La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

This appeared in Guardian Books on 9 October 2012:

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

The French books world’s demented annual commercial knockout context shows little sign of going away

[Eternal return… Parisian book buyers. Photograph: Alamy]

Much ink was expended, earlier this year, on the subject of parenting in France. For better or worse — usually the former — it was deemed far less “child-centric” than across the Channel. There is, however, at least one area where French kids set the agenda: the agenda (French for “diary”) itself.

Although nominally in December, the end of the year really occurs in early summer, when schools break up for a two-month hiatus. By August, Paris feels eerily empty, in a way that London, for instance, never does. At times, it almost looks like the local population has been wiped out by a neutron bomb, leaving hordes of tourists roaming around a ghost town. Most of those who cannot afford to go away are relegated — out of sight, out of mind and out of work — to the infamous banlieues, which, owing to some strange optical illusion, only become visible when they disappear in flames.

By the same token, it is September, and not January, which marks the true beginning of the year; a beginning that spells eternal recurrence rather than renaissance. “La rentrée” — the back-to-school season extended to the entire populace — never fails to remind me of Joey Kowalski, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, who, despite being 30 years old, is marched off to school as though he had been caught playing truant. “La rentrée” is the bell that signals the end of playtime; the restoration that follows revolution. In an annual re-enactment of the “retour à la normale” after the carnival of May 1968, everybody returns to the old “train-train quotidien”: the daily grind of “métro, boulot, dodo” (commute, work, bed — an expression derived from a poem by Pierre Béarn). A vague sense that real life is elsewhere (as Rimbaud never quite put it) lingers a while, before fading like suntans and memories of holiday romances.

The start of the new school year (“la rentrée scolaire”) coincides, give or take a few weeks, with the opening of the publishing season (“la rentrée littéraire”). In fact, both rentrées go together like cheese and wine, Alsace and Lorraine, or Deleuze and Guattari. This is not purely coincidental, since publishers are largely dependent upon education for the grooming of future generations of book buyers. The “rentrée littéraire” is the equivalent of cramming for your finals — a tome-intensive blitzkrieg geared towards the autumn literary prizes and subsequent Christmas sales. The season kicks off mid-August, really kicks in mid-October, and climaxes in November, when most book prizes are awarded: the illustrious Prix Goncourt (hot on the heels of the Grand Prix de l’Académie française in October) but also the Prix Décembre, Femina, Flore, Interallié, Médicis, Renaudot, and a few others besides. The major publishing houses tend to carpet bomb, chucking as many titles at these awards as they can, while the indies have no other choice but to go for surgical hits, on a wing and a press release.

So far, this year’s vintage has been pretty much business as usual, apart from the growing popularity of ebooks. At season’s close, 646 novels will have been released (compared with 654 in 2011 and 701 in 2010). If French fiction is down a little, the number of foreign titles remains constant (220 against 219 last year). As a result of the uncertain economic climate, there are fewer debuts (69 against 74) and more mass-market print runs (including Fifty Shades of Grey and the new JK Rowling). Pursuing a trend observed over the past few years, many of the heavyweights (Jean Echenoz, Patrick Modiano, Philippe Sollers et al.) have been held over until mid-October in order to heighten anticipation and maximize impact upon November’s book prizes.

Some of this season’s most hotly touted titles have a distinct whiff of déjà vu. There’s the new Houellebecq (Aurélien Bellenger, whose first book was an essay on the old Houellebecq). There’s the presidential campaign, which is fast becoming a sub-genre, with no less than seven books devoted to the latest instalment (including a non-fiction novelisation by HHhH author Laurent Binet). And then there’s the obligatory scandal which, this year, comes courtesy of Richard Millet (“l’affaire Millet”!) and his “literary praise” of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

The best take on the “rentrée littéraire” appears in Ecclesiastes: “of making many books there is no end”. In no other country is so much fiction published in such a short period of time. With hundreds of novels competing for a dozen prizes or so, most are destined to sink without trace — unsold and unread. Industry observers claim that if a debut novel has not caused a buzz by mid-September, it’s (French) toast. The result is a book glut comparable to Europe’s wine lakes and butter mountains.

