‘Where have all the great French writers gone?’ the people cry. Or at least they would if anyone was interested in French books. Translated literature claims just 3 per cent of the UK literary market. This number, according to The Economist, is the lowest in the Western world. It is a sign of Britain’s often parochial literary culture, made even more glaring by statistics from France. The French translate a great deal; indeed, according to The New Yorker, many foreign books come to us in English by way of France. Do these facts imply that France is more outward looking? Is French culture being consumed by the American-led Anglosphere? Or does it suggest that France simply lacks major writers? Probably all of the above.
France is necessarily more outward looking than Britain because English is the global cultural language of the day. Historically, the economic giant sets the cultural tone the world over. France had their Grand Siècle in the 17th century and exported Molière and Racine; but in recent years English language authors have unquestionably ruled the roost. Such is the impact of the cultural superpower that a novel set in Roth’s Newark is elevated to represent the ‘city of today’. It can’t remain localised. It is emblematic.
The Anglophone supremacy may, of course, hide the fact that contemporary French literature is simply sub-standard. Laurent Binet, whose novel HHhH won the Prix Goncourt, told The Guardian that he was far more interested in present-day English and American literature, accusing the French of being lazy and stuck in the style of Balzac. That may be; but it’s hard to believe that, were they given the chance, French writers couldn’t do any better than the deluge of derivative English writers who litter our bookshops. That they are denied the chance is partly due to cultural tastes. Will Hobson, former contributing editor at Granta, says that fiction, philosophy, memoir and non-fiction (amongst other genres) are not clearly defined in France like they are in the UK, and this ‘super-genre’ doesn’t tend to sit well with English readers. The French philosophise, intellectualise, internalise, characterise and analyse; and in the mean time the storyline forgets to materialise. It’s not hard to believe that an English translation of The Roving Shadows by Pascal Guignard, winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2002, which was described as ‘a sequence of beginnings of novels, stories, landscapes and autobiographical fragments’, sold hardly any copies.
The status of writing in France is elevated to high culture reserved for academics and philosophers. The University of Mirail in Toulouse only just succeeded in launching the country’s first ever creative writing course for postgraduates. The delay was due in large part to the proposal’s hard-line adversaries: ‘Writing cannot be taught, only thought,’ called decaying Rabelaisians. On our side of the channel, we may have a less discerning attitude to the written word, but we can be very cerebral. The Selfs, Mantels and Amises of the UK seem to be selling well; and Michel Houellebecq is perhaps France’s premier cultural export to 21st century Britain. Houellebecq is a bold but coherent storyteller as well as an intellectual. He proves that French writing can thrive in English; but he is rare. The disparities in our sensitivities and styles withhold potentially great literature. Jonathan Littell is a fine example; half American, half French he won the Prix Goncourt in 2006 for his Holocaust epic, The Kindly Ones. The dual nationality, the prize and the subject matter made this a sure fire hit in the UK and yet it got very mixed reviews.
Littell’s background exemplifies the fact that the modern world is increasingly integrated, genuinely global. It is often heard that to be truly great you must achieve international success. Combine this view with a competitive market and it’s easy to envisage a writer sidestepping lexical gaps. This trend has been termed ‘Literary Starbucks’, where publishers are seeing writers adopting more ‘neutral’ language and avoiding cultural idioms in order to appeal to foreign readers and editors. Gallic books, a Francophile publishing house, claim that this trend affects the commercial end of the market; but they add that ‘translating has seen a huge resurgence in the last 5 years due to a gap created by the conglomerate publishing world of the late 90’s and early 00’s, which has been filled by independent publishers with strong international inclinations’.
The publishers that make up the 3 per cent try to catch those falling through the commercial net. They champion ambitious writers and believe that globalisation will not homogenize literature but nurture its variety. Alongside Gallic books are Alma books, And other stories, Pushkin press, Maclehose, Granta, Arcadia and Bitter Lemon Press to name but a few, many of whom have made contributions to best seller lists in recent years, most notably Maclehose with Stieg Larsson. They insist that translation is shedding its esoteric reputation and becoming more mainstream, and that there is a burgeoning foreign market for commercial fiction as well as experimental literature supported by literary festivals dedicated to foreign literature, translation workshops, French publishers and bookshops, salons and forums. 2013 will see many of the above publishing exciting French work. Granta has promised a mini-masterpiece by Hubert Mingarelli about the relationship between a Jewish man and 3 SS soldiers. Two highly anticipated noir novels by Pascal Garnier, courtesy of Gallic, are sure to please crime fiction lovers. And Verso is releasing a new work of non-fiction on ‘aesthetics’ by the influential philosopher Jacque Rancière.
The times are changing, perhaps because our demography is changing. London has a French community almost 400,000 strong (and a further 40 per cent of Londoners speak English as a second language). That’s a number that can’t be ignored; sooner or later the literary market will respond. Yet diversity can only be encouraged by giving translations space and money to flourish. Elisabetta Minervini, managing director of Alma books, spoke of continuing difficulties for UK translators relative to the rest of Europe, blaming a lack of funding as the primary concern. Publishing a translation has never been a small or inexpensive task and today you are forced to ask dreary questions about risk assessment in a market where there is little room for gambling.
Update: This article has been amended to clarify a point about volumes of translated literature in France.