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Finding an Audience Abroad: Who’s Read in France

By posted at 6:00 am on January 23, 2013 17

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Most literary novelists feel relatively confident they can sell copies of their newly published book to their parents, probably to their siblings, maybe (if they haven’t sparred too often over loud music or lawnmowers or leaf blowers) to their neighbors. Their local bookstore, if they still have one, is likely to agree to carry the book too and may even put a copy in the shop window or on a central table.

With a review or two in a local paper, these same writers may also experience the disconcerting ecstasy of seeing their book in the palms of a stranger sitting across from them on a bus or subway. With a few reviews in a national publication or by powerful bloggers and Twitter pundits, he or she may receive SMS’d pics from friends who have seen it in bookstores in other U.S. towns and cities.

But how about beyond the fruited plain? Whose work gets read outside of America?

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, infamously called American authors “too insular,” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” The last American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; American writers, Engdahl said, “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The implication was no one cares about contemporary American fiction but Americans.

During the ten years I lived in France, I witnessed firsthand the regional limitations of American literary fiction. But not all American novels go unnoticed. On any bestseller list in France, you’ll find The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest book by Dan Brown. You’ll also find American literary fiction. You just won’t find all or necessarily the same books as on similar lists in America. [Editor's note: As the commenters have pointed out Fifty Shades author E.L. James is indeed British and not American. To clarify, her books, like The Help and those by Dan Brown have perched atop American bestseller lists.]

coverDistribution decisions play an obvious role: if a reader in Lyon can’t get a book, the reader in Lyon won’t be reading it. I was ready to kiss the ground the day my publisher decided to create a paperback international edition for my debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, in addition to the hardback U.S. edition. I’ve subsequently seen An Unexpected Guest on bookstore shelves not only in France, but also in England, Switzerland, and Finland. I receive messages through my website from readers as distant as India and Malaysia. Foreign rights sales also award far-flung readers (and in my case have given me a couple of new first names: “Anna” on the Russian edition; “En” in Serbia).

coverSet post-9/11 amongst expatriates in Paris, An Unexpected Guest seems a likely candidate for finding a global audience. But every country has its own literary predilections. With a relative absence of cronyism, the playing field is leveled; a new balance of criteria goes into building an audience. It seems to me that French readers frequently go for novels that manage to be both intensely American and yet possess one of the characteristics often attributed to works in their own contemporary oeuvre: dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten). The last French novel I read, Le canapé rouge by Michèle Lesbre, clocked in at 138 pages, and French readers are not dismissive of short American novels either: Julie Otsuka’s 144-page-long Buddha in the Attic won this past year’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger. But they are not averse to length either (see, for example, Joyce Carol Oates below). They also like authors who like France and have an understanding of French culture. They enjoy being taken to places – U.S. college campuses, inner Brooklyn, suburbia – they might normally never visit.

But just as there are many sorts of French authors, each American author admired in France brings an own set of attractions. Following are eight examples.

The New Yorker
During the ten years I lived in France, I could have easily believed Paul Auster was America’s preeminent living author. French prizes that Auster has won include the Prix France Culture de Littérature Etrangère, the Prix Medicis étranger, and Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. In a 2010 interview, Auster, who lived in Paris from 1971-74, explained his cult-like status in France, thus: “In France, they feel I am on their side. It helps that I speak French. I am not the American enemy.” But can that account for the ardent following, which extends across the Continent, for his very New York-centric fiction? On his official Facebook page, a multi-lingual collage of comments, a Slovakian woman has this to say: “I generally don’t like American writers, but this one is really special, readable yet in-depth and philosophical.”

The Expat
coverDouglas Kennedy’s renown overseas was chronicled in a 2007 TIME article entitled “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s hard to pigeonhole Kennedy’s ten thought-provoking-yet-page-turner novels, but their immense popularity in France — indeed, in all of Europe — is borne out by the droves of adoring fans who line up for his signature and a second’s worth of his Irish-American charm. (I’m not making that up. I’ve seen them.) A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kennedy keeps a home in Paris and speaks fluent French, but he was born and raised in New York City. His first three novels were published in the US, but when the last didn’t meet outsized expectations, U.S. publishers scattered. Alas for them – his fourth novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK and more than 500,000 copies in France in translation alone.

