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Apéritif, with Heather Hartley

What’s the best job in publishing? Jonathan Franzen’s agent? The buyer at NYRB? John D’Agata’s fact-checker? For my money it’s being the Paris Editor of Tin House, a position poet Heather Hartley has held since, well, she created it a few years ago (I was in the running but opted to work from Sacramento instead. Vive les rois!)

As we have grown tired of her lovely letters detailing the ins and outs of the Parisian literary scene, we have conscripted her to write a new monthly series for The Open Bar called “Apéritif.” In it, she will no doubt write charmingly about the ends and outs of the Parisian literary scene.

Advantage…..probably Heather still.

A couple weeks ago I went to the 32nd Salon du Livre de Paris, which brings together large and small publishers, writers, translators, librarians, bibliophiles, agents and onlookers in fly sunglasses. In a fascinating and accurate cross-section of the book world as envisioned by France and hosted by Paris, appearance counts for books and their accoutrements as well as for people. Luckily, I remembered to bring my gossamer go-go gloss—I still don’t own fly sunglasses—so squeezing by security was pretty much a cinch.

Once inside, things got serious and seriously exciting. The Salon was unlike any book fair or conference I’d attended in the States. Sure, the bad fluorescent lighting shone on, just like at home, but the feeling, pace and sense of possibility were intoxicating, exotic. And this was before hitting the Champagne Cuvée Belle Époque Bar in the Rare Books section. After all, it was still early in the day.

The Salon du Livre de Paris is the largest book trade fair in the country and one of the most important on the continent,  as more than 190,000 visitors attending the four-day fair this year, up 5% from last year. There were over 2,000 authors and nearly 30,000 professionals in the book trade. This year, Japanese literature was honored, Moscow was the invited city, and Brazil was back after a brief hiatus. What did that mean, to be honoré or invité?  For one thing, with the gourmand French hosting these very different nations, it meant that the snack table was anybody’s guess. But beyond any nibbles, the range of readings, signings and conferences was impressive, even a bit overwhelming in sheer abundance.

In addition to twenty Japanese writers, including Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburô Oe, who spoke about literature borne from the Fukushima catastrophe, Lev Rubinstein and seventeen other Muscovites were invited to discuss writing in present-day Russia—among other topics—and Brazilian comic strip artists offered sessions for children to talk about their art. Thirty-five other countries also came—from Turkey to Israel to the Republic of Guinea to Amazon, who for the first time brought le Kindle for show and tell with a quite strong, positive reception.

And then there was France. After living here nearly a decade, I was blithely uninformed about the considerable number of small independent presses—although I had a pretty good handle on the number of grape growers for Champagne in the bubbly region of Reims—and delighted to learn that at this Salon alone, there were over 100 small presses represented from the Ile-de-France area of Paris and its suburbs. This meant that by the end of the day, my purse would be heavier and my wallet much lighter, and that was fine by me. Some of my personal favorites included Editions Inculte , Oh! Editions, Editions Zulma , and 13eme Note Editions whose recent translation of Charles Bukowski’s Shakespeare Never Did This sold out of its first print run weeks before the Salon.

Discussions and conferences ranged from “Intervening in Syria: For or Against?,” “Where is Obama’s America Going?,” “The Francophone Book,” “Is Ecology a Dangerous Ideology?,” “French Language: Between Molière and SMS,” “Is Man a Big Political Monkey?,” “The Ideal Novel for a Filmmaker,” “Explaining Extraterrestrials to my Children,” “Just Who Were the Galls?” “Is European Humanism Necessarily Masculine?” and “Je like, tu likes, nous likons”—this final debate about finding out what’s hot and literary online for French adolescents. All of this, and Russell Banks was there too.

When a neon-bright Manga character in platform shoes strolling arm in arm with one of the sunglasses wearers stepped on my foot, I realized that there must be other sections to this literary labyrinth that I was completely missing. In these cases, sitting down and actually consulting the catalogue can be helpful, rather than my normal mode d’emploi of running around, arms akimbo down the alphabetized aisles, searching for a good book fix at random booths—uninformed, disheveled, hungry.

Taking my cue from this colorful couple who had stretched out on some cozy-looking sofas, I sat down in a grand salon within the Salon, dotted with little white tables, vases of fresh lilies and copies of the magazine Psychologies. I had stumbled onto an atelier de bibliothérapie, and the therapist would be arriving soon. I don’t know about the Manga character, but there was only one booth to offer free counseling and I found it. I wasn’t budging until I learned more from the top model in a headband and high heels who looked well-informed. In a calm tone, she told me that if I would like, I could speak to one of their advisor-therapists about my fiction preferences and general bookish profile and that after this consultation, they would confer upon me a “literary prescription” for what ailed me. Would a co-pay be possible on this? I asked, to the great displeasure if the maquillée mannequin, who pouted at me (the Parisian equivalent of a frown) and suggested that I might not be ready for any rendezvous yet but rather encouraged me to consult their lending library. And with that, she moved towards the Manga character obsessively lining her eyes with kohl black eyeliner—or was that a pen?

Outside any bad lighting, long lines and crowd pushing, the exhilarating news that I experienced over and again was that books are here to stay, today and tomorrow, that despite the economic crisis and increase in TV reality shows, books are still an essential and intimate part of the daily life of so many people. It makes me tipsy. Put the champagne on ice.

Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems have appeared in Post Road, Drunken Boat, Forklift Ohio, Mississippi Review and elsewhere. She’s a Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.

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