“If the bookseller has disappeared,
and is only a salesperson, it means that there is no vision..”
It means that there is no knowledge. It
means that, if you sell Gertrude Stein, you put Gertrude Stein
at the same level as [John] Grisham: it
makes no difference, a book is a product. Thus we have seen
the leveling of the meaning of books
For three years I have been asking notable publishers
and editors about the book business, its history, and the remarkable
alteration we have seen in its structure. Generously, these persons have
told me how they entered the trade; spoken about writers they’ve
published and declined to publish; described the (changing) class
structure of their domain; talked straight about money, commerce, and
corporate capitalism; described their way of practicing responsible
publishing. Without exception, they are serious readers, usually of more
than one language. They recognize that times have changed. They speak
with wary-friendly observation of the generations coming up. They speak
from the old values and traditions of book-publishing.
But, once books are published, where do they go? To
the bookshop? More likely, to the chain store: Barnes and Noble,
Borders, Chapters; and to Amazon, the internet octopus.
Where are the small independent bookshops, where a
thoughtful reader may browse at his leisure; where an insistent reader
expects to find the new titles by her favorite authors? Where can any
reader go, now, to inquire of a bookseller who knows his stock, indeed,
who knows books at all? These booksellers and shops exist. Serious
readers all know one or two of them. They prefer to buy their books
there. They resist driving to a chain store, or ordering from Amazon,
which tracks their purchases – even their movements – electronically
and presumes (by computer) to know their taste. A conversation with an
independent bookseller would, I thought, offer another insight into the
chaotic business of books and why we all still need and want them.
Excerpts of these conversations about books and
publishing will continue to appear regularly in Archipelago,
and may serve as an opening into an institutional memory
contrasting itself with the current corporate structure, reflecting on
glories of its own, revealing what remains constant amid the flux.
Despite their surround of gentility, these people are strong-minded
characters engaged with their historical circumstances. Out of that
engagement have appeared, and continue to be sold, a number of books
that we can say, rightly, belong to literature.
A Conversation with Marion Boyars, Archipelago,
Vol. 1 No. 3
A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, Vol.
1 No. 4 and Vol. 2, No. 1
A Conversation with William Strachan, Vol. 2, No. 4
A Conversation with Samuel H. Vaughan, Vol. 3, No. 2
Reminiscence: Lee Goerner (1947-1995), Vol. 3, No. 3
Institutional Memory (Download)
Odile Hellier, of the Village Voice Bookshop
In 1982, Odile Hellier opened the Village Voice
to a city suddenly awake to the vitality and diversity of Anglo-American
literature. Today, the Village Voice is ranked by The Bookseller,
the British trade journal, as the best independent literary bookstore in
Europe. In the intervening eighteen years, the world has changed; where
better to reflect on it than amid Odile Hellier’s well-stocked
The proprietor and her bookshop can be found on a small street,
the rue Princesse, off
the rue du Four, in the glittering shopping district that the old
literary neighborhood of St.-Germain has become. Still, she survives.
Her shop is filled. On display tables are the new hard-cover titles from
all the leading publishers, handsomely stacked, intelligently arranged.
On the shelves, where her thoughtful hand has placed them, venerable
paperbacks seem to talk to each other. They invite the browser into
their conversation. Odile Helllier herself, slim, serious (until her
face breaks into a warm smile), is always running. She greets you, leads
you to the table of new books, puts into your hand a volume she thinks
you’ll want to see, then darts off to pick up the phone, speak with a
book representative, answer a question, confer with a colleague. She
races up and down the stairs; she shifts cartons (which are always
arriving); she checks the computer; she replies to a fax. Her colleagues
run in her wake.
In the early 1980s, Odile Hellier had returned
to Paris after a decade spent in the States and, before that, graduate
studies in the Soviet Union. Unwilling to work in the corporate world,
vividly aware of the openness of American society, she realized that
Paris needed the books and authors she knew were important. (She is
considered by many writers and academics the best-read person in France
of contemporary American and English literature.)
Odile and I are friends. I stay with her when I am in Paris. I spend
hours in the Village Voice. I arrived there four and a half years ago,
after my own life had changed, with an introduction from Sarah Gaddis,
an American writer who had lived for some years in France. At once I was
welcomed. Immediately began our long conversation, Odile’s and mine,
about books, and society, and life. When, the next year, I was
organizing Archipelago, she only encouraged me, though she
dislikes much about the internet. She agreed, despite her terrifically
busy schedule, to become a contributing editor.
Recently, we talked over the course of an evening in January. It was
an interesting moment. We had entered a new century; already, life was
changing around us, in ways we wanted to chart. AOL
had announced to an electrified media that it was going to buy Time
Warner. The following week, the World Economic Forum would be convened
in Davos, where the electronically-based “new economy” was to be the
topic of conversation among world leaders of politics and business. (In
the International Herald Tribune I would read that Yassir Arafat
wanted first to meet Jeff Bezos!) Vodaphone, the British manufacturer of
telephone hardware, was about to acquire Mannesman, the enormous German
communications corporation, promising Europe an advance into e-
commerce. Three months later, Stephen King would surprise his publisher
by offering a new novella only as an e-book. The 44-page
story was downloaded from the web in an immense number of copies,
surprising his publisher even more. Thus was the direction of publishing
changed; again. So everyone would say.
Meanwhile, the semi-annual soldes, the great sales, had just
begun in Paris and London, and hordes of shoppers had brought traffic in
St.-Germain to a halt. We sat in a quiet room surrounded by books. A
bottle of wine was on the table. I asked Odile about the future of
bookselling as she saw it.
Why she became a bookseller
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Would you tell about how you started the
Village Voice Bookshop, and when? What was the circumstance that led you
to become a bookseller?
ODILE HELLIER: It was only eighteen years ago, but it feels
like yesterday. At the same time, it feels like half a century ago,
because things have changed so much in the last twenty years. I started
the Village Voice on returning to Paris after ten years in the States,
which I called at the time an open society, with its variety, its
diversity of cultures. Some of them I was just discovering:
African-American politics, culture, and literature. Ralph Ellison,
Baldwin, Richard Wright: these writers were an incredible discovery for
me. Native Americans, who were beginning to make themselves heard; and
– complement of the ‘70s – the feminist
movement, which was then flourishing. All those fundamental books by
women who were writing about their lives, the lives of our mothers’
and grandmothers’ generations, about their history, their oppression.
But more important, these women were giving us the tools to think, live
differently. They envisioned what could be the life of free, responsible
women. How exciting it was!
There was a lot of humor, as well. It was a wonderful decade, in that
respect. And so I came back to France, in ’80, ’81.
I had been a translator in the States, in technical matters: oil things,
political things, from English into French. Coming back to France, I
found a job at an international corporation. But I was not yet forty,
and I knew that such a sterile life was not for me.
I took many walks around Paris. In the course of one of these,
visiting bookshops which carried English books, the idea came upon me.
The shelves and the piles on the tables looked dull to me, and dusty.
Where were all those books which had opened, stimulated, my mind? Where
were all those books which revealed the vitality of a country which had
been able to put a stop to the Vietnam War, a country where women were
making deep inroads into all fields, political, social, professional,
and so on; a country where the African-Americans – the Afro-Americans
as we called them at the time – were revolutionizing the country?
These were ebullient times. And so, the idea literally crashed upon me:
“This is it! Why not open a bookshop?”
And also, I wanted to have a café. In Washington, D.
C., there was a certain café-bookstore, and I found the
combination very attractive.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Oh, yes: Kramerbooks – I remember it
ODILE HELLIER: And so I said, “Maybe a small
would be nice.”
