Le Pen's Pals--Blood and Soil
Some commentators have seized the occasion to prove that, morally, the public sector is no better than the private. The French system is dominated by the National Center of Blood Transfusion, which is state-sponsored and relies on voluntary donors. But on this principled and voluntary foundation a huge enterprise dealing with blood, run on commercial lines, was erected--a capitalist venture with high-salaried managers ready to take on foreign competition. It is this superstructure that is responsible for the current crisis.
A deeper lesson can be drawn from this scandal. There was a time when the public sector was supposed to have a logic and rationality of its own, different from the private. Public ownership of the means of production or, better, their socialization was supposed to extend that rationality so that it would dominate society. In recent years, throughout the Western world and by now in the Eastern bloc too, this reasoning has been reversed. State property is tolerated if it is run on business lines and guided by profit. If the whole story were not so tragic, it would be fun watching French editorialists, usually champions of private enterprise, deploring the extension of its logic to the domain of health. If those schizophrenic writers genuinely believe that you can have a fully commercialized society with a few moral islands within it, they must believe in Santa Claus.
Business and Literature
Christmas shopping is crucial for booksellers, and that is why November is the month of that uniquely French commercial circus, the awarding of literary prizes. The most famous of these is the Goncourt, founded by the two literary brothers and awarded since 1903. The next best known is the Renaudot, set up by literary journalists fed up with waiting while the Goncourt academicians were making up their minds over lunch at the Drouant restaurant in Paris, where the ceremony still takes place. Add the Médicis, the Femina (with only women in the jury) and the Interallié, and you get the main prizes for allegedly the best fiction of the year.
The actual prizes are modest. The winner of the Goncourt, for example, gets a check for 50 francs, less than $10. In fact, he gets a small fortune. Since you can give that book to your provincial aunt or to wherever you go for dinner, since television, radio and the press publicize the event and bookshops display the lucky winner, a Goncourt is sure to sell at least 100,000 copies (these were roughly the sales of Saint Germain ou la Négociation, crowned in 1958, which sank without a trace). A book that is already doing well has its sales greatly boosted; thus The Lover by Marguerite Duras climbed from 250,000 to nearly a million after the award. The other prizes have a lesser but still important impact. A book that would be selling in the thousands sells in the tens of thousands.
With so much money at stake, publishers are madly interested. This literary lottery is dominated by a strange animal called by critics Galligrasseuil, a collective name for three big publishers--Gallimard, Grasset and Le Seuil. The big three hog all the prizes and occasionally leave a bone for another publisher when the outcry over manipulation becomes too loud. How do they do it? Writers, too, are human. A majority of the ten members of the Goncourt Academy were for a long time connected with Gallimard. Now three of them are linked with Grasset. And publishers have many ways of influencing their writers.
And yet the bias is, probably, not the worst feature of the system. At this time of year, it is a customary game to recall the names of famous writers who didn't get the Goncourt. But, on the whole, the record is not too bad. The trouble is that this prize giving is only part of a general process of commercial concentration, with publishers merging and being taken over by banks, with independent bookstores disappearing and distributors insisting on a quick turnover and a small number of best sellers. To which one is tempted to reply that this is happening everywhere and that it is better to sell a good number of fairly decent books than nonbooks or no books at all.
I suddenly realize the reason for a note of disenchantment I occasionally detect in my own writing. With the moneybags and the philistines gaining ground spectacularly, we are often forced not to present our own alternative but to take a stand for the lesser evil, for a barely liberal immigration policy attacked by the National Front, for a rather mediocre welfare state wrecked by champions of deregulation, for a more or less decent commercial literature threatened by real trash. The reason for the wistfulness is, as Cecil Day Lewis put it, "That we who lived by honest dreams/Defend the bad against the worse." One hopes not for very long.