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Steven D. Spalding

When Literary Journals Fail: Minuit's Quest for an Avant-Garde


What role do literary and cultural journals play in the dissemination of knowledge? What role have they played in the past? What role will they play in the future? In recent years, the means of that dissemination has shifted more and more from printed page to the computer screen, which has brought irrevocable change to the relations of power among the journals as well as to their ability to hold sway over the theory and terms of literary and cultural value. Standing at a crossroads of sorts, with subscribers who still read the hard, material copies of L’Infini, Les Temps modernes, Critique, etc., on the one hand, and with growing numbers of readers who consult the ‘soft’ online digests on the other, it is appropriate to pause and consider these questions. These questions are all the more pertinent in the wake of Pierre Bourdieu’s compelling introduction of a sociology of literary culture (1984, 1992), which laid the foundation for critical inquiry into the material, historical dimensions of the production and dissemination of ideas.

More perhaps for reasons relating to the professional discipline of literary studies, French scholars working on literary journals and cultural digests have tended to concentrate on the most successful and enduring of France's intellectual journals, including Les Temps Modernes (Boschetti 1985), Critique (Patron 1999), and La Nouvelle Revue Française (Cerisier 2009), each of which remains in print to this day. In this paper, I seek to overturn this paradigm and consider the case of a little-known literary journal that, despite a ten-year run, has all but completely disappeared. This case-study of the literary review Minuit underscores the following two points: first, this journal provides fascinating insight into the maneuvers made by publisher Editions de Minuit as it sought to mark out new terrain in the literary field. Second, by rejecting certain dominant paradigms of readability in preference for a New-Novelesque avant-garde, Minuit undercut its own chances of holding its ground and developing long-term capital for the review and publisher alike. Minuit points up the limits of what the marketplace for ideas will support—a lesson not at all lost on its publisher, who applied what he learned from Minuit in creating the second great “school” of Minuit authors in the 80s.

The first issue of Minuit appeared in 1972; a brief prefatory note in issue number 50 (1982) from Editions de Minuit’s publisher Jérôme Lindon announced the journal’s discontinuation (I will return to his note in more detail later). A thumb-through of an issue reveals the editorial pattern followed throughout the journal’s existence, and gives an idea of its aesthetic ambitions. Minuit was not just a literary review, but aspired to stand for something more important, more fundamental, and did so by privileging eclecticism and the graphic arts. Each issue of Minuit presents a diverse selection of texts—from poetry and prose to a range of non-fiction—inter-spliced with drawings, photos, and other images. A hallmark of Lindon’s style as a publisher and editor was his preference for simplicity: the texts and artwork are merely supplied, unadorned by any presentation, commentary or introduction. In issue 3, for instance, an excerpt of prose by Claude Simon is followed by an essay on philosophers and sociology by Jean Lacoste, a student from the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Next comes an essay by Samir Amin on economics in the developing world. New-Novel prose rubbing elbows with essays in sociology and economics, with artwork adding a layer of textual dialogics—such is the nature of the image of French thought promoted in Minuit; such is, furthermore, the image of the journal’s intended readership that emerges from the issues.

The journal’s eclecticism is addressed in its initial issues in a note to readers, and is presented as a feature of its almost unplanned, non-programmatic nature:
Nous ne savons pas encore ce que sera Minuit, revue périodique appelée à paraître tous les deux mois. Au commencement, elle a surtout rassemblé des textes de nos amis, textes de fiction et textes théoriques, et aussi des dessins. Mais déjà elle s'ouvre à une nouvelle génération de collaborateurs; tendance qui s'accentuera, espérons-nous, au fil des prochains numéros.
Though unsigned, we can detect the hand of publisher Lindon here, for two reasons. First, in the early issues Jérôme Lindon is listed as the “Directeur de la publication,” which he remains until issue 32, January 1979, when Mathieu Lindon is listed as “Directeur littéraire” for the first time. Second, for readers familiar with the modest traces of writing Jérôme Lindon left in his publisher’s catalog, scant interviews, marketing material and infrequent letters to readers, the stance here is recognizable. His note invites the reader into a relation of complicity with the journal’s “nous”, asks them to witness the evolution of the journal, implies an equal footing between editor and reader who, it is hoped, will await the coming of a new generation of collaborators with “us”. There is to be no explicit editorial line or stance; instead, Minuit is an experiment, a journal in search of authors and artists.

Lindon’s note in fact introduces the stakes Lindon has in Minuit’s success or failure. Mirrored imperfectly by the shift from Lindon père to Lindon fils—imperfectly since it would later be Irène Lindon, his daughter, who took over the reins at Editions de Minuit and not his son—Minuit was about nothing less than a generational succession, and even a quest for a posterity. The note manages conveniently to warn readers of the early issues that the “friends” would no longer occupy the journal’s pages, or so it was hoped. The first issue, November 1972, helps convey a sense of what kinds of friends these are. The table of contents lists the following contributors: Tony Duvert, Samuel Beckett, Pierre Bourdieu, Robert Pinget, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Didier Coste, Sergio Fernandez, and Michel Longuet. The “friends” were all authors from the Editions de Minuit catalog, and some exclusively. Indeed, in the early issues of Minuit, Lindon regularly published work by his most established, his most ‘senior’ authors. In so doing, Lindon sought to establish several things: first, to solidify the identification between the publishing house and journal. Editions de Minuit had gone from the margins of the literary field and the brink of financial collapse to its center to worldwide fame and success through the canonization of Samuel Beckett and the cultural phenomenon of the New Novel (Cf Simonin, 1992 and Spalding, forthcoming). Editions de Minuit had become a brand, reputed as some of the most important, cutting-edge contemporary writing in French. Second, by publishing the authors from his booklist with the most symbolic value in the journal both conferred symbolic capital to the latter and set up an expectation — whether implicit or explicit — of quality, that the Minuit journal shall present the same quality, the same génie found in Minuit’s publications, and shall respect and extend that heritage. Third, the appearance of Minuit’s signature authors is meant to capture a readership, and guarantee that its interests will be served.

At stake, then, was not merely the posterity of the French New Novel; rather, the ability for Editions de Minuit to consolidate its gains in the literary field and stake out new terrain by recruiting a “new generation” of collaborators was in question, just as it is in Lindon’s clever appositive, “espérons-nous”. In what follows of my presentation, I measure the success of the “new generation” that would appear in Minuit’s pages, and examine samples of its writing as examples of the journal’s avant-garde aesthetic. How well did the new generation meet the expectations set at the start? How many authors went from the pages of the journal into the publisher’s booklist? I also look at the transformations made late in the journal’s existence for evidence of new editorial strategies and the problems they seek to address. Finally, in looking at reasons behind the journal’s disappearance, I consider its implications for Editions de Minuit, for the French cultural marketplace of the 70s and 80s, and for the power and prestige of the literary journal.