Unconsciously, what I was probably trying to do was to build a
cultural bridge between those ten years in the States that formed me and
my new life in France, a country that, by now, I hardly knew.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You had also spent time in the Soviet
Union, hadn’t you?
ODILE HELLIER: Right after college I had gone to the Soviet
Union to complete my graduate studies. I had come back to France to
teach Russian, but I could not wait to get away. That was a decade
during which I had traveled all over, on almost no money.
And also, deep, deep in my childhood is buried a story which involves
In September 1940, my father, an officer in the
French Army, was in Strasbourg at the time of the invasion of the east
of France by the German Army. He was made a prisoner. But before being
taken away, he had been able to send a message to my mother: “Take the
last train to Nancy.” My mother left during the night. The house, the
neighbors reported to my mother years later, was immediately taken over
by some members of the German Army. But they were not too pleased by
what they found in my father’s library. They found the works of Karl
Marx and a large portrait of Lyautey, who was a famous officer in the
French Army and a figure my father certainly admired.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: But that is almost a contradictory
combination, Lyautey and Marx, isn’t it?. General Lyauty was the head
of the African administration of ‘overseas France.’1
He was – can one say it? – almost an enlightened colonialist. He
also believed, in some way, not in self-determination – am I correct
about this? – but in the voice of the local people; and yet, he turned
to a policy of suppression.
ODILE HELLIER: He was a colonial administrator of liberal
tendencies. At any rate, this is the story I heard in my childhood.
Anyhow, Marx and Lyautey triggered the wrath of the new ‘owners,’
and they took all the books of my father’s library out on the street
and set them on fire. I was not born then, but this is a story which,
together with all the atrocities of the war – my grandmother savagely
killed by the Gestapo, and my father, who fought in the Resistance,
killed as a member of the Resistance, by a mine – has stayed with me.
Hence, maybe this attachment to books. I have those memories of myself
dragging everywhere I went suitcases filled with books, from Moscow,
England, Yugoslavia, England, the States.
With some distance, one could almost call it a manic behavior. Deep
in myself, I do believe that it was my thirst for knowledge, and it is
the need I still feel today, of partaking of the experience of the
authors and their vision of the world. It may sound pretentious, but
this is the truth, the way I feel.
Given what I have said, it is not difficult to understand why the
idea of a bookshop was so appealing to me. Of course, there is a big gap
between a seductive idea and the reality, especially since business is
not something I had ever thought of doing. The idea of opening a shop
never, ever crossed my mind. But somehow, a bookshop was not an ordinary
shop. Books made the whole difference.
And, instead of being discouraged by people around me who said, “Are
you crazy? What are you going to do?”, everyone said, “This is
perfect for you.” I had incredible support from my family and from two
friends. I started on a shoestring. And yet, it became a success. It was
the first bookstore with a café in Paris. It looked very modern,
high-tech at the time. My brother designed it. Today, it is difficult to
imagine that this crowded space was high-tech, but it was, at one point!
KATHERINE McNAMARA: The thing to say about your space is that
it’s filled, and filled, and filled, and filled. It’s an astonishing
range of books that you carry.
ODILE HELLIER: So, this is the way I started.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You had the café for several years?
ODILE HELLIER: For three years. But very quickly I could see
that this was not something I enjoyed. People were coming for the
coffee, for the vegetable dishes, the cappuccino, for my brownies, my
carrot cake (laughter), but it was too much work. I was working
at night, and crying at night, in the kitchen. I could see how I was
being pushed by the accountant to develop that side of the business.
There was no end to it. It was much, much too much work. And, above all,
it was not why I had opened a bookshop.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: In this arrondissement are great
cafés: the Flore, where publishers go; Deux Magots; Lipp. There were
great, old bookstores around the Place St.-Germain. La Hune, where I
used to look at beautiful art books I couldn’t afford. Le Divan. But
now, La Hune has moved around the corner, Le Divan has moved – to the
sixteenth! – and the old Le Drugstore, where I used to hang out,
rather self-consciously, is now an Emporio Armani.
ODILE HELLIER: The Sixième Arrondissement was
once a world of publishers’ offices and bookshops. Now it has been
taken over, almost entirely, by smart cafés and expensive boutiques.
And they all look alike.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: They do look alike: people, clothes,
interiors. St.-Germain feels like South Kensington or Madison Avenue. It’s
The Village Voice
KATHERINE McNAMARA: From the beginning your bookshop was
called the Village Voice. You made an agreement with the newspaper in
ODILE HELLIER: What happened was this: I called them up, and
they checked into their bylaws to see if opening a bookshop in Europe
was a problem. I called them back, and a woman, one of the lawyers,
said: “We don’t see any reason why you could not, as long as it is
not a magazine.”
The Village Voice people, right from the
beginning, were very supportive. They came to Paris and brought me all
kinds of little things from the paper, like the aprons. For a while,
many people from The Village Voice would come to Paris to check
on the Village Voice to see if everything was well and right. And from
day one to this day, for the past eighteen or nineteen years, I have
carried The Village Voice every single week.
Also, do not forget that this neighborhood is called le village
St.-Germain, and so, there was already the image of the village.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And also, St.-Germain is, or was, at
least, the center of publishing.
ODILE HELLIER: Yes, and so the name ‘Village Voice’ made
sense for more than one reason. But it all sounds better in English than
KATHERINE McNAMARA: What were the first books you bought to
sell in the store?
ODILE HELLIER: I remember that one of my first bestsellers was
THE WHITE HOTEL, by D. M.
Thomas. Another one which was really, really important to me at the time
was [John Kennedy Toole’s] A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Who were your customers?
ODILE HELLIER: Something happened which I wasn’t expecting,
in ’81, when Mitterand came to power. With
Mitterrand came a certain image of France. With Jack Lang, his Minister
of Culture, came a certain idea, an image, of popular culture. On the
one hand, because of the installation of a socialist government, the
franc collapsed and the dollar went up. On the other hand, the novelty
of the young and dynamic minister of culture attracted many young
Americans to Paris. It was the last time they would be able to find
inexpensive chambres de bonne, good food on a small budget, and
small jobs on the sly. Good reasons for American youth to flock to Paris
and imagine they were the new Hemingway or Henry Miller!
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Or were Jean Seberg selling the Herald-Tribune
in the streets.
ODILE HELLIER: Well, all these elements combined created an
incredible vitality in Paris. Suddenly you had a flourishing of literary
magazines. You had, at one point, six English-speaking literary
magazines, and all of them were giving readings at the Village Voice:
launching No. 1, launching No. 2
– every week, there was a launching at the Village Voice.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: It must have been thrilling, a ‘bouillon
ODILE HELLIER: It wasn’t that I was making a tremendous
amount of money; no; but it was a place where things were happening. For
instance, you see that huge painting I have in the staircase: that is
the work of a famous Argentine painter in exile, Ricardo Mosner. He made
the painting during a bilingual reading. The bookshop was packed; and
yet, he had one wall, on which he was painting. This was given to the
Village Voice – I just paid for materials – as long as it would not
be moved out of the bookshop. It’s been there now seventeen years,
sixteen years, and it’s still as vital. I cannot put it anywhere else,
and I don’t know an apartment with walls big enough to hold this, so
it has to stay there!
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I don’t think there is a wall anywhere
outside the Louvre big enough to hold that painting.
