To most of France, the traditional September rentrée represents the depressing end of vacation and a return to toil for millions of workers, students and politicians. For the nation's publishing industry, by contrast, the September rentrée littéraire is a period of excitement and expectation, holding the promise of success and sales for some, acclaim and awards for others. This year has brought a new high of activity, with the first of nearly 700 new titles already flooding bookshops and taxing the capacity of the book-buying public to absorb them all.
Literary pride has long been central to France's notion of an exception culturelle. While the French are certainly not immune to the lure of the moving image, they haven't swapped books for film and video with the same enthusiasm as many other European and societies, let alone the Americans. Indeed, publishing remains France's largest cultural industry, with 360 million books worth ?2.36 billion sold last year. According to France's National Federation of Book Publishers whose analysis is avowedly conservative 54,415 titles were printed in 2001 (a 4.9% increase over 2000), including 26,499 new works (up 2.6%). France's film industry, by comparison, produced 204 movies last year (a jump of 20%) and sold 76 million tickets.
Though a number of European countries Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain actually print more books, publishing in France still enjoys a mystique rivaling that of cinema. Authors like Bernard-Henri Lévy and 2001 Goncourt prizewinner Jean-Christophe Rufin are megacelebrities, and book-themed talk shows are standard TV fare. Notes Pierre Assouline, editor of Lire magazine: "The French have always felt writing was the noblest form of communication, and most honest kind of reflection. To write is to live, but to be published is to exist before the world."
The rentrée littéraire is the high point of the publishing year, a sort of textual Cannes that this fall will feature an expected 663 new novels 93 of them by first-time authors and culminate in the October awarding of literary prizes like the Goncourt. "The rentrée littéraire," says Fabrice de Laval of the National Federation of Book Publishers, "reflects France's relationship with literature. There are 60 million French readers and 60 million aspiring French writers."
Some French literary types think that may be too many and that quality is suffering. Publishers, they charge, are so reluctant to miss a potential best-seller that increasing numbers of mediocre writers make it into print, while true talents get lost in the shuffle. Literature professor and essayist Pierre Jourde whose scathing treatise, Literature Without Guts, won an award from the Académie Française in June argues that the overproduction is fueled by a cult of personality and by kid-gloved critics who are often shoddy novelists themselves and thus disinclined to attack falling standards. Other authors, he charges, divert attention from their otherwise unremarkable texts with posturing or controversy. "There are so many new titles and writers we can't take them all, and you often end up taking some off the shelves without having read them to make room for incoming books," complains a bookstore owner in central Paris who asked not to be named. "In the end, you tend to offer readers what's most likely to sell."
So what's on offer this season? Hype is building for two debut novels, Stories to Take You to the Moon by Maëva Poupard, 16, and Prophecy of the Stones by Flavia Bujor, 14. Cynics say their presence in the rentrée littéraire typefies the popular appeal of youth a craze that's paying handsomely for 19-year-old Lolita Pille. Her novel, Hell a self-obsessed, semi-autobiographical gaze into the drug-sodden and libertine demimonde of rich Parisian adolescents has been on the bestseller lists since May. Despite a literary merit Assouline puts at "zero," Hell sells, he says, "because there is a sizable market of teenagers who want to read a teenager writing about self-destructive teenagers. As in other businesses, publishers will use gadget-books and gadget-authors to satisfy demand."
Happily, as Assouline notes, a boom in bottom-feeders and one-hit-wonders doesn't cancel out the sizable body of gifted authors, new and established, being published. Also featuring in this year's rentrée are the prolific and ingenious Amélie Nothomb, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Yann Queffélec and Nina Bouraoui. Foreign translations a significant part of French publishing output include new books by Nadine Gordimer, Jim Harrison, V.S. Naipaul and Jonathan Franzen. All that ensures enough quality and variety for returning vacationers to read themselves out of any rentrée blues.