I’m very pleased to see this article in Prospect giving some more recognition to two recent French novels in translation that Ive been praising over here (more on those here and here), but the framing is very strange to me. The title is “French literature: elitist and pointless?” (and, granted, oftentimes a title is imposed ex post facto by an editor) and the article opens with the following observations:
It seems a long time since writing in French had a global audience. Fifty years ago the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and their disciples commanded the attention of the world: from the terrasses of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, their thoughts on Marxist revolution, the third world or the impossible ethics of simply existing were received everywhere as truths of universal significance. The next generation of French thinkers—led by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault—were less immediately engaging or comprehensible, yet still, when they spoke the world listened, even if it did not easily understand the politics of deconstruction they espoused. But since the 1980s or thereabouts it has been a truism among Anglo-American commentators that the influence of French literature—along with the cultural power of the French intellectual—has been in decline.
I just don’t see this at all. For once thing, French literature has rated as having the most titles translated into English over the past few years and probably rates highly among translated literatures for at least a decade. That would certainly indicate evidence of a global audience.
As to the decline of the French intellectual, recall that (recently deceased) leading French philosopher Jean Baudrillard was the go-to intellectual post-9/11, not to mention being the philosophical underpinning of the Matrix franchise, which seems to have had some small influence in the Anglo world.
I don’t know that French lit is at the same point it might have been in the ’50s and ’60s, but this framing strikes me as totally off-base, more contrived to fit an article on new French books in translation than based on anything in the real world.