ODILE HELLIER: So, just to give you an idea. For instance, Ray
Carver came several times. At the first reading he gave, in the room
were Edmund White and Peter Taylor. Another time, he read with Richard
Ford. It was an incredible creuset, a bowl where things get
mixed; a crux.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Did the French come also?
ODILE HELLIER: The French came also: poets, translators,
university professors, students and so on.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: The ‘80s, then, at
least the first half of the ‘80s, were a boom
ODILE HELLIER: American literature was at the pinnacle, and
the Village Voice was where it was all staged.
Who were the writers?
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Who were the writers, then, whom you
thought were important, and who were important, literarily.
ODILE HELLIER: Pynchon was extremely important. [Thomas]
Pynchon was really at the center of all discussions.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Did he come to your store?
ODILE HELLIER: No. Never.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You’re sure?
ODILE HELLIER: No. (laughter) People would have
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You think so?
ODILE HELLIER: [William] Gaddis was extremely important. We
had the opportunity to have him twice.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: He read?
ODILE HELLIER: Yes. To be more precise, he talked. It was a
landmark event. The first time Mr. Gaddis ‘read’ at the Village
Voice, he was introduced by one of the leading Americanists in France,
Marc Chenetier. Marc Chenetier is a university professor who has written
extensively on experimental American literature. Mr. Gaddis was on his
way back from a trip to the Soviet Union, and he talked. He talked about
everything touching literature – publishing, books versus ‘products’
(already!), commercial writing versus literature. His dry humor would
send the audience into fits of laughter. The bookshop was filled with
people, it was a memorable evening.
The second time he came, it was for the launching of the French
edition of CARPENTER’S GOTHIC. It was an
official event, co-organized with Ivan Nabokov [director of foreign
literature, Librarie Plon], his publisher in France. What happened
was that Ivan Nabokov organized a private reading of several chapters,
by two famous French actors. One of them was Dominique Sanda, who was so
beautiful. An interesting evening; but I certainly would have preferred
a talk by Mr. Gaddis. He came by the Village Voice a few other times,
once with a huge bouquet of flowers. I was touched by this. He also
attended the launching of his daughter’s novel [Sarah Gaddis, SWALLOW
HARD], which we celebrated at the Village Voice.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I should mention that it was Sarah Gaddis
who introduced me to you. I came to Paris after my husband [Lee
Goerner, former editor and publisher of Atheneum] died. He had been
ODILE HELLIER: She had lived in Paris while writing the book.
And, as she read, it was obvious that he was a pleased and happy father.
Another person who was extremely important at the time was Ray
Carver, whom I mentioned earlier. He gave two readings which could have
converted the illiterate tough into a lover of literature. Richard Ford
read, many times: his contribution, he would say, to “support the
Village Voice.” We had Russell Banks. [Don] DeLillo came later on;
DeLillo came in 1992.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: That would have been for…
ODILE HELLIER: For MAO II. He read from MAO
II; it was for the French edition.
Early in the ‘80s, just before he died,
Julian Beck of the Living Theater, came. Michael Ondaatje read several
times. The first night he read here, he had just published this little
gem of a book, RUNNING IN THE FAMILY; but he was
hardly known. Through the grapevine the word went around, and people
crowded in to hear him read. They immediately showed an immense
enthusiasm for him.
Stephen Spender came. Mary McCarthy came to the reading by Stephen
Spender, but did not read at the Village Voice because I was too shy to
invite her to read. I remember that very well! Diane Johnson read. Many
poets; the Language Poets; Michael Palmer, who is well known as a
Language Poet. Someone who read, many times, was Robert Coover. Paul
Auster came often to the Village Voice but never read, because each time
he postponed it, until it was too late, because he was too famous. (laughter)
So, that gives you a little hint of what was happening. It was like a
roller coaster. I am grateful to all of them, because there is no doubt
in my mind that it was with their support that the Village Voice became
what it is, a place with a certain aura. I am aware of the marks that
all those writers have left on the place. I am deeply aware that all
those books in the shelves and the tables represent layers of thought,
art, civilization. At times when I am depressed by all the paperwork,
the bills, the cartons which get lost, the orders which do not arrive
– all the complications that make up our days – I pause and look
around and say to myself: “Take the longer view. All these books: they
are what count.” And I can assure you that when I say ‘all these
books,’ I do not mean ‘products,’ but magical objects which
contain layers of civilization. What a treasure this is. Especially when
in the relatively short life of the Village Voice so many writers who
had read, not only once but even several times, have died, most of them
young and at the height of their creativity. Ray Carver. Michael Dorris.
Matt Cohen. Alan Jolis. Kathy Acker.
The next decade
KATHERINE McNAMARA: This, then, takes us through the ‘80s.
When did that ebullience began to lessen?
ODILE HELLIER: I would say in ‘89-’90.
There was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Suddenly, the central attraction
was in the East, and Prague became the place. France was in the
process of integrating itself into the European Economic Union. Life
here wasn’t as inexpensive any more. Unemployment went up. American
corporations opened branches and offices as never before. Disneyland
sprang up and Paris was no longer the same. The crowd of young future
potential Hemingways disappeared. (laughter) They all went to
Prague. And they were replaced by the business suits.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: When I first lived here, in the mid-‘70s,
it was a different city than now; and when I came back for the first
time after twenty years, I hardly recognized it. I had lived behind the
…glise St.-Germain-des-Prés. My old neighborhood was the village of
St.-Germain, and at that time it was dark, it was sweetly grubby. (laughter)
Not any more. Even your little street is different, shinier, than four
and a half years ago, when I first came to the bookshop.
ODILE HELLIER: We started to see a different kind of
clientele. Today, I would say that my clientele is the intellectual
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Is that a large clientele? Is it
shrinking? Is it changing in age?
ODILE HELLIER: It’s difficult to assess. We still have
Americans, tourists, of course, but I feel that we get more people who
are used to dealing with books: professors, writers. I would say that
French people – again, professors, students, researchers, journalists,
professionals – make up sixty percent of our business.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: And, certainly, every writer who comes to
Paris comes to you.
ODILE HELLIER: They come, yes.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Whether they buy books is another
ODILE HELLIER: Often they do.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Nikki Gemmell [who had given a reading
the day before] was buying books this morning that, she told me, she
couldn’t get in England.
ODILE HELLIER: She bought a nice pile of books. Richard Ford
buys books each time; so does Michael Ondaatje. And what I appreciate
most is that they pretend they are buying books they had meant to buy,
but could not find elsewhere. An elegant gesture on their part
KATHERINE McNAMARA: But it does feel that way. You have so
many books there that I would have expected to find at Books &
Co., in New York; but that bookstore is closed. If I see them in the New
York Review of Books or the London Review of Books, I can ask
my local bookseller to get them, but she wouldn’t necessarily carry
them in her shop. If I were closer to your bookshop, I would pay your
rent with the books I would buy.
ODILE HELLIER: You know, this past year, more than any year
before, a number of customers, mostly Americans, have come to us asking,
“Who buys the books? How do you make your selection?” It is a
compliment which warms my heart. I don’t do anything special. I just
do what other booksellers and buyers do: that is, read and make notes.
For instance, this is Monday night. I will read the New York Review
of Books, The New York Times Book Review, my Publisher’s
Weekly, the London Review, the T[imes L[iterary]
S[supplement]. Basically, each week I have five magazines, plus my
[book company] representatives, plus the customers. The customers will
always tell us, “You don’t have this book, but I think you should
have it, this would be interesting for you,” and immediately we react.
I know that the customers who appreciate our selection are the ones who
share the same interests as we do.
