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Return to Equinoxes, Issue 7:Printemps/Ete 2006
Article ©2006, Monique Galloway

Monique Galloway, Aberdeen University

HAUTE CUISINE, Cuisine familiale, or fast food?

Choices in Contemporary French Fiction


The notion of La République des lettres, based on an illustrious and long-established heritage of canonical literature, has dominated the French cultural consciousness for centuries. The worldwide economic, social and technological changes over the last decades of the twentieth century, that have led to the emergence of a globalised society governed by an overwhelmingly consumerist ethos have caused a substantial shift in the orientation of the hitherto elitist but stable literary field, resulting in the relationships between writers, publishers and other literary mediators becoming significantly more complex and problematic than ever before. This article will consider the implications of these changes on French fiction writers, their publishers and related literary mediators.

The work of Daniel Pennac exemplifies many of the issues facing fiction writers in France today. Over the last two decades he has successfully built a wide readership and attracted increasing levels of critical acclaim and academic interest. He began his career writing children’s books, before embarking in 1985 on the series of novels centered on the adventures of Malaussène family, whose popularity turned Pennac into a publishing phenomenon. The first two novels in the series were published in Gallimard’s Série Noire, thereby placing Pennac firmly in the category of detective fiction writer. However, as Colin Nettlebeck has observed (Nettlebeck 132), Gallimard’s decision to publish the next novel, La Petite marchande de prose (1989), and all Pennac’s subsequent novels in its prestigious Collection Blanche, implied recognition of the writer’s literary status in the eyes of the literary establishment. Pennac’s 1992 essay Comme un roman, sets out one of the main tenets of his writing project, namely the importance of reawakening young people’s ability to gain pleasure from reading widely and extensively. At the time, the essay stimulated considerable interest and debate among public and critics alike and it will provide a useful reference tool in the present context of establishing the status of French fiction writing today.

In her 1987 study entitled Literary France, Priscilla Parkhurst Clark identified the historical symbiosis between literary and culinary culture in France that continues to operate today. She pointed to the two extremes of le fast food and la grande cuisine that coexist and influence each other today, even though they “speak to a different culinary sensibility”. Similarly, in literary culture, ‘‘ ‘serious’ literature, like haute cuisine, is practiced by and for elites… and… has suffered the… devastating leveling tendencies inherent in a democratic society invaded by the mass media.” ( Clark 213). Writers of “serious” fiction, such as J.M.G. Le Clézio, Michel Tournier and Philippe Sollers, have as their main preoccupation the long-term creation of an oeuvre that will gain them recognition from their peers and, in the long term, posterity. At the other extreme of the literary spectrum, writers of so-called popular fiction, such as San Antonio, Paul-Loup Sulitzer and writers in the Harlequin series, produce a constant stream of formulaic fiction that Pennac refers to as “ une littérature du ‘prêt à jouir’, faite au moule et qui aimerait nous ficeler dans le moule .” (Roman 181) The unprecedented speed and extent of the changes that have taken place in France since World War 2 has inevitably had repercussions on the way the literary field operates and consequently on the system of values of its players. Many French fiction writers have responded to the postmodern concerns of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries by gradually setting aside the invisible boundaries between the two poles of literary endeavor, thereby giving themselves the freedom to express their creativity in any way they choose without being bound by the conventions that had hitherto kept the two poles of literature apart. This approach, which can be thought of as being akin to cuisine familiale of the culinary world, is well illustrated by the continued development, since the 1970s, of the romannoir genre that French critics used to dismiss as being popular literature, but which has in recent years begun to attract serious critical and academic attention. Writers such as Didier Daeninckx produce fiction that makes creative use of the broad conventions of French detective fiction but which also contains a strong element of sophisticated socio-political critique and whose style exhibits a distinctive literary quality.

The work of Pennac illustrates this blurring of the boundaries, for though the now-completed Malaussène series bears many of the hallmarks of the roman noir genre, Pennac’s subtly ironic style displays immense creativity and originality, for example in the way that many different registers are juxtaposed, and the form of the novels is open to a variety of readings (roman noir, modern day fable, social commentary). Also, his particular literary concerns, such as the functions of story-telling and narrative, and issues of self-referentiality, are clearly discernible in these novels. His most recent fictional work, Le Dictateur et le hamac, marks a departure from the roman noir genre and adopts a more overtly literary perspective than his previous fictional production. Furthermore, as Comme un roman demonstrates, his literary project is not limited to the confines of the roman noir genre, for as well as writing children’s books, he has collaborated with cartoonist Jacques Tardi and others to produce bandes dessinées , has written a couple of plays and occasionally speaks out on social issues. This non-restrictive approach to fiction writing has helped ensure that Pennac’s work is both accessible and appeals to a broad readership; from a publisher’s point of view this is an ideal combination for maximizing sales. Many others writers of fiction have also chosen to use some aspects of genre literature as a versatile creative tool at the service of a wide range of literary projects. Alain Robbe-Grillet and Patrick Modiano have on occasion made limited use of the conventions of detective fiction1 and Jean Echenoz has used several types of genre literature2 to provide a loose framework within which to develop his own ideas. Yet others, like Michel Houellebecq have moved in creative directions unrelated to genre techniques, but which equally do not strictly adhere to the traditional conventions of ‘serious’ literature.

