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Non-Fiction in France

by Olivier Rubinstein

A large part of Denoël’s output consists of non-fiction works, essentially documents aimed at the general public (testimonies, studies, pamphlets, etc.) published in the « Impacts » and « Indigne » collections, as well as essays (on history, literature, social issues, etc.) published in the « Médiations » collection.

For example, in 2005-2006, our « Impacts » collection published the testimony of a Frenchman released from Guantanamo (Prisonnier 325, camp delta by Nizar Sassi), the french translation of Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, as well as a study into the urban riots of last autumn (La Vraie Mafia des cités by Jérôme Pierrat). In the same collection we also published the french translations of Bob Woodward’s last writings.

Last year, the « Médiations » collection published, among others, a historical study on the Moscow Trials (Micro-Histoire de la grand terreur by Pavel Chinsky), a book contesting economic liberalism (On achève bien les homes by Dany-Robert Dufour) as well as the last works of art historian Daniel Arasse. We also publish translations of literary texts in our foreign literature collection, « Denoël & d’ailleurs ».

Furthermore, we have just launched a quarterly journal entitled Le Meilleur des Mondes, and it is important to me that Denoël should feature on the french intellectual landscape. In my view, an editor is also a stirrer of ideas. Launching a sophisticated journal in the heart of a publishing house is an important step. It has the potential to fuel debate, to unite a number of authors and thinkers, both french and of other nationalities, around the nucleus of the journal, which comprises of Pascal Bruckner, André Glucksmann, Olivier Rolin, Pierre-André Taguieff and Marc Weitzmann.

In its eclecticism, our production is quite representative of the way french publishing houses work. Right up until the last few years, the sale of essays and documents has significantly outstripped that of novels, and several publishers have diversified by launching new collections of non-fiction works. They are following in the footsteps of french University presses, which started out strictly as academic presses, and which now publish more and more works in line with current affairs. Moreover, two years ago, several publishing houses (including Grasset, Flammarion and Denoël under Gallimard) launched collections of small 100-page pamphlets, which are selling impressively well, and allow us to broach subjects previously reserved for the press. From this point of view, it is worth noting that several small and recently-created publishing houses specialise in non-fiction (including les éditions Privé, Nouveau Monde éditions, Jean-Claude Gawsewitch éditeur and éditions des Equateurs).

As I write these lines, the top spot on Livres Hebdo’s bestsellers list for essays and documents is occupied by an irreverent biography of Jacques Chirac, written by a famous press columnist (La Tragédie du Président by Franz-Olivier Giesbert, Flammarion). This is followed by the confessions of a tv news presenter (Pour Tout Vous Dire by Jean-Pierre Pernaut, Michel Lafon), a work on philosophy (Contre-Histoire de la Philosophy by Michel Onfray, Grasset), a little book of altermondialist inspiration (LQR by Eric Hazan, La Fabrique), a historical study (Du Bon Usage de la Guerre Civile en France by Jacques Marseille, Perrin), the pamphlet of an intellectual (Le Crepuscule des Petits Dieux by Alain Minc, Grasset) and an enquiry into Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola, l’Enquête Interdite by William Reymond, Flammarion). This is a good overview of the current production of non-fiction material.

Sales figures for essays and documents are directly proportional to the media coverage the titles receive. Very often, we see the sales of a title rise significantly after the author has taken part in a television programme (talk shows especially) or a radio show. Thierry Meyssan’s work on the 9/11 killings (L’Incroyable Imposture, Carnot) owes a large part of its success to a widely-watched television programme on which the author had appeared while the broadsheet press were busy criticising the subject of his book. The printed press has less impact, except when newspapers and magazines launch a book making it front-page news or by putting it on the front cover of a supplement (Denoël felt the benefit of this when Freakonomics made the front cover of Le Monde’s weekly supplement).

Essays and documents generally benefit from a bigger print run than literature books, and the aim is to put as many copies as possible on display, especially in newsagents’ and the shops in stations and airports, where books are sold beside newspapers. We have to be as pro-active as possible to avoid running out of stock at all costs. La FNAC, which is still the biggest bookseller in France, also plays a significant role in pushing the titles which are under debate in the media. A vicious circle follows, whereby titles which are more low-key in terms of media coverage are excluded the from the most efficient sales channels. These are books which cannot count on the support of bookshops, who are less disposed to promote titles with a short shelf-life. Titles which enjoy exposition in the media shift impressive numbers of copies in a few weeks, even a few days. I could cite the example of a book published by Denoël in 2002 at the time of the election campaign, which focused on the accusations of embezzlement levelled against Jacques Chirac (Sept Ans de Solitude by Eric Halphen), and which sold more than 60 000 copies in one weekend. It must be noted, however, that the ‘pocket’ collections of non-fiction texts are growing all the time (Folio, J’ai Lu and Pocket all have series devoted to non-fiction) giving a second life for these texts.

Moving from these generalisations, which any astute editor could make, I would like to broach a subject which is more specific to France, if only by its importance in interprofessional discussions. To this end, it led to the release of a ‘livre blanc’ – that is, an official report by our professional organisation, the Syndicat National de l’Edition.