I also get from customers acrimonious remarks: How is it that we do
not have a better selection of comics, science fiction, et cetera? One
cannot, given the space we have, and the means, make everyone happy. One
of my criteria is that I and my colleagues should love the books we
sell. New books arrive every day, and every day we feel an incredible
appetite for all the new releases we display on the tables.
Writers of the last decade
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Turning back to America and England during
the ‘90s, I wonder what writers – how can I
put it? – what writers do you read with renewed pleasure; do you find
your customers wanting to read? Who are writers whom you think have
added something to literature?
ODILE HELLIER: Don DeLillo comes to mind. Russell Banks comes
to mind. Gaddis, definitely. Ondaatje, who is not American but Canadian:
Ondaatje is read all the time. Now, Hemingway is selling again. [Saul]
Bellow, [Philip] Roth: it’s incredible, how they sell. Roth – the
last three novels he wrote are a marvel. I would say that people like D.
H. Lawrence are in a phase where they are not much read; Malcolm
Lowry, not much read.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I always thought that UNDER
THE VOLCANO was one of the four or five American books of the
century; but it went out of print!
ODILE HELLIER: I know that it’s going to be back in print.
But to me it’s inconceivable that, simultaneously, it is out of print
in both England and the United States. [It is being republished in
April 2000 by HarperPerennial.]
KATHERINE McNAMARA: What English writers do you pay attention
to? And what writers who are not English but who write in British
ODILE HELLIER: [Salman] Rushdie is one of the top authors. We
sell many books by Hanif Kureishi: he is very, very popular in France.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: What younger writers, would you say are
notable; or, if not younger writers, those whose star rose in the ‘90s?
ODILE HELLIER: I would phrase it differently. I could, for
instance, speak about books which were important to me in the past
years. They are very eclectic. I would say that FUGITIVE
PIECES, by Anne Michaels, was very close to me. THE
UNTOUCHABLE, by John Banville, struck me deeply.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Indeed. It’s an astonishing book, isn’t
it? The bravery of that writer assuming the voice of a character so
unlike himself, even a sort of enemy.
ODILE HELLIER: TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE, by [Bohumil]
Hrabal, is a book that is necessary for me. It’s a metaphorical book,
about a kind of Kafka-esque character who works in a factory where books
are being burned.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Oh, that’s an extraordinary book. His
spirit, grave and ironic. The irony of the compassionate man who knows
the world is a vale of tears.
ODILE HELLIER: Another one which is a very strong book, is by
the Austrialian writer David Malouf book, AN IMAGINARY
LIFE. THE HOURS, by Michael Cunningham, was dear to me.
Another book, in a totally different spirit, is by Mordechai Richler:
BARNEY’S VERSION; a very good book. Of course,
to me, this year the important writer would be [J. M.]
KATHERINE McNAMARA: DISGRACE.
ODILE HELLIER: DISGRACE: And all of
Coetzee. He ranks very high.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I read DISGRACE a
few months ago. It doesn’t go away. As I recede from it, it grows –
not so much solid: it’s too bony to be ‘solid’ – it grows
and becomes indestructible in memory.
ODILE HELLIER: It means that it is part of your life. And this
is what I mean by books that change your life: they become part of your
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Your mental landscape. Your nourishment.
ODILE HELLIER: For the past fifteen years I have been saying
that I would like to add more space. Now, I feel that my strong point is
selecting, as much as I can, and having fewer titles: but titles I
believe in. Over the years we have, I would say, created a sort of ‘Village
Voice list’ of books we love and which we try to keep in stock. Some
of these, besides those we’ve mentioned: Cyril Connolly’s THE
UNQUIET GRAVE, David Malouf’s AN IMAGINARY LIVE,
Coetzee’s WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, Ondaatje’s
RUNNING IN THE FAMILY, and, of course, Hrabal’s TOO
LOUD A SOLITUDE.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Perhaps you haven’t fewer titles than
before – I don’t know – but they are strong. On every shelf – on
every shelf! – I can find five books I would like to have and read.
ODILE HELLIER: It’s the same with me. But where is the time
to read as much as we would like? I easily spend twelve hours a day in
the bookshop, and there is all the professional press to read. The work
is endless. I manage to read an average of two books a week, and my
colleagues the same. But by the time we have read and fallen in love
with a book, the fashion has already died away. THE
LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, by Washington Irving, is an example.
There was a movie based on it [“The Legend of Sleepy
by Tim Burton]. The book sold very well – for two weeks. The movie
is over, the book is dead.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: But do you ever find that your customers
seek unheralded or nearly-forgotten writers? Writers re-discovered
ODILE HELLIER: There are book addicts. There are not many, but
they still exist. I can find them books; they do not have to leave with
empty hands. But it is a question of drawing on classics, of drawing on
older books. For instance, recently we have been selling a lot of
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Malaparte? How unexpected. I know the name
of this author, but …
ODILE HELLIER: Yes, Malaparte. CAPUT and
THE SKIN: we reorder them every week.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I don’t know his work. Do you have any
idea why this is happening?
ODILE HELLIER: Well, he’s a rediscovered writer, a writer
who was forgotten, a little bit. He is a writer of the First World War.
He describes the war in Italy. He is raw, violent, very strong.
The rules of commerce
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Let us talk now about the structure of
your profession and how it is changing. You are the proprietor of the
best independent bookstore in Europe selling English and American books,
according to The Bookseller, the British trade journal. We are in
a new century; there is reason for optimism; and yet, you’ve told me
over the last year or so that you aren’t entirely optimistic about the
future of bookselling. Would you speak of that?
ODILE HELLIER: This is a question which covers many different
aspects of bookselling. I will start with the obvious: that many
independent bookstores have disappeared in the States, are disappearing
a little bit everywhere in the world at an alarming rate.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Even in France?
ODILE HELLIER: In France, booksellers are still relatively
protected. But for how long? Under the Loi Lang, a law that was
passed in 1981, in the first year of Mitterand’s
government – it was named for Jack Lang, his minister of culture –
books could not be discounted more than five percent. This allowed every
bookseller – chains such as Fnac and independents, alike – to have
theoretically equal chances. I stress the word ‘theoretically,’ for
the situation is much more complex.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: How so? You import books, you don’t sell
ODILE HELLIER: For booksellers like me, those who import
books, the law is full of arcane twists and loopholes. In theory, once I
have put a price on my books, I cannot discount it as I wish. For
example, a few years ago, I was selling English textbooks to a French
university, with a ten percent discount offered to the students, just on
the day I was there. A local bookseller, although he did not sell
English books, as I did, used the Loi Lang to start a lawsuit
against me. He tried, without success, to take that business from me!
Yet, at the same time, given the competition in the field, importers of
English books practice all kinds of discounts. Because of this, a
university professor came one day to announce loudly to me that I would
never get his business, since he was getting a twenty-five percent
discount from one of my competitors.
Now, since it is the importer who sets his own prices, we have to
define what it is we chop ten percent, twenty-five percent, off of.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the exchange rates practiced by
some importers were so outrageously high that they could very well
afford to give a twenty-five percent discount. I tried to explain to
this professor that it is the importer who fixes the price, and
that this importer, my competitor, may have used a different rate of
exchange – multiplying, for example, every dollar of the cover price
by ten, instead of seven or eight, francs to cover transportation and VAT.
You see, he was discounting from a higher selling price, to begin with.
But the only thing our loud teacher could grasp was whether the discount
he received would be five, twenty, or twenty-five percent. So, as you
can see, for importers the Loi Lang is far more complex. But as
far as French booksellers are concerned, this loi du prix fixe
has been very positive.
