Learning curve

I’ve been in England for two weeks, promoting this book about France and two encounters with British broadsheets have given me an interesting lesson in the workings of the media in this country.

The first newspaper contacted my publishers offering to run an ‘extract’ from the book. Great excitement all round: it was every writer’s and every publisher’s dream. I was not particularly surprised when I learned that they were interested in a chapter called ‘The discrete charm of the bourgeoisie’ which features an account of a Parisian dinner party I once attended with my husband, which – for a small handful of the guests – moved seamlessly from good food, and good conversation, to good sex. My point in the chapter, was to note my astonishment – and my admiration – at the relatively guiltless nature of the incident for the people involved. I have no interest in judgment, really. It bores me but I was interested in what the incident revealed about my own conditioning and about the differences inherent in our two cultures. Clearly, this was an exceptional occurrence but there was something in the way it played out that spoke of an entirely different attitude towards pleasure.

When I opened the paper that Sunday morning I discovered that they had not actually run ‘an extract’ but had instead ‘extracted’, as they put it, from the book, all the bits that they found most juicy and then jammed them all together. This, of course meant all the various references or anecdotes relating to my own experience of the French attitude towards sex. When I read it, one of the things I felt was pity for those prospective readers who would rush to amazon thinking that they were buying a book about sex only to find that they were being asked to read about things like, politics, religion and history.

The second incident flowed inevitably from the first. Another national newspaper had read the ‘extracted bits’ and someone called to ask me for an interview. Once again, as I would discover, it wasn’t really an ‘interview’. It was a conversation with a journalist over the telephone about the sexy bits, which she would then write up ‘in the style of the paper’, as she phrased it, and then put into the first person. (!) I was immediately wary of such a procedure: words written ‘in the style of the paper’ but passed off as my own? It sounded dangerous. And of course it was. However vigilant you are, ultimately they’re not your words and the photos and captions flag a message that leaves you staring at yourself in bewilderment and asking, who on earth is that?

I take great comfort from the fact that these experiences confirm the thesis in my book about the nature of the British press and its roots in protestant morality.

6 thoughts on “Learning curve

  1. Can I suggest, Lucy, that British newspapers of the ‘serious’ sort are anything but… serious, that is? Two at least have few ‘hang-ups’ about getting down and dirty to boost circulation. The one worthy ‘heavy’ (as in ‘heavy-going’) is also known as ‘The Indescribablyboring’. It loses money. And is invariably the newspaper left unsold, a kind of well-bred ‘wallflower’. But am I alone in finding many French papers as tendentious as they are tedious? Fact-‘lite’ and information-thin? As well as heavy-going in a way that makes ‘The Independent’ look positively frisky?

    In what one hopes will be your next book in France, could you perhaps delve deeper into this: the well-developed ability of the French to endure, without complaint, levels of boredom, which would drive your average Brit to distraction? Examples: TV, road-works, school, discussions, meals, strikes, family reunions, ‘la famille, tout court’…. What a contrast with the pathetic eagerness to be first up into the bus or train, though the saving in time is tiny.
    ‘Ah, but it is our Latin temperament!’ – No way, José!

    Few North Europeans are so serious-minded as the French. But then Franks…. French. Ethnically speaking… Do I have to spell it out? The French are Germans with ‘charme’. There, that should do it! How to upset everyone…

    I read the extract from your book and failed to notice much heavy-duty stitching. As for ‘the guiltless nature of the incident for all the people involved’…, well I have difficulty in picturing this. You could put it down to my incurable provincialism. Old age? I can’t help but see adultery as a dreadfully oafish activity, particularly so when the adultery is acted out before friends. Elsewhere, you dwell on the uncomplicated way the French go about their pleasure-seeking, and go so far as to suggest that France’s ‘poor war effort’ could be ascribed to a kind of pleasure-dependency. I wonder.

    A few days ago, travelling by train to London, I noticed a young French couple nearby. The male looked sleepily Byronic and post-tumescent, one foot on the seat opposite, the other perched on top of the waste-bin. The she was tastefully draped around him, and would stroke his cheek with finger-tips, every few seconds, while he moodily surveyed the passing landscape. What I’m getting at is this: the pleasure-principle this most emphatically was not! Whatever pleasure there was, was being savoured so artistically, so tastefully, so self-consciously…. that it was more a calling, vocational than fun. Just like Jean-Paul Sartre’s café waiter. This was as un-spontaneous as you can get. But just try telling the French they’re not spontaneous!

    I wouldn’t bother about the lack of respect shown by the ‘Sunday Times’. I believe this particular wedge reaches 1.4 million breakfast tables, and that’s not to be sniffed at. Besides, think of the timing, just before the reviews come along, and the book-buying public buys her(?) holiday reading. The other paper sounds dead cheeky, though. The ‘house style’, fiddlesticks!

    Yes the British press is a censorious, prurient, old whore. But unlike your own – ‘and don’t sneak away, ‘l’Huma’ or ‘Libé’, come back, this concerns you too!’ – she’s a freelance, not a kept ‘floosie’. Unless, that is, you can indicate an un-supported, un-subsidized, un-cowed French title… I expect to win few ‘brownie points’ for confessing this, but I find ‘Le Figaro’ more reader-friendly, less opaque than most. Whatever the politics.

  2. Yikes! I read the Mail article and was surprised that “you” had written it. And now I find that you didn’t. I sort of feel relieved.

  3. Of course, maybe you did write it and now I’ve just put my foot in it. To explain, I was surprised by the sweeping generalisations. It just didn’t seem like your style (ie, the kind of writing that I find here).

  4. When I was on The Sunday Times we used to call it “filleting’ the book – the butchery metaphor an apt one. As for ‘serious’ newspapers – well, I’d never taken you for a naïf. Nevertheless, I hope you got some big cheques.

  5. Charles. Ever thought of blogging? You’d be very good at it. Your insights – into both France and England – have an uncanny undeniability about them. LW.

  6. Hi Lucy, I don’t normally blog but I do sometimes google people that have impressed me. So I just discovered that the book I just finished has its own blog.

    I bought The Secret Life of France, hoping that I will learn more about France, after a great review in the Independent.

    In the end, I think I actually learnt more about myself, in England, than about France.

    I have lived here for almost 10 years, and I came here when I was 19, from Albania, to join my English boyfriend to whom I am now married.

    It was interesting to realise that I am immersed in this English way of living, working and thinking and how different I would be now, had I lived elsewhere.

    There were many things that I have now embraced, that I hated in the beginning. One of these (same as your daughter) not being noticed in the tube or anywhere, quite different from my experience back home, or in Italy. I realise now, that it’s a small price to pay for feeling free to be yourself, in the most crowdest and uncomfortable places such as the tube in rush hour.

    Anyway, I’m glad I read the books section on the Independent and got to read your book. A great insight into the way we live and how the past influences us today and the generations to come.

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