French and American Journals: A Literary Salon

November 7, 2014 | By French Culture

Friday, November 7, 2014 - Roland Barthes said: « To make a journal, even literary, is not a literary act. It is an entirely social act » (« Faire une revue, même littéraire, n’est pas un acte littéraire, c’est un acte entièrement social »). Well, I could spend a whole day discussing the relevance of the statement. But I won’t. At least not right now. However, what is sure is that Barthes’ statement reflects our intention today. We come together from a desire to organize a sort of forum or agora, similar to a journal editorial board.

Ten French writers have made the trip to New York and I warmly welcome each of them to the Embassy. Their American counterparts have come from closer, but responded to our invitation with equal enthusiasm. So, bienvenue! Several sponsors have made this event possible and I thank them: the Institut francais in Paris, Mr. and Mrs. Guy Wildenstein, The French American Foundation and the Y.A Istel Foundation.

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I will start with a seemingly simple, but actually tricky question, which kept us busy during several brainstorming sessions: how do you translate the French word “revue”? Is it “review”? No: a review is really both a “critique” and a periodical publication. With the word “periodical”? Not convinced, “periodical” sounds stuffy and is far too general. How about “journal”? Maybe, but the faux-ami with the French word “journal” (which means “newspaper”) could be misleading.

This is not only a war of words: the forms and traditions of “journals” are pretty different in our countries. For example, there is no equivalent to the New York Review of Books or The New Yorker in France. And there is no equivalent to the French “revues généralistes” like Le Débat, Commentaire, Esprit, Critique or Etudes in the US.

So let’s recap. A review is not a revue and a journal is not a journal. Very Magritte-like! I’m sure we will finish with more positive definitions after our five panels. For now, let’s call these periodicals “journals”.

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I believe that the journals of our two countries have a crucial role to play and we are here to dive in together. The fact that Martin Scorcese devoted a 3-hour documentary to the 50th anniversary of the New York Review of Books says something. Every year, new and excellent journals are born. I think of the recent Socio in France, and the American Reader in the US. It is a very positive sign that the new generation continues to have this kind of energy. For you have to be a little (or very) crazy to start a journal. Free time is out the window and money certainly not the motivation.

So why make journals and what is their role?

First, a journal is – or at least should be – a laboratory for collective debate and polemical reflection, open to foreign ideas. Indeed, a journal follows a specific temporality: on the one hand, it comes long after events have materialized and can analyze with distance; on the other hand, it is ahead of the evolutions and anticipates.

The social and political functions of the journals today are different from the 40s and 50s. It is no coincidence that Sartre gave his famous definition of the writer as a committed intellectual (“intellectual engagé”) in Les Temps modernes. Today, there are still, of course, politically engaged journals – such as Jacobin. However, voices and ideologies are more dispersed and fragmented. There is, thus, more space for doubt, but also much more room for debate, and for journals. The journals, with their collective way of working and particular use of temporality, have something important to contribute. Especially in 2014 with uncertainty about the future of print and the press.

Second role: a journal is a vital link in the literary chain between the writer (foreign or not), and the publishing world. It supports new voices and offers visibility through reviewing.

Numerous writers were discovered through journals, where they began publishing their stories: in the prestigious “fiction” section of the New Yorker dating to 1925, in the Paris Review (which was the first to publish Jack Kerouac), in The Atlantic, and so many others. The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire published his “Chanson du mal aimé” in Le Mercure. And more recently, Limonov, by Emmanuel Carrère began as a short story in the first issue of the revue XXI.

It is no surprise that journals often become collections and even publishers. Gaston Gallimard created his prestigious publishing house from the Nouvelle Revue Française in 1909. Inculte has turned into the publisher by the same name. The New York Review of Books and Tin House publish their own books. In this sense, a journal is a fertile link or transition between a book and a newspaper.

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, a journal is a collective adventure, an irreplaceable intellectual experience where we confront ideas, and dare to go beyond our known fields. In the long life of an editorial committee, strong intellectual friendships (and sometimes long-lasting hostilities!) are built.

And much more often than one would think, these intellectual affinities cross the Atlantic. Some French journals or magazines, like Feuilleton, Le Believer and the French Vanity Fair, model themselves after their American counterparts. And inversely, The Paris Review was created in Paris at the Editions de la Table ronde in 1953 and remained in France for 20 years. I am always amazed to see the number of French books commented on in the New York Review of books, sometimes even before they are translated. Harper’s Magazine published the Revue XXI manifesto “for another journalism”, in favor of paper journals, with long coverage and no publicity. And closer to us, prompted by our event, Public Books and La Vie des idées, who didn’t know each other before, worked together on a collaborative issue devoted to the Piketty effect.

I will not go on as the point is for you to talk to each other, but will leave you with one wish. It is my hope that you will go home having discovered new outstanding journals, new gripping stories, and new amazing authors. It is my hope that you will leave Albertine with new acquaintances and friendships to be developed in the long run, in France and in the United States. This may seem ambitious, but I trust very likely!

Enjoy the literary salon!


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