so many French books translated and published in UK/US as this year. Pierre Lemaitre and Vargas won the CWA Dagger award this year. Penguin are doing a ‘one a month’ reissue of all the Maigret novels. At Crime Fiction Lover we have reviewed 11 French crime novels this year, which is unprecedented (nearly as much as Scandinavian). So, yes, I am pleased, although it could get better…

    • Hi MarinaSofia, thanks for your thoughts and the link to your post. Yes, it’s a shame that traditionally English speakers have been exposed to fewer works of literature in translation but as you say, it looks like the times they are a-changin’.

      Which French crime novels can you recommend, by the way?

  4. Thanks for this post.

    French readers lend books to each other. There are popular writers who don’t write difficult books and who develop a steady readership.

    They are for example: Delphine de Vigan, Marie Darieussecq, Amélie Nothomb, Philippe Claudel, Philippe Djian, Philippe Besson, Jean-Paul Dubois, Katerine Pancol, Virginie Despentes, Anna Gavalda…
    Fred Vargas is absolutely marvellous and the crime fiction scene is really vivid.

    The Nouveau Roman isn’t that read here. It’s kind of confidential. Only English-speaking readers are obsessed with it.

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