David Meulemans, who heads indie press Aux Forges de Vulcain, made a few waves recently by announcing that he would not be taking part in this year’s rentrée. He described the publishing season as “mass commercial suicide”: a launch pad for prizes virtually no one stands a chance of ever winning. Sylvain Bourmeau — who praises the extraordinary diversity of publications on offer (belying, in his view, the French literati’s reputation for navel-gazing) — acknowledges, in Libération, that the rentrée is indeed a “weird national lottery”. For the past decade, Pierre Astier has been one of its most vocal critics. This former indie publisher, who went on to launch one of France’s first literary agencies, highlights the hypocrisy of a system — controlled by an old boys’ network — that fosters cut-throat competition without establishing a level playing field. Conflicts of interest abound; nepotism is rife. Being life members, the Goncourt judges are endowed with godly powers. Four of them even have books in the running for this year’s awards, which are usually carved up among the major publishing houses anyway. Astier also criticises the lack of openness to francophone writers, which he interprets as a sign that decolonisation has not gone far enough.

Although its quaint customs are often parodied (as in Patrick Besson’s Ma rentrée littéraire), the publishing season, is still widely seen as an instance of France’s cultural exceptionalism; its “droit à la différence” — or even différance.

The Resurrection of Guy Debord

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This appeared in the Guardian Books blog on 18 March 2009:

The Resurrection of Guy Debord

The situationist arch-rebel has finally been recognised as a ‘national treasure’ in France – but would he have appreciated it?

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Guy-Ernest Debord would be spinning in his grave — had he not been cremated following his suicide in 1994. The arch-rebel who prided himself on fully deserving society’s “universal hatred” has now officially been recognised as a “national treasure” in his homeland.

The French government has duly stepped in to prevent Yale University from acquiring his personal archives, which contain almost everything he ever produced from the 1950s onwards: films, notes, drafts, unpublished works and corrected proofs, as well as his entire library, typewriter and spectacles. The crowning jewel is, of course, the manuscript of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord’s devastating pre-emptive strike on virtual reality. The small wooden table on which his magnum opus was composed is also thrown in.

It’s difficult to convey how bizarre it is to hear Christine Albanel — Sarkozy’s minister of culture — describing the revolutionary Debord as “one of the last great French intellectuals” of the second half of the 20th century. A love-in between a resurrected Andreas Baader and Angela Merkel would be only marginally more surprising. Then again, intellectuals have been something of a Gallic speciality ever since the Dreyfus Affair. They’re accorded the privileged status usually reserved for the likes of Bono on these shores. Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral, in 1980, attracted some 50,000 punters. I doubt whether Noam Chomsky or Tom Paulin will top that.

But however incongruous her position, Madame Albanel is spot-on: no one — not even his sworn ideological enemies — can deny Debord’s importance. Even though the young prankster soon turned into a curmudgeonly old soak, his influence is all-pervasive. In fact, it was precisely because he hated the modern world with a passion that he was able to analyse it so presciently. “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” he observes in the opening pages of The Society of the Spectacle — a statement that’s only grown in truth since he made it, back in 1967.

Howls for Sade, his first movie, certainly was not “mere representation”. It was the cinematographic equivalent of a meeting between Yves Klein’s monochromes and John Cage’s 4′ 33″: the screen remains blank throughout — all-white when there is some dialogue and all-black the rest of the time. During the last 20 minutes, the film plays itself out in total silence and obscurity.

Guy Debord co-founded not one, but two, radical movements: the Lettrist International (1952) and the more famous Situationist International (1957), which popularised concepts such as “dérive” and “détournement”. The situationists’ hour of glory was undoubtedly the student uprising of May 1968, which they partly shaped, but their influence has kept on growing ever since, from Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid‘s work with the Sex Pistols to the current crop of British psychogeographers (Iain Sinclair, Will Self, Stewart Home et al) via Factory Records and The Idler‘s anti-work ethic.

In 1959, Debord and the artist Asger Jorn published Mémoires, which was bound in sandpaper so that it would attack any book placed next to it. For years, this lethal dust jacket served as a perfect symbol of Debord’s abrasiveness: he was the ultimate outsider whose ideas could never be assimilated by the mainstream. So what went wrong?

The official recognition of Debord’s work tends to dissociate the revolutionary from the writer whose classical prose style has been compared with that of great memorialists such as Saint-Simon. This negates the situationist belief that politics, literature and art must go hand in hand: “The point is not to put poetry at the service of revolution, but to put revolution at the service of poetry”. Revolution was supposed to lead to the “supercession of art” by enabling human beings to live poetry and become works of art. From this point of view, Debord belongs to the tradition of dadaists and surrealists such as Jacques Vaché, Arthur Cravan or Boris Poplavsky.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” Oscar Wilde famously wrote. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” The French have long made this aphorism their own, as exemplified by the reception given to the likes of Rimbaud, Céline, Jean Genet or Dennis Cooper. It seems that the only crime an author can commit on the other side of the Channel is poor writing — although you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.