Are agents necessary? The lead article on Publishing Perspectives never quite asks that question: it just describes how, over the last few decades, American-style literary agents have come to be accepted (grudgingly, it seems, and still a minority taste) by French publishers. The article introduces the possible benefits to authors—better information about contracts and sales, particularly foreign rights sales—but whether an agent is an improvement seems to depend on what publisher you're comparing him or her to. The official line of the French Publishers' Association is "editors do everything agents do and more—for free."
The "bonus" annex asks the hard question: "Are French Authors Better Off With or Without Agents?" It starts by questioning the assertion by the American Jonathan Littell (Les Bienviellantes won him the Prix Goncourt, but it bombed when translated into his native tongue as The Kindly Ones): "In France, barely any authors make a living; the entire chain profits from the book, except the writer." Somehow this is supposed to mark a contrast with the US? Editor Edward Nawotka replies: "Littell’s observation seems a bit extreme.... In fact, with the generous government support given to the arts, and the myriad of prizes and honorifics bestowed on French authors, they may have it better than their fellow writers in the US and elsewhere." My gut feeling is that adding another middleman to the system—whose sole motivation is to seek out the best deal—inevitably puts the values of the market over the values of art. That's the real choice you're making.
A second Sex: Less controversially (now)... Maîtresse reminds us that in the UK (last week) and US (April 2010), a new, complete translation of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is being published. It sounds like readers and scholars could hardly have been worse served by the old translation; a replacement is overdue and quite welcome.
A year of Proust: Over at The Cork-Lined Room, they began reading In Search of Lost Time last month—in easy daily chunks of 10-15 pages—and will continue through next October. Readers are just approaching the end of Swann's Way, so it's not impossible to catch up. (I'm attempting it in French; I'm still a bit behind.)
The really big books: The site fluctuat.net has added a new twist to the year- and decade-end lists flooding the litblogosphere these days: they call it "Les pavés cultes des années 2000"—where pavé means cobblestone or paving stone—but I'll pull it into American bookselling idiom and dub it Doorstops of the Decade: 15 volumes comprising 13,289 pages of heavy reading. Much of the list is familiar: the seven titles by six American authors (the prolific William T. Vollmann has two); Littell's The Kindly Ones; Bolaño's 2666. In fact, only four were originally written in French. But the four we can't read in English (Enard's Zone is coming next year from Open Letter) look really interesting. Here they are, with my translations of their "tweet-sized" summaries:
- Mantra by Rodrigo Fresán: Mexico City dissected through three strangely intertwined narratives, an unbound atlas, and a crowd of artistic references. (Fresán was a friend of Bolaño's, and his work sounds a little more speculative and a little lighter.)
- Villa Vortex by Maurice G. Dantec: A dying cop remembers his hunt for a psychopath turning young women into electronic dolls. (Dantec writes cyberpunk doorstops with a political and philosophical edge and sounds a bit like Neal Stephenson; some of his other big books have been translated, but not this one.)
- Quartiers de ON! by Onuma Nemon: A cosmological novel that, in eleven poetic songs, invites the reader on an unfinished—and excessive—voyage in space and time. (No, I don't know what that really means. From what I can tell, Onuma Nemon is a group pseudonym, like Italy's bestselling Wu Ming/Luther Blissett, only far weirder.)
- Flying Camel by Vladimir Zagreba: Between memoir and fiction, a joycean odyssey that traces the survivors of Stalinism in their wanderings in exile. (Co-translated by the author from Russian into French for its first publication, Flying Camel sounds like it's full of wordplay. The author describes it as "a Pandora's box.")