In Comme un roman, Pennac observes that, over a single generation, the social environment in which fiction circulates has changed beyond recognition – “…aujourd’hui… les adolescents sont clients à part entière d’une société qui les habille, les distrait, les nourrit, les cultive; où fleurissent les magdo, les weston et autres chevignon” (Roman 31). This fast-food, consumerist ethos dominates every aspect of life, including leisure activities that now revolve around television and “ l’invasion électronique ” (Roman 33). Television provides “notre ration de fiction. Ca remplit la tête comme on se bourre le ventre, ça rassasie, mais ça ne tient pas au corps. Digestion immédiate ” (Roman 129-30). Thus, la Lecture has been displaced as the principal cultural activity of the French, with the result that since the mid-1980s the country has been caught in an ever-deepening crise de la lecture. It is Pennac’s belief that school teaching methods and the curriculum are partly responsible for this, because they impose books to be read and analyzed by pupils as an academic exercise, thereby eclipsing the pleasure students might gain from reading if books were not force fed. He suggests that the problem could be alleviated were schools to return to the oral tradition of storytelling (Roman 121-22), with its emphasis on the homely pleasures of narrative consumption. Indeed, storytelling is an essential nightly ritual for the Malaussène family, with each novel having its nominated storyteller, who unfailingly tells the family their often cathartic but always eagerly awaited bedtime story. This right to read aloud constitutes one of the ten inalienable rights of a reader around which the argument of Comme un roman is constructed.

During his years as president (1981-95) François Mitterrand oversaw many initiatives, such as the planning of the new national library, designed to “reassert and define a national culture… and generally restor[e] French self-confidence” (Davis and Fallaize 7)3. These were also the years during which book programs on television reached their height of popularity and influence. Foremost of these was the legendary Apostrophes, a live weekly show fronted by the journalist Bernard Pivot, which regularly boosted sales of featured books and launched many books on the road to success. Apostrophes put the audio-visual medium, with its massive audience potential, at the service of the written word - “ L’émission avait pour but d’informer les Français de l’actualité de la librairie et de les inciter à l’achat de livres et à la lecture ” (Pivot 19) - but to capture a wide audience it had to achieve a delicate balance between the intellectual and popular poles of literature; it was Pivot’s skill at delivering “ cette manière non universitaire… non pédagogique, plutôt conviviale, spontanée et populaire ” (Pivot 31) that bridged that gap and gave literature a more popular (in both senses of the word) image. In the five years since Apostrophes and its successor Bouillon de Culture finished, book features have gradually been relegated to slots in late-night, general culture programs; this could be regarded as a reflection of their diminished status in relation to the wider field of culture. Recently, other aspects of “l’invasion électronique”, such as webzines and the discussion forums found in on-line versions of newspapers, have begun to play a growing role in broadening access to and participation in literary discourse. Today, French fiction writers are also in direct competition for press coverage not only with other cultural media, but also with foreign fiction writers such as Mary Higgins Clark, Dan Brown, Paolo Coelho and Salman Rushdie who all have significant readerships in France.

Broadly speaking, publishers have responded in a similar manner to the fundamental changes since World War 2 as have writers. Until then literature in France had been revered as an essentially aesthetic, elitist activity and publishers at the higher end of the literary spectrum based their decisions on whether a writer had the potential, over his lifetime, to build an oeuvre which would become part of the long term fonds4 of the publisher. However, the development of the mass market in books has effectively transformed literature into a product, thereby forcing publishers to adopt a strategy centered on the commercial consideration of maximizing sales. This issue is explored critically and at length, in ironic mode, in Pennac’s novel La Petite marchande de prose where the publisher of the title, la reine Zabo, who is later described as “ l’air du temps changé en livres ”(Marchande 331) proudly declares that her publishing house is kept in business by sales of its one best-selling pulp fiction writer, the mysterious J.L.B. – “ c’est la plus grosse production des Editions du Talion; notre salaire à tous .” (Marchande 103). Zabo recognizes that each new book must be launched very publicly as its shelf life is strictly limited and the image that is manufactured of the writer is a crucial factor in affecting sales. Whilst the government minister who has fraudulently published the phenomenally successful series of books under the pseudonym of J.L.B. recognizes that “ J’ai fait fortune en imaginant ce produit ” (Marchande 146), he nevertheless harbors retirement aspirations to write ‘serious’ literature that will gain him access to posterity, via membership of the Académie Française.

