France’s Rentrée Littéraire: Books About COVID? Not Interested

In News by Olivia Snaije

‘Publishers tried, but it really didn’t work,’ says one Paris bookseller about the question of publishing pandemic-related books this year.

At Paris’ Librairie Les Nouveautés. Image: Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘People Don’t Want To Read About It’
France’s literary and literary-prize season is now in full swing, with Livres Hebdo/Electre Data Services citing 521 new novels of which 379 are by French authors, 75 of them debuts. Translations account for 142 of the season’s titles.

During the first six months of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, it was widely reported that Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, La Peste (The Plague) had become an international bestseller anew. Even in France, it sold more copies. But as Claire, a fiction bookseller at Librairie Les Nouveautés in Paris, says with a shrug, “It always sells. Camus is Camus.”

More than 18 months after the start of the pandemic in Europe, there are books on the market about it, or with the pandemic as a backdrop. But booksellers at three Paris bookshops say customers in general aren’t interested.

In fiction this season, novels including Les Affluents (Julien Bertrand, Plon, 2021); La Maison des solitudes (Constance Rivière, Stock, 2021); Paternoster (Adrien Girard, Au Diable Vauvert, 2021); Basculer (Florian Forestier, Belfond, 2021); and Ouvre ton aile au vent (Éloi Audoin-Rouzeau, Phébus, 2021) all mention COVID or a viral pandemic.

Few have done well, say the booksellers, other than Feu, by Maria Pourchet (Fayard, 2021), which already is on several longlists for literary awards including the Prix Goncourt.

Pourchet’s novel about adultery, which only has discreet allusions to the coronavirus, is selling well because it got good reviews independent of its setting, says Claire at the bookshop. She adds that she can’t even remember the titles of other books about COVID-19 that were published in 2020 beside Iegor Gran’s Ces casseroles qui applaudissent aux fenêtres (POL)–because none of them sold particularly well.

‘People Have Had Enough’

Aurélia, a bookseller from the nonfiction section of Librairie Les Nouveautés says she didn’t order any books on the coronavirus in the health category this season because her customers didn’t ask for them. The only related book that has done well in her section is the visual book Les Murs du Confinement  (Omniscience, 2020) about street art on the topic of COVID.

“People have had enough,” she says. “Everyone lived their own version of the lockdown and people don’t want to read about it.” Otherwise, she says, books in all sectors have sold well.

At Les Guetteurs de Vent, bookseller Gaël says he isn’t following new books about the coronavirus.

There was some interest in the BD (bande dessinée, comic) Postillons (Spittle) by Felix (Éditions Rouquemoute, 2021), he says, as well as in Marie-Monique Robin’s La Fabrique des Pandémies (La Decouverte, 2021), but the latter refers to the coronavirus in the context of how deforestation, urbanization, industrial agriculture, and economic globalization directly threaten the planet’s health.

Generally, Gaël says, his customers aren’t interested in books referencing COVID-19.

Soaring: Sociology, Climate Change, Politics

At Paris’ Le Monte en l’Air bookshop. Image: Olivia Snaije

On the subject of health, during the first lockdown period in France, the prominent and controversial microbiologist Didier Raoult’s book Épidémies: vrais dangers et fausses alertes (Michel Lafon, 2020) was on the bestseller list, but his 2021 book Carnets de guerre COVID-19 (Michel Lafon, 2021) is hard to find in a bookshop.

However, Les Mondes de la Santé Publique (Seuil, 2021) on public health by anthropologist, sociologist and doctor Didier Fassin, is prominently on display in a number of bookshop windows.

In the Ménilmontant neighborhood’s Le Monte en l’Air bookshop, Pierre, who works in the social sciences section, says he hasn’t seen any particular enthusiasm for books about the pandemic. “Publishers tried, but it didn’t really work.”

Nevertheless, the demand for nonfiction books on sociology, climate change, and politics, has soared, he says, and sales overall have been very good.

Anne Martelle, the president of France’s Syndicat de la librairie française, the bookshops union, told Nicole Vulser at Le Monde that sales in bookshops were up 55.3 percent in the first half of 2021 and that she predicts a good literary season, even if there are still too many books being published.

Last but not least, Camus’ La Peste, adapted in two volumes by Ryōta Kurumado, was published Thursday (September 23) in a manga interpretation by Michel Lafon.

At Paris’ Les Guetteurs de Vent. Image: Olivia Snaije

More from Publishing Perspectives on bookselling is here, more on the French market is here, more on the rentrée littéraire is here, and more on comics and graphic novels is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

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.