Louise Quantin: “American Readers Want to Be Surprised”

The Bureau du Livre (Book Office) is part of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States, and works to promote French and Francophone authors, intellectuals, and publishers through a range of events including national book tours and translation assistance programs. Louise Quantin, the new head of the Books & Ideas Office, worked for some ten years in French publishing houses such as Grasset, Julliard, and Robert Laffont, as well as for foreign and audiovisual rights services. She believes that American publishers are looking for singularity more than the next best-seller.
© Mathieu Persan

France-Amérique: Is there a consistent number of French books translated in the United States every year?

Louise Quantin: In 2020, some 480 French works were released in the United States across all genres. This number is set to be a little lower in 2021, but French publishers are still in the process of collecting data. For now, we do not know if this slight decrease is due to the public health crisis, which has naturally had a major impact on French and American publishers. Many publications have been postponed to avoid congestion. In general, while France welcomes a lot of international literature, U.S. publishers translate very little – just 3% of total production. However, French is still the most translated language in the United States.

What is the portion of essays, fiction, comics, and children’s books?

We have seen a significant drop in fiction and essays while translations of children’s books have increased. Comics and graphic novels remain the most translated genre with around 150 works per year, and this number is generally constant. Comics publishers are highly active and founded the French Comics Association in 2016 to promote French and Belgian works abroad.

Louise Quantin. © Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States
© Mathieu Persan

Are there visible trends in the subject matter of translated works?

Classics are still very popular in the United States, both in terms of fiction and social sciences. In this field, French Theory writers including Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, and Lévi-Strauss are still widely translated. However, we are now seeing the emergence of a new generation of young French scholars, such as Baptiste Morizot, Grégoire Chamayou, Pierre Charbonnier, and Nastassja Martin, whose work is beginning to garner a following in the U.S. Within the fiction and essay markets, there are a considerable number of publications focused on gender, feminism, and gender relations. They include the essay We Are Not Born Submissive by philosopher Manon Garcia, who teaches in the United States, a republication of Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory, and the recent publication of the much-awaited Consent by Vanessa Springora. Also in the field of social sciences, we have seen a slew of books on postcolonialism, including A Decolonial Feminism by Françoise Vergès, A Decolonial Ecology by young researcher Malcom Ferdinand, and Black Is the Journey, Africana the Name by Maboula Soumahoro.

Does this interest in postcolonial questions also find its place in fiction?

Americans are curious about the relationship between France and its former colonies. I am interested to see how Alice Zeniter’s novel, The Art of Losing, about the unspoken events of the Algerian War, will be received in the United States. But beyond postcolonial questions, I find it compelling that American publishers want to promote French and Francophone literature in all its diversity – a priority shared by the Book Office. They show great interest in Caribbean and African authors, including Patrick Chamoiseau (Martinique), Scholastique Mukasonga (Rwanda), Nathacha Appanah (Mauritius), Louis-Philippe Dalembert (Haiti), and Emmanuel Dongala (Congo).

Do some subjects or authors struggle to appeal to an American audience?

In terms of fiction, some best-selling authors who have been successfully translated in other countries fail to generate a readership in the U.S. The biggest French fiction success stories in the United States have been Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1 million copies sold) and The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (1.3 million), which were already best-sellers in France. But the American market is quite difficult to predict. Writers need high sales and positive reviews, of course, but publishers are also looking for singularity. Americans want to be surprised.

You have just arrived at the Book Office. What will be your line of action?

I have started my job in the unusual context of the public health crisis, which has obviously had an impact on our activities and those of our partners. However, the digital sector has offered new perspectives, particularly through different ways to experience book tours that have been canceled or postponed. For the Night of Ideas, held in late January as an exclusively digital event, we have received a variety of suggestions from all consular districts in the United States. The current situation has forced us to be creative and we have rarely been so active.

Article published in the January 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.