Literary prizes in France

In September, a huge number of new novels are published in France, in preparation for the literary awards season that is about to begin. The Goncourt, Renaudot, Femina, Medicis and Goncourt des lycéens are all awarded in November. Winning this year's Goncourt is a jackpot not only for the writer, but also for the publisher. It is therefore in the publishing houses' interests to publish their authors just before the prizes are awarded. The competition is fierce.

A fierce competition

La rentrée littéraire - Karambolage - ARTE

The french literary season

"Baptiste Touverey loves literature and this evening he describes to our German friends a ritual that keeps France on its toes as autumn approaches: the return of the literary season.

How sad! Autumn is here. The summer holidays are over! The days are getting shorter. To survive this gloomy period, the French have invented a rite that is as unique as it is confusing: la rentrée littéraire.

Tough competition and suspense characterise the prize season

Imagine: for three months, from the end of August to mid-November, the stars are the novelists. The rest of the year, when their name is not Michel Houellebecq, the media disdains them. Suddenly, they are invited on TV and radio and newspapers devote special issues to them. Why this sudden return to favour? Because in France, autumn is the season for the most prestigious literary prizes. The French love this competition, with its eliminations as the weeks go by, the publication of increasingly short lists of works still in the running, generally 15, then ten, then four, favourites who sometimes fail at the last moment and outsiders who win by surprise. In short, suspense, tears and above all controversy because the French like nothing better than to criticise the decisions of the referee, in this case the jurors.

Contested victories and less-than-transparent choices

Whether or not they have read the novels in question, they are indignant about their elimination or, on the contrary, about their unjustified crowning. Let us be frank: this indignation is not unfounded. What characterises the major literary prizes is not really transparency and impartiality but rather corruption and conflicts of interest. Let us remember that the jurors are often writers themselves. They have therefore been published by publishing houses, usually big ones. Well, you know what? The winners of the prizes are always authors from these big houses.

The star of the awards: the Goncourt

The absolute star of the prizes is of course the Goncourt. Why is that? Certainly not because of the amount of money it brings in: €10 in all. This is certainly a little better than the Fémina or the Renaudot, which do not pay a cent, but much less than the Académie française prize and its €7,500 endowment. No. If the Goncourt enjoys unparalleled prestige, it is because it is the oldest literary prize, not only in France but in the world. Its cousins, the English Booker prize and the German Deutscher Buchpreis, have only imitated it.

Rewarding the best novel. The idea may seem banal. When the Goncourt was created in 1903, it was revolutionary. The novel was then very much frowned upon. The more noble genres of poetry and theatre were preferred. The Goncourt Prize was intended to rectify this injustice. Perhaps it succeeded a little too well! Today's literary season is above all, if not exclusively, a season of novels. Novels that all hope to soon wear the famous red band of the winners. It is not a guarantee of immortal glory, but winning a Grand Prix is a guarantee of very good sales, especially as Christmas approaches. The winners are at the top of the shelves, but what about the others?

Winners and losers

Because there are many others. In 2016, 560 novels were published, all at the same time or almost. A crazy avalanche, with no equivalent in Germany where releases are spread out over the year. In this gigantic scrum, you can imagine that the vast majority of books go completely unnoticed; it would take years and perhaps a lifetime to read them all. One wonders how the prize jurors manage to pick out all the worthy novels from this mass, let alone the booksellers. Even those with huge premises cannot accommodate all the autumn's production! So, it's impossible for the small bookshops still numerous in France! In short, you can see what I'm getting at: the selection is necessarily arbitrary, unfair and biased. In the end, only a handful of books emerge: usually the media favourites which, strangely enough, are often also the foals of the big houses. The others go down the drain or, more precisely, into the dustbin.

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