French literature as seen from abroad
With iconic writers such as Saint-Exupéry or Jules Verne, classic French literature stands among the most renowned in the world. But what about French-speaking modern authors? Despite a pessimistic buzz, French literature is in good shape.
The quiet charm of French literature
Despite the Nobel of literature awarded in 2014 to Patrick Modiano, there is a persistent buzz saying that French novels are out of breath. In December 2013, BBC News Magazine even asked: "Why don't French books sell abroad? "
There is, though, light at the end of the tunnel. French remains the second most translated language in the world, just after English. French literature is the first of its kind to be translated in the US, before German and Spanish. This proves that French, the language of Irène Némirovsky, Marie N’diaye or Dany Laferrière…, still has a special place in the selection of international libraries.
Another good news: according to Gallimard, after a decade of Scandinavian domination, French thriller novels are back. Among the names that foreign publishers like, we can find Swiss novelist Joël Dicker (The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair) and the French Philippe Georget (Summertime All the Cats are Bored) and Caryl Férey (Mapuche).
Who are these novelists who manage to attract international audience? With 14 novels in 48 languages and 30 million copies sold, Marc Levy is the most sold novelist in French and has the best sales. His mushy novels are a real landslide every time. And it's been going on for 15 years: If only it were true, his first novel, was the record sale of 2000!
But the success of Marc Levy, who fully acknowledges the "marketing" aspect of his writing, is paradoxical. Even though he is highly praised by the general audience, he is ill-considered by critics, who scorn his sloppy style and the openly kitsch aspect of his plots.
Michel Houellebecq, the prodigal son
With Michel Houellebecq, marketing is more subtle, but not less efficient. The writer likes to play the antimodernist. He took the habit of playing the disillusioned and provocative novelist that media love to hate so much. Through foreigners’ eyes, he is the perfect modern French novelist. "Atomised", published in 1998, has been translated in 48 languages and sold 60,000 copies in the US: a significant number for a style much harder to read than Levy.
Michel Houellebecq won the Prix Goncourt in 2010 for "The Map and the Territory", and the book is still a record sale in Germany, the UK and the US. Bret Easton Ellis, Gary Shteyngart and a whole generation of young novelists claim his influence in their writing. His last novel Submission was published earlier this year and sold 100,000 copies in Germany in... three days.
Other novelists such as Frédéric Beigbeder, Anna Gavalda or Amélie Nothomb also represent French literature abroad. A few writers even manager to hit the international jackpot with one novel. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, was the surprise of 2006, with 900,000 copies sold. Katherine Pancol met success a year after with The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, with 1 million copies sold.
But the French novel is not only about figures. More and more independent publishers are interested in the formal research carried out by young French-speaking novelists: the Femina award 2009 winner Gwenaëlle Aubry and her novel Personne ("Nobody") will soon be translated for the American market by a local publisher. That's a fact: the success of French novels is not limited to France!
Photo credits: French bookshop Albertine in New York/© Nick Normal