READ any new French novels lately? Unless you know the language, the chances aren't too good: it's probably easier to find English translations of Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, and even Chinese works on the local bookshelves. Or perhaps the literary cultures of international English - from Australia, India and Africa, the Caribbean ... Once a symbol of the avant-garde, the French novel is caught in the same doldrums as the country's previously vibrant cinema: reduced to well-tried formulas and lacking new directions. But, never lost for something to say, the French have typically turned the whole issue into a debate - not only about French writing, but also around the country's future.
It's considered so serious that they've been asking foreigners to comment. Recently the upscale media guide T'el'erama questioned eight well-known authors on what they thought of current French fiction. Joseph Heller confessed he didn't know. He'd read the French classics of course, but when it came to really modern writers - of the last 20 years say - his mind was a blank. ``C'est le vide,'' said Mr. Heller, ``it's empty.'' And rubbing salt into the wound, he added that he doesn't read French and it seems that much less French writing is being translated into English these days. Catch-22, of course!
The interviews were published to coincide with the Ninth Salon du Livre, the Paris book fair, which this year ended up a disaster. The weather was hot, the location was moved from the glorious Grand Palais to the Porte de Versailles supermarch'e on the edge of town, and some literary publishers boycotted the whole show.
Others like the illustrious Gallimard reduced their floor space by two-thirds, and final attendances were down by more than 50 percent. The outcome: The book trade itself is now talking about a possible ``crisis'' in French publishing. Opinions vary on how to solve the problem, but what's missing - virtually all agree - is the imagination of those golden years after World War II.
``When you have great people like Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir in the same place at once,'' says Left Bank publisher Fran,cois Bourin, ``it doesn't happen by chance. I think the French then had a lot to say because of what happened during the war. They gave us existentialism, the noveau roman [a type of antinovel], and fresh ideas. But we haven't redefined our positions since then. Our values - moral, religious, political - are so shaken up that the French people can't get support from them anymore.''
A former journalist, Mr. Bourin started his publishing business two years ago, and believes his best chance of survival is to remain relatively small: 30 books a year, ranging from fiction to philosophy and society.
``The big French publishers - like the Hachette group, for example - are no longer geared for literary works,'' he says. ``They've diversified into the media - news magazines, television - and into encyclopedias, dictionaries, and textbooks.'' In other words, he concludes, they're selling information - not fiction.
Are they squeezing out the smaller publishing firms, like his? ``Not really. I think they're putting the pressure on middle-sized publishers like Gallimard, who can't afford the French rights to international best sellers and can't shrink back to smaller production.'' He shakes his head. ``They have no way out really.''
The question of translation is central to the whole issue. Consider the case of Marie Nimier: At 32, she's had two novels published by Gallimard (which gave us Proust, among others) to strong reviews. Her latest, ``La Giraffe,'' a surreal work about a zoo-keeper's love for his animals, was short-listed for the Prix Goncourt, the country's top literary award. So far she's had no offers from English-language publishers.
``They're not making money out of French books,'' she laments, gazing out from her Bastille apartment, ``so they won't even translate them. It's hard, it's really hard.'' Already her works have appeared in Dutch and soon in German, but the English market remains elusive. ``They don't know how to sell us,'' says Ms. Nimier.
Are the older French publishers - conservative, with family-like structures - partly to blame? ``It's a market,'' agrees Nimier, ``so maybe they should wake up and be a little more active.''
Bourin sees another aspect to the translation dilemma: ``The overseas market is declining because French is not spoken internationally as much as it used to be. But still I think that French writers would be translated if they imposed themselves as great writers throughout the world. Today there's a crisis in the quality of French writing,'' he says bluntly. ``It's not strong enough to impose itself on the English market.''
For most French publishers, the ``market'' comes to life in September, when the new season's novels appear: More than 200 titles compete for space in bookstore windows and on the literary pages. Only about 30 or so make any significant impact; the others sink rapidly.
Last year, the newspaper Le Monde sent a questionnnaire to 202 novelists, and discovered that 75 percent of them were men and 57 percent lived in or near Paris. It also found first and second novels in abundance - but only 7 percent of the new season's books were third and fourth novels. It's obviously a struggle to hang in there.
Giving writers a hand - and some cash - is the Centre National des Lettres, which operates on an annual budget of around 100-million francs - roughly $20 million. About 10 percent comes directly from the French Ministry of Culture, with the rest made up of two taxes - a small levy on publishers' annual turnover, and a 3 percent tax on every new photocopier sold in France. This stroke of ``administrative ingenuity,'' as the center's director, Jean Gattegno, calls it, provides nearly half the organization's funds, allowing grants to writers of 100,00 francs (about $20,000) a year down to ``encouragement grants'' of 39,000 francs ($8,000). The center also helps to translate foreign literature into French - which again raises the subject of getting the country's novelists out to the world.
``I think they're very suspicious about the value of present-day French literature,'' says Mr. Gattegno, speaking of British and American publishers. ``They usually think it stopped with Valery, Gide, Sartre, and Camus. It's very seldom we can boast of a new French novelist being published into English.'' He says it's unfair, an unbalanced situation.
``In France we're doing a lot to attract a readership for Italian, Spanish, German, and even English writers,'' he says.
Is the imbalance there because French writing at present isn't good enough to be translated?
``I'm not a good judge,'' says Gattegno diplomatically. ``I read a lot more translated literature than French literature,'' he says. ``But it may be true.''
Whether the quality is down or not, France still retains a strong literary culture - with high education levels, magazines of world class (among them magazine litt'eraire and Le Journal Litt'eraire), a vibrant if struggling small press, two prime-time TV shows devoted to books (``Apostrophe'' and ``Ex-Libris''), and comprehensive if somewhat dull book pages in the daily press, Lib'eration being the lively exception.
IT'S now more than 20 years since the social upheavals of May 1968, when French students and workers occupied the streets of Paris in a ``mini-revolution.'' Many radicals of that era are now respectable business leaders, or installed high up in French government departments.
The impact on politics and the news media has been significant - but on novelistic output, far less so. People like Patrick Modiano, Jean-Marie Le Cl'ezio, Marie Nimier, and Philippe Sollers are hardly household names in France. When the French talk about ``modern'' literature, they also refer to the glory of the postwar era, to the image of Sartre and Camus, and to popular authors like Fran,coise Sagan.
Even the younger writers of France, like Nimier, are not immune. ``It was a good period,'' she says, ``They were dealing with ideas and they were strong with them, and now it seems writers are very individualist[ic]. There are no groups, no big streams of ideas, no fights! Being in the literary scene in Paris now is like being in a movement of compromises and fake smiles.'' She scans the rooftops and adds, ``Maybe it was like that before, but they had ... I don't know ... there was a vitality more than now.''
There's far less regret for the passing of the '70s and early '80s, when Post-Structuralism swept away everything in its path. ``It was an empty terrorism,'' says Bourin, ``because writers had to obey, to conform to certain intellectual criteria that didn't represent anything. Today at least we're out of that, and I think that's a very encouraging sign for French literature....''
Bourin describes Europe as the great occasion of his generation. ``For too long we have been enclosed in our country, talking to ourselves - particularly since the war, the French have become very introverted.'' He believes the lowering of barriers in Europe in 1992 will create strong currents of reaction - and give new French writers, as he puts it, a chance to find whatever they have to say.