Archives de Catégorie: English Print

A fragile relict

How an independent bookshop struggles to survive


In the narrow rue Princesse of Saint Germain des Près, the royal blue door of the Village Voice Bookshop stands wide open, inviting passers-by to stop and browse inside. Odile Hellier, the petite and red-haired proprietor, is percolating: As she does every week in her medium-sized Anglo-American bookstore, she is about to host a reading. On the second floor, amongst the book stacks, 30-40 chairs are installed, creating a delightful place for Anglophones and Anglophiles of Paris to come together to listen to books being read and to discussing them. Quickly, all the seats are occupied; Hellier introduces the reader to the audience and then settles herself on the stairs to listen.

Because of the harsh competition from both the Internet and megastores, the Village Voice Bookshop, as well as many other independent bookstores, is in danger of closing. For now, it remains, but it stands as a rare and fragile relict of old-time bookselling.

Hellier is well aware of the strengths of her store: a shrewd selection of books, a first-rate reading program, and a crucial role as a hub of English-language cultural activity for the expatriate community. However, she is very lucid about the difficulties involved for such a bookshop to thrive in the era of Amazon, Fnac, Virgin and the like.

“In the 1980s, when I opened my bookshop, I was very lucky because the circumstances were very much working in my favor,” she explains. Thanks to a steady flow of young Americans coming to Paris, the Village Voice Bookshop soon became the profitable center of the then intense Franco-American cauldron.

But times changed when what Hellier likes to describe as “the world of Oz” emerged: namely the Internet, and subsequently Amazon. Parallel to the extraordinary growth of online commerce, the Village Voice Bookshop’s economic vitality declined. “Amazon has affected our sales tremendously,” comments Hellier. “How can we compete? They can drop the prices by 30%, and they go through without having to pay taxes. We, in contrast, pay the VAT every month”. Since 2001, the bookstore’s sales have dropped by 25%, forcing its owner to reduce holdings by the same percentage. And this trend is unlikely to be stop. Forrester Research, a market research company, forecast an 11% rise in the online book sales in 2008.

Instead of the 25,000 titles of its beginnings, the Village Voice Bookshop now carries approximately 18,000 titles from English-language literature. And the bookshop struggles to maintain this wide array of books, still considered by many, and notably Arthur Bloom, a Bostonian writer as “the best Anglophone collection in Paris”. Certainly, the store’s collection remains unique. “It is challenging, it is not the surface best-sellers that everybody is going to buy,” remarks Carole Brearley, a Canadian passing through Paris for holidays. Nevertheless, Hellier notes that she recently has had to “take fewer risks in making her selections”.

An additional hindrance to the Village Voice Bookshop’s economic sustainability is the sharp drop in the value of the dollar over the last two years. “We had to lower the prices because the dollar market has shrunk,” explains Hellier. And that is without acknowledging the fact that the size of the Anglophone community has significantly declined in recent times. “The situation is very difficult for an Anglo-American bookshop in Paris”, Hellier sums up.

Over the years, Odile Hellier has grown very pessimistic about the possibility of her independent bookstore surviving. She gives the Village Voice Bookshop five years before it dies. In the meantime however, she stays the course. She maintains her selection of books acute, and continues to bring in renowned writers to read extracts of their books, thus keeping the institution alive and well for the moment.

Odile Hellier has a regular and continuously developed web of relationships with authors and clients that sustains her business, at least for now. “Since I’ve known the bookshop three months ago, I haven’t bought books from Amazon,” attests the Bostonian writer Arthur Bloom. Invited to read at the Village Voice Bookshop, he accepted, both as a way to promote his novel and to support an endangered haven of books. “Odile Hellier is not only selling books, she is selling an atmosphere which is conducive to intellectual exchange”, he says. “It would be a shame if it disappears.”

To die for

Written by: Joyce Maynard and Henry Buck
Directed by: Gus Van Sant

Nicole Kidman

Deliciously wicked. Recounting the story of Suzanne Jones Maretto, a shallow and crazy small-town girl haunted with fame, To Die For offers an exquisite and vitriolic vision of the deleterious effects of television, and its culture of instant celebrity. Suzanne’s ridiculous but persevering quest for stardom not only reflects the fulsome narcissism of a unique character amazingly played by Nicole Kidman, but also accurately deciphers the inherent problems of the medium of television.

