Stars for a day

American authors bask in the Gallic limelight at the 16th Paris Book Fair


Richard Covington
March 24, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

PARIS-- Riding in from the wilds of Montana, New Orleans, Tallahassee and the
Hamptons, a posse of American writers, editors and publishers descended on
Paris this weekend for the 16th annual Paris Book Fair. The U.S. is this year's guest country of honor at the Salon du Livre, as the festival is titled, and such literary notables as Thomas McGuane,
Richard Ford, Joseph Heller, Thomas Sanchez, Jayne Anne Phillips, Walter Mosley,
Bob Shacochis and Tobias Wolff flew in to be fussed over and feted by the throng of French fans at the vast Exposition Center here. Philippe
Douste-Blazy, the French minister of culture, awarded a dozen authors and
publishers the medal for the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, one of the
government's highest accolades, for their various contributions to literature.
Within the past two years, sales by American authors in France have
jumped by 20 percent, according to industry figures.

But if French appreciation for American authors is running high, this attraction is apparently not mutual. During the same two-year period, sales of
French books in English translation have dropped an equivalent amount. Overall,
only around three percent of all titles published in the U.S. are translated
works.

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"Why are we not reading French authors in America?" wondered Bill
Buford, fiction editor of The New Yorker, during a panel discussion that brought together American and French editors and critics. "Are they really not that good?" he inquired provocatively and only half in jest. Buford said he was distressed by
the dominance of English-language authors in world publishing, a situation
that made "foreign writers doubt their existence unless their works were
translated first into English."

A handful of contemporary French authors like Patrick Chamoiseau, Herv&eacute Guibert, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Andrei Makine are starting to attract an
international following, thanks largely to risk-taking independent
publishers. But, for the most part, the U.S. market remains a daunting edifice for overseas authors. Book editor Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic reminded another panel that getting
a book translated and published is child's play compared to securing wide
distribution. "When I try to persuade the buyer for Barnes & Noble's 5,500
stores that the chain should be stocking the work of a Polish author I've
discovered, he gives me disconcerting looks of incomprehension, then buys 100
copies just to be nice," said Entrekin.

The literary game is not for the fainthearted, other speakers pointed out.
Irish poet Seamus Heaney, 1995 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature
reminded his audience that "literature was not a
grand institution, but a scruffy fighting place."

But for the festival's honored American guests, the scrappy arena of writing and selling their work seemed at least temporarily forgotten. For a day or two, they were the objects of a type of cultural adoration they rarely enjoy in their native country. In the U.S.,
observed Buford, "writers suffer from insecurity at the threat of
being shoved off center stage by Sharon Stone and other celebrities," while in France they
continue to enjoy star treatment.

In choosing to focus on Western and Southern U.S. authors, the Paris book fair
celebrated what the New Yorker editor termed "dirty realism," a spare, conversational style honed by writers like Thomas McGuane and Richard Ford, a style
that is anything but self-consciously literary. "The attraction is that it is so
far afield from what is being written in France and what the French-- and
foreigners in general-- have come to expect of American writing," Buford continued.

"The French seem to get more in touch with new currents in American
literature faster than other European countries," observed McGuane. "From
what the local writers and critics tell me, they feel imprisoned by their own
language; that is what attracts them so much to contemporary American literature
and language."

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Richard Covington

Richard Covington covers cultural subjects and the arts from Paris.

MORE FROM Richard Covington

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