The new literary season in France – Part I: the Books

As for many other things, September marks the start of the new literary season in France. Following a well-established ritual, publishers wait for the last week of August to issue enthusiastic press releases highlighting the originality of their new catalogue – usually a subtle mix between unknown authors “to discover absolutely ” and old-timers whose work is sure to sell – journalists raise the fever by publishing exclusive excerpts, books pour on the shelves by hundreds and eager audiences hit the shops to clean out their credit cards. But why so many new books (654 novels for the sole month of September)? And why at this time of the year? In the first part of our report on the new literary season, we give you insight into a typical French custom.

What should you expect?

This surge in new books has the advantage to suit every taste. The French public has considerably expanded the scope of its preferences in the past decade, and one can now find thrillers, historical fictions or delirious Sci-Fi along the more usual introspective novels. Trying to give a global overview of such an abundant and diverse stream is always a risky adventure that commentators usually approach through “trends”. As for this year, the new “trend” that could more or less unify the whole production seems to be the theme of war. Praised as “the” book of the new literary season is for example Alexis Jenni's much expected “L'Art français de la Guerre” (not yet translated in English) that evokes the life in the French colonies during the 20th century. Revolving around the same theme, other literary figures chose the economic warfare – Bernard Foglino with his story of a trapped trader in “Bienvenue dans la vraie vie” (soon to be translated as “Welcome to real life”) – or the ecological battle – as Hervé Kempf in his essay“How the Rich are destroying the Earth”.

Why in such numbers?

A landmark of French cultural life, the start of the new literary season is the kind of glossy event renowned authors typically use to launch their new works. This year again, several heavyweight of the literary stage will present a new book, such as Emmanuel Carrère and Marie Darrieussecq –who's conferences South African audiences had the chance to attend earlier this year, or Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, who's previous books have inspired some of the French learning manuals that are used to learn French in South Africa. To those local celebrities, one must add the growing numbers of world-class literary figure that French audiences are more and more eager to discover – Jonathan Franzen's “Freedom” and David Grossman's “To the End of the Land” have just been translated – and other lesser-known foreign writers whose star is rising in France – as the Finnish Sofi Oksanen that was unexpectedly awarded the “Femina” prize for the best foreign novel last year and who is back in French with her previous novel “Stalin's Cows”.

Literary prizes... Another feature of French cultural habits, these distinctions are mostly awarded at the end of October. Femina, Renaudot, Goncourt and others: this, and this only, explains why such impressive numbers of books are released at the end of the summer, why publishers do not take the chance to disseminate the launches of new book all year long and why they prefer to enter the funnel at the same time, risking to see their must-read slip away from the critic and the public. But this is another story that Intofrench will tell you in a few weeks, as soon as the precious distinctions will have been awarded.


Hadrien Diez