In the locality of Little Hope, New Hampshire, the newlywed and oh-so photogenic Suzanne Stone Maretto struggles to reach fame. Since her childhood, her one and unique goal is to be on TV. And in order to fulfill her fantasy, she’ll do anything, from cheating on her husband during their honeymoon, to influencing a ductile youngster into killing him. No matter how futile the position, if on television, she’s willing. “I would do anything to get that job, anything”, she suggests to her Ed Grant, her interviewer and future boss at the insignificant local cable station where she finally gets hired.

Even though genuinely dotty a persona, Suzanne Stone Maretto well incarnates a generation of individuals that grew up swimming in television culture. The first piece of evidence of that matter is her obsession with physical appearance. When Suzanne first meets her sister-in-law Janice Maretto, she means to suggest that she should resort to plastic surgery if she wants to have the slightest chance to succeed as a figure skater. As a TV’s children, image is essential to her: Her array is always impeccable, and she feels alien to people who don’t pay attention to their look. “You know Mr. Gorbachev, the guy that ran Russia for so long? I am a firm believer that he would still be in power today if he had had that ugly purple thing taken off his head”, she earnestly asserts.

But even more meaningful than her fixation on handsomeness is her faith in television as a value-giver. To Suzanne, the mere fact of being on TV is a sign of worth. That’s why she constantly picks in the world of television to take decisions in her own life, from what meal to prepare for her guests to what name to give to her beloved dog. The ludicrousness of her mimetic taste somehow illustrates the quasi-religious status that television has acceded since its inception. “You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are”, she affirms. And there, she has a point: Many people take what’s on television for gospel, hence the dangerousness of such a powerful and all-encompassing medium.

Even her desperate will to be on TV is pretty much a good depiction of a society in hunger for recognition and fame. When traipsing in a wasteland with her friends, Lydia Mertz, one of the three youngsters that Suzanne manipulates into getting rid of her husband, notes: “Just to be on TV would be something nice, and something different”.

To Die For certainly is not a movie about TV journalism. It is however a powerful, shocking and amusing media satire, for television is shown in it as both manipulative and dangerous. That Joe Maretto, Larry’s father, reacts to his son’s death by destroying his television set with a baseball bat is not an accident. On the contrary, it is a highly symbolic gesture that captures the whole movie’s spirit. Framed as a pseudo-documentary within a pseudo-documentary, this movie clearly aims at bringing the viewer to reflect upon the way one receives information when it comes out of a television set. And it does, leaving a bittersweet taste in the mouth.

« International rankings of universities do not tell you anything about the quality of education»

Richard YellandOn the 11th and 12th of January 2008, OECD Education Ministers met in Tokyo to discuss the possibility of an OECD-led international assessment of higher education quality. Richard Yelland, head of the Education Management and Infrastructure Division at the OECD attended this informal ministerial meeting. He comments on the necessity and feasibility of such a project.

Many international assessments of higher education already exist. Why then should the OECD produce one?

The most well known international assessment is the Shanghai ranking of the world’s 500 best universities. This classification made a great impression in France when it first came out in 2004. Indeed, France’s first university in the ranking appeared at the 65th place, a fact that was largely commented in national newspapers. But the problem with this ranking, as well as other international assessments, is that it does not tell you anything about the quality of education. It is a ranking about research, taking into account major awards such as Nobel prizes, the number of articles published, citations, etc. What it really measures is therefore the impact of universities’ scientific output and not the quality of teaching and learning. Some people understand that, but others will just look at the ranking and think that if a university is badly ranked, it means that its teaching is not good. Sciences-Po for instance is a very good university, but it wouldn’t appear high in such a ranking. Our strong feeling at the OECD is that we need to evaluate rather better what universities do.

And how concretely would you do that?

