Bringing Asia to France

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije


ARLES: “Asia is vast enough to be our only concern” is the motto of Editions Philippe Picquier, the French publishing house based in Arles, France. With more than 800 titles in their catalogue, the Editions Philippe Picquier has been publishing material ranging from classical and modern literature to detective stories and children’s books by Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese writers since 1986. Picquier is also now widening its geographical scope to include Pakistan and India. The company publishes 60 titles per year, of which 15 are children’s or young adult books.

The fact that China is the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honor this year doesn’t mean much for Picquier. The publishing company has its own Paris-based in-house editor for its Chinese collection, which produces four or five works each year.

Editor Chen Feng spends two months a year in China liaising with writers and publishers and cultivating potential new authors — authors, rather than publishers, usually retain rights in China.

Chen and Picquier think long term. When they take on a new author they hope that it will be a lasting relationship. Chen is also careful to find books that will be attractive to Western readers.

“What is a bestseller in China isn’t something that will necessarily interest people here,” says Chen. “You have to read the material.”

Literature in China has changed radically since the 1980s says Chen. “Although there was a liberation of sorts at the time, people weren’t yet free in their minds.”

Now writers are able to talk about the Cultural Revolution with much more objectivity, says Chen. “The quality of their writing is much better — it’s deeper and better thought out.”

One of Picquier’s star authors, Yan Lianke, has been refused access to the Frankfurt Book Fair by the official Chinese delegation. He is best-known in the West for his short story Serve the People, about the wife of an impotent army general who begins an affair with a soldier, and his novel Dream of Ding Village, based on a true story of a village in the Henan in which a large number of peasants become infected with AIDS through blood donation. Yan has instead been invited by Picquier to Paris next month. He continues to write about subjects that irritate the government because, says Chen, he knows he is being watched anyway, and that he can publish his work either in France or Taiwan.

“Of course Chinese authors prefer to be published in China at first,” says Chen.

Some Chinese publishers will take a risk with an important yet risky work with a huge first print run, knowing they will probably not be able to reprint. For his novel Dream of Ding Village, Yan’s Chinese publisher printed 200,000 copies, all of which sold.

Another important Picquier author, Wang Anyi, whose novel The Song of Everlasting Sorrow was described last year as “extraordinary” by the New York Times, was invited to Frankfurt but has decided not to attend as she does not want to be part of the Chinese delegation.

“Obviously we are disappointed that Yan Lianke is not allowed to come to Frankfurt,” says Chen, who will attend the Fair, where she’ll be participating in an intriguingly named conference “Dialogue, China Book International’ and networking with officials who give grants for translations.

For their own part, Picquier’s rights representatives will be at Frankfurt with Yan Lianke’s new novel, From Lenin with Love (Bon Baisers de Lenin), and Bi Feyu’s The Plain (La Plaine). The company works closely with London agent Laura Susijn who represents several Chinese authors.

VISIT: The Editions Philippe Picquier Web site.

CONTACT: Chen Feng directly.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.