Does America Still Care About Authors?

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Does America Still Care About Authors?Eli Schmidt
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Hearst Owned

I’m running through the Detroit airport like I’m running away from Cujo. (I won’t bore you with too many details, but my connection from Austin was still in the air when my plane to Paris started boarding.) As I run, my backpack slams against my back. The pack is not too heavy, but something else—something invisible and much heavier—hangs ominously above my head: trauma. If I miss this flight, it could ruin the whole trip to France, which has been perfectly—and tightly—scheduled by Sonatine Éditions, my French publisher.

You see, I’m running through the airport in 2024 and this is my first trip to France ever, but I almost went there in early 2020. My novel Zero Saints, published in France as Santa Muerte, did well there, and in early 2020, I was supposed to go on a five-city tour to push my second French translation, Les lamentations du Coyote. At the time, I had three jobs, my main one being high school teacher. When I asked my boss for a week off, he said no. I was seriously considering calling in sick and going to France anyway.

A few days after that conversation with my boss, he called me back to his office to let me know I was out of a job. Two days later, all events in France were canceled and the country shut down its airports. In a matter of days, I lost my main source of income, my health insurance as a pandemic was raging, and my French tour. Things got rough for a while after that. I still carry that trauma with me, and that fear of failure is way heavier than my backpack.

I made my flight, dear reader. I got to France. I spent a day walking around Paris and, like any other writer, visiting famous writers at the Montparnasse Cemetery. Then, before my body and mind could adapt to the new time zone, I found myself on a train to Lyon. An event in Lyon, a gorgeous city full of history and students, was the main reason for my transatlantic visit. The Quais du Polar festival, one of the most important crime fiction events in Europe, drawing the genre’s top names from around the world, attracts about 60,000 visitors each year. After missing it in 2020 and finally getting a chance to attend four years later, I’d be lying if I said getting on that train didn’t feel a bit like vengeance. I came to France to make up for lost time, to connect with my readers there, and to spend time with my publishers, but the trip morphed into constant discovery about the vast differences in how the American and French cultures value (or don’t value) writers.

a group of people posing for a photo in front of a building
From left: the author, Hélène Fischbach (director of the festival), and S.A. Cosby.Courtesy of the author

As the beautiful green of the French countryside rolls by my train window, I talk with Marie-Laure Pascaud, the public relations person from Sonatine who’s taking care of me and making sure I’m where I need to be while in France. As Marie-Laure and I talk about books in a mix of broken English and French, she tells me my book is one of her favorites and the darkest thing she’s read since Gregory McDonald’s The Brave, a novel about a desperate man who agrees to star in a snuff film for a lot of money. My ego soars, of course, but then we slide into a deep conversation about how crime fiction is a mirror that some of us hold up to society and how the French love that. In The Devil Takes You Home, the novel that brought me to France this time, I write about poverty, injustice, and racism while critiquing our broken healthcare system. Back home, those things get me hate mail, angry comments on social media, and many one-star reviews. In France, those things make me an intellectual and get me invited to important events. I begin to understand that in France, writers are indeed treated differently.

I love writing that’s visual and cinematic, so please imagine a montage here: half a dozen signings, a bunch of interviews where interviewers ask me about U.S. politics and my very political work, hundreds of readers coming up to my table at Quais du Polar to talk about my books, politics, writing, and to ask me what went wrong in the United States. Picture many baguettes and photo shoots and fancy restaurants. Picture me cavorting around Lyon, getting drunk with my translator, and walking around the city at 2:00 A.M., taking it all in with a smile on my face. Now imagine this: I have never gotten that treatment in the United States. Back home, at least for me, a tour is made up of events at indie bookstores—some packed, some not—and a string of cheap motels where I get to make my own waffles in the morning.

Enough of that. I’m in France for work, remember? I’m sitting on a stage in a very fancy room—the Grand Salon de l’Hôtel de Ville. I’m looking around at all the art in this sumptuous masterpiece of classical architecture, where at least half a dozen gigantic chandeliers hang from the ceiling. A few minutes ago, I shook hands with Richard Jones, the U.S. consul in Lyon since August 2022, and then with Grégory Doucet, the mayor of Lyon since 2020.