For the past few years, french editors of documents and essays have been pressurised by clauses in french law which limit freedom of expression. This mostly concerns the rules governing libel, as well as respect for individuals’ privacy and the confidentiality of certain information (judiciary and professional confidentiality). These rules were decreed in the 19th century to govern the press, and are rigorously and indiscriminately enforced by french tribunals, which generally do not take the specifications of the book into account (particularly regarding the quantity of fines and court costs, which are very often disproportionate to the offence). If it is beyond debate that editors must face up to their responsibilities when they commit an infraction, it is regrettable that the judiciary institution be used by certain individuals as a form of retaliation if a work displeases them. Such was the reaction to an essay on the behaviour of the Commercial Courts, (La Mafia des Tribunaux by Antoine Gaudino) published by Albin Michel. It was a move which cost them several court cases, filed individually by the very officials whose behaviour was criticised in the book. Denoël suffered the same sort of harassment following the publication of Ben Laden, La Verité Interdite by Guillaume Dasquié and Jean-Charles Brisard. We have since been pursued, in all the countries in which the book was sold, by a Saudi financier whose name was mentioned. The same thing happened at éditions des Arènes, following the publication of an enquiry into financial institution in Luxembourg (Révélation $ by Denis Robert and Ernst Backes). In these three cases, it is evident that individuals have pushed for the heaviest convictions as a way of damaging the publishing houses financially. Graver still, justice sometimes forbids the publication of a text as a preventative measure, as was the case when Alain Delon used the tribunals to prevent the writing of an « unauthorised » biography which Bernard Violet had intended to publish at Grasset.

The abusive nature of french law concerning freedom of expression was underlined by a recent decision in the European Human Rights court, regarding a book written by the personal doctor of François Mitterrand and published a few days after the death of the former President. In Le Grand Secret, Claude Gubler describes François Mitterrand’s sickness, which led to the book being banned (an extremely rare occurrence) and its publisher (Plon) being heavily fined. Eight years later, the court of Strasbourg fined France for violating Freedom of Expression, pointing out the disproportionate punishments inflicted on the author and on the editor.

The consequence of this growing judiciarisation of publishing, is that self-censorship in publishing houses is becoming the knee-jerk reaction of non-fiction editors. I believe that from now on, it will be the norm for us to have our manuscripts systematically re-read by specialist lawyers who will indicate the litigious passages and advise us on other presentations of the material which will avoid the possibility of a lawsuit. In fact, as regards libel, (the legal definition of which is very blurred) and violation of confidentiality, the whole case rests on the way the information is presented. This is why we find ourselves amongst books written in the conditional, which take stylistic precautions and use evasive phrasing. What is lost in terms of style (and sometimes in the book’s interest) is gained in terms of legal security by the author and editor.

I willingly concede that this behaviour illustrates a typically french hypocrisy. An example might be the enormous amount of work that we, along with our lawyer, put into a book about the minister of the Interior (Nicolas Sarkozy ou le destin de Brutus by Karl Laske and Laurent Valdiguié). When we published this book, which was a great success in all other respects, what we feared was not so much a complaint from Nicolas Sarkozy for libel or for violation of his privacy, but that suits might be filed by one of his collaborators, appearing incidentally in the text and taking the first opportunity to hinder the publication of an enquiry that might be damaging to the minister.

Still on the topic of Nicolas Sarkozy, a small publishing house called ‘First’ has had to pull the release of a book which related his rather turbulent marital life under pressure and threats from the Minister for the Interior. This was when the book had already gone to print and the whole print run had to be scrapped. Finally, this book, which should have been a documentary enquiry, became a novel at another publishing house (Entre le cœur et la raison, by Valérie Domain, Fayard) once the names and locations had been changed. The publication of this book, written by a salaried journalist from the press group Prisma, who specialise in magazines, contained a lesson for everyone. The chairman of Prisma subsequently tried to force his paid employees to submit their works to the control of a group handling imprimatur, to be politically neutral and above all not to level accusations at public figures in their manuscripts. In the wake of generalised protest, however, Prisma had to retract this statement of self-censorship.

Moreover, the novelisation of news is becoming more and more common. It is a circuitous way to treat non-fiction in the tradition of Balzac’s romans à clé, paralleling such books as The Bonfire of the Vanities. Examples include Mafia Chic by Sophie Coignard and Alexandre Wickham (Fayard) and L’Autre, by Eric Zemmour that we published here at Denoël. It is also worth noting that these examples of « novels » are all concerned with political power which, in a republican monarchy like France, remains untouchable.

However, even when editing a novel which takes current affairs as a subject, we must keep in mind the strictures of the Civil Code. We have seen this recently in France, when an entirely fictional novel, which had a paedophile as the main character (Rose Bonbon by Nicolas Jones-Gorlin, Gallimard), was threatened with prohibition - by the administrative system and not the judicial system this time – on the pretext that it constituted an apologia to paedophila. In another case, Mathieu Lindon’s novel Le Procès de Jean-Marie Le Pen (POL) was judged libellous towards the president of the French National Front, even though it was a total fiction, starring a militant from the Extreme Right party. We are still waiting for a decision from the European Court of Human Rights.

As I bring to a close this quick overview of the editing of essays and documents in France, it is sad to see that in a country which claims to have founded the Rights of Man, freedom of expression is under threat from those who are responsible for upholding justice, and that we are forced to depend on European institutions.