Now, to come back to the question of optimism, or pessimism: two
recent events have badly shaken the foundations of the French system.
The first is the death in England a few years ago of the Net Book
Agreement,2 a real Trojan Horse on the European landscape of
bookselling. With its end, the fixed price disappeared, opening the
gates to the installation of giant American discount stores, with all
the consequences that we know. And the second is the spread of
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Ah, we are in new territory.
ODILE HELLIER: Now, don’t get me wrong: business is
business, capitalism is capitalism. If you are going to be in business,
you know that you will be confronted by competition, and you accept the
However, until the emergence of what is called the ‘new economy,’
which includes e-commerce, the rules of commerce were the same for
everyone, except – oops, what comes to mind is the Mafia, which was
involved in big business and never bothered to abide by the rules. But
at least we can say that, officially, on the surface at least, they were
not part of mainstream business.
Basically, it used to be that, if you bought goods and resold them,
you had to make a profit and pay taxes, which are of three kinds: a
local tax which is the equivalent of the European VAT,
the value-added tax; a tax on profit; and taxes on labor, for social
security. In France, the great majority of people still wish to benefit
– each individually – from the various tax-funded public
institutions, such as for those for education and public health, or, for
retirement, their pensions. But now, the novelty of e-commerce is that
this new form of doing business gets around the necessity of paying
those taxes, while traditional commerce continues to pay them. As we
say, Deux poids deux mésures.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You’re speaking of Amazon now.
ODILE HELLIER: I’m speaking of any kind of business. All
books bought on the internet are exonerated from the VAT,
which represents for the buyer some sort of discount. In a bookshop, he
would have to pay that VAT as part of the price of
the book, and each month, by the nineteenth, the French bookseller must
pay le Fisc, the Internal Revenue, five and a half percent of all
his previous month’s turnover. Given the ruthless competition which is
going on because of the huge discounts granted on the internet, we often
do not include in our selling price the five and a half percent
VAT, but still we have to pay it. In other words, we can say that
the VAT reduces our margin and is yet another
drain on our cash flow – a tax the e-commerce ventures do not have to
KATHERINE McNAMARA: And, your tax burden is quite a large
percentage of your gross income.
ODILE HELLIER: It is. Plus the fact that, in France, we have
to pay those huge taxes on labor, which explains the high unemployment
rate here. It is between ten and eleven percent of the population. Of
course, there is tax on profit, but it is not as huge as tax on labor.
And the third element is, as I’ve said, the VAT.
But this VAT business is only the tip of the
iceberg. E-commerce, and also the superstores, practice discounting on a
scale unheard of before. What business practices do those discounts
reveal? We are speaking, of course, of discounts on new books, new
releases, which can vary from fifteen to fifty percent! Either,
publishers grant those giant ventures huge discounts, or, those ventures
do not make a profit. If publishers do in effect grant huge discounts to
those ventures, then their practices are unfair toward independent
booksellers, and they are, in the end, responsible for the chaos which
has turned the bookselling business upside down.
If it is not the case, then it means that the ventures are selling at
a loss. And if they sell at a loss, they are not going to pay taxes.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Because you pay taxes on your profit. And,
depending on how your form of incorporation is structured, you must make
a profit, at least where I live, to be considered a legal corporation.
ODILE HELLIER: As I said earlier, one of the tenets of
commerce is that you make a profit. How is it then that, year after
year, e-ventures show losses – and the greater the losses, the
stronger they are on the stock market? All this, of course, is new: the
‘new economy,’ the economists call it, and it is detrimental to
independent and traditional businesses.
For us booksellers, what it comes down to is that the rules of
commerce have radically changed over the past few years. In the past,
the rules set the framework within which we all could practice a
profession we had embraced out of our love for books and knowledge.
Today, traditional business continues to be taxed, while e-commerce
escapes all of it. You can now be a capitalist and possess no capital,
make zero profit, and still continue in business and be universally
admired! The market has become a jungle where bullying is the code of
behavior, leaving hardly any place to books – I am speaking of real
books, not ‘products’ – and even less to book-lovers.
Poor publishing; poor bookselling
ODILE HELLIER: I would also say that two other elements come
to my mind. One is that publishing of good books is becoming very poor,
KATHERINE McNAMARA: How do you mean, poor?
ODILE HELLIER: Poor in the sense that the range, the
diversity, the quality of books are shrinking. You know that, if a book
is working well, suddenly you are going to see seven books on the same
subject, from seven different publishers. They are commissioned books.
They are not books created by inspiration, springing from the soul of an
author. I see a huge deterioration in the quality of the content of
books. I would not say in the quality of the form, because so many
people attend writing seminars and schools that, in fact, people write
very well these days. But inspiration: where is it? Where are the books
to get passionate about? They are rare. They are few and rare.
But they are there, you know, they are there. But in comparison with
the huge heaps of books being published––. When I go through all
these catalogs with representatives, of course I may find a pearl. But
how many such pearls are there? This is my work, the work which I feel
is extremely important for me to do: to get the pearls out of the heaps.
This is where I feel that my optimism comes into play. The heaps are
going to be everywhere. The thousands of titles are going to be there,
on the internet, in the big bookstores, and so on. But: the selection
has a raison d’être, a reason for being, and only a bookseller
can do it. Not a salesman: not a salesgirl: a bookseller. And it is true
that the business is becoming like any other business. You have products
and you have salespersons….
KATHERINE McNAMARA: …instead of a bookseller.
ODILE HELLIER: Instead of a bookseller. And that is my second
point. That is, a bookseller is someone who has learned a little bit
about books, who has read a lot, but also, who has a certain mind, a
certain taste. You have as many selections as you have booksellers, and
this is what makes it interesting. In the past, you would go to a
certain bookseller, or a certain bookshop, because you would know what
kind of selection you would find there. It is the variety of selection
through the prism, through the mind, through the knowledge of that
bookseller which is interesting. And this is disappearing.
It’s no fun anymore to look at book catalogs
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I’ve heard other booksellers –
independent booksellers – say that it’s no fun anymore to look at
ODILE HELLIER: It’s not simply ‘no fun,’ it’s often
embarrassing. Representatives make the effort of coming to visit us.
They come from afar, from the U. S., the U.
K., Germany, the Netherlands, and, obviously, they come to sell
us books. We open the catalogues, and with dread we turn page after page
of drivel. Recently, in an article in Le Monde, André Schiffren
[formerly the publisher of Pantheon; now of The New Press, a
non-profit house], observed that, reading through the seasonal
catalogues of the three major U. S. publishing
corporations – Random House, which is really Bertelsmann, Simon &
Schuster, and HarperCollins – out of five hundred titles, there was
not one French translation, not one serious book of history, not one
serious scientific investigation, and no philosophy or theology. All
these are subjects which used to be the core of publishing. And I can
only agree with him. There are still very good books, of course, but
although they may be published, they are not visible even to a
bookseller. They get lost in the slush of books which repeat ad
infinitum the themes of a handful of bestsellers. How utterly
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You buy a great number of books from
smaller trade and independent publishers.
ODILE HELLIER: The problem with small-press books is that they
do not always get reviewed in the media, and therefore the public is not
aware of them. Now, it used to be that the role of the bookseller was to
bring the books to the reader. It still is. But the power of the media
is such that the public tends to trust the review they have read in The
New York Times, the Herald Tribune, or in one of the
weeklies, and not so much the personal taste or recommendation of the
bookseller. Now, that being said, I have wonderful stories to tell about
readers who thank us profusely for bringing into their lives a book or a
writer. This is how it should be.
