Thursday, 8 May 2014

How To Be A Writer In Paris

Charles Baudelaire. This is the facial expression you should be aiming for as a writer in Paris. 

One great advantage of being a writer in Paris is that Parisians love writers. This is unusual, and to be savoured, because it's generally not very Parisian to love stuff. Showing too much enthusiasm is considered a bit dumb, or fake, or American, or all of the above.

If you told someone at a party in London that you worked as, say, a snail tamer, they would try very, very hard to find some fascinating angle ("So what kind of snails do you tame?"). In Paris, that kind of smiley, positive response would mark you out as someone who's a bit too easy to impress = loser.

But being a writer is seen as a good thing. When I quit my job as a journalist in Paris to write novels full-time, I had the strange and unexpected experience of suddenly doing something Parisians respect.

My first taste of this lovely new world came when I got my library card and the grumpy librarian asked what I did for a living.

Me (proudly): I'm a writer!

Librarian (suddenly delighted): Ah, let me enter that right away! (looks for the right box to tick) Hmmm... sorry, we don't have a "writer" category.

Me: It's ok, you can just tick "media" or "journalism"

Librarian: No, we don't have that either.

Me: That's a shame, for a library!

Librarian (genuinely sorry): I know! Let me see.... (brightens up) Ha, I know! I'll tick... "INTELLECTUAL".

 So with one click, I was a library-certified Parisian intellectual.

Journalism also gets a certain degree of respect in Paris (because it's badly paid and has to do with words), but financial journalism, not so much, especially not if it's for a big news agency.

Here's an example from my journalism days. A random party, "what do you do" etc:

Me: I work for Reuters.

Parisian woman: I don't like Reuters. In the past, every newspaper had their own correspondents, and now when you look at a front page, all the stories are by Reuters and the AP.

 ...because the decline of journalism, and the fact that people don't pay enough money for quality news, is obviously *the fault of Reuters*. (French logic - if in doubt, blame the multinationals).

Now, the same French logic holds true for writers. The more obscure you are as a writer, the more they respect you. Because it means you didn't sell out. 

Whereas if you're a global bestseller, it probably means you're part of the creeping homogenisation of culture that starts with news agencies and ends with the Da Vinci Code.

Here's what happened when I told an aspiring Parisian screenwriter at another party that I didn't want my readers to labour their way through my novels; the author should shoulder the hard work of making the book readable and enjoyable. He on the other hand was proud of never having sold a screenplay because this *proved how good they were* (= too clever for the market).

Parisian asp. screenwriter: Tolstoy said that art should be used to educate the masses. The artist should be above them.

Me (dumbly): But for all I know, the reader might be more educated than me. I don't see myself as above them - I see it more as a shared experience.

Parisian asp. screenwriter (smugly): Moi, I'm more with Tolstoy.

It's like an inversion of the writer's usual social nightmare in London or New York, where someone asks how sales are going and you have to cringe and mutter that you don't keep an eye on them because, erm, cringe, it's literary fiction.

In Paris, if you're a bestselling writer, it means you're low-brow trash. If you're unpublished - boom, you're avec Tolstoy. You're an intellectual. You get the special intellectual card in the library.

So here's how to be a writer in Paris: brag about your low sales. Complain about the illiterate oafs who don't get your work. Use your library card whenever possible. Wear black. Actually, wear grey, which seems to be the new black. Smoke. Quote Tolstoy. Hang out in dive bars. Then go home and quietly - without telling anyone, especially not your adoring, rent-paying partner/muse - work like crazy to produce the next bestseller.

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