Imagining Twenty-First-Century Literature Via Print Publishing: Problems for "Francophone" Literature and the Case of Guinea

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Abstract

This article explores the ways in which "imagining twenty-first century literature in French" is directly shaped by historical and contemporary patterns of print publishing. Growing scholarly interest over the last decade in factors relating to the production and circulation of print has begun to draw out the importance of the material life of books in what we perceive as "literature", and particularly how circumstances vary greatly within the vast literatures produced in major world print languages such as French. Here the division between "French" and "francophone" literature seems securely established institutionally, though it is a permanent source of debate. This article seeks to draw attention to some key aspects of the production and circulation of print literature which underpin this, focussing on literature in Guinea as a case study.

It is clear that there is a growing and shared interest in the material life of books among scholars of African, francophone and postcolonial literature, however these complex and often contested canons may be defined. Where Robert Comevin, in his wide-ranging 1976 book on sub-Saharan African literature in French, was highly unusual in devoting even a few pages to the role of publishers and publishing in creating this literature,1 today many scholars are examining aspects of the processes and decisions which create the printed texts that we read. Since the turn of the century, we have seen the appearance of several key texts in which serious attention is paid to the material life of the book, and to publishing in particular. For example, a wealth of detail on individual publishers can be found in Charles Larson's The Ordeal of the African Writer and in Elsa Schifano's L'Edition africaine en France - with the former largely devoted to anglophone publishing and the latter gathering a vast array of useful facts and discussion on "African publishing in France", but also on publishers based in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mali and Togo. We may also read scholarly analyses of the relationships between the book trade and postcolonial theory in Sarah Brouillette's Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace and Graham Huggan's The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins ; examine the conditions of publishing in French in the specific context of one nation-state, as in Hadj Miliani's Une littérature en sursis?; or turn to entire monographs on the various "paratexts" which situate the literary text in the context of elements such as its accompanying prefaces, covers and illustrations.2

In giving more space in literary debates to aspects of the material life of a book - whether by examining the work of the cover designer, the publisher, the literary scout, the bookseller, the archivist, or others - we can leam a great deal about how a "literature" is constructed, received and perceived; and in examining how the material life of a book may be radically different in different parts of the so-called "francophone" world, we can see how taking into account the material conditions under which books come into existence could be very helpful in allowing us to think coherently about imagining "twenty-first-century literature in French".

This essay will explore the ways in which paying close attention to one aspect of the material life of a book - that of commercial publishing - may shed light on some of the difficulties associated with imagining twenty-first-century literature in French. The article will begin by looking at the publishing of "francophone literature", before focussing on sub-Saharan African print literature in French, and then on Guinean literature in particular. Guinean literature has a unique history among African literatures, which we will seek to draw out, and an important point here will be the theme of the survival of print literature through colonialism, decolonisation and post-independence governments. I will seek to show how book publishing seems to be emblematic of many of the tensions in thinking about "francophone literature": "francophone" is to the literal-minded a rather awkward term to apply to a written or printed text, but "francographe" has not yet overtaken it in general usage; and the term "literature" in many (written or printed) analyses of "African literature" is still frequently used to refer only to written or printed texts, rather than to include oral literature. …