Quality v. entertainment, and return on investment
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you think the number, of good, or
interesting, or necessary books is smaller than it used to be? Or does
it just seem smaller in comparison to this flood of sort of
mass-sensibility or entertainment books?
ODILE HELLIER: It is difficult to say. Good books continue to
be published; otherwise, we would not have the selection we have.
However, they are lost in the clutter of hundreds of titles which I will
compare with the kind of food which fills you up but does not nourish
your body. I will even go further and say: which slowly but surely
poisons your system. Likewise with books: hundreds and hundreds of them
read very much like magazines at best, tabloids at worst. What counts is
not the expansion of the mind, but ‘entertainment,’ the sacred word.
And as everyone tells us, this is what people want: entertainment.
What we are not told is that it is easier to sell a few titles, made
into bestsellers, from which the publisher gets a high return on
investment, than to publish a wide variety of books, whose return on
investment will average a mere four or five percent, the regular rate in
KATHERINE McNAMARA: When I’ve spoken about this with
publishers in this series of conversations, they have all said to me
quite definitely that book publishing is by its nature a business in
which you cannot expect a high rate of return on investment; and, if you
need such a return, you had better not own a publishing company.
ODILE HELLIER: The fifteen, sixteen percent return on
investment set as a standard by the book industry is totally unreal. In
the process, it is killing the trade as we’ve known it. According to
André Schiffren, in the article I mentioned, the German publisher Klaus
Wagenbach divines the fifteen percent level of return on investment as
the todeszon, the death-zone, where no publishing of value can
survive. This same publisher was quoting Hans Magnus Enzenberger as
saying that over the past forty years he has not found in the
Bertelsmann catalogs a single title that would last.
This economic pressure of raising at all costs the level of
profitability has affected everyone involved. For the independent
publisher who is either pushed out of business, or is bought up and
cannot, within his ‘own’ house, exercise his intelligence, his
discrimination, his taste, and has to publish according to criteria
which have nothing to do with excellence, but which have to fit the
economic plan of the corporation. For the editor who becomes a simple
cog in the machine. For the writer who will not be considered unless his
book will sell well enough to reach the magical mark of fifteen percent
profitability. To sell in huge quantities, a book has to be scandalous,
one way or another: horror, sex, violence, personal horrifying stories.
And – or – the writer has to have a saleable face or body, something
in his look which will appeal to the viewer’s thirst for glamour; or,
the opposite, something outrageous, weird, shocking, ugly.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Yes, so often it does seem that way. But
let me point out the unexpected successes of several books in the last
few years. Dava Soble’s nice little LONGITUDE,
which is non-fiction. The novels SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS,
by David Guterson, and COLD MOUNTAIN, by Charles
Frazier. Ondaatje’s THE ENGLISH PATIENT. It was
booksellers who sold these books, we’re told. Their success took their
publishers, or at least, the marketers, by surprise. On the other hand,
I know of a novel by a well-known, respected writer – and it can’t
be the only one this has happened to – which was practically killed by
a bad review in The New York Times, because Barnes &
Noble immediately cut back their orders and returned the books they had
in stock. The writer, who was shocked, said to me, “What is the life
of a book – two weeks?”
ODILE HELLIER: It seems that the first two weeks are vital for
a book. In the past, I used to order new releases in relatively small
quantities. I preferred to re-order rather than have huge stocks sitting
in the bookshop. But several times, when I re-ordered a book
immediately, I would get in reply an O/S, Out of
Stock, or R/U, Reprint Under Consideration. How
could this be possible? There must be a mistake. Finally, I understood
what was happening. I was told the story by an insider in the trade. The
print-run is based on the figure given by the pre-orders. Once the book
is published, the copies are dispatched to the selling points, and the
lion’s share goes to the chains and wholesalers.
Just this week, I sent an express order for a certain title which got
lost in transit. I was told two weeks exactly after the
publication of the book, and one week after the book made the cover of The
New York Times Book Review, that the publisher did not have a single
copy left, and there was no reprint in view. I could only get it from a
wholesaler. – Yet, after a certain length of time, many, many copies
– the returns – will flood back into the publisher’s warehouse.
But in the meantime, bookshops like mine cannot obtain the book from the
publishers they work with.
Yet the credit departments are never slow to claim your payments. One
moment past the last day of the month, and their computers send you
threats. When we ask them to apply the same efficiency to shipping books
on time, they reply dryly, “Not our responsibility.”
Another thing that is worrisome is that many authors are not
published anymore, many voices are unheard, because they do not conform
to the criteria I listed. Many are the believers in the miracles of the
world wide web who reply: The answer is on the internet! Very well. An
internet magazine like this one is a feast. But how, across the
internet, is one going to sort out what is good, and what is mediocre?
One can imagine hours and hours being spent surfing over the waves
looking for the right text. What I do know is that quite a few failed
writers have succeed in being published on the internet, and now pretend
to be published writers!
That reminds me of a wonderful quote about Auden, which fits
perfectly here in our discussion. I found it in Shirley Hazzard’s
memoir about Graham Green on Capri. [She goes to find the book.]
Here it is:
Shirley Hazzard writes: “Creative writing, which, alone among the
arts, seems delusively accessible to every articulate person, has
immemorially attracted that confusion of esteem and envy, centered on
the independence in which it is conceived and composed: a mystery of
originality that never loses fascination for the onlooker, in W.
H. Auden’s view.
“This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to
the way in which an artist works; he, and in our age almost nobody else,
is his own master. The idea of being one’s own master appeals to most
human beings, and this is apt to lead to the fantastic hope that the
capacity for artistic creation is universal, something nearly all human
beings, by virtue not of some special talent, but of their humanity,
could do if they tried.”
Could we not say this is a perfect definition of one reason why the
internet is such a success? The illusion that, if you are writing
something on a screen, you might be read by millions of potential
readers and become visible? One of the roles of the editor, and of the
bookseller, likewise, was to sift through the pebbles and give the gem
to the reader. Now, anything goes, and everything is equal: equally
good, equally bad. It does not matter, since all tastes are equal. The
internet – the great equalizer!
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Ah. Well. In principle, I don’t disagree
with you. I’ve heard would-be writers speak this way. They are hungry
for – what? That connection? They want to appear in print, on paper,
and are denied that chance. A friend of mine who is a publisher called
the matter of being published a “lottery.”
But I know, equally, that the internet was invented to allow for
fast, direct communication among scholars, especially scientists, who
needed to see each other’s work without having to wait for
publication, because discovery came so fast. I know, also, that much
interesting, specialized work is available at particular places on the
web. I speak of the uncommercial sector of the web. And I know, very
well, that serious publishing is serious publishing, no matter the
medium used. For myself, I was so dismayed by the state of book
publishing, and by its brutal treatment of so many serious writers, that
I wanted to act. When an editor suggested to me that I put my incipient
journal, in which I meant to publish ‘shadow’ literature, the kind
of writing that was being turned down in New York, on the world wide
web, I thought: There are serious readers everywhere in the world. If I
can put literature on the internet, they will find it. That has been
true, I would say.
But, I admit, I spend as little time on the web as possible. I tend
to go only to sites recommended by people whose taste I like. I see it
as a means of distribution, and it serves me well. But I know that –
because it is amorphous – it allows anybody to post anything they
want, and claim ‘millions of readers.’ Whether this is true or not
remains to be seen.
ODILE HELLIER: I would say that, with the spreading of the
chains, and the fast development of e-commerce, a page has definitely
been turned in the book trade, and it will never be the same. Yet, the
last word has not been said.