What we presented at the Tokyo meeting is a proposed study to make an international evaluation of higher education learning, inspired to some extent by the PISA project . The distinguishing feature of PISA is that it actually takes a sample of students from each country involved (in the case of PISA, 15 year-old-secondary school students), and sits them down to take a written test covering mathematics, science, and literacy. These tests are then marked and comparative results between countries are produced. What PISA does is that it produces comparable information between countries of what secondary school students know and can do. And our idea is that we might be able to do the same thing with higher education.

Is it really feasible?

The feasibility of such a study is not obvious, because higher education is more complicated. Indeed, in higher education there are different degrees of selectivity in the system, and both a selection of students and by students of what they are going to study. How can you possibly compare journalism with engineering? There is a matter of age as well. Most Australians have completed their first degree by the age of 22, whereas most Swiss won’t start until they are 22. Is it actually possible to devise instruments where university students in different countries can sit down, answer a set of questions, and produce results that can be graded and compared? That is not certain. On a practical sense, feasibility of such a study is not a given either. To get any meaningful information, you need to have students spending two hours on this, which is not negligible. How do you motivate students to take part in a study towards the end of their bachelor degree? And how do you motivate institutions to go to the effort of getting a sample of students and organising it? Feasibility is all but certain, but we think it’s worth trying.

You recently made recommendations to the Attali commission about France’s educational system…

Our recommendations concerned both school and university levels. On the school side, we suggested more individualization of learning, notably through making the formal program lighter. France is the world champion of grade repeating. By the time students get to 15, more than one in three repeated a year. In the French system, if you’re really good you can skip a grade, but if you don’t keep up, you will repeat it. And there is not much in between. It is something that just wouldn’t happen in other countries. The explanation for that is that French approach to school does not take enough account of the individual needs of pupils. In France, it is a question of fitting the pupils into the program rather than the other way around. We therefore recommended more flexibility in the educational approach. When it gets to university level, it appears that France spends very little money on its higher education system. Its expenditures are below the OECD average. Curiously, France is the only country where there is less money spent on a university student than on a secondary school student. No other country is split between selective well-resourced Grandes Ecoles on the one hand and non-selective poorly resourced universities on the other hand. And this system creates many problems. To name a few, France has a very high dropout rate, and experiences consistent mismatches between the job market and education. We therefore called for a rebalancing of spending between Grandes Ecoles and universities, to the benefit of the latter.

Network

Affiche du Film
Written by: Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by: Sidney Lumet

Mad, hysterical, despicable, totally unrealistic and yet astute. Trying to qualify Network in a nutshell is a hard endeavor. The difficulty is to reflect with soundness its ambiguities. How can one possibly explain that this movie is at the same time fascinating and exasperating? How can one possibly decipher the fact that Network is at some points excruciating to watch, very often lousily shot, undoubtedly too long a movie, and yet remains a must see? Well, in fact, it might be as simple as that: because it outrageously distorts the perceived reality of the television industry, this satire efficiently brings its viewers to some sort of objective reality about it.

With this incongruous and exaggerated lampoon of the television industry, the script-writer Paddy Chayefsky leaves the viewer with both an acrid taste in his mouth, and an interesting idea of the gears that could lead television to run amok. A very pessimistic idea obviously. To be sure, there is no way one would switch on his TV set after watching this movie, for television is depicted in it as a lawless economic machine in avid pursuit of good ratings.

After 15 years serving as the UBS network star anchorman, Howard Beale, “the mandarin of television”, is fired because of poor ratings. Having nothing in his life but his career, he then resolves to commit suicide on air, and publicly declares his deadly intention. The producers therefore decide to immediately throw him out of the network, afraid that this “grotesque incident” might have a negative impact on the network’s share of audience. They nevertheless let him come back on air for a respectable farewell. But instead of apologizing for his vulgar attitude, Howard Beale starts babbling about the “bullshit” of life. And directly following his rant, the ratings of his show soar. The producers hence bring him back as a commentator. This is the start of a dizzy fall of ethics at the network. This is the start of “the story of Howard Beale, the man killed because he had lousy ratings”.

