February 17, 2009

The old, new review


The Claude Levy Strauss edition.

The Claude Levi-Strauss edition, June 2008.

The hoary king of French literary reviews, the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, celebrates its 100th year anniversary with a special issue fêting many of their past great contributors. Jonathan Littel writes on Maurice Blanchot, Marie NDiaye on Ionesco and Yannick Haenel on André Breton.

Originally founded by Andre Gide in 1908, its first edition debuted in February of 1909. In 1911 Gaston Gallimard became editor, and from then on it was published by the publishing house Editions Gallimard.

But, asks Le Monde, wither goest this revered old literary review? According to its report, the Nouvelle Revue Francaise finds itself in a parodoxical position: Its immense prestige is in inverse proportion to its circulation. Currently they print 5,000 copies four times a year with a subscription base of 1,200. This, as opposed to the 12,000 copies in 1930, and the 25,000 at its height in in 1953, under the direction of Jean Paulhan. The majority of subscriptions currently comes from large institutions, individual subscribers only account for a quarter of all sales.

These shrinking numbers are of great concern and have many causes. According to Le Monde, one of the major problems literary reviews confront is distribution. Because their print numbers are not public, the reviews are not allowed to be sold on newsstands. Their only venue, beyond subscription then, are large bookstores … where they languish. Add to that the fact that for young writers, getting into the elite literary reviews is no longer de riguer to advance their careers, because the internet has opened up a whole world of different publications. So, buying and reading literary reviews to keep up with editors’ ideas, tastes and preferences is now a thing of the past.

But all is not gloom and doom, according to Mario Vargas Llosa. In an essay in the centenary issue, he writes,”The NRF has had an enormous impact throughout the entire world.” Llosa believes that it “represents the official culture of France” and still today, while it “certainly plays a different role, it is one that is essential: that of guiding spirit.”

Yet despite Llosa’s glowing endorsement, and its remarkable longevity for a literary review, the NRF knows it must change to survive. It now makes its entire archive available on the Gallimard website, though the current issue is not available. It remains to be seen whether it will continue in its current form, go entirely on-line or (alors!) close up shop altogether.

Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.