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 Booker Steps Away From Being its Own Genre

This appeared in The Guardian (Comment is Free section) on 28 July 2012:

The Booker Steps Away From Being its Own Genre

The inclusion on the Man Booker longlist of four debuts and three novels from excellent indie publishers is a welcome sign

[Science Fiction novelist China Miéville has criticised the Booker Prize for becoming its own genre. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian]

The announcement of this year’s Booker longlist, just a few days before the opening of the Olympics, reminds us that literary jousting originated in ancient Greece. Modern literary competitions appeared shortly after the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century. The Nobel prize in literature (1901) was followed by the Prix Goncourt in France (1903), the Pulitzer prizes in the States (1917) and the James Tait Black memorial prizes in Britain (1919). Compared with their Greekish forebears, they are far trickier affairs. Australian author Richard Flanagan is clearly no friend of contemporary book contests: in his view, they are often barometers “of bad taste” that only serve “to give dog shows a good name”.

The aristocratic authors of an earlier period often felt that there was something a little common, even humiliating, about wanting to be read by others, possibly of an inferior station. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard describes some of the excuses they came up with to give the impression that their works had got into print without their knowledge. La Rochefoucauld (to whom I am vaguely related through one of his descendants’ bastard offspring) claimed, for instance, that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant.

Thomas Bernhard had similar issues with literary prizes. My Prizes: An Accounting, published posthumously, is a series of diatribes against the nine eponymous prizes he received up until 1980 and the “assholes” who bestowed them upon him — which brings us back to the Booker.

In François Ozon’s film Swimming Pool, a bestselling author (played by Charlotte Rampling) pays a visit to her publisher, where she bumps into an up-and-coming novelist who has just won a minor literary prize. After the latter’s departure, the publisher tries — and fails — to clear the air by describing the award as “hardly the Booker prize!” Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds him of what he always used to say at the beginning of his career: “Awards are like haemorrhoids: sooner or later, every arsehole gets one”. This scene epitomises the Booker effect: the petty rivalries and insidious corrupting influence.

Launched in 1969, the Booker was always conceived of as a publicity stunt designed to shift units. I think it is fair to say that no other literary prize in the world has ever received so much media attention. By 1990, when Gilbert Adair included a chapter entitled “Le Booker nouveau est arrivé” in his Barthes-inspired Myths and Memories, the prize had already become an institution, thanks to a marketing strategy not dissimilar to that of Beaujolais nouveau.

The Booker has always worn its commercialism on its sleeve: its official name — the Man Booker Prize — derives from its original (Booker-McConnell) and current (the Man Group) sponsors. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to sell more books is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and the Booker has two big advantages over the Gallic Goncourt: it is not controlled by the publishing industry and the judging panel changes every year. However, financial considerations do, regrettably, play a part in the selection process: a publisher must “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. Indies may find it difficult to stump up this sort of money.

The Nobel is awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Aimed at “the intelligent general audience,” the Booker never entertained such lofty ambitions. It was always resolutely middlebrow as last year’s controversy over “readable books” that “zip along” amply illustrated.

Since its inception, the prize has championed a type of well-made mainstream novel that reflects the liberal humanist world view of the Home Counties (sometimes with decorative postmodern knobs on). When a thriller found its way on to the longlist, many people thought that the judges had lost the plot, and were no longer able to recognise a Booker novel. This reaction only confirmed China Miéville‘s argument that despite traditionally shunning genre fiction, the Booker had itself become a genre. This, I feel, has been the prize’s most pernicious influence. The novel — which was meant to be the genre to end all genres in which philosophy and poetry would be reunited — has been reduced to innocuous literary fiction narratives written as though modernism had never happened.

This year, there has been no populist talk of jolly good reads or zip-along page-turners. On the contrary, chairman Peter Stothard signalled the judges’ intention to focus on “texts not reputations“: books “that you can make a sustained critical argument about”. The kind that “you don’t leave on the beach” and want to “read again and again”. Hence, perhaps, the presence of four debuts and three novels released by excellent indie publishers (And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt).

The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole.

****

Here is a longer — uncut and unedited — version of the above text. A draft, if you will:

The announcement of this year’s Booker longlist, just a few days before the opening of the Olympics, reminds us that literary jousting originated in Ancient Greece. These early competitions, however, were more akin to poetry slams or the itinerant Literary Death Match, than to the sedate book prizes we are accustomed to. Dithyrambic contests were collective, all-singing-and-dancing renditions of poetic works. The name of the victorious chorus would often go down in history, while that of the poet himself would be forgotten. It was, above all, the performance that was being assessed.

