There was an interesting article in the BBC News Magazine the other day about why French books don’t sell abroad – after being translated where necessary, of course. In a nutshell it says that French authors find it hard to break into the English-speaking market, largely due to a belief that the books are elitest, dry and, well, boring. Non-fiction books are reckoned to be like university textbooks, and there is some truth in this latter belief. I‘ve bought a few, in French, on various subjects and they are hard to wade through, so I can’t think a translation would make them much different. As one French author, Marie Darrieussecq, says, the French lack the ability of “popularisation”. They don’t have a Brian Cox, a Kate Humble, a Lucy Worsley or a Jim Al-Khalili equivalent to bring something rather high power to the general population’s attention. Without too much dumbing down, it has to be said. And yes, I’ve crossed genres to TV but just to illustrate that the Brits are rather good at making academic subjects appealing. Think Time Team.

french book cover

Another factor for both fiction and non-fiction is appearance. French books in the adult market generally look bland. Publishers have a thing about a plain cream cover with a small splash of another colour (often rather dowdy). It’s something you notice immediately when you walk into a French bookshop if you’re an expat. The mass market fiction is the exception, but mainly because so many of these are books in translation from English (US and UK) and they’ve brought their cover with them. Around 45% of the fiction market in French is taken up by translated works. Of which my very own Une mamie de rève (Anna’s Secret Granny) is one!

mamie de reve

Price can’t help either. French books are dear, no two ways about it. A paperback novel is often around €18 which is quite an investment. I can’t see publishers selling rights abroad being prepared to settle for a modest sum. (And it’s not just printed books that are dear, ebooks are ridiculously expensive here too, usually almost the same price as their paper counterparts. And yet France is one of the few countries that flouted EU legislation to charge the same amount of VAT on ebooks as on printed whereas other countries see digital books as software and therefore subject to a much higher VAT rate.)

Of course some novelists reach international audiences. Georges Simenon for example, Victor Hugo, Saint-Exupéry, Irène Némirovsky and Michel Houellebecq, and to an extent Marc Levy, but there are plenty of very popular French novelists of whom UK audiences haven’t heard. For example Sebastian Japrisot, Anna Gavalda and Muriel Barbery. Who, I hear you say? Exactly.

There are a couple of UK publishers who specialise in translating French books for the UK market – Le French Book and Gallic Books – and they seem to be successful and optimistic for the future. Give them a look.

So perhaps it’s coming down to stereotypes. French literature, like French cinema, has, as I mentioned earlier, the reputation for being somewhat gloomy and introspective and not having a lot happen in it. And I have to confess I haven’t read any French-authored books apart from Camus’ L’Etranger at school (which I didn’t particularly enjoy) and St-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (which I did).

A challenge to myself for 2014 will be to read a few French authors and see what it’s all about and if we Anglophones are being unkind to French literature by ignoring it. Why don’t you join me?