In the contemporary publishing climate the physical packaging within which the publisher presents the text is a crucial factor affecting first the horizons of reception of the text, subsequently the likely level of sales of the work and finally its viability as a product; it is therefore a powerful marketing tool. Gérard Genette’s seminal work Seuils formulated a loose theoretical framework – the Paratext - based on all the elements of a piece of literature that surround the text itself and form its presentational packaging. Paratext may be divided into peritext that is physically situated on and within the book plus epitext that includes media coverage and any other forms of discourse about but not within the book.5 This framework provides telling indicators of the way publishers and writers seek to influence patterns of literary consumption today and the commercial pressures which oblige publishers to invest much effort in creating a book’s image.

The publisher will principally use the outside cover of a book, here a work of fiction, to influence prospective readers. The fictional Editions du Talion exploit the visual impact of a book cover to the full:

“Couvertures glacées, titres énormes, les initiales de l’auteur en haut : J.L.B. majuscules énigmatiques et conquérantes, et les mêmes initiales en bas : j.l.b., italiques minuscules et modestes, discrétion d’éditeur, comme un sculpteur qui apposerait ses initiales au socle de son propre génie.” (Marchande 350)

Alongside the dramatic impact of such a cover, the enigmatic initials of the author stimulate the curiosity of the prospective reader; this technique has been used to considerable effect by the French fiction writer A.D.G. Furthermore, the initials in the quotation above represent an author writing under a pseudonym, thus intensifying the aura or mystery surrounding his identity. This device has, of course, been used by many authors including Pennac himself. In contrast to the situation quoted above, where the publisher deliberately seeks to bathe in the reflected ‘glory’ of the text, t he name of the publisher usually provides an indicator of where in the spectrum of literary endeavor the text may be situated. Gallimard has also published each of the Malaussène series in the cheap paperback Folio series, with bright cartoon illustrations on the cover thereby further enhancing their sales potential. The back cover may also be used to tempt prospective readers; by including a short synopsis or extract, or by reproducing favorable press reviews.

Inside the covers, the elements with which the author may choose to surround the body of the text itself may affect the horizons of reception of the text. Dedicating a text may convey various messages: La Petite marchande de prose is dedicated to two writers, but in a postscript Pennac discreetly re-dedicated it to a personal friend; another writer might have chosen a more visible presentation of this device to maximize emotional effect. Similarly, an epigraph has the potential to create a variety of effects: the quotation from Christian Mounier that opens La Petite marchande de prose – “ Je est un autre, mais ce n’est pas de moi ” - is an ironic intellectual reference whose relevance to the novel becomes clear in the final section. In this case, the epigraphs that begin each section within the novel serve the purpose, along with the section titles, of suggesting to the reader the general thrust of the action in that section, thereby making the text more readily accessible to the reader.

As the publisher’s name figures prominently in the peritext of a book and that editorial strategy (both pre- and post-publication) plays a vital part in directing its epitext, the image and reputation of a publisher may be regarded as an integral part of the paratext of every book it publishes. Although Gallimard built its reputation on the inherent literary value of the books in its catalogue, in common with most publishers, it has had to modify its approach to sales and marketing in order to maintain its position of power within the industry. Rare are the publishers who, like the intellectually renowned Editions de Minuit, still limit their production to haute cuisine offerings and who have chosen to remain largely aloof from commercial maneuvers, even though this strategy may on occasion bring them close to bankruptcy. For example, whilst Minuit established a paperback series, la Collection Double, in the early 1980s, until very recently it comprised only a handful of titles.

Generally speaking, today’s fiction writers are attached to a publishing house whose editorial strategy matches the bias of the writer’s aspirations. Thus “les couloirs des Editions du Talion sont encombrés de premières personnes du singulier qui n’écrivent que pour devenir des troisièmes personnes publiques… Ceux-là n’écrivent pas pour écrire, mais pour avoir écrit – et qu’on se le dise.”(Marchande 114) A t the other end of the literary spectrum, younger writers whose ambitions are of an overwhelmingly literary nature, such as Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Christian Gailly, have tended to gravitate naturally towards the small but elitist Editions de Minuit, while mighty Gallimard attracts the wide range of literary talent that can be accommodated in its vast range of specialized series.