The big room is packed. Romain Gubert, an essayist and journalist moderating the panel, is sitting to my left. To my right is a man I’ve known for years but only met just a few minutes ago: John Grisham. Yes, the very same John Grisham who has written 49 consecutive bestsellers, who was given the Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for Fiction, who’s behind all those movies you’ve watched even if you’ve never read the novels. Next to John is Dennis Lehane. Yes, that Dennis Lehane. Oh, and my buddy S.A. Cosby—now a best-selling author whose fans include Barack Obama—is sitting next to Dennis. I know, I was asking myself the same question: What am I doing here? The answer boils down to this: I write unapologetically about equality, justice, borders, multiculturalism, and racism, and I critique the United States in my work. This panel is all about that.

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From left: S.A. Cosby, Dennis Lehane, John Grisham, and the author, Gabino Iglesias. Leslie Farnsworth

Titled “Political Pages: Dialogue Around the American Presidential Election,” the event promises to bring together four American authors “for a unique discussion on the upcoming presidential elections in the United States.” Instead of doing that, the panel is mostly about trying to figure out how a racist reality-TV star with a bad tan, an ill-fitting suit, and an awful comb-over managed to become president of the United States and how he’s threatening to do so again despite countless legal battles, most of them losses. We start on a light note, with Lehane saying he doesn’t sell as many copies in France as Grisham does. When it’s my turn to talk, I go straight to self-deprecation (a thing I do very well), pointing out how of all the authors on that stage, I sell the least number of books. That wins the audience over. After that, my dislike for Trump and the way he emboldens racists and bigots is icing on the proverbial cake for a huge audience that loathes Trump as much as any of the authors on the stage.

The panel ends to roaring applause. Explaining the connections between fiction and political reality isn’t something you can do in an hour, but we tried. We talked about how our narratives shed light on the issues of our time and reflect the reality of what’s happening in places across our wonderful nation. Crime fiction and horror fiction, when done right, can be very political. The French know this. They embrace it. They crave it. We delivered it.

The next day, I do it all over again. The title of my next panel is “Kingpins, Godfathers, Crimelords: Organized Crime.” Author and journalist Philippe Manch asks Olivier Bal, Danu Danquigny, Donna Leon, and yours truly about crime in the United States. It takes less than a minute for the conversation to turn to politics. We all talk about the economy, education, a lack of jobs, and other elements that drive those without options to a life of crime. I talk about being unemployed and desperate. I talk about being uninsured and scared. The French nod and then clap. I’m giving them the reality they don’t see on TV or the Internet. I talk about people who can’t afford insulin. I talk about single mothers who can’t earn enough working backbreaking gigs that pay next to nothing. I talk about all the jobs I’ve been fired from—teaching high school, working the phones at an insurance company, grading essays—because I needed time off to take care of a family member. The French know the story about the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free; now they want to hear from American authors—whom they consider American intellectuals—about the realities of how that story went south.

I barely have enough time to wolf down another baguette before I’m on that huge stage again, once more looking at all those chandeliers and wondering if this is real. “The America of the Disinherited and the Shut Out” is the title of the next panel. It’s a brutally honest title. My brother S.A. Cosby, Joseph Incardona, Maegan Jennett, and yours truly talk to Emmanuelle Andreani for an hour about marginalized communities. We talk about socioeconomic divisions and their consequences. I talk about how those we see as outcasts are often good people pushed into that role by a broken system and about the psychogeography of crime. The audience nods. They understand the term. No one scoffs at it. Knowledge is a good thing, and the French like it.

A day later, I’m back in Paris and walking around the Eiffel Tower when I suddenly get a little misty-eyed. I’m in France because my words brought me here, and that’s making me emotional. But it’s more than that. In France, I’m celebrated for my ideas. In the United States, I get hate mail and threats for them.

On June 17, 2023, I won the Bram Stoker Award in the novel category, the first Latino to do so since the award’s creation in 1987. Two days later, I checked my email to find a bunch of angry, threatening notes from half a dozen white dudes who thought I didn’t deserve it. They said that I’d only won because the “woke mob” had voted for me. In France, people lined up to get their books signed and take photos with me. In the States, I’m a horror and crime writer at best. In France, I’m a public intellectual whose work critiques the status quo. Those are some very big differences, and they make me wonder about the role of the author in American public life in 2024—if authors even have a role.

