Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review of A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé, published by Europa Editions in 2009.
Cossé, a journalist, playwright, critic and author of historical novels and a satirical thriller, lives in

In her fanciful mystery, a paean to great literature, “A Novel Bookstore,” author Laurence Cossé portrays the world of books and booksellers while, at the same time, blissfully indulging in those thoughts about great writing that entertain so many who love literature.
Publishing and bookselling are in a crisis—as threatened in other nations as they are in the U.S.—with electronic books and mass-produced best-sellers grabbing the top focus among those who market and sell books. But what of true readers, Cossé asks; who serves those who love great writing and savor works they can place on their shelves at home? Who or what in the publishing industry is serving them by devoting the bulk of promotion money and display space to those who write the kind of thrillers and romances, non-fiction “how-to” books, trashy biographies and personal exploits that have come to dominate the once-enviable best-seller lists at respected journals and newspapers? It is as much an indictment of the reader as the industry.
There is a passion to great literature, believe the founders of The Good Novel bookshop, and they attempt to conduct a business dedicated only to the top one or two percent of writers, refusing to sell what is deemed less than wonderful by their board of secret writing advisers. The goal seems simple enough, but it upsets the publishing world around Paris.
A mystery takes shape amid the framework of likeable, dedicated characters, whose love for literature can’t permit them to sell anything but the best; members of their advisory board—who don’t even know each other’s identity—are being killed or injured. Alarmed by this, the owners quietly attempt to work with an investigator who can link the incidents to the perpetrator. At the same time, their lovely idea begins to turn to chaos: not because the people don’t like their bookstore, but because they, in fact, do.
Everyone who is left out by the selection process wants in. And, therein, jealousy is born.
Competitors stake a place for themselves on the high road, decrying the store as a self-indulgent, wasteful drain on the “fragile publishing economy.” The biggest of the chains, VLAM, cannot tolerate The Good Novel’s existence (yes, we get the tongue-in-cheek reference), and charges elitism, class condescension, the impossibility of judging what is destined for greatness over time. The chain challenges the little store’s values, placing itself in the position of servant to the masses and moral champion. In a published statement, VLAM exclaims, “Our love of the novel and of the book is so great that we cannot see why, or even how, one could exclude, by means of a selection process, 99 percent of the titles available. Our passion, and our cause, is to respect the diversity of cultures, and the diversity of individuals.” It sounds so noble, so correct—but is it?
Indeed, The Good Novel bookstore, in Meribel, France, represents an improbable concept for operating a profitable business, but VLAM’s campaign raises a counter hue and cry among book lovers, who flock to the little store with their purses, ready to buy books in support of the idea that great literature must be supported. A sympathetic letter from an author tells of the same response to the success of an early novel—first praise and excitement, then “the attacks” from every quarter. It is the world of ideas at its worst, is it not?
The war of words carries over to the internet, where readers duke it out in support, or rejection, of the store’s ideals. An actress tells of her weariness with books recommended by others, and her need to escape her work through reading. She praises The Good Novel for bringing her the relief she seeks. “How can people attack a place that is so good for you?” she writes.
“Every subtlety in life is material for a book,” Cossé writes through a character. “Novels don’t contain only exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and, in response, every human attitude, every type of behavior, from the finest to the most wretched. … Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life.”
In the aisles of The Good Novel, readers quietly, and excitedly, explore worlds they had not discovered through the massive walls of popular culture in larger bookstores. While many of the novels cited are French, Ivan Georg, known as Van, is the store manager, and a partner to Francesca in the enterprise. An American by birth, he holds Cormac McCarthy as the greatest living author on the planet, thus introducing French customers to All the Pretty Horses and its successors, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. Van is captivated by people he sees in public, reading great books; they alone fascinate him, leading to long conversations with strangers about literature. “… One of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking,” he says to a fellow bus rider. And that explains the great popularity of book groups these days, as well—even if they do dip into the less-than-great works available to them. After all, A Novel Bookstore’s concepts are arguable among many who love reading not just for greatness but for its gifts of experience and entertainment. And that is one of the devices that keeps this novel going: one wants to know whose idea will win.
The mysterious deaths? On one level, they are symbolic of the store’s battle to survive amid industry-wide self-immolation—catering to the lowest common denominator in a world polluted by that sensibility. They will be solved, or not, toward the book’s end.
We all love to take a breather in a popular novel sometimes; that doesn’t make us bad, simply human. Most of us will admit, secretly at least, that we are as ready to snack on the latest chiller-thriller or well-written romance as the next browser. We want that change of pace, that easily digested tidbit. But when we’re ready for an eight-course meal, we must seek a great book—and those are the books on The Good Novel’s shelves. A different menu for a different customer. Call it snobbery, if you will, but who does superiority better than the French.
A friend once commented that he never reads novels, that only nonfiction meets his desire to learn more of the world. Yes, we reply—you’ll learn about the world. But what of its emotions, the desires and failures of the people who make things happen, the parallels between one stage and another, the mechanics of life when they’re first felt, rather than demonstrated by history? What about imagination, joy, bitterness and cries from the unheard? They are in fiction—in Dickens and Dumas, in McCarthy and Mistry, in Hemingway and Faulkner—on the shelves of The Good Novel bookstore.

2 comments:

  1. Hmm. A small part of the question is what is reading? Is it merely the eye and brain processing little squiggles into meaningful thoughts or is it equally the physical sensation of holding a book, smelling the paper, feeling the heft of it in your hands.

    If the former, I would posit the contrarian view that e-books may be the salvation of literature. Hundreds of classic works, both famous and obscure, are converted into the various e-book formats every day by dedicated believers in the written word. I have more classics at my fingertips than ever before on my Nook, from the works of Homer to the entire Harvard Classics.

    I love printed books as much as the next person. Holding my first novel in my hands was a special feeling. But as a practical matter, I am reading more than ever before with my Nook, and I am building a library of classic American and European literature that would never be possible otherwise.

    As for those classics in print, nothing is stopping people from buying them. The sad truth is that H. L. Mencken's observation nearly a century ago remains true: Nobody ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public.

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  2. That's the crux of it - I think as long as we're really still reading there's value in any format. But I love the books surrounding me in my home and cannot warm up to reading electronically. I'll probably end up doing some of both - after all, this is electronic!
    By the way, there is a WEB SITE for this book, and I can't recall it's name, but the argument continues there. Google the title and you'll probably come across it.
    Thanks for writing, George.

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