In many ways, the French literary world operates in a very old-school manner. How else to explain that the vast majority of publishing deals are brokered directly between author and publisher? But the backlash against the roaring success of Jonathan Littell‘s LES BIENVILLIANTES was in part due to the book’s representation by a high-powered literary agent, and as the New York Sun’s Kate Taylor reports, things are about to get even more controversial now that uberagent Andrew Wylie‘s come to town.
With Wylie’s recent announcement in Le Monde that he has signed three French writers – two novelists, Christine Angot and Philippe Djian, and a journalist, Florence Hartmann – is, Taylor says, the equivalent of throwing a hand grenade into the traditional world of French publishing. In Wylie’s view – which he has already laid out in a sharp exchange of letters with the publisher AndrÃ© Schiffrin, of the New Press – this structure is to blame for many of French literature’s ills, from its failure to make a substantial impact abroad to its stylistic solipsism. “[I]f you were trying to buy a company in England, you wouldn’t call your accounting department and have them speak to the accounting department of the company in England. You would go chief executive to chief executive.”
Of course, publishers see things rather differently, especially with regards to the customary 50% stake in subsidiary rights. “This seems huge, but it’s also what allows publishers to take risks on authors and on works that won’t necessarily sell well,” said Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, director of the French publishing house P.O.L. Editeur. “I have the impression that in the U.S., the big publishers only publish books that can be marketed, and the difficult books are published by small presses or university presses, so they are marginalized. In France, the same editors publish unknown authors, and authors who will never sell a lot of books, like poets, and best sellers.”