In this movie, Diana Christensen, the attractive and careerist woman in charge of programming well incarnates the economically driven world of television. “I want angry shows”, she says without any shame, whether it is authentic footage of terrorist attacks or the delirium of a man who “articulate(s) th(e) rage (of the Americans) for them”. If good ratings impose brainwashing or propaganda of some sort, it is no problem for Diana. There is no doubt her character is way too caricatured. However, her position reflects a trend that has become prominent in the TV industry. “TV (indeed) is show biz”, and her obsession with audience is far from being a fantasy of the screenwriter. Even news is now polluted by the need to meet a certain reach. “Television is not the truth… Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business », rightly asserts Beale in an impulse of lucidity.

In this film, the depiction of TV as THE mass medium par excellence is oh-so-relevant. There is nothing better for preaching the gospel than somebody prime time on television, as the many and tangled characters of Network have well understood. Why is Howard Beale, the « mad Prophet of the Airwaves » so important? Precisely because he’s on air, and by being on air, he can draw millions of people to get to their windows and shout : “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”.

Some people would describe Network as a dark comedy. I wouldn’t. Network certainly has some amusing moments. However, if it had to be qualified, appalling would be the right adjective. It indeed forces its viewers to face a troublesome reality : even in its most grotesque scenes, Network is, somehow, a pretty exact and bewildering reflection of the television industry.

Economic growth and the Rugby World Cup

October 18th 2007

It is 6 o’clock on Saturday October 13th in Paris. The semi-final rugby match opposing France and England is not to start in the next three hours. Yet, cars on the Boulevard Saint-Germain toot proudly, and smiling people start gathering in pubs where giant screens have been put in place to observe France’ bout. Inside the Wos bar, on Saint-Jacques street, beer orders seem never to stop, compelling the waitress to bring six by six the pints onto the tables. And as time goes on, the general euphoria exponentially increases.

Since France’s victory against the legendary All Blacks a week earlier, confidence has been boosted, bringing economists to once again raise the question of the correlation between sportive victories and economic growth. The so-called “World Cup Effect”gained some legitimacy after the 1998 Soccer World Cup. That very year, French growth had indeed reached 3.5%.

As the organizer, France already harvested economic benefits from the Rugby World Cup. Tourism was the domain where the “World Cup effect” was the most notable. Airports of Paris (ADP) underwent an increase of 5.4% in air traffic this September, compared to the same month in 2006. The competition also triggered an increase in French household’s immediate consumption. A document published in April by the European Chair of Sportive Marketing at the Essec (French Business Graduate School) forecast four milliard euros of direct receipts, through fans’ expenses, tickets, by-products, etc. A poll made just before the launching of the World Cup also revealed that hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and bars expected 10% of supplementary revenues during the World Cup, counting both on the fact that France was hosting the event, and on the enthusiasm and confidence generated by a nice performance of “Les Bleus”.

Will then the French defeat against England have a negative impact on national economic growth? “The week following the match opposing France and Argentina, we received almost no customers. And after tonight’s defeat, it will be the same. This will obviously have a direct effect on business, since the euphoria that characterized the past few months will relapse all of the sudden” explains Pierre Louvrier, owner of the Wos. And indeed, on the following Sunday morning, the atmosphere was rather gloomy in Parisian streets. “While strolling in the neighbourhood, I noticed that boldness had fallen,” comments Nicolas Laurent-Bonne, a 21-year-old law student. Certainly for real rugby lovers, this defeat will not kill joy. “We were in the doldrums right after France’s defeat, but we continued playing for an hour and a half”, narrates Sylvain Baratte, saxophonist in the Banda Kalimucho, which followed the French rugby team during the whole tournament. “A rugby match is festal, nothing can destroy our moral ». But French are not all rugby addicts.

And in any case, the question remains if the observed increase in household’s consumption could really have remained relevant in the long run, had France won the semi-final. In 1998, the World Cup Effect had not lasted for more than three months. And could the impact of the Rugby World Cup be as important as the soccer one? According to many economists, rugby remains less popular than soccer. Mihai, a 27-years-old intern in surgery in Paris, agrees on that point: “France doesn’t have the culture of rugby, it has the soccer culture. I think the euphoria you could observe was only transient, so defeat or victory, it couldn’t have influenced French economy that much.”