[In early March, about six weeks after this conversation, Steven
King’s novella RIDING THE BULLET was published
as an e-book exclusively on the web. More than 500,000 copies
were reported to have been downloaded. It was reported, as well, that
the sales of e-books by other writers and publishers rose accordingly.]
The bookseller, the publishing industry, and the book
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You spoke earlier of what you thought a
bookseller was: a person whose taste, intelligence, immersion in certain
kinds of books makes her shop, his shop, its own place. How has the role
– or, perhaps better, the treatment – of the bookseller
changed, especially in the ‘90s?
ODILE HELLIER: It changed the moment the book became a
product, no different from any kind of other products. It was then that
publishing business became the publishing industry.
And now we go back to the negative point of Amazon: a book at Amazon
is just a product. Amazon was not created for the sake of books. It was
created because the book was a product saleable and marketable on the
internet. There was a market survey done, and the book came first on the
list as the ideal product to be sold on the web. So, it’s not sold
because it’s a book.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: But because it’s a portable product. The
book was already a ‘product’ before Amazon came along, however.
ODILE HELLIER: Yes, it was. But it was certainly not as much a
product as now.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: When did that happen, do you think?
ODILE HELLIER: I would say, in the past five years. Book
publishing is an industry, like Hollywood. The bookseller has become the
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Ah. And that, also, in the last five
ODILE HELLIER: In the last three years. The bookseller is not
perceived as someone special. We have requests all the time from people
who want to work as salespersons. I get c.v.s from people who have never
read a book!
KATHERINE McNAMARA: So many of us have gone into these chain
stores where the salespeople have never read books, they don’t know
ODILE HELLIER: Yes, but this is part of the industry. I speak
about Amazon, but the chains have absolutely helped this process to
accelerate. If the bookseller has disappeared, and is only a
salesperson, it means that there is no vision. It means that there is no
knowledge. It means that, if you sell Gertrude Stein, you put Gertrude
Stein at the same level as [John] Grisham: it makes no difference, a
book is a product. Thus we have seen the leveling of the meaning of
books. There is no difference between this and that. Of
course, if you want to make money, you are not going to carry Gertrude
Stein, you are going to carry Grisham, because then, what counts are the
figures. The product dictates the figures, and the figures are Number
One, now. It’s an industry, you are a salesperson, and you have a
product. So, you have not only the content of the book to take into
account, if you are in the business, but you have the figures, also, to
take into account.
So, figures are primary. A representative comes to us. First, before
starting to discuss and be shown books, we are shown the figures over
the past few years. A book is presented to us based on the money
which is going to be involved in the promotion of the book.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Yes, I see them announced that way in Publisher’s
ODILE HELLIER: So much money is going to be put into the
promotion of the book because the advance was so much. You have
to recoup the money. So, you are not going to promote a book when you
have paid nothing to the young girl who wrote it. You have to recoup the
money when you have paid $17 million to, to—
KATHERINE McNAMARA: —to Grisham or Tom Wolfe or Steven King—
ODILE HELLIER: Exactly.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I noticed you had some paperbacks by
Steven King. I didn’t notice if you had any John Grisham.
ODILE HELLIER: Oh yes, I do, of course.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you have the new book? How does it sell
in comparison to others?
ODILE HELLIER: Of course. Usually I take a few copies of
Grisham in hardcover, because I know that I will sell a few copies.
But let us go back to figures. Either the bookseller disappears
altogether, because he is not recognized, because he is like any other
salesperson; or, with dinosaurs like me, you still believe in how
a book can change a life. And for me, I know that my life would have
been different, and much sadder, a life of greater solitude, if I had
not had books to talk to me, change with me, to nourish me. And I know
other people like me, because so many readers have sent me letters, or
have called me, and said, “I thank you so much for the book you gave
me to read. You cannot imagine how important it was.”
I think, also, of what William Gass said. He said, All the books you
see are the thoughts of people who have lived. They contain the
experience of people who have lived. They contain their thinking, their
beliefs. And when you have shelves of books, like in the bookstore, like
in the library, like in the house where there are books, they are not
just books, but layers of civilization. Thought is there. Life is there.
How is it possible to imagine a book as just a piece of entertainment to
spend eight hours with on a plane? That way of thinking can exist, but
it cannot be the only way.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: This week, AOL
announced that it is going to buy Time Warner. Their intended
conglomeration has caused huge reverberation on both sides of the
Atlantic. I want to read to you something rather terrifying in today’s
Herald Tribune. This is from an editorial column by Jeremy Rifkin.
ODILE HELLIER: Jeremy Rifkin wrote AGE OF
ACCESS, the book I mentioned to you several days ago.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: The headline is “The New Capitalism Is
About Turning Culture into Commerce.” Here is what he says:
A great transformation is occurring in the nature of capitalism.
After hundreds of years of converting physical resources into goods,
the primary means of generating wealth now involves transforming
cultural resources into paid-for personal experiences and
The announcement of the merger between America On-line and Time
Warner [in fact, America On-Line bought Time-Warner, which is
another story altogether – KM]
underscores the shift to a new form of hypercapitalism based on
commidifying human time.
AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and Sony Corp. are not
just media companies. They are global arbiters of access to a vast
array of cultural experiences, including global travel and tourism,
theme cities and parks, destination entertainment centers, wellness,
fashion and cuisine, professional sports and games, music, film,
television, book publishing and magazines.
The capitalist journey is ending with the commodification of
human culture itself.
By controlling the pipelines that people use to communicate with
one another, as well as shaping much of the cultural content that is
filmed, broadcast on television or sent over the internet, companies
like AOL-Time Warner are able to affect the experiences of people
everywhere. There is no precedent in history for this kind of
overarching control of human communication.
Social critics are beginning to ask what will happen to the rich
cultural diversity that makes up the ecology of human existence.
When a handful of information, entertainment and telecommunications
companies control much of the cultural content that makes up our
daily lives…. (IHT, January 17,
ODILE HELLIER: Yes. I am aware of that. I am aware of it every
single day, and that is why I want to fight. I want to be there, to
survive there: not just for my own sake, but because I believe in a life
of books. Small places like mine, like the Village Voice, can be a
pocket – not of the past, but of the future. If we, because of a
certain knowledge, experience, vision – and I would say ‘vision’
is the essential word – can survive, I feel there might be a
resurgence of the the humane person we envision. I know that there is
still a certain kind of person who is going to need the book, not to be
entertained by it, but to live with it. I believe there will still be
those readers who thank us for having found them the book which made a
difference in their lives at that moment. It seems to me that this
vision can co-exist with that other, in which all cultural life is
What I have said may sound elitist, in a way, but not because of
social background or money. If I sound this way, it is because of
reflection. If I have become ‘elitist,’ I have a certain right,
because I work to get there. I work to have the right to think as I
think, and not to think in the processed way controlled by the
entertainment companies which Jeremy Rifkin writes about.
This is what THE RESURGENCE OF THE REAL, by
Charlene Spretnak, deals with. The Rifkin book, also, is strong. Richard
Sennett’s THE CORROSION OF CHARACTER, about the
effect of the new kind of work on us, is very good. Many people are
trying to think differently. Of course, it’s not because they are
trying to think differently that they are going to change the course of
history. The course of history is AOL and Time
Warner, it’s Amazon, it’s definitely the internet. But the human
mind may also rebel against this. The human mind is, in the end, what is
The next two or three years are going to be difficult. But, I feel,
people will become tired of consumerism. It seems to me that they are
going to look for something different. And that’s why small ‘pockets’
like mine don’t have to be huge, but they have to exist, and to
continue to exist. The future of the literary, convivial, neighborhood
bookshops may still be rosy. As the owner of such a bookshop, I can only
hope for the best.
