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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dear Reader

Paul Fournel

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To purchase Dear Reader

Title: Dear Reader
Author: Paul Fournel
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 168 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Dear Reader - US
Dear Reader - UK
Dear Reader - Canada
La liseuse - Canada
Dear Reader - India
La liseuse - France
La novità - Italia
  • French title: La liseuse
  • Translated by David Bellos
  • With an Afterword by the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable novel of the publishing world -- with some nice additional layers to it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 25/4/2015 Louise Adler
The Guardian . 16/12/2015 Nicholas Lezard
Le Monde . 9/2/2012 Monique Petillon
The Spectator A 29/11/2015 Andy Miller
TLS . 4/2/2015 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Nicely done; captures the publishing life very well

  From the Reviews:
  • "The travails of a publisher are hilariously detailed: the relentless demand to read incomplete drafts, proposals never brought to fruition, the yearning for time to read fully formed books from fully formed writers. Entertainingly, the novel chronicles the demands imposed on the modern author for a book to be at once a commercial and critical success" - Louise Adler, The Australian

  • "At more than one point in this novel I found myself asking: could this be any more French ? (...) This book is an elegy for a dying world: that of the printed book and, that deathís darker corollary, the reader who is still interested in, or has the attention span for, the long-form narrative. (...) But what chiefly makes this book so charming is the voice Fournel uses for Dubois: tolerant, amused and generous." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Mais il n'est pas nécessaire de s'en aviser pour prendre plaisir à ce roman plein d'humour désabusé, à cette ultime célébration des livres de papier." - Monique Petillon, Le Monde

  • "The book is brief, witty, intellectual and wonderfully quotable. (...) It is the most truthful account of literary ennui I have ever read. (...) Whether read as a sestina, a satire or a eulogy, it is a quietly remarkable little book." - Andy Miller, The Spectator

  • "Paul Fournelís pleasingly bookish novella neatly mixes references to Robert Coover, Bernard Pivotís television books programme Apostrophes, and Lisbeth Salander with allusions to a publishing house named Brasset and a television series called "The Contraltos". (...) The best Oulipian texts (...) are funny and surprising even when one remains unaware of the backstage machinery. The same is true of Dear Reader, which can be hugely enjoyed without being studiously deciphered." - Michael Dirda, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dear Reader is narrated by Robert Dubois, of Robert Dubois Books -- an old-style Parisian publishing house now run by "big boss" Meunier, who is more of a businessman than book-lover (while Dubois is all genteel old-style publisher -- indeed, Meunier calls him "Gaston", after the oldest-style French literary publisher of them all, Gaston Gallimard).
       Dubois has been at this a long time and is now pretty philosophical -- and sums up:

