I know. You don't have to say it. I'm sorry. But I'm here now, aren't I?
So I've been teaching. And working on my dissertation. And trying to keep myself sane in an apartment gone haywire. And last week I flew to Montreal to participate in a panel on Thirties Modernism and a seminar on Woolf and modernism. (I write to you now from my parents' kitchen on Long Island; back to Paris on Saturday.) So things have been busy. But I know, it's no excuse.
One thing I did do a couple of weeks ago was attend a panel at the Centre national du Livre on digitalization. I was there because the panel was part of the study trip a couple of friends had made to Paris to learn about the way French publishing works. Here's how it works, for those of you who were not on the trip: protect, protect, query nervously, protect.
That policy of protectionism is mostly a good thing. (For more on that, see my article in issue 8 of Five Dials magazine, downloadable here). It's occasionally seen as a bad thing (cf Donald Morrison and Antoine Compagnon's Que reste-t-il de la culture française) because it encourages a kind of stasis in French letters; it could be said to perpetuate a dominant tone of mediocrity amongst the writers, publishers, and readers' expectations. But hey, it's better than the dominant tone of trash you find in the US and UK.
For years now, the French have been talking about the digitalization of the book, and what that might look like. No one could have imagined at the beginning of the '00s that people would actually want to read a book on a screen, much less on a cellphone; and so for years now, the conversation has remained hypothetical. But with the success of the Kindle and other e-readers in the US, the French are starting to get a little nervous, and a little excited, like a seven year-old standing at the edge of the high diving board, about to jump for the first time, but terrified of how very far down there is to fall.
French readers, however, are no more ready than the publishers are to take the plunge. A poll currently being conducted by Le Figaro asks "Are you ready to read a novel on a screen?" A resounding 75% percent is saying Non! "[An e-book is] not a book!" declares one commenter, who compares the e-book to margarine and decaf coffee (with whom I happen to agree). "Right or wrong, I want my books on paper," says another. Only a very few readers are able to identify this as a false dichotomy, pointing out that the advent of one does not necessarily imply the decline of the other.
But I'm only scratching the surface of what was discussed at that panel. For a more in-depth view of the Great Franco-American Publishing Exchange, do read Chad Post's write-up of what the American editors learned on their trip. And to be continued, when the French come to New York early next year…