The Observer

Spiritual Food: How French Books Feed the Soul

Did you know that the French read twice as much as the Americans? Our columnist in Paris explores the place of books – and literature – in French culture.
© Thomas Hayman

Literature holds a hallowed place in French culture. Not just highbrow fare – France is the country with the most Nobel Prize winners in literature – but everything from crime fiction to sci-fi and comics. Authors are popular icons; publishers become cultural arbiters; and no self-respecting politician can resist the urge to put finger to keyboard (or pen to paper, depending on their age).

The French are avid readers. The 2019 edition of an annual survey for the national book center, Centre national du livre, found that 92% of respondents read on a daily or near-daily basis, devouring 21 books a year on average. (The equivalent figures for the U.S. are around 70% and 12 books, according to the Pew Research Center.) And although new formats and genres, such as e-books and manga, are gaining popularity, the good old “dead-tree” editions still reign supreme, with more than 350 million sold annually. Literary talk shows on French TV have been drawing big audiences since the early 1950s. Probably the best-known show, Apostrophes, which aired on evening primetime for 25 years, featured not just fiction writers, but also politicians, musicians, sociologists, linguists and the like, all of whom were eager to engage in lively and sometimes heated debate with its presenter, Bernard Pivot, who became one of the country’s biggest media stars. Such is the power of literature that France now has more than half a dozen villes du livre (book towns), like Bécherel in Brittany, which organize year-round festivals, conferences, and book fairs, as well as workshops in related disciplines such as bookbinding and calligraphy.

Sustaining this literary ecosystem are some 2,000 annual book awards, at least six of which receive extensive nationwide coverage. The most prestigious of them, the Prix Goncourt – named after its creator, a 19th-century author and publisher – generates a media frenzy. (The jury usually meets to deliberate in a swanky Parisian restaurant, but, because of Covid, this year’s award ceremony took place online.) Goncourt laureates become a fixture on the airwaves, invited to opine on everything from literature to fashion. And despite the paltry paycheck – the prize money is just 10 euros (12 dollars) – they can be sure that their books will sell by the truckload. Other major-league trophies include the Goncourt’s close relatives, the Prix Renaudot and the Goncourt des Lycéens; the Prix Femina, chosen by an all-female jury; and the Prix Albertine, awarded to French writing that has been publicly recognized in the U.S.

Of course, this being France, literature goes hand in hand with controversy and argument – a tradition stretching back to Victor Hugo and the battle between classicists and modernists over his play Hernani. In the world of French culture, everything and everyone is fair game. For instance, the juries that award several of the top literary prizes are disparaged for being too masculine, white, and long in the tooth. There is little turnover: Jurors are generally appointed for life, and often have close ties to publishing houses. This closed and clubby world is often criticized, but the criticism goes largely under the radar – although a recent scandal involving Gabriel Matzneff, a multi-prize-winning author and literary lion accused of pedophilia, has exposed an odious underside.

Another high-profile battle was sparked by a recent proposal to reunite the mortal remains of two great 19th-century poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, in the Panthéon, a mausoleum and memorial to the great and the good in Paris’s Latin Quarter. In addition to being literary giants, Verlaine and Rimbaud were also a pair of star-crossed lovers. Opponents of their pantheonization argue that the two men were too wild for the mainstream, while supporters say they should be granted official recognition. This Hernani-style clash between bourgeois and bohemian was fought publicly for weeks on end.

But while literature may be considered un bien culturel, a cultural asset, it is also a business which, like many others, has been buffeted by changes in consumption habits and trends in the past two or three decades, as smaller shops closed and superstores flourished. In such cases, the state can be counted on to ensure that books aren’t just another commodity. Back in 1981, the government passed a fixed book-price statute requiring publishers to set the price of new titles and not to discount them by more than five percent. Some welcomed the law, dubbed la loi Lang, after Culture Minister Jack Lang who instigated it, while critics railed against a typical sign of France’s overweening intervention in the free market. Those outraged cries eventually died down as the positive impact on booksellers’ sales and margins became apparent. And remember: The Internet was still a distant twinkle in the eye, and no one had heard of mammoth companies named after South American rivers. Of course, France was neither the first nor the only country to take such measures: Fixed book-price systems have actually been around for more than 150 years and are now in place in nearly 20 jurisdictions. But la loi Lang gave fresh impetus to such protective policies. By contrast, no equivalent statutes exist in the U.S., where price fixing is seen as an irrational barrier to free trade. Or downright communist, depending on your viewpoint.

If superstores were the independents’ nemesis in the 1970s and 1980s, the last decade of the century saw the inexorable rise of Amazon – which, ironically, started out as an online bookseller – and other marketplaces. It’s fair to say that, back then, very few people could have imagined the impact of the Internet on consumer book sales. But as big online retailers made deeper inroads into the literature market in the 2000s, it was small independent booksellers that bore the brunt. France fought back yet again. In 2014, under Culture Minister (and published author) Aurélie Filippetti, it passed legislation – nick-named the Anti-Amazon Law – prohibiting online book-sellers from offering the five percent discount allowed to bookstores.

Not everything depended on state intervention, though. In time, many private schemes flourished to keep the book barbarians at the gate. Parisian bookstores clubbed together in networks, while similar initiatives sprang up throughout the country. Independent stores adopted a charter based on commitment to local communities in order to build customer loyalty. These semi-informal groups eventually established an organized online presence under the banner “1,200 Booksellers and 20 Million Books at Your Disposal.” One commentator likened these initiatives to the struggle between the plucky Gaulish warrior Asterix and the Roman legions. But as in any battle, even a victorious one, there are inevitable casualties, and many independents went out of business in the face of overwhelming odds.

Of course, all of this was in the years B.C. – Before Covid. Since the beginning of 2020, France has under-gone two national lockdowns, during which “non-essential” retailers – including bookstores – were forced to close for more than a month each time. Despite government support for the sector in the form of subsidized delivery and a ban on supermarket book sales, the impact is bound to be dire. Even venerable institutions have been gravely wounded by the economic fallout. Many stores – including Shakespeare and Company, a storied English-language bookstore founded in Paris in 1951 – have launched online appeals to customers. An even older institution, the city’s 227 bouquinistes, who sell second-hand and collectors’ books from green steel boîtes (boxes) along the Seine River, have been devastated by the absence of tourists, and only half are likely to reopen.

The economic and social aftermath will surely last for years to come. Despite everything, however, the sacred place of literature in France, and the vital importance of books, have been constantly reaffirmed by millions of engaged readers. Former president François Hollande made a pertinent observation, as one might expect from yet another published author. Questioning why bookstores should close while grocery stores remained open during the Covid confinement, he said: “Culture is also a form of spiritual nourishment.” That’s a very French attitude.

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