PARIS

Can anyone who is suspicious of words, and who likes critical analyses and chit-chat even less, really talk about literary life in Paris? I doubt it. It must be easy to describe the cultural atmosphere of Copenhagen, Brussels or Amsterdam, but that of Paris raises problems. It's pointless to imagine Paris as a kind of magic crucible where, in a climate of quiet exaltation, exciting artistic creations constantly bubble forth. Instead, picture a monstrous discount counter connected to thousands of public address systems, or a neurotic volanco spitting forth a trickle of good works drowned under torrents of bad, all of them part of a single commercial flood that no one can keep up with, neither critics, salesmen, bookstores, nor obviously, the public -- which is bewildered, overwhelmed, and finally oblivious to it all.

This state of affairs is all the worse because, while most large countries have several cultural centers, in France there is only one, and that one monstrously voracious: Paris greedily sucks all the intellectual liveliness from the rest of the country, reducing great provincial cities to cultural deserts. Added to this hunger to be the Great Receptacle of everything that's happening is a good measure of the other vampirish ingredients of our age: a gluttony to consume more and more wildly (in spite of economic crisis); a blind overproduction responding to a formidable thirst for profits; an unremitting desire for Paris to impose itself as the hub of Thought, all the more desperate as true creativity becomes increasingly rare and interest fewer and fewer people.

But that doesn't hinder either excessive sales or unbridled spending. Gradually, and ever more prominently, a new breed has come to power: the consumer of books is not necessarily a reader at all. Or at least rarely a real reader, one who is conscientious and inquisitive, but more simply a person starved for printed paper, eager to swallow a steady supply of undigested information.

There are apparently more people who buy books in 1981 than there were in the '50s and '60s -- at that time more than 60 percent limited themselves to the newspaper -- but have the professional pollsters who exult over such figures ever asked: "People buy more books, but what kind exactly?" Why bother guessing: the worst books are sold by the ton, as they've never sold before, a most disquieting kind of progress, while serious works of fiction have never sold so badly, a decline that is even more troubling. On this point the numbers speak precisely and should cause a shudder: all the thick, expensive blockbusters -- including the meaningless nonsense of Simone Signoret's memoirs (Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To be) and the productions of Alan Peyrefitte (an arrogant politician who takes himself for an intellectual) -- have had printings ranging from 500,000 to 1 million copies, while the books in a series like Le Monde Entier (from Gallimard), which brings out foreign masterpieces, sell on an aerage between 500 and 1,000 copies. That's good many fewer zeros, and seldom has a zero possessed so much significance.

A work of fiction that is difficult to read, but imaginative and inventive, has no chance at all to sell more than 10,000 copies. Meanwhile, a publisher scarcely risks failure by bringing out maudlin, tired memoirs, especially if they go back to childhood, because, for several years now, the guideless child, along with its mother and father -- in short, the holy family -- has become the spearhead of bookstore success. To this sleep-inducing trinity can be added all those genres that have been the rage for more than a decade: self-help manuals, popularizations, political gobbledygook, psychodramas, ecological tracts, historical babblings, murderers' confessions, the guesses of applied sociology, and so on.

In fact, any subject dealt with in the encyclopedia is in danger of being turned into cash. The knack is to treat it with the greatest number of words and the utmost pretentiousness, to repeat pompously what has already been said a thousand times, and above all to persuade even the most ignorant reader that he possesses an altogether remarkable lucidity and intelligence.

For just these reasons journalists and editors have rediscovered the word "New" and now apply it everywhere. The "New" will make money automatically. Simply assemble the most threadbare, conventional piece of work and stick on the label "New" and you will not only rake in the bookstore receipts but also occupy the No. 1 spot on the best-seller lists for weeks.

Is it logical for a label to have such importance? In truth, publishers continuously market books as though they were canned goods, the only difference being that a tin can is eventually opened and its contents digested by the purchaser, while with books such is not always the case. A fashionable book that one "just has to have" can be used merely to decorate an apartment coffee table, and is often bought only with that in mind. However, the most troubling phenomenon of the past decade is that literature no longer has anything to do with publishing, which has become a heavy industry, literature being only a poor relation.

The result is 25,000 books published each year in France, more than 60 a day. And if the truly creative writers here are few -- many are simply turned down by publishers' readers -- the companies scoop up celebrities who are published because they have acquired a name in something else, whether politics, film, television or journalisn. In all the large publishing houses there are two lists of 10 or 15 authors brought out each month, which means that if a book hasn't found its public and its particular appeal within a month, one might as well pulp the rest of the printing. And there's no need to mention that the media never has enough words for showering praises on celebrity pablum while it hardly makes even the most off-handed mention of authors more worthy of attention.

To judge the results of all this on a large scale, and with some perspective, enter any modest bookstore which, because of space restrictions, can only offer its customers the most "wanted" books. In the windows and on the tables one never sees the books of a real writer but only a pile of the works written (or dictated into a tape recorder) by the "New" fashionable authors: sexologist and pop psychoanalysts, gurus of health and sickness, crime reporters and futurologists, the gardeners of memory lane and the media evangelists, masters of mysticism and merchants of happiness. All of them traps for fools, all of them celebrated in our naive and cyncial world.

As expected, having adopted a discount policy on their books, the big chains sell them between the tomatoes, toothpastes and refrigerators, slowly but surely killing off the small bookshops. It figures: the canned book is integrated among the food and household goods to become, like all the rest, merely another department store product -- eye-catching, plastic, aggressively designed and gaudily colored. Our age is not only vulgar, it swears by vulgarity.

Back in the 1950s people discovered, with delight, post-surrealism, the hard-boiled detective novel, black humor, the absurd, tales of terror and fantasy, sophisticated eroticism, the New Novel, science fiction; these days nothing new has appeared in a long, long time. We are satisfied with plagiarisms and copies, we grossly exploit what genuine creators have discovered, working in the dark and often without having realized the least profit. The most shattering thing we've discovered in the past decade is this: a way to make a lot of money with anything whatsoever by marketing it widely to one and all, including those who can scarcely decipher the alphabet. That's one way to give the word "cultivated" its other meaning -- an area worked over so that it will produce well. And worked over, as modern technology insists, with a tractor rather than a plow.