François Busnel : “I Follow the New Generation of American Authors Very Closely”

An iconic literary fixture on French television, La Grande Librairie – broadcast on TV5MONDE – has a wealth of surprises in store for its thirteenth season, with interviews with authors, visits to bookshops, and extensive debates on societal issues. We sat down for an interview with the show’s host, Americanophile journalist François Busnel.
François Busnel. © Nathalie Guyon/France Télévisions

France-Amérique: The show was launched in 2008. What do you do to keep the concept fresh and appealing?

François Busnel: By their very essence, writers are highly different from one another, and there are so many in France that it would take at least thirty years to get through them all! That being said, the show has developed since the start. We have had themed evenings and one-on-one interviews with people who have witnessed major historical events. I also met with authors at their homes in a segment we called Les Carnets de Route (“The Travel Journals”), in which I traveled across Ireland, the U.K., and the United States. I still visit America on a regular basis, as it is currently the country where literature offers the most diversity, novelty, and strength.

In the new season, you discuss topics such as the role of social media, women’s rights, and incest. Are you trying to follow the major questions of our time?

If these subjects reflect current affairs in some way, it is because writers are in touch with the world in which we live. We hold up a mirror to literary creation, and I put forward the things you could find by walking into a bookstore in Paris or New York. Our ambition is also to reposition fiction at the heart of daily life, because this, more so than essays, is what helps us to understand our reality. It may seem paradoxical, but it can be easier to explain things in a round-about way instead of using more head-on, theoretical means. We can understand a country through the descriptions of people and places written by novelists.

What makes a good book?

I am a journalist, not a literary critic. I don’t think there are bad books per se, but I choose to recommend those that raise a host of questions instead of those that claim to offer answers. You can then pick a selection of these questions to put to the writers. We hear so little from them in our media landscape, which is saturated with politicians and experts! The point of La Grande Librairie is therefore to transform viewers into readers by inspiring desire instead of amusement.
My job is to persuade these authors to talk, almost like a midwife of the mind. The interview is the highest art in journalism; you have to bring things out of someone, things they would never say on their own or to anyone else. Many great books have been the result of interviews with journalists.

Which writer would you love to meet?

I would be delighted to sit down with Cormac McCarthy, but I believe he has decided to stop doing interviews. We could have talked about his passion for horses, which is something we have in common! I see him as one of the best writers of our time, and not just in the United States. His way of exploring the mysteries of the human soul is quite unique. In France, we are lucky to be the country that translates the most American literature in the world. This enables me to closely follow the bright lights of the new generation of authors, such as Lauren Groff, who live far from the cities and powerfully convey how America has been living (or clinging on to life) for the last few years.

Have the successive lockdowns changed the public’s literary tastes?

Over the last year, we have seen a markedly higher demand for poetry and meaning. Our shows with Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and François Cheng, and the special with Christian Bobin – all of whom are relatively little-known poets – were a huge success because people are seeking out a bit of beauty where all we can see is hardship. The public is not looking for positive books but rather the philosophy and reflection provided by figures such as Bruno Latour and Boris Cyrulnik, respectively an anthropologist and a neuropsychiatrist, as they discuss ecology and the relationship between our brains and the environment in which we live. There has also been a demand for accounts of extraordinary lives. We are currently living through a very particular time which has sparked a certain appetite for autobiographical books, such as those by the last Holocaust survivors, those who were tortured in the Algerian War, or, in another style, the testimony of Camille Kouchner.

What has been your most memorable moment on the show?

We have had the pleasure of bringing numerous writers into the public eye. Leïla Slimani gave her first televised interview on our show, and Philip Roth gave his last, just before he died. We have also received Toni Morrison, Jim Harrison, and Barack Obama. These are important encounters that give meaning to what we do. The idea with Obama, for example, was to get him to say something other than the usual, highly conventional discourse expected of a politician. And we did it!

Watch La Grande Librairie on TV5MONDE USA, the first French-language television channel in the United States.