1854–1934, colonial administrator and marshal of France. Cf. André
Maurois, MARSHALL LYAUTEY. Tr.
Hamish Miles. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1931.
net book agreement prevented English booksellers from discounting the
price of new books; it collapsed in September 1995, when several large
publishers and a major book retailer withdrew from the agreement;
other publishers soon followed. In 1997, suit was brought by the
government’s Office of Fair Trading to abolish
the agreement, as it was now ineffective. A defense of the agreement
was mounted by a number of publishing and literary figures, including
John Calder. In the meantime, Waterstone’s and Dillon’s, the two
largest booksellers, have launched web sites; a British-based on-line
bookstore now exists, as well as Amazon, the US-based on-line book
service. The British sites will also offer books published in the US,
before they appear in England. In 1996, 101,504 new titles (including
9,209 new works of fiction) were reported to have been published in
Britain, compared to 95,064 in 1995.” – see A
Conversation with Marion Boyars, Archipelago Vol. 1, No. 3.
Village Voice Bookshop
6, rue Princesse
Tel: 01 46 33 36 47 Fax: 01 46 33 27 48
A Conversation with Marion Boyars, Archipelago,
Vol. 1 No. 3
A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, Vol.
1 No. 4 and Vol. 2, No. 1
A Conversation with William Strachan, Vol. 2, No. 4
A Conversation with Samuel H. Vaughan, Vol. 3, No. 2
Reminiscence: Lee Goerner (1947-1995), Vol. 3, No. 3
Institutional Memory (Download)
Authors and (selected) books of the time, mentioned in the
Kathy Acker, BLOOD AND GUTS IN
HIGH SCHOOL; DISORDERLY CONDUCT; DON QUIXOTE:
Which was a Dream; EMPIRE OF THE SENSES; IN MEMORIAM
Paul Auster, THE NEW YORK
TRILOGY; HUNGER; INVENTION OF SOLITUDE
James Baldwin, GIOVANNI’S
ROOM; THE FIRE NEXT TIME; NOTES OF A NATIVE SON
Russell Banks, CLOUDSPLITTER;
CONTINENTAL DRIFT; THE SWEET HEREAFTER
John Banville, THE UNTOUCHABLE;
Saul Bellow, HENDERSON THE RAIN
KING; HUMBOLDT’S GIFT; THE DEAN’S DECEMBER
J.M. Coetzee, DISGRACE; WAITING
FOR THE BARBARIANS; FOE
Raymond Carver, WHAT WE TALK
ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE; CATHEDRAL; ELEPHANT
Marc Chenetier (tr.), RICHARD
BRAUTIGAN; BEYOND SUSPICION: NEW AMERICAN FICTION
Matt Cohen, COLORS OF WAR;
ELIZABETH AND AFTER; FLOWERS OF DARKNESS; FREUD:
the Paris Notebooks; THE BOOKSELLER
Robert Coover, PRICKSONGS AND
DESCANTS; A NIGHT AT THE MOVIES; BRIAR ROSE
Michael Cunningham, THE HOURS; A
HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD;FLESH AND BLOOD
Don DeLillo, WHITE NOISE;
UNDERWORLD; LIBRA; RUNNING DOG; MAO II
Micahel Dorris, CLOUD CHAMBER, A
YELLOW RAFT IN BLUE WATER,
Ralph Ellison, INVISIBLE MAN;
JUNETEENTH (ed. by John Callaghan)
William Faulkner, WILD PALMS;
SANCTUARY; ABSOLOM, ABSOLOM!
Sarah Gaddis, SWALLOW HARD
William Gaddis, CARPENTER’S
GOTHIC; THE RECOGNITIONS; J.R.
William Gass, OMENSETTER’S
LUCK; WILLIE MASTER’S LONESOME WIFE
Nikki Gemmel, ALICE SPRINGS
(published in England as CLEAVE); SHIVER
John Grisham, THE BRETHREN; THE
PELICAN BRIEF; THE FIRM
Ernest Hemingway, THE SUN ALSO
RISES; A FAREWELL TO ARMS; FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
David Guterson, SNOW
FALLING ON CEDARS
Shirley Hazzard,GREENE ON
CAPRI: A MEMOIR; TRANSIT OF VENUS
Bohumil Hrabel TOO LOUD A
SOLITUDE; DANCING LESSONS FOR THE ADVANCED IN AGE;
Alan Jolis, SPEAK SUNLIGHT: a
Memoir; LOVE AND TERROR; MERCEDES AND THE HOUSE OF
Diane Johnson, LE MARIAGE; LE
DIVORCE; THE SHADOW KNOWS; DASHIELL HAMMETT: A LIFE
Hanif Kureishi,THE BUDDA OF
SUBURBIA, INTIMACY, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDERETTE, and Others;
LONDON KILLS ME; SLEEP WITH ME
D.H. Lawrence, SONS AND LOVERS;
WOMEN IN LOVE; THE RAINBOW; LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER
Malcolm Lowry, UNDER THE
Mary McCarthy, THE GROUP; BIRDS
Curzio Malaparte, CAPUT; THE
SKIN; THE VOLGA RISES IN EUROPE
David Malouf, AN IMAGINARY LIFE:
A NOVEL; CHILD’S PLAY; REMEMBERING BABYLON
Anne Michaels, FUGITIVE PIECES;
WEIGHT OF ORANGES & MINER’S POND
Michael Ondaatje, THE CINNAMON
PEELER: SELECTED POEMS; IN THE SKIN OF A LION; RUNNING
IN THE FAMILY; THE ENGLISH PATIENT
Michael Palmer, MIRACLE CURE;
NATURAL CAUSES; CRITICAL JUDGEMENT
Thomas Pynchon, V.; GRAVITY’S
RAINBOW; THE CRYING OF LOT 49; VINELAND
Philip Roth, PORTNOY’S
COMPLAINT; ZUCKERMAN BOUND; PATRIMONY
Salman Rushdie, MIDNIGHT’S
CHILDREN; THE SATANIC VERSES; THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET;
HAROUN AND THE SEA OF STORIES
Mordechai Richler, BARNEY’S
VERSION: A NOVEL; THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ
Jeremy Rifkin, AGE OF ACCESS;
HOW THE SHIFT FROM OWNERSHIP TO ACCESS IS TRANSFORMING
Richard Sennett, THE CORROSION
OF CHARACTER: THE PERSONAL CONSEQUENCES OF WORK IN
THE NEW CAPITALISM
Dava Soble, LONGITUDE
Stephen Spender, COLLECTED
POEMS; THE BACKWARD SON
Charlene Spretnak, THE
RESURGENCE OF THE REAL: BODY, NATURE, AND PLACE IN A
Gertrude Stein, THREE LIVES; THE
MAKING OF AMERICANS; THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF
ALICE B. TOKLAS
Peter Taylor, THE OLD FOREST AND
OTHER STORIES; A SUMMONS TO MEMPHIS
D.M. Thomas, THE WHITE HOTEL;
ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN: A CENTURY IN HIS LIFE;
John Kennedy Toole, A
CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES; THE NEON BIBLE
Edmund White, THE BURNING
LIBRARY (ESSAYS); CARACOLE; THE BEAUTIFUL ROOM IS EMPTY
Richard Wright, NATIVE SON; THE
LONG DREAM; EIGHT MEN