I would suggest that the concept of paratext might now be extended to include the effects of a novel being awarded a literary prize. For winning a major literary prize - especially the Goncourt – has a more or less dramatic impact on the horizons of reception of the winning novel; it bestows prestige on both writer and publisher, affects sales, stimulates media and critical interest (albeit temporarily) and brings the writer at least momentary celebrity. Publishers capitalize on prize-winning novels proclaiming the victory on a bande, (a device used for many years to highlight a well-known author’s name, recognized by Genette as an element of epitext). The literary prize scene in France today remains vibrant, with new prizes being created every year; some of the more recently established prizes such as those awarded by book shops, radio stations or women’s magazines, reflect the changes in patterns of literary consumption. For example the Prix du Livre Inter 1990 was awarded Daniel Pennac for La Petite Marchande de prose, contributing significantly to its success and to Pennac’s reputation.

A related and growing phenomenon that may be regarded as a manifestation of the culture of mass consumption in France is the rentrée littéraire that occurs annually at the end of the summer. Because the major prizes are awarded in October and November, many publishers deliberately time the release of novels that they wish to promote as potential prizewinners to occur over August and September. Given the short shelf life of many works of fiction, they hope that by doing this they will also maximize sales potential before the end of the year.

It seems to me that broadly speaking, significant parallels can be drawn between the conditions that govern the consumption of literature in France today and the concerns raised by Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 report on the Post Modern Condition.6 Nevertheless, it is my contention that the picture today is not as bleak as Lyotard predicted it might become. Narrative fiction today, especially at the popular end of the literary spectrum, still constitutes an important sector of the book market in France and the social bond between the players in the literary field, though weakened, still exists. Although the capitalist imperative to sell ever more copies holds sway over the entire literary field, a wide variety of fictional nourishment is produced and consumed in France today – from the rarefied atmosphere of haute cuisine, through the eclectic range of cuisine familiale, right down to the ubiquitous fast food.



1 Claire Gorrara (19) has highlighted their particular strain of detective fiction as being ‘metaphysical’ detective fiction .

2 Echenoz’s first and third novels, Le Méridien de Greenwich and L’Equipée Malaise, were highly idiosyncratic adventure stories on an epic scale, Cherokee and Lac bear a passing resemblance to a detective and a spy story respectively. Thereafter, Echenoz gradually moved away from genre literature altogether and his latest novel is a fictionalised account of the last few years in the life of the composer Ravel.

3 For a reasonably up to date account of the status of fiction in France, see French Fiction in the Mitterrand Years ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

4 The fonds is that part of the publisher’s catalogue that contains its most prestigious titles, sales of which are expected to accumulate sales over the long term.

5 Genette summarised paratext thus: “Le paratexte est donc pour nous ce par quoi un texte se fait livre et se propose comme tel à ses lecteurs, et plus généralement au public” (Seuils 7).

6 In his 2003 critical study of the work of Lyotard, Simon Malpas provides a clear but comprehensive account of Lyotard’s theory, which was that capitalism, the driving force of contemporary society, had destroyed the social bonds linking humanity. Lyotard’s main fear was that knowledge would be reduced to a single system whose only criterion would be efficiency (in financial and technological terms) and that all non-efficient knowledge would therefore disappear.


Selected Bibliography

Clark, Priscilla Parkhurst. Literary France, The Making of a Culture. London: University of California Press, 1987.

Davis, Colin and Elizabeth Fallaize. French Fiction in the Mitterrand Years: Memory, Narrative and Desire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Genette, Gérard. Seuils. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1987.

Gorrara, Claire. The Roman Noir in Post-War French Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Malpas, Simon. Jean-François Lyotard. London: Routledge Critical Thinkers series, 2003.

Nettlebeck, Colin. ‘The Post-Literary Novel: Echenoz, Pennac and Company’, in French Cultural Studies 5:2 (1994) 113-138.

Pennac, Daniel. La Petite marchande de prose. Paris: Editions Gallimard, Collection Folio, 1989.

----. Comme un roman. Paris: Editions Gallimard, Collection Folio, 1992.

Pivot, Bernard. Le Métier de lire: Réponses à Pierre Nora, d’Apostrophes à Bouillon de Culture. Paris: Editions Gallimard, Collection Folio, 2001.


  Monique Galloway is preparing her PhD at the University of Aberdeen. Her current research interests are focused on contemporary French fiction, with a particular interest in the work of Jean Echenoz and Daniel Pennac, and the status of the French literary establishment. Her thesis topic is "Genre, publication and readership in contemporary French fiction".