The Problem with French Books

In News by Dennis Abrams

FranceBy Dennis Abrams

Writing for BBC News Magazine, Hugh Schofield asks an interesting question: Why don’t French books sell in the UK or the US?

Why, he asked, is that the French read large numbers of books translated from English (and other language) yet their own books don’t sell in the English-speaking world?

After all, as he says, the French (obviously) take an enormous amount of their pride in their literary tradition. (It is said that the country offers a nearly mind-boggling 2,000 book prizes.)

But as Schofield points out, “with the possible exception of Michel Houellebecq, what French novelist has made it into the Anglophone market?” Even Jean-Marie Le Clezio, the 2008 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, is “virtually unknown in the English-speaking world.” [Editor’s note: Affirmative — at a pub quiz at this year’s Texas Book Festival a several hundred-strong crowd of literati  failed to identify him.]

It is, for French novelists, frustrating.

Take, for example, Christophe Ono-dit-Biot, author of five novels, recent winner of the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise for Plonger (Diving), Gallimard. But not a hint of interest from either the UK or the US.

As he told the BBC:

“I am suffering, really suffering, because Anglo-Saxon agents are just ignoring the French book market. Our problem is image. In the US we are famous for French deconstructionism and so on. They think we are too intellectual. They think we are fixated with theory, and that we can’t tell stories – but we can!”

Or look at Marc Levy. His books (all romantic adventures) have sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. But he too has issues with the attitude of US and UK publishers.

“The caricature of a British publisher is someone totally convinced that if a book is French then it cannot possibly work in the UK market,” he told Schofield. “I often joke that the only way to get published in Britain if you’re French is to pretend you’re Spanish. If you’ve been a best-seller in France, it’s a sure-fire recipe for not getting a deal in the UK.

“As for US publishers, they’re so convinced that with 350 million potential readers and a big stable of American writers, they’ve got everything covered – every genre, every style. So why bother?”

Schofield notes that the cost and difficulty of literary translation are definitely factors, as well as “the fact that the Anglophone book market is thriving – so the demand of foreign works is limited.”

Even so, some French authors criticize what they see as “Anglo-Saxon ‘complacency.’”

Marie Darrieussecq, winner of this year’s Medicis price for Il Faut Beaucoup Aimer Les Hommes (You Need to Love Men a Lot), POL said, “Here in France around 45 out of every 100 novels sold is a translation from a foreign language. With you it’s something like three out of every hundred.”

“But what that shows is that we French are very curious a bout other people and culture. You too – you should be curious. You should be more open.”

But what about French books themselves – could they be the problem? Schofield cited David Rey, the manager of Atout Livre bookshop in Paris.

“The books on offer here are very different from in the UK. French books are precious, intellectual – elitist. And too often bookshops are intimidating. Ordinary people are scared of the whole book culture.”

And then there’s the fact that, compared at least to the UK, some genres seems to be lacking, including popular history, popular science, biography, humor, and sports.

“Non-fiction books in France are very academic,” Rey acknowledged. “They are like university theses. We do not have your knack of popularization.”

And as for fiction, Douglas Kennedy, an American born author of romantic sagas who is hugely popular in France (and is a part-time resident of Paris), believes that French novels have never rebounded from the post-war era of rampant experimentation.

“The reasons my books are popular in France,” he told the BBC, “is that I combine an accessible style with serious observations about what you might call ‘the way we live now.’ And there is clearly a huge demand here for what I do.”

“It’s ironic because it was the French who invented the social novel in the 19th Century. But after World War II, that tradition disappeared. Instead they developed the nouveau roman – the novel of ideas – which was quite deliberately difficult.

“And now while in the UK or the US it’s quite normal to write about the ‘state of America’ or the ‘state of Britain’ – no-one is doing that here.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.