First things first: I made a small error in yesterday’s Coming Up post. This isn’t a Pushkin Classic, as it was only published in its original French a couple of years ago, and in English in 2014. It is part of the very attractive Pushkin Collection, and it’s making an early bid for ‘Kirsty D’s favourite cover, 2015’.
When all is said and done I haven’t made any money out of publishing but I have eaten rather well.
Robert Dubois has been in publishing for a long time. He knows how it works. He knows that you can’t always predict a book’s sales, and that everyone has their flops. He knows what good writing is, and he knows how different writers tick. Most importantly of all, he knows exactly where to take them for lunch. Between him and his wife Adele (a book publicist), they’ve got a vast amount of knowledge about the whys, the hows, the whos, and the how muches. In fact he knows it all rather too well:
For years I’ve not really read anything, because all I do is reread. I spend my time rereading the same brew that gets served up as literary sensations, lead titles, seasonal launches, runaway successes, flops and more flops. Paper for pulping, in trucks that set off at dawn and return at dusk full to the gunwhales of obsolete new books.
However, the world is changing into one of less paper and more “Kandles and iClones”, and Dubois isn’t at all sure about the whole thing. He is, he says, “the ghost of readers past” who believes that the smell of a book can tell you as
Then, some of his top writers start talking about the electronic world. One refuses to sign his contract unless he can keep electronic rights to his work (“using hard-copy rights as a template is pretending things are staying the same”) while another is going to a publishing house that has more chance of getting her work adapted for television. That’s where the money is, after all. It’s all too much for Dubois, who has nightmarish visions of “writers turning out drabbles in 6pt Times in English”.
Dear Reader is a snapshot (screenshot?) of the French publishing industry in flux. Not only is technology changing at ever-increasing speed, but it seems that there is a general shortening of attention spans. Readers, according to Fournel’s novel, don’t want the carefully written longform piece, but daily riddles direct to their smartphone (albeit riddles written by eminent cultural figures). It looks as if French literature is on the way out, and while Dubois initially decides that if you can’t beat ’em, you have to join ’em, circumstances eventually show that the future, while something different to the old way of things, isn’t as clearly defined as all that.
Paul Fournel is not only a novelist and poet, and President of French writers’ collective (if that’s the right word) Oulipo, but has also worked in publishing for many years, and that’s abundantly clear in Dear Reader. As well as knowing the business, he knows about paper, and his paean to publishing’s poor, beleaguered sales reps is spot on the money. He also knows a thing or two about book publicity, and as a book publicist myself, I appreciated his insight into the occasional frustrations of the job.
The one thing that was lost on me was the influence of Oulipo on the novel. The group apparently follows ‘constrained writing’, by which I understand that they impose certain constraints upon their own writing in order to stimulate their creative talents. In this case, an afterword by Fournel explains that he “decided to give [his] book… a fixed form based on its character count, so that anyone entering it to change a single letter will destroy the entire project,” which is a reference to the notion of future books being interactive and open to change by the reader. A second afterword, by translator David Bellos, explains what these constraints meant for the English translation, when French in general requires “rather more words than English to express the same thing”. I cannot speak to how successful this was; I am not a translator, nor a French speaker, nor indeed someone who had even heard of Oulipo and the notion of constrained writings before I read this book.
What I can speak to, though, is my enjoyment of the novel. A slim volume of 160 pages, it was a quick and easy read, but one which asks big questions worthy of close consideration by anyone who loves books… whichever format they come in.
Paul Fournel: Dear Reader, translated by David Bellos (London: Pushkin Press, 2014). ISBN 9781782270263, RRP £9.99