Modern literary competitions appeared shortly after the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the nineteenth century. The Nobel Prize in Literature (1901) was followed by the Goncourt in France (1903), the Pulitzer in the States (1917) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in Britain (1919). Compared with their Greekish forbears, they are far trickier affairs. Australian author Richard Flanagan is clearly no friend of contemporary book contests: in his view, they are often barometers “of bad taste” that only serve “to give dog shows a good name”. Whether or not most prizes “get it mostly wrong,” he clearly has a point when it comes to the Nobel: “No one I know hails Sigrid Undset or Frans Eemil Sillanpaa or Par Lagerkvist — Nobel laureates in 1928 and 1939 and 1951, respectively — as globally significant writers, important as they are to their own national literatures, perhaps because no one I know has ever read them. Yet Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Cortazar, Nabokov, Borges, Kundera, Roth and Bolano have all been passed over for the gong of gongs”.

According to Lars Iyer (whose novel Spurious was shortlisted for last year’s Not the Booker), “the prestige of authorship” — producing great works — has given way to “the prestige of an ephemeral kind of literary careerism,” which is sanctioned by book clubs and prizes: “With pomp and circumstance, the award ceremonies vainly bestow medals of greatness on novels that vaguely mime our fading memory of masterpiece. The prestige, the debris, the body of Literature remains even as the spirit has fled”. The aristocratic authors of an earlier period often felt that there was something a little common, even humiliating, about wanting to be read by others, possibly of an inferior station. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard describes some of the excuses they came up with to give the impression that their works had got into print without their knowledge. La Rochefoucauld (to whom I am vaguely related through one of his descendants’ bastard offspring) claimed, for instance, that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant. Thomas Bernhard had similar issues with literary prizes. In the autobiographical Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982), he describes a cursory acceptance speech as “a few sentences, amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man was a wretched creature and death a certainty”. My Prizes: An Accounting, published posthumously, is a series of diatribes against the nine eponymous prizes he received up until 1980 and the “assholes” who bestowed them upon him — which brings us back to the Booker.

In François Ozon’s film Swimming Pool (2003), a bestselling author (played by Charlotte Rampling) pays a visit to her publisher, where she bumps into an up-and-coming novelist who has just won a minor literary prize. After the latter’s departure, the publisher tries — and fails — to clear the air by describing the award as “hardly the Booker Prize!” Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds him of what he always used to say at the beginning of his career: “Awards are like haemorrhoids: sooner or later, every arsehole gets one”. This scene epitomises the Booker effect: the petty rivalries and insidious corrupting influence.

Launched in 1969, the Booker was always conceived of as a publicity stunt designed to shift units. I think it is fair to say that no other literary prize in the world has ever received so much media attention. By 1990, when Gilbert Adair included a chapter entitled “Le Booker nouveau est arrivé” in his Barthes-inspired Myths and Memories, the prize had already become an institution, thanks to a marketing strategy not dissimilar to that of Beaujolais nouveau. The Booker has always worn its commercialism on its sleeve: its official name — the Man Booker Prize — derives from its original (Booker-McConnell) and current (the Man Group) sponsors. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to sell more books is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and the Booker has two big advantages over the Gallic Goncourt: it is not controlled by the publishing industry and the judging panel changes every year. However, financial considerations do, regrettably, play a part in the selection process: a publisher must “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. Indies may find it difficult to stump up this sort of money.

The Nobel is awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Aimed at “the intelligent general audience,” the Booker never entertained such lofty ambitions. It was always resolutely middlebrow as last year’s controversy over “readable books” that “zip along” amply illustrated. Since its inception, the prize has championed a type of well-made mainstream novel that reflects the liberal humanist world view of the Home Counties (sometimes with decorative postmodern knobs on). When a thriller found its way on to the longlist, many people thought that the judges had lost the plot, and were no longer able to recognise a Booker novel. This reaction only confirmed China Miéville‘s argument that despite traditionally shunning genre fiction, the Booker had itself become a genre. This, I feel, has been the prize’s most pernicious influence. The Novel — which was meant to be the genre to end all genres in which philosophy and poetry would be reunited — has been reduced to innocuous literary fiction narratives written as though Modernism had never happened.

This year, there has been no populist talk of jolly good reads or zipalong page-turners. On the contrary, chairman Peter Stothard signalled the judges’ intention to focus on “texts not reputations“: books “that you can make a sustained critical argument about”. The kind that “you don’t leave on the beach” and want to “read again and again”. Hence, perhaps, the presence of four debuts and three novels released by excellent indie publishers (And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt). The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole!