Monday, November 11, 2019

I counted American books in French bookstores - a study, with methodology and results and so on

Now, something about the French reading Americans, rather than me reading the French.

In July, I counted the titles by American fiction writers on the shelves at a French bookstore.  I even made a few notes, although most of what I include here is from memory.

The exercise was just to count the number of titles.  Prestige as measured by the proxy of shelf space.  Likely also sales, but who knows.  These are for-profit bookstores.  I doubt they have much on the shelf just for show.  They want to sell books.  They know their readers.

So, which American authors had the most titles on the shelves of a particular French bookstore in July?  There was a tie, two authors with 21 titles each.  You can guess while reviewing my methodology.

The bookstore I studied carefully was Librairie Passages, an exemplar of the mainstream bookstore.  I checked my results, pretty casually, at Le Bal des Ardents, Lyon’s most picturesque bookstore (see left), and the Decitre at the mall, which is the closest bookstore to the main public library.  The library is almost in the mall.  French life is well organized.

Le Bal des Ardents is weirder than Passages, with more tiny presses and oddities.  It is more highbrow, with, for example, the Complete Works of Antonin Artaud in 26 volumes on the shelf – who is buying this?  Decitre is populist – mall bookstore – but local, a branch of a century-old Lyon institution.

My American control is Prairie Lights in Iowa City, the best bookstore for hundreds of miles in any direction, which I visited in August.  It is not a typical bookstore, since Iowa City is the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a UNESCO City of Literature.  All of these bookstores are roughly the same size, I think.

The non-American winner – I was not even counting non-Americans, but he stood out – was Stefan Zweig, who had 50 books (not titles, too many books to check for duplicates) on the shelf at Passages.  50 books!  Stefan Zweig!  Prairie Lights had one book, maybe.

The American winners at Passages were Philip Roth and Jack London.   Roth I had guessed myself.  But London!  London has a much higher status in France than in the U.S. Prairie Lights had a dozen or more Roth titles out, but just two by London, among the “adult” books, I mean, The Call of the Wild and I don’t remember.  Maybe there were more downstairs with the kid’s books.

The runners-up, all in the 10-to-12 title range:  Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Jim Harrison.  Living writers in the same range: Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison (alive then), Don DeLillo, Paul Auster.  I may have missed some of these.  I would have thought that Poe would be out of the running by this counting measure, but his works are rearranged into enough editions that he was close.

I did not jot down the numbers, but at Le Bal des Ardents, the winner (with fewer than 20 titles) was easily Faulkner, and second, including Russian works, was Vladimir Nabokov, who only had a few books at Passages.

Prairie Lights was generally similar.  Big differences, besides London: just three books by Joyce Carol Oates, and two or three by Kerouac.  I was surprised that it had as many Jim Harrison titles.  Maybe an artifact of the special qualities of that store.

Harrison mentions, several times, in the essays in A Really Big Lunch (2017), that his popularity at some point moved to France:

Luckily my books do very well in France…  The French saved my little family for which I’ll always be grateful.  I had many bestsellers over there but never in America.  (p. 265)

I remember Roth somewhere describing the same phenomenon (substituting Europe for France – German readers buy a lot of Roth).  It has struck me that French readers, or some of them, a lot of them, are interested in outsized American masculinity, thus the relatively high status of London, Hemingway, Kerouac, Harrison, and also noir detective novels and maybe even Oates.

Or maybe they like Harrison because of his many passages like this:

I have often thought that if I received an early warning that I would pass on sooner than later, I’d get myself to Lyon and eat for a solid month, after which they could tip me from a gurney into the blessed Rhône.  (164)

A kindred spirit.  Classic Lyon cuisine is not the healthiest food in France.

At the mall bookstore, the Americans with the most titles were, maybe – I did not keep exact track – Stephen King and George R. R. Martin and Mary Higgins Clark, like that.  Actually, it was probably a comic book writer, Geoff Johns or Stan Lee.  This was not true at Passages (I checked).  Donna Leon was up there, but nowhere near 21 books.

Anyway, something a little bit more concrete to go with all of the other impressions I have picked up.  How do other people think about literature, that is the endlessly interesting question.


  1. If they are interested in outsize American masculinity, I wonder there's not more Updike. Maybe he seems too introspective.

  2. I don't remember Updike's numbers, so I missed him or there was not much. Although it is madness to pursue this, one can actually see what is in the store at the Librairie Passages website, and right now, there is nothing at all.

    I don't know what Updike's reputation was before, but I would guess that it dropped a lot in the last decade, much like in the U.S.

  3. What a fun thing to do.

    In my opinion, we don't read Jim Harrison for the masculinity thing but for the nature writing.

    I've never read Updike and I don't think he was ever a best seller,like Paul Auster or John Irving. At some point everybody was reading John Irving.

    I'm not really fond of Hemingway.

    We love Philip Roth probably as much as we love Woody Allen.

    Ask Gallmeister's authors what they think of the French public in festivals. They love it here.

  4. The nature writing, yes, likely.

    In America, Updike and Roth, who were the same age, had parallel careers, and were friendly rivals. This recent Charles McGrath goes into lots of fun detail. "John once surprised me by asking, out of the blue, 'Have you ever been to Philip’s house? What’s it like?'" Interesting that Updike never took off in France.

    I think Auster is bigger in France than here. Irving was huge here once, but I associate that with the 1980s, perhaps wrongly.

    I have seen authors who have been to the Quais du Polar - some of whom are Gallmesiter writers, come to think of it - talk about how much they love the festival, and really, the attitude, how they are treated as writers rather than "mystery writers."

  5. So fun, your semi-empirical experiment. Anecdotally, I've long been intrigued by what American writers I see represented in French bookstores or in the reading tastes of French people I know.

    Steinbeck, check. Poe, check. Paul Auster, check. Jim Harrison, BIG check. John Irving. Mystery writers like James Lee Burke and Harlan Coben, all over. Don Carpenter. One who's been everywhere for as long as I've been going to France is James Ellroy - there's even a big musical thing about him in Paris this month. Marc Levy, also everywhere, inexplicably, but some sector of the French reading public seems to eat him up. Nancy Huston (okay, okay, so she's Canadian) is also big, and someone whose books I rarely see in the US.

    What I particularly like about visiting the American section in a French bookshop is seeing books by people I've never heard of before. Who are all these writers? It's how I found William Bayer, who publishes his stuff in France before it ever gets to the U.S.

    Zweig is huge. At any given time in Paris there must be half a dozen Zweig plays being performed.

    1. Oh geez, strike Marc Levy. He's French. Why did I think he was American? Okay, so it looks like he lived in the U.S. for six years and divides his time between here and there. So maybe "Americanized" rather than "American."

    2. Well, James Ellroy is interviewed today on France Inter just before 8am because he has a new book coming out in France.
      For the record, this is probably the interview slot that has the widest audience every morning.
      It gives you an idea of Ellroy's ranking.

  6. Levy is somebody who should have gone the other way, but he has never clicked with Americans. I don't know why, but then what do I know about bestseller world.

    1. Are you sure?
      If I look on Amazon US, Levy's rank in sales is around 7500.

  7. An American here who reads a lot and has never heard of Marc Levy, for what that's worth.

    I too guessed Roth and was surprised about London (who's also big in Russia). Great idea for research!

  8. Yeah, Levy routinely has a book in the French top 10 sellers. Nothing like that here, but Levy is selling more on Amazon than I had thought. His new one is #19 in "20th Century Historical Romance" for example. Amazon Crossing seems to have put some resources behind him.

    Orthofer has reviewed a few of his books - is he ever thorough - "isn't ridiculously bad."

    My little exercise does not work at all for some writers. Invisible Man was on the shelf at Passages, but that does not tell me much about the status of Ralph Ellison, does it? But among authors with comparable bibliographies, it at least complements other things I observed. 21 Roth, 4 or 5 Bellow, 0 Updike - that is informative.