Robert Dubois is a comfortable, elegantly dissipated publisher of the old school tradition, drifting into the twilight years of a career filled with jolly literary lunches and yellowing manuscripts. But when a bold young intern presents him with an e‐reader (or 'Kandle') his cosy world begins to change. What is happening to his beloved paper and books? Are they to be replaced by this cold, impersonal 'gizmo'?
So begins Dubois's emotional, physical, and very funny journey into the battleground of the printed versus the electronic word...
From the pen of a man who himself worked for many years at the top of the publishing industry, Dear Reader is a joyously satirical, affectionate novel - unashamedly a book about books, about authors, and about the passing of the old ways and the excitement (and fear) of the new.
Now Paul Fournel is a man who has has a long and illustrious career in publishing, working for Ramsay & Seghers, chaired the Société de Gens de Lettres. He was also head of the Alliance Française in San Francisco, and a cultural attaché in Cairo and London. He now devotes his time to writing and cycling.
Sitting down with Paul, I dived straight into some questions on his latest novel, and about the future of publishing itself.
When did the ideas for Dear Reader begin to flourish?
Probably long ago, during the eighties, when I was working as a publisher! I was CEO for Editions Ramsay, a branch of Gaumont, coming from a literary background and having to cope with all the financial and technical problems...
Then, I left publishing to travel for the "Ministère des affaires étrangères", always working in the cultural world, always reading and writing... and one day I got my first e-reader...
What was your writing process?
Technically, I write on my screen and I take notes on a pad when I write and when I dream.
Dear Reader, as I explain at the end of the book, is written under a strong constraint. It is shaped as a sestina (a poetic form created in the 12th century). Like always, the constraint helps in pushing the text forward and creates unexpected difficulties. I had to manage these two sides of the constraint and, at the same time, make sure that I was writing an easily readable story on a subject close to my heart and preoccupations that I wanted to share.
The characters, are they on the most part plucked from your imagination or inspired by people you've worked with?
Of course, you always think of people you have met, of people you like (or hate), but it is not a "roman à clef". It is impossible, even for me, to say that this character is evidently Mrs or Mr So-and-so. But if I look at myself into the mirror, I can see a good part of Robert Dubois!
I'm sure what I'm about to ask you is terribly cliché, but is Dear Reader your love letter to the traditional book?
It is. Your question is not a cliché at all. We are certainly at a turning point. For the first time since Gutenberg, paper and text are not longer glued together. They can live separate lives. It is a huge change: what is the price of the text, if it is no longer is the price of the book? What are the readers going to do when they will be able to enter into the text?
At the same time, I am not nostalgic, and I know I cannot change things. The technical revolutions are stronger than we are. We have to try and find new ways of publishing - Robert Dubois knows that and to protect what is essential - the taste for reading.
What would you like people to take away from Dear Reader?
Pleasure, of course, and for people to reflect on something that is going to affect their lives as readers and human beings.
Is the publishing industry quite as vicious in real life, or more so?
The same I guess. I didn't try to darken or lighten it. This is the way I see it, the way I live it as a former publisher and as a long time writer. It is a wonderful and difficult world. I love it.
After reading the book, I have to ask, what are your hopes for the future of publishing?
I wish I knew - I would be rich and admired! The most important thing is not really the paper, not really the screen. The two treasures that we have to protect are writing, on one side, and reading on the other. If we save the two we are real human beings for a few new centuries.
Dear Reader by Paul Fournel, translated by David Bellos, is published by Pushkin Press, £10.
Photos courtesy of Pushkin Press