The Uneven Literary Market Between France and the United States

When French-Senegalese author David Diop won the International Booker Prize, French literature was pushed into the spotlight across the Anglosphere. But is this a passing craze or is there newfound interest in French writing? While U.S. publishers translate very few international books, France has witnessed a boom in sales of American writers. We took a closer look at these mismatched trends on either side of the Atlantic.
© Antoine Maillard

If we are to understand the dizzying rise to fame of At Night All Blood Is Black, David Diop’s first novel about a Senegalese tirailleur fighting in World War I, we have to go back to spring 2018. As the first proofs of France’s September publishing season – a typically French concept – began to circulate in professional circles, the young French agent Magalie Delobelle (from the So Far So Good agency) sent a message to the “scouts,” avid readers who act as the eyes and ears of publishing houses. “I started prospecting abroad as soon as [David Diop] signed with Les Editions du Seuil in France,” she says. “I knew I had found something very special.”

Italy quickly made the first move. But thanks to Parisian scout Cristina Di Stefano, one of the five biggest American houses, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, acquired the rights before the book was even published in France. They were soon followed by Pushkin Press in England and a dozen other international companies. After a storming success in France (180,000 copies sold in hardcover and paperback) and winning the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, the book was published a few days apart in the United States and England in November 2020. Rave reviews flooded in, particularly from the New York Times, which wrote that Diop was “helping France face its history with Africa.” Presented for the Booker Prize by its English publisher, At Night All Blood Is Black won the award on June 2, 2021, sparking yet another wave of translations and media coverage.

© Antoine Maillard

But is Diop’s international adventure unique? Or rather the sign of American publishers’ surging interest in French literature? “The success of this book, which sold 15,000 copies in the United States, is quite unusual,” says Mitzi Angel, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “Publishing international literature is always a challenge in the United States and England. We have recently observed a renewed interest in Annie Ernaux, who is admired by many young, female, American writers. The works of Edouard Louis, Leïla Slimani, and Emmanuel Carrère have also been big hits. However, I’m not sure we can really call that a surge in interest.”

A Patchwork of Francophile Publishers in America

Although French is still one of the most translated languages in the United States, international literature continues to make up just 3% of production and very few American publishers accept French authors. Aside from behemoths such as Amazon Crossing, which publishes Marc Levy, and Penguin Random House, which has translated Leïla Slimani, there are a few more modest houses with a keen eye for French literature. Many of them are academic publishers or small, non-profit houses such as Deep Vellum Publishing (Zahia Rahmani, Anne Garréta) and The New Press (Alain Mabanckou, Jean Echenoz), or independent companies including New Directions Publishing (Mathias Enard, Kaouther Adimi), Grove Atlantic (Jean-Baptiste Del Amo), Seven Stories Press (Annie Ernaux, Assia Djebar, Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam), and the highly active Other Press.

Founded by American-Belgian Judith Gurewich, Other Press has published Eric Vuillard (2017 Prix Goncourt), Hervé Le Tellier (2020 Prix Goncourt), and Patrick Boucheron. It also picked a winner in the form of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, which was inspired by Albert Camus’ The Stranger and sold 48,300 copies. “This success is largely down to the Camus effect; he is the best-known French author in the United States,” says Adrien Bosc, deputy publishing director at Seuil and founder of Les Editions du Sous-Sol, a prolific publisher of American writers. “Today there is a trend in French literature taking a different approach to France’s colonial history.”

A quick glance at the French books translated in the United States in recent years does reveal a plethora of writers, not from mainland France, but rather from former colonies such as Algeria. “The [Americans] have an obvious and recurring interest in the children – and now grandchildren – of the colonial era. More generally, they are drawn to the visible minorities who reflect their own national concerns,” says Anne-Solange Noble, who spent thirty years as the foreign rights director at Gallimard and wrote a report on U.S. publishing houses for the Bureau International de l’Edition Française.

Singular Francophone Voices

“I’m interested in books that break free from French provincialism,” says Judith Gurewich, who will be publishing Congolese writer Blaise Ndala and Haitian author Jean d’Amérique in 2022. In September this year, she will also be releasing the memoirs of Mokhtar Mokhtefi, a former soldier in the Algerian National Liberation Army, whose book was not published in France. “We want the voices of writers whose work is specific and idiosyncratic, such as Virginie Despentes, Emmanuel Carrère, and Michel Houellebecq,” says Mitzi Angel. “As a publisher, I look for a book’s integrity. I want it to be imposing and relevant, without necessarily having an ideology. Sometimes, as with Despentes, we find a powerful subject coupled with a strong personality. But in other cases, the book’s rhythm is what really makes it stand out.”

The best-sellers of the last few years have included French feminist writers and books focused on the female condition (Vanessa Springora, Camille Kouchner), which have struck a chord in America. “We have observed a renewed interest in women who may not have reached a large enough readership,” says Laurence Laluyaux, the French head of translation rights at the RCW agency in London. “But there is a persistent vision of passionate French fiction, and most young female writers are compared to Marguerite Duras. U.S. houses may consider a work to be ‘so French,’ but if it is driven solely by language, emotional intensity, and taboos, it is harder to have it translated into English.”

