A 12 months of Scandals and Self-Questioning for France’s Prime Publishers
PARIS – France’s publishers are usually summed up in the most posh book sections of newspapers or discussed with the utmost awe on literary television programs. But for the past 12 months they have been in the harsh spotlight from crazy online investigators and police blotters.
The Paris headquarters of the editor of Proust and Celine was raided in February by police officers looking for documents incriminating a pedophile writer, Gabriel Matzneff. A powerful editor was involved in a program that awarded Mr. Matzneff a prestigious literary prize awarded by a jury that included the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature, an “immortal” member of the French Academy, and some of France’s best-selling writers.
These and other developments, after dozens of interviews over the past year, painted a broader picture of an isolated, non-contact literary elite, long accustomed to operating above the usual rules – of morality, business, or common sense.
“It is probably one of the last worlds that has been protected from investigation and documentation of illegal agreements or agreements or cronyism,” said Olivier Nora, the head of Grasset, a top publishing company. “It’s one of the last worlds someone hasn’t poked their nose into looking for.”
It was Mr Nora himself who – unsurprisingly – published a book: “Consent”, the report by Vanessa Springora who, at the age of 14, became engaged to Mr Matzneff, the openly pedophile writer for whom she was protected, for decades France’s literary, media and political elite. The publication last January – and subsequent revelations about Mr Matzneff, his supporters and his other victims – sparked a #MeToo moment in France, a reckoning on sexism, age and consent, and brawls between politicians and feminists in the capital.
Mr Nora said he did not hesitate to publish the book even though it was from people from France’s small literary circles.
“It’s such an incestuous environment that if you start saying this will displease this or that person, I wouldn’t publish it,” he said, adding, “I thought this was causing a stir in this very small setting but I never thought that this butterfly effect would end in a tsunami. “
As the head of a leading publishing house for the last 20 years, the 60-year-old Nora has played an unusual role in France – the managing director of a company, but also the guarantor of what he himself described in a nation where fiction remains sacred as a “social good”.
In a two-hour interview in his office recently, Mr Nora spoke of his deep commitment to publishing works that reflect the diverse views of a society that often seems to be at war with itself, although he recognized that the publishing industry – even less so more diverse than its counterpart in the United States – often neglected. He seemed torn between his belief that collusion and conflicted interest French literary juries should reform and doubts that they could.
He wasn’t the only one with concerns.
Hugues Jallon, who has headed Seuil, another top publisher, since 2018, said he was increasingly frustrated with the acidic influence of literary juries.
In contrast to the British Booker Prize or the American Pulitzer, where the juries change every year and the judges retire because of potential conflicts of interest, jurors at most French top prizes serve for life and can even be employees of a publishing house to protect the interests of an established company true elite.
“It’s a different system,” said 50-year-old Jallon. “There should be strict rules against jurors if you’re employed by a publisher.”
It’s about a lot of money. According to Jallon, the awards had such an impact on a publisher’s sales and bottom line that they influenced Seuil’s publishing decisions and left other manuscripts begging for.
When it came to prices, including top prices like the Renaudot, there could even be a bit of pressure, Jallon said. “We’re going to meet the jury to tell them, ‘Read this, it’s for you.'”
The financial impact of winning a Goncourt, the biggest prize, has been “enormous, it’s totally distorting,” said Jallon, adding that Seuil’s owners were well aware of this.
“They ask me, ‘So are you going to get the Goncourt this year?’” He said.
The reservations of Mr. Nora and Mr. Jallon are particularly significant because historically, along with Gallimard, their publishers Grasset and Seuil led the industry in France. The three nicknamed “Galligrasseuil” have long had literary prizes under control.
Since 2000, these houses have received half of all awards at the four largest literary prizes in France and at the same time published the books of almost 70 percent of their judges. Of the currently 38 judges in the four main prizes, almost 20 percent are employees of one of the three publishers.
Antoine Gallimard, the head of the company started by his grandfather, declined interview requests for this article. Although Gallimard was widely regarded as France’s most prestigious publisher, he was criticized last year for long publishing the pedophile writer Matzneff.
Jean-Yves Mollier, an expert on the history of publishing, said Gallimard had changed more slowly than the other major publishers.
“They pretend to be above the fight and think the glitz of time has freed them from relegation to the arena,” said Mollier.
Industry insiders and experts said that Mr. Gallimard was the most aggressive publisher looking for top awards.
Béatrice Duval, director of Le Livre de Poche, France’s largest paperback publisher and former editor at Gallimard, said Gallimard’s business strategy is largely focused on winning prizes.
At Grasset, Mr Nora said he started moving his company off the pricing business model when he took over over two decades ago. Back then, Grasset gave generous strides to writers who were jurors to ensure their loyalty – a practice that eventually drew the attention of tax authorities because authors often failed to bother to provide manuscripts.
Not that it necessarily bothered Grasset. “You had someone who knew they had broken a contract with you – who was morally indebted to you, a fact that increased your influence over them,” said Nora.
While publishers today could diminish an author’s future progress after bad sales, they would not do so in the case of an author sitting on a jury, Nora said.
“The advance payment is not reduced or tied to sales because it belongs to a jury,” said Nora.
In France’s small literary world, there wasn’t enough “talent” to set up a jury system with new judges, said Nora. He suggested changing a third of each jury every three years and getting new faces.
But Ms. Duval said it was mainly resistance from the literary establishment that made it impossible to pass juries that would change every year.
“Everyone involved has no interest in change,” she said, adding that leading publishers have benefited from hiring or publishing jurors. “It’s easier for publishers to control juries that way.”
Today, juries are dominated by aging white men who are appointed for life, creating a kind of “entropy” that Nora said also affects the publishing industry and France as a whole. If the literary world remains “very, very, very white,” he said, so does France’s “press, television and politics”.
The powerful reading committees of editors and professional readers who decide what to publish in France’s most prestigious houses do not reflect the diversity of the country.
Of the 37 members of the reading committees in Grasset, Seuil and Gallimard, the average age is 62, around a third are women and only one is not white, according to the editors of the three houses.
Mr Nora said he was very aware that the older generations of France had a very different perspective on gender, feminism, race, colonialism and the country’s other burning social problems.
“It is evident that awareness of hot topics, people of my generation, experience this in a defensive way – it is extremely difficult to think against yourself and deconstruct a system of which we are the product,” he said. “A great difficulty.”
Some were just beginning to address the problem.
Last year, JC Lattès, a publisher owned by the same parent company as Grasset, created a new series, “La Grenade”, which publishes works by unconventional writers – “the first explicit attempt to take positive action in French literature” . Said Nora.
Mahir Guven, 34, a child of Turkish and Kurdish refugees and a writer and editor encouraged by Mr Nora, said he was looking for first-time authors who did not think of having a voice in France.
“There are,” he said, “missing texts in France.”
Antonella Francini contributed to the reporting.