Once upon a time, authors were treated like celebrities in the United States. Authors like Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, and Mark Twain were known by everyone, even nonreaders. That’s no longer the case. Sure, a lot of people recognize notable authors like Roxane Gay and James Ellroy, but how many living writers could appear on the cover of Time and be immediately recognized by everyone? I would argue there are, at most, a handful. Surely they would recognize Stephen King, who has been on the cover of Time more than once, and James Patterson. There’s a strong case for Joyce Carol Oates, John Grisham, Michael Connelly, and Tananarive Due. That’s it. But why? Because authors are public intellectuals, and that’s not cool anymore.

Listen, I would love to be on the cover of Time for a plethora of reasons. Seeing some of my favorite writers on magazine covers would make me very happy, but a lack of mainstream recognition is not the issue here. The problem is that the role of the public intellectual in America has declined so much it has almost disappeared. We are living in the time of rampant, celebrated, unabashed anti-intellectualism. It's bizarre to think that most people expect authors to write entertaining narratives and not comment on timely topics. After all, authors are storytellers, and the role of storytellers has been the same since the beginning of time: we try to make sense of our experiences on the page, and then we do our best to communicate our process and share what we learned. Authors are keen observers, which makes them the perfect chroniclers for our collective history. In France, that's celebrated. In the United States, it's mostly shunned or ignored.

There is a long list of American crime fiction authors who enjoy commercial success in France, but don't find it here. I think that happens because their work is too smart and too honest. Writers like David Joy, Benjamin Whitmer, William Boyle, and Todd Robinson, to name a few, write outstanding crime fiction. In the United States, they don't top the bestseller lists. In France, they're rock stars who deconstruct American society and write smart narratives about it. Here, they're just writers, but there, they're seen as chroniclers, entertainers, social commentators, and intellectuals. While in France, I talked to publishers and readers about this phenomenon. In a nutshell, French readers love crime fiction—what they call “polars”—more than most other genres. In fact, in 2023, crime fiction outsold classic literature, romance, horror, children’s books, science fiction, and fantasy, according to Statista. The French perceive American crime fiction as the best, most honest window into the true heart and seedy underbelly of American culture.

a group of people sitting at a table with books and a man standing
From left: Catriona Ward, the author, and S.A. Cosby. Courtesy of the author

I spoke with American authors about this, including Jake Hinkson, author of The Big Ugly and winner of the Grand Prix des Littératures Policières and the Prix Mystère de la Critique. "I think the French are fascinated with American noir because they’re fascinated by America,” he told me. “They view noir as a body of literature that is critical and revealing of American culture. I don’t think the French have much respect for things that Americans think are classy (your average Oscar-bait movie, for instance), and they tend to be a little weary of all the stuff that is NYC-centric or overly LA. But they’ve always had a fascination with other parts of the country; the ‘real America,’ if you will. That’s why the French were the first ones to recognize the artistic merits of things like jazz and gospel. It’s why they embraced regional artists like Faulkner. And it’s why they were the first ones to recognize that guys like Jim Thompson and David Goodis weren’t just failed pulp writers, but rather authentic and unique literary talents."

Ultimately, French literary culture is very different from American literary culture. One look at events like Quais du Polar, which received more than 100,000 visitors during the weekend I was there, and the fact that the French government regulates book prices to ensure that all bookstores have the same chances to succeed, makes that much obvious. As I sat there signing books, I kept thinking about some depressing words from David Joy, author of Those We Thought We Knew, and from what I saw and heard in Lyon, one of France's favorite American authors.

"The French consume more books,” said Joy. “You look at the statistics and the French are always in the top ten well-read countries in the world. They’re typically somewhere around number seven. The U.S., on the other hand, we’re lucky to make the top 30. People just don’t read here. In this country, one third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives."

People just don't read here. Now that I’ve had my own experience in France, those words haunt me. What is the role of the author as a public intellectual in a country where so many people don't read? The truth is, I have no clue… but I'm sure the answer is somewhere out there, and probably the only way to find it is to read a lot.

Prop styling by Miako Katoh

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