As for nonfiction, books by French historians and economists resonate with the American public, as shown by the excellent U.S. performances of Patrick Boucheron and Thomas Piketty. In a country where publishers are rarely French speakers, literary prizes are still a good indication – although they offer no guarantees on the American market. “The Prix Goncourt helps a little, but books need to convince sellers and have good reviews,” says Judith Gurewich. “Despite everything, we only appeal to a select group of people with an interest in international literature. America is enormous; so many books are published every week and you have to fight your corner.” One example of this unpredictable battleground is Jean-Paul DuboisA French Life. After a sterling reception in France, it was acquired by Knopf in 2007, but failed to sell many copies in the United States due to a lack of support and promotion.

A Mismatched Market

Books circulate between France and the United States, often via England, thanks to a network of agents, publishers, and European and American translators who have built a relationship of trust. However, these transatlantic exchanges are asymmetrical, and each camp accuses the other of only buying best-sellers. “This is a longstanding problem,” says Olivier Cohen, founder of Les Editions de l’Olivier in Paris, which publishes Jean-Paul Dubois, Richard Ford, and Jonathan Franzen. “France and the United States have two totally opposing views of publishing. European houses traditionally work with the same writers, agreeing to publish several books before they get their big break. Meanwhile, the Americans publish books, not authors – although this is changing because they pay out such enormous sums for the rights.”

Unlike the United States, France publishes a huge amount of international literature (60% of which is translated from English), although interest has waned in recent years. “France has an excellent taste in foreign books. This led me to discover authors in languages I couldn’t read, thanks to the French translations,” says Judith Gurewich, from Other Press. Over the last fifteen years, the share of U.S. literature on the market of translated works has grown considerably, causing increasingly exorbitant bidding wars. “In the early 1990s, very few French publishers regularly visited the United States or worked with their leading authors,” says Olivier Cohen, whose biggest success was the 2008 French translation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (650,000 copies). “The major houses – which only had eyes for French writers and literary prizes – then started looking into international literature, which became a booming sector. Today, the competitive nature of the market has led to abnormal practices such as advances of 150,000 or 200,000 euros for an established author, and first novels acquired for 30,000 or 40,000. It’s nothing but speculation and I refuse to have anything to do with it.”

© Antoine Maillard

In terms of literary big hitters, the French houses with an impressive catalog of American writers are Actes Sud (Paul Auster, Don DeLillo), Belfond (Colum McCann, Imbolo Mbue), Gallimard’s Du Monde Entier collection (Ocean Vuong), and Les Editions du Seuil, which pulled off a tour de force last year with Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing (110,000 copies). Like some of their American colleagues, French publishers still use old-fashioned methods, trusting their instinct rather than the reports provided by scouts. “When I founded Les Editions du Sous-Sol in 2011, I didn’t have the means to enter a bidding war, and so I developed the catalog in a different way,” says Adrien Bosc. “I had heard of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days through writer David Samuels, whom I publish. He told me about an article featured in the New Yorker in the 1990s, the profile of a surfer entitled ‘Playing Doc’s Games.’ After a little research, I discovered that Finnegan had been writing this book for twenty years and was about to finish it. I was able to acquire it by going straight to the source, before it was published in the U.S. or won the Pulitzer Prize. It was one of our biggest successes, with 80,000 copies sold in France.”

The Success of Leading American Novelists

Adrien Bosc, who also publishes David Grann and Maggie Nelson, has helped bring narrative nonfiction to French readers. This literary genre imported from the United States has become a publishing phenomenon in the last few years, much like nature writing, which was popularized by the Terres d’Amérique collection from Albin Michel and Les Editions Gallmeister. Among the countless American books that arrive in France every year, some have already enjoyed commercial success in the United States. However, this is not the only way French houses choose which ones to publish. “The U.S. is a mythological factory – from Native Americans to trappers and the Great Plains. This often leads the media to invent absurd ideas to drum up interest,” says Olivier Cohen, who publishes Raymond Carver, Jeffrey Eugenides, and members of the “hyphen generation,” a group of American writers with international backgrounds such as Gary Shteyngart and Valeria Luiselli. “In France, the curiosity about anything from the United States – a curiosity shared by journalists and bookstores – sometimes reinforces the idea that French novels are timid, self-obsessed, and narcissistic, and that American novels are rooted in great open spaces. But this is simply untrue. Richard Ford, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo are universal writers whose books are not necessarily set in the prairies of Nebraska.”

“I get the impression our French readers enjoy typically American books the most, such as Cormac McCarthy, road trips, and the desert,” says Mitzi Angel. “But there are also some very exciting French houses that are clued into talents aside from the leading American novelists. The literary sphere is also opening to welcome writers of color who are exploring the challenges of being American. I don’t know which French readership will be suited to these works, but this is a fascinating time for American publishing.”

For this year’s September publishing season, the most awaited American writers include Natasha Trethewey (Memorial Drive, Editions de l’Olivier), Lionel Shriver (Should We Stay or Should We Go, Belfond), Paul Auster (Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane, Actes Sud), and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose first novel, The Water Dancer, was bought by Fayard, the French house that published Barack Obama and the young poet Amanda Gorman. But this period, which starts the clock tick- ing down to the major awards in the fall, is also a time when France is mainly focused on its own authors, the literary hub of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, and the Prix Goncourt. It seems that some clichés die hard.

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