The Soul Mate
coverWritten more than a decade ago and more than 750 pages long, Blonde continues to fly off the shelf in French bookstores. The Falls won the 2005 Prix Femina for Foreign Literature. French director Laurence Cantet just brought out a film adaptation of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I asked Joyce Carol Oates about her avid French following. “For me,” she says, “the very sound of French spoken is musical, beautiful, subtly cadenced.” Her involvement with French language began in high school; as an adult she has taught and published French literature. “This is my background for writing, and my relationship with the French reading public may be related to it.” She also praises her translators. But the French devour Oates’s dazzling, precise prose equally in English; at France’s largest English-language bookstore, WH Smith/Paris, along the Rue de Rivoli, Oates is one of the nine American authors of literary novels most in demand with customers. Perhaps her novels take French readers into an America that simultaneously surprises and confirms their expectations?

The Autobiographer
covercoverPhilip Roth first won acclaim in France with Goodbye, Columbus in 1960; his fame was cemented with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. He’s since won the Prix de Meilleur livre étranger for American Pastoral and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Human Stain. The French often speak of a quasi-autobiographical quality in his works, citing it as a passageway to truths about certain periods of time and segments of society in America. It was during an interview about his most recent and apparently last novel, Nemesis, with the French publication, InRocks, that Roth chose to announce his intention to retire from writing fiction. The news spread like wildfire throughout France before it could even be picked up by a U.S. news agency.

The Poet
coverGo to “books” on the French Amazon site, type in “Laura,” and the first prompt to come up will be “Laura Kasischke.” Kasischke’s most recent novel, The Raising, became a bestseller in France within a matter of days; it was shortlisted for the 2011 Prix Femina Étranger, and nominated for the JDD France Inter Prix and Telerama-France Culture. Be Mine and In a Perfect World have sold prodigiously. In the U.S., Kasischke, who teaches at U. Michigan, has probably won more acclaim for her poetry. She graciously points to “having a fantastic editor and press… [and] fantastic translators” when I ask her about the recognition for her novels in France. But Kasischke was the other female author on the list of nine top-selling American authors given to me by WH Smith/Paris — like Oates, she is being read both in translation and in English. “She is the painter of the American Midwest, an America where behind the walls of nice manners live individuals overwhelmed with sadness and boredom,” influential French journalist Francois Busnel stated on French television last year.

The Cowboy
coverWhether set on the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico, in the South, or in post-apocalyptic landscape, Cormac McCarthy’s novels wax dark and darkly reflective. Oliver Cohen, Cormac McCarthy’s French editor, has explained their popularity in France thus: “McCarthy reveals a collective anguish, to which he figured out how to give a shape.” French novelist Emilie de Turckheim offered me for further insight: “[McCarthy] manages…. to use, with virtuosic erudition, all the lexical richness of his language… at same time as abusing and decomposing English syntax to create a language brutal, impressionistic, extraordinarily poetic, capable of mimicking the immense violence of everyday life.” The French routinely compare him to Faulkner, a deceased American author they venerate. The French translation of No Country for Old Men sold about 100,000 copies. La Route, aka The Road, has to date sold over 600,000, with no sign of abating.

The Philosopher-Poets
coverAccording to Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English-language bookstore near Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Company, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison are among the five contemporary American authors most frequently requested by their French patrons. (The other three are Auster, Kennedy, and David Foster Wallace.) Banks and Harrison use literary realism to take their readers into richly tinted but not always rosy pockets of modern America. Harrison, whose numerous fiction works include Legends of the Fall and just-released The River Swimmer, lives in Montana; in France, he’s been described as “the bard of America’s wide-open spaces… of the eternal conflict between nature and society.” Like McCarthy, Harrison is considered a literary descendant of Faulkner. Russell Banks, whose many novels include The Sweet Hereafter and most recently The Lost Memory of Skin, lives in upstate New York; InRocks has called him “the best portraitist of marginal society in America.” In 2011, he was awarded him the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. Russell and Harrison both also write poetry — a sort of win-win, all things considered.

Ultimately, finding readership in France or elsewhere is like any love affair: alchemy, composed of varied, delicate elements. “Reading, an open door to the enchanted world,” wrote French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac.

Image via christine zenino/Flickr





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17 Responses to “Finding an Audience Abroad: Who’s Read in France”

  1. Who is getting read in France? - Anne Korkeakivi
    at 11:08 am on January 23, 2013

    [...] To read the whole article, look here. [...]

  2. Kati
    at 12:02 pm on January 23, 2013

    This is actually very interesting. I’d be curious to see more article/lists like this from other countries.

