France’s rentrée littéraire is always a blockbuster bunfight. Every autumn, as soon as the French public trickles back from the beaches, the country’s book publishers churn out their latest literary offerings and gush about their newest sensations. This year some 630 books are hitting the shelves in a matter of weeks.
But how can an author be heard amid such noise? This year Flammarion hit on a novel idea. In June, the publishing house announced it was printing an unusually large run of more than 100,000 copies of a joint book by two celebrities but refused to say who they were. So began a guessing game generating a buzz of publicity.
After weeks of speculation, Le Journal du Dimanche landed the scoop. The book, called Public Enemies, had been written by two of France’s most famous – and controversial – literary lions: Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Mr Houellebecq is a novelist who – in the words of the American writer John Updike – has a “thoroughgoing contempt for, and strident impatience with, humanity”. Mr Lévy is the bare-chested “new philosopher” and human rights champion whose modesty is as hard to locate as his shirt buttons.
The publishers say the book, which takes the form of an exchange of letters, allows the writers to express their views on a variety of subjects – including each other. Both authors are intellectual bruisers who revel in provocation.
Whether this publicity coup translates into sales when the book is published next month is another matter. Both Mr Houellebecq and Mr Lévy have a history of occasional bombshells and spectacular failures. The Journal du Dimanche commented acidly that the book would succeed if only the many public enemies of the media-hungry philosopher and the depressive novelist were to buy it.
The publishers’ concept is certainly intriguing, though, and could evolve into a whole genre of hate letters. Love letters, written by people revelling in how much they have in common, can be soppy and exclusive. Hate, on the other hand, is a far more democratic emotion: anyone can participate.
Hate letters could highlight the ways we differ from each other and tell us far more about the human condition. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
In France, the publishers’ ultimate dream would surely be to pair President Nicolas Sarkozy’s second and third wives, Cécilia and Carla, arguing about whether the country’s head of state is a love rat or a super-hero.
What would a British publisher pay for a literary dust-up between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown picking over their epic grudge? Or a US editor give for a correspondence between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton recounting what they really think of each other?
Love may enrich us spiritually, but hate may shift the hardbacks.
The writer is editor of the FT’s Europe edition
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