Friday 28 September 2018

Book events across cultures - Clémentine Beauvais

A while ago I wrote a blog post for ABBA about the differences between school visits in France and in Britain. Today I thought I’d write one about the differences I’ve observed between book events open to the public in Britain, France and Germany. 

My experience isn’t entirely representative, of course, but I’ve now done quite a few book tours/ book events (at fairs, in bookshops, or in other contexts) in those three countries and there are some striking differences that are quite revealing, I think, of the ways in which authors, books, and reading, are positioned and thought of in those three contexts. 

I’m here mostly talking about single-author events, not round tables, which are (as far as I can tell) quite similarly run. And my experience is of children's and YA literature events, not adult.

celebrating Franco-Germanic friendship on my birthday last year...

France: The author as mysterious authority

The vast majority of public book events in France take the form of an interview, with a bookseller, journalist, moderator, chair or other literature expert asking the questions. As I mentioned in my other blog post, the author’s position in such events is one I’d characterise as a subject supposed to know, in an almost oracular position, authoritative and mysterious, full of potential answers that the interviewer’s questions may or may not unlock.

Authors in France, as far as I can tell, generally don’t have firm ideas of the main points they want to convey in an interview. They wait for questions, and they answer them. Their personas on stage tend to be pretty much reflective of their personalities. They might be cheerful and communicative, or shy and fearful, or haughty and snobbish, or dull and boring. They certainly, as far as I can tell, don’t consider the interview to be a performance, but very firmly a literary discussion. There is an expectation that the book event will be informative.

The questions are generally highly complimentary - it’s very rare to hear trick questions, or criticisms (even veiled) of the book. They tend to be very respectful of the author’s private life and very rarely intrusive; any biographical interest is generally motivated by the contents of the book or by general discussion of writing. Most of the questions are quite literature-focused.

The book event may or may not be followed by a signing. While the promotion of the book is evidently an aim of the event, it is rarely clearly foregrounded as such. It would be considered, I think, quite distasteful for an author to self-promote during the event, actively encourage listeners to buy the book, or sing the praises of their own work.

Britain: The author as show/wo/man

It is, of course, very frequent in Britain to have interview-format book events, too. But even in those - and, even more so, in other types of events where authors actually put on a show (with or without Powerpoint), it is clear that the author’s role in British book events is more proactive, more promotional, and more performance-driven than in France.

The author in Britain is here to sell their book, and the narrative they build around the book - which may lead to some quite private information to be given - is part of the publicity for the book. There is an expectation that the book event will be entertaining.

The questions are generally complimentary, as in France, but I have observed that they tend to be less specific than in France - questions are willfully quite broad, in order perhaps to serve as platforms for the author to tell the story of their book and of their writing.

I would say that doing a book event in Britain feels like much more like acting than in France, with the drive to make one’s personality considerably sunnier and funnier than in real life (this, of course, with variations to match the contents of the book).

Authors in Britain, it seems to me, have quite a clear idea before going on stage of the main messages they want to communicate about the book; its pitch; its unique selling points. Those things are, it’s worth saying, much more part of the genesis of the book and the publishing process in the first place: in Britain, you know your pitch, in part because the agents, editors and publicists have been refining it for months. In France, where pitch-driven writing is less a thing (even in children’s literature), there isn’t a huge expectation that you should be able to sum up the book quickly.

The book event is almost always followed by a signing and generally, that aspect of it is considered as perfectly natural. The author’s self-promotion and encouragement to the audience to buy the book is not seen as weird.

Germany: The author as builder and sharer of words

My first book events in Germany puzzled me utterly. I was expecting a French-style interview, the only difference being the presence of an interpreter (I don’t speak German), and the slightly odd labelling of the event as ‘Reading’ didn’t register with me as being an actual thing. This was a book fair with teenagers, there was a fee, it was an hour long - it obviously wasn’t going to be a Reading.

It was. In Germany, very many book events involve remarkably long readings from the book that the author is promoting. Not only that - from a very young age, children get accustomed to sitting in rooms listening to people reading from books. Reading, I mean, sitting down at a desk, with the book. That’s it. The first time, I thought - there is no way in heaven that those teenagers are going to listen to 15 minutes of reading out loud, with no acting, no background, no nothing. But they did.

Normally, events with young people consist of brief-ish readings - 10, 15 minutes, and in between, some questions. Still, that is a much longer amount of time than either France or Britain would normally consider feasible. For adults, I’m told, book events in Germany can consist of literally one hour of reading. There is an expectation that the book event will expand one's imagination.

In such events, the author, I think, is positioned principally as a builder and sharer of words, someone whose creation of an atmosphere, a world, a cast of characters, will fill up the whole space for considerable amounts of time. It is less about talking around the book than about entering the book - letting it speak for itself. 

In-between the reading, there may be questions, and questions in Germany tend to be more thought-provoking and more critical than in France and Britain, I’ve found. There’s less of a sense that the interviewer should always be adoring. You can get quite tough - though always kindly worded - questions on anything from your literary choices to your ideological viewpoint.

As in France, the author doesn’t put on a show for such events; I would say that their ‘usual’ personality, give or take the inevitable alterations induced by being on a stage, is generally what you see. A signing generally follows the book event, though, like France, I have a sense that it wouldn’t be considered very tasteful to advertise that fact too strongly.


Again, those are generalities, not absolute facts, and they’re drawn from admittedly limited experience, but such experience tells us a lot about the cultural scripts that define in a given country at a given time what an author is, what kind of knowledge they’ve got, and how a book is considered in relation to the audience, the market, and its genre. Let me know in the comments what it’s like in other countries, too…

Clémentine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her YA novels are Piglettes(Pushkin, 2017) and In Paris with You (trans. Sam Taylor, Faber, 2018).


Andrew Preston said...

What came through for me, on reading your post was...

1. France. More or less confirmed my limited and possibly prejudiced view. The primacy there of the intellectual education, rational discussion, and the viewpoint that those who are not so are essentially the audience, to be educated from on high.
And stemming from that the privacy that the powerful and privileged people of France give to themselves.

2. Britain. No big surprises there. Several decades worth of neo-liberalism, the economics of the marketplace, sell, sell, sell. I do feel that a great good would be done if a very hard rain were to fall and wash it all away.

3. Germany. Sounds interesting.

Must say, though, a reading that I would have quite liked to attend, but was doing other things, would have been one by the late Felix Dennis. Prominent on the publicity.. "Did I mention the Free Wine...".

Sophia Bennett said...

Hi Clémentine. Another great post. That captures my experience too. I was just as surprised as you when, in Germany, I sat beside an actor who read my words in translation for what seemed like hours! Luckily they usually did it very well - but that only made me a bit paranoid about reading out from my own work in English, as I don't have the same drama skills.

I haven't been to a French festival, but the way you describe it, it sounds like my natural home. Nothing I'd like more than just to chat naturally about the books!

But in England, yes, a perfect pitch and a performance is required. It's fascinating that the experience is so different across cultures. I bet that, like authors, some readers would naturally fit into another culture's way of doing things better than their own. How wonderful to be able to travel and experience the variety. Just hoping and praying that after the B-word we still can.