  3. justaphotographer
    at 12:03 pm on January 23, 2013

    FYI – Fifty Shades of Grey, mentioned here as one of the American novels easily found abroad, was written by a British woman, Erika Leonard (aka EL James) who was born in, and continues to live in, London.

  4. Charles-Adam Foster-Simard
    at 2:46 pm on January 23, 2013

    Excellent and interesting article. On the reverse, there are also a growing number of French and francophone novelists who are writing totally American novels, set in the US with American characters. As a recent example, see Joël Dicker’s La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert, a bestselling and prizewinning French novel about a writer from Newark who investigates on the death of a young girl who disappeared from a New Hampshire town in the 70s.

    Also, perhaps I am misreading but it seems that, when you write about French bestseller lists, you suggest that Fifty Shades of Grey is an American novel. While E. L. James has sold a lot of books in the US, she is, in fact, British.

    Cheers!
    C-A

  5. Finding an Audience Abroad - Anne Korkeakivi
    at 4:51 pm on January 23, 2013

    [...] To read the rest of the article, look here. [...]

  6. James
    at 6:56 pm on January 23, 2013

    Donna Leon is another English-language author who appears to have an outsized reputation in France, at least judging by my unscientific study of bookstore shelves. Donna Tartt, too, come to think of it. Is Donna Reed inexplicably popular among Francophones?

    By the way, I suspect the French are not averse to long fiction rather than “not adverse.”

  7. C. Max Magee
    at 7:41 pm on January 23, 2013

    James – We fixed that typo. Thanks.

  8. The View From Afar | Gridley Fires
    at 10:47 am on January 24, 2013

    [...] TheMillions [...]

  9. Glenn
    at 4:10 pm on January 24, 2013

    As far as I’m concerned, the French have it right. Paul Auster might be favorite novelist, as well, never mind the dismissive way he was referenced in this piece. Russell Banks is also at the top of my list. Because of that shared appreciation I picked up The Moment, a novel by Douglas Kennedy, who I knew nothing of before reading about him here. After 46 pages I’ve got to say I also like his style quite well. Vive le France.

  10. Celeste Schantz
    at 10:16 am on January 25, 2013

    If Fifty Shades of Grey is popular in France and represents “the big dialogue of literature”, I’d say readers are interested, not in quality, only pop sensationalism, and that it’s not so much a “big dialogue” as a big sensationalist peep show. Not that there is anything wrong with that – it’s just not great literature and cheapens the efforts of those authors who have truly produced great works.

  11. caroline st. george
    at 10:53 am on January 25, 2013

    What a fascinating article! How about a series, the next one can be about French novels that Americans read, and why.

  12. Jacqueline Dubois
    at 11:42 am on January 25, 2013

    Being French, reading in English and having lived on both sides of the Atlantic, I was glad to read your article and totally adhere … illustrating with a tweet I wrote last August :
    ‘In Paris, looking for the few English Books in bookstores, puzzled bc bestsellers are different except #50ShadesOfGrey .Go figure #reading ‘

  13. Joyce Carol Oates and France | Crossing the Border
    at 3:03 pm on January 26, 2013

    [...] Anne Korkeakivi writes about American literary fiction finding an audience in France.  [...]

  14. Elizabeth Rosner
    at 2:16 pm on January 28, 2013

    Thank you for this intelligent and insightful article. I was privileged with a French translation of my first novel THE SPEED OF LIGHT (entitled Des demons sur les epaules in its edition published by Mercure de France), which was short-listed for the Prix Femina in 2003. As a result, I was invited to speak at the Bordeaux literary festival and treated like a rock star. My 15 minutes of fame, so to speak, on French soil….

  15. T.
    at 8:53 pm on January 28, 2013

    Someone should edit these stories before you publish them. This one is littered with broken syntax. A shame for a blog that purports to be literary. BTW, nice self-promotion by the author.

  16. Top Picks Thursday 01-31-2013 « The Author Chronicles
    at 1:05 pm on January 31, 2013

    [...] an audience abroad? Anne Korkeakivi talks about finding an audience abroad—what makes American authors appealing, and what [...]

  17. ‘Book Bites’ for Monday 11th February 2013
    at 4:36 pm on February 11, 2013

    [...] (although personally I’d have swapped out Street Haunting for The Death of the Moth). Which Americans are most read by the French? – Over at The Millions, Anne Korkeakivi attempts to find out which American literary [...]

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