When all's said and done I haven't made any money out of publishing but I have eaten rather well.
       The novel begins with an intern bringing him a company-issued e-reader -- "a reader. A Kandle. An iClone. One of those gizmos" --, a (supposedly) more convenient way to carry and read all those manuscripts he still goes through. Dubois is neither convinced nor enthusiastic, but he gives it a go -- and he's inspired enough, by this, and circumstances, and the publishing-house interns, to consider a new venture that takes into account the technologies of the twenty-first century and new ways of reading.
       So Dear Reader is a modern-day start-up novel, too, describing the making of 'Robswood Publishing' (the company-name a different sort of play on Dubois' names, the modern-day euivalent in this respect, too, of 'Robert Dubois Books'), formed and founded under Meunier's nose -- indeed, almost entirely in-house -- even as it is a totally separate and new entity. Even if he is old-fashioned in some (reading-)ways -- preferring paper to screens -- Dubois is open-minded enough to seek out new opportunities and to try to adapt, looking for: "new kinds of material for screen reading", for example, ("We really should have had Perec on board", he slyly and wistfully notes, too.)
       But Dubois doesn't abandon old-style publishing either; in fact, Dear Reader is an industry-novel, through and through, as Dubois walks readers through the publishing process and business. There are interactions with various sorts of authors, there's the discovery and launch of a new talent, the loss of one of the house's leading authors, a sales-meeting (Dubois is a fan of sales reps, "the first links in the great chain of creative misprision"), and a reminder of just how important Bernard Pivot's Apostrophes was -- the show all authors wanted to appear on, because it: "gave you the magic badge of authorness". (The latter is the one reference and observation that makes the novel -- and Dubois -- really feel dated, as Apostrophes last aired in 1990.) Among the amusing incidents is one in which Dubois mistakenly gets more involved in the editing of a book than he had anticipated, with mildly problematic results. And along the way other aspects of contemporary book-selling and publishing are touched upon, including Dubois using a 'print on demand'-machine (to print out an out-of-print Jacques Bens, La cinquantaine à Saint-Quentin (Ageing in Beijing, as Bellos re-titles it in translation), "a slim volume so perfectly gloomy that it verges on the hilarious"), as well as a visit with James Daunt to the Daunt Books Marylebone-store.
       Along the way, there's a variety of reflection on the state of publishing affairs -- right down to Dubois asking Daunt in that Marylebone store:
     "Why do you have so few French books ?"
     "Because they're not read."
       (Given that French is the language from which the most books are translated into English, i.e. from which there is by far the greatest available selection, this is sad indeed.)
       If there's a slight end-of-an-era feel to the novel, it nevertheless isn't like Dubois (or Fournel) see it all as just the twilight of books and publishing. As Dubois notes:
Literary publishing has never been in crisis because literary publishing is a crisis. That's its nature.
       There is an elegiac and melancholy air to much of the novel. It's not just that Dubois is getting old and perhaps feeling a bit left behind in the business, but the palpable sense of loss that comes with changing times is all around -- down to the favored restaurant, soon to be converted into a sushi joint. The real loss, however, is much more personal -- deflecting, in a way, the many concerns about publishing. Indeed, books -- physical books ! not screen-versions -- survive, and the novel closes with Dubois retreating into a world where it's just him and his newly-acquired pile of the books he's long been meaning to read -- while his e-readers run out of juice "and after a last spasm and a mortal cling, each sinks into the darkness of an electronic grave".
       Dear Reader is a celebration of publishing, with Dubois' new venture -- even it's really all the kids' doing, with just a bit of his guidance -- presented as a complement to the traditional form, which seems to be going well enough (the newly-launched but traditionally published discovery turns out to be a great success, for example). Publishing, and literature, Fournel suggests, will always survive. (It's a bit of a shame that the Robswood Publishing-ventures sound more like gimmicks than anything really worthwhile -- despite Nobel laureate contributions -- but maybe these apps and the like really are the wave of the future .....)
       In an Afterword the Oulipian Fournel explains the formal constraint(s) operating on the text. The overriding one is not one that's really obvious in reading the text -- indeed, impossible to catch, except for by the most absurdly exacting reader -- but a sense of how meticulously structured the text is does eventually emerge (admirably (re)presented in Bellos' English version, which impressively replicates the constraints -- not an easy task). Looking back over the text more closely, one can see what Fournel/Bellos have done more precisely, but the novel can be readily and fully enjoyed in complete ignorance of what else is going on here. That said, some of the structural consequences of the constraints undeniably add to the effect the novel has, subtly invigorating the novel-as-a-whole; Dear Reader is a good example of why the Oulipian method isn't merely a game, but rather a surprisingly fertile approach to writing.
       Dear Reader is an enjoyable novel on several levels, from straightforward publishing-industry story, to a more personal story of time going by and loss, to the sheer technical virtuosity on display -- both Fournel's and translator Bellos'.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 January 2016

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Dear Reader: Reviews: Paul Fournel: OuLiPo: Other books by Paul Fournel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Paul Fournel was born in 1947. He is a member of Oulipo.

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