A week in books: Critical faculties

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The Independent Culture

Novelists are made to be read, not seen, and, to my mind, there has always been something rather unseemly about the sort of writers who become life-in-the-fast-lane celebrities, super-modelling the night away.

Novelists are made to be read, not seen, and, to my mind, there has always been something rather unseemly about the sort of writers who become life-in-the-fast-lane celebrities, super-modelling the night away.After all, one of the central pleasures of a novelist's life is that your books will have a public existence, whereas you can live in as much day-to-day anonymity as you choose.

Except, of course, in France, where writers often find themselves being put on display. Because every autumn – during that period after the lassitudes of summer which the French refer to as la rentrée – towns and cities around the country begin to host a series of book markets. And, this being France, the markets are given an appropriately intellectualised title: salons littéraires – events that really do place the writer in a shop window, to be gazed upon by passing-by readers.

Now I ended up in several of these "windows" because I was on an extended French book tour for my new novel, La Poursuite du Bonheur (published in the UK as The Pursuit of Happiness). It's my fourth novel to be published in France. But in the intervening two and a half years since the last one came out on that side of the Channel, I've learnt French. And after 24 months of steady one-on-one classes with a private teacher, I am reasonably conversational (especially after the third glass of wine). Which, in turn, meant that the attaché du presse at my Paris publishers, Editions Belfond, decided I was ready for this autumn's salon littéraire circuit.

And so, just a few weeks ago, I hopped on a TGV from Paris, en route to a town best known for the libation after which it is named: Cognac. The subject of this year's Cognac salon littéraire was "Love and the European Novel"... and even though I'm an American resident in London, my Irish passport seemed to qualify me for quasi-European status. Ditto the fact that my new novel was a love story. And then there was the fact that I could also mangle the language of Molière...

Whatever the reason, there I found myself in a first-class coach reserved for all the Paris-based writers attending the book fair. My God, a first-class train carriage reserved entirely for writers? But yes, the burghers of Cognac wanted to show us a good time, and so, upon arrival, we were all whisked off by mini-van for a long lunch at one of the great maisons du cognac – Martell. And when we reached our respective hotel rooms, a bottle of vintage cognac was waiting for us. And that night, there was a lavish dinner at a lavish château, and an open bar at the conference centre hosting the salon – a bar that served every variation of cognac imaginable... and (this was dangerous) free of charge to all visiting writers.

But we also had to work for our cognac... which required us to sit at a table with piles of our books next to us, smiling and generally looking earnest as hundreds of readers browsed around the marketplace. And, as with all markets, there was something rather law-of-the-jungle about this set-up. There must have been 50 or so other writers on hand – all of them positioned behind tables, waiting for readers to approach them, and simultaneously wondering if anyone would bother to talk to them... let alone do something daft such as buy a book.

But this being France, the reading public certainly did talk to writers – and in very blunt language. "You know, I really thought your last novel was a little lazy," one reader told me, while shoving a copy of the new one in front of me to sign. "And why do you always have such bad marriages in your books?"

I must admit that there was something highly democratic about this sort of one-on-one discourse. Yes, the French revere their novelists, but they also believe that they can tell them off if they are found wanting. Because they believe what you do is important, they also reserve the right to dress you down. A French writer sitting near me actually had one reader approach him and say: "I think you've destroyed your talent." When the novelist complained to me about such face-to-face abuse, I said: "Be grateful you live in a country where writers are taken seriously."

To which he replied (after a long swig of cognac): "Maybe too seriously."

'The Pursuit of Happiness' is published by Hutchinson, price £16.99