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Critics Attack France’s Annual Rentrée Littéraire as “Collective Suicide”

In Europe by Olivia Snaije

“The French literary season is the greatest squandering of literature ever,” says one agent.

By Olivia Snaije

As usual, since late August, French magazines and newspapers have been trumpeting the rentrée littéraire, or literary season, which coincides with the back-to-school-season and sees the release of much of France’s annual output of literary fiction. Now, with the announcements of long-lists for literary prizes such as the Goncourt, the rentrée littéraire is in full swing, with 646 books out or in the process of publication before November. Down from the 654 books published last fall, the French trade magazine, Livres Hebdo called this figure a sign of “cautiousness in a difficult economic context.”

french flagBut industry people are not always enthusiastic about this giant wave of books during the autumn, many of which are lost in the trough, somewhat akin to an over production of grain. In late August an independent publisher, David Meulemans, wrote an op-ed piece saying he refused to participate in what he called a “collective suicide.”

The literary season, he wrote, was nothing more than a launch pad to obtain a literary prize. Most of these “missiles” will misfire he added. As a form of resistance, he would not be publishing anything this fall he concluded.

Meanwhile literary agent Pierre Astier sent off a missile of his own: “The French literary season is the greatest squandering of literature ever. Everything is based on self-deception: the so-called ability of all French publishers (which results in excess production) to compete for a handful of literary prizes that are not strictly regulated…in the end the established juries (of which four unethically have just published books) count the points in this rat-race and monopolize the early days of November. Twelve-odd books will be awarded the sought-after publicity band, will make a brief appearance on the bestseller list, and the ground will be carpeted with dead books by groggy authors.”

Astier is referring to the fact that Bernard Pivot, Pierre Assouline, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Philippe Claudel are all members of the Goncourt jury and also contenders for literary prizes for their new books.

Even Nicolas Gary, who runs the literary journal ActuaLitté and had teamed up with E-book publisher Walrus in 2011 to produce an innovative website promoting e-books for the rentrée littéraire, was not able to get publishers to renew the site for this year.

On the brighter side of things, two unexpected books are on the bestseller list at this time, both by mathematicians: Théorème vivant, a first novel by Cedric Villani, and Quand la lumière décline, by Eugen Ruge, translated from German.

In the end, an online poll taken by Livres Hebdo may say it all. In answer to the question “646 novels will appear between August and October. How do you see the Rentrée?” with multiple choice answers “positively,” “negatively” or “nothing will change,” over 50 percent answered that everything would remain the same. Plus ça change

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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.