Are Prize Winning Novels an Indication of Readership or a Nation’s Literary Heritage?

After the BBC’s journalist in Paris Hugh Schofield asked the question about Why French books don’t sell abroad, the Cultural Attaché to the US Embassy in New York, Laurence Marie responded with an extensive list and discussion of a list of French titles that are selling abroad. She also mentions how widely French literature is being translated into other languages and her article makes fascinating and insightful reading. I have collected book covers of some of the works mentioned, plus others, below.

Sometimes we hear about literature from another country when the author wins a major literary prize. However:

Are Prize Winning Novels Really Indicators of a Nation’s Readership?

French Books That Are Selling Abroad!

French Books That Are Selling Abroad!

I don’t think so.

Literary prizes usually have an agenda, if not multiple agendas.

In the case of the UK’s Booker Prize it was set up to try to bring more literary works into the mainstream.

It is known that the prize doesn’t actually influence the reading habits of avid readers. It is targeted at those for whom books are competing against other forms of entertainment.

I like the literary prize season, not so much in anticipation of a winner, but for the longlist, where we are more likely to find something new that might appeal to our taste, because of the variety offered and the number of works screened.

So what are the French literary prizes?

Le Prix Goncourt

I don’t know the French literary prizes well, and Schofield mentions in his article that there are over 2,000 of them, but the Le Prix Goncourt is well-known and has been around over 100 years since 1896.

The last recipient was Pierre Lemaitre, whose thriller Alex  (reviewed here by Savidge Reads who said of it: “a thriller that almost made ‘Gone Girl’ look tame”), was a bestseller last year and his prize-winning novel Au revoir là-haut looks set to be the same.

Nancy, a blogger in the Netherlands whom I admire enormously, tasked herself to read only French novels last year, as an interesting way to learn the language and not only has she succeeded in learning the language, but she has not given up, she continues to read novels in French. You can read her review (in English) of Le Maitre’s Au revoir là-haut here.

The prize was established by Edmond de Goncourt, a successful author, critic, and publisher, who bequeathed his estate to establish an academy and the prize was initially created to allow talented writers the opportunity to write a second book. The prize is seen as being SO prestigious, the prize money has not changed since the early 1900’s and remains something around €10.

Le Prix Femina

Leonora MianoTen members of the Goncourt academy are responsible for the judging of Le Prix Goncourt, and in protest against this all male jury, le Prix Femina was inaugurated, an equivalent literary prize open to all sexes, however the jury is all female.

This year the prize was won by Léonora Miano, a Cameroonian author who has lived in France since 1991, for her 7th novel La Saison de l’ombre (The Shadow Season).

There is also a Prix Femina étrangere for foreign books which was won in 2013 by Richard Ford for Canada and Le Prix Femina essai, a popular genre in France, the essay; this year won by father and son duo Jean-Paul Enthoven and Raphaël Enthoven for le Dictionnaire amoureux de Marcel Proust (Marcel Proust’s Love Dictionary).

2013 Pric FeminaThere are certainly no shortage of prizes here in France (other major literary prizes are the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise, the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Interallie and the Prix Medicis), and their lists make interesting reading, for their longevity and breadth and for that fact, that they are so little known by readers in the English language.

Although prize-winning literature might be translated into English, it may also create a false perception of readership, being skewed towards that overly intellectual perception of literature that Schofield refers to as being elitist, which can alienate the average English language reader (and perhaps also the average French reader).

Every nation is proud of their literary culture and achievements and like to endow their icons of that tradition with prestigious titles, however down here at the ordinary people reading level, there is a whole other canon of literature being read, whether it is in the English language or any other.

CIMG3882To know more about what ordinary readers are immersing themselves in, it is necessary to speak to people like us, those who don’t often have a voice in the media or on a jury, they are the voices that are worth hearing from, even if what they provide is anecdotal evidence.

I am speaking to some of the French people I encounter in everyday life who are passionate readers, to find out what they think about French literature and what they are reading, to be featured in future posts.  And to find out more about all that translated fiction they love to read here.

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15 thoughts on “Are Prize Winning Novels an Indication of Readership or a Nation’s Literary Heritage?

  1. Great post and I am looking forward to hearing what “ordinary French” people in your area are reading. I keep asking FB friends for their best and worst books of 2013. I find that many people just don’t take the time to read anymore! French Lit has captured my heart !

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  2. Beautiful post, Claire! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the major literary prizes in France. I want to read Pierre Lemaitre’s ‘Alex’. So wonderful to know about Nancy’s project of reading only French books in French for the whole year. It must have been a wonderful experience. It is interesting that the prize money for the Prix Goncourt is only nominal – enough for a coffee probably 🙂 I didn’t know about ‘Le Prix Femina essai’ – that is a very interesting prize! Hope some of the books in the shortlist get translated into English. I love reading essays.

    Looking forward to reading your next post in this series. Thanks a lot for writing on this topic, Claire.

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  3. This is a very interesting and inspiring post. I can see that I both need to check out the books you mention as well as both Nancy’s and Vishy’s blogs. When reading this I started thinking about Camus and how little hoopla was made over him this year. I love that Le Prix Goncourt only gives out 10€ – somehow it’s so typical French that the honor is more important than the money.

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  4. Your post is very interesting. I wouldn’t really know. It is often that books that win prizes are a bit heavy going or not for the “common reader”. This is how I see it in the book shops, I am really careful depending on the prize. Although some are more accessible than I think. I loved the confident by Helene Gremillon that you mentioned in your article. Trouble is that now there are so many different prizes that honestly, I am myself a bit lost. It seems that for every period of the year, there must be a top 10, some with prizes, some without and then litterature becomes nearly a fashion.

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    • Yes, the committees themselves are interesting, the idea of a jury that changes every year versus one that pretty much stays the same and then what seems to be a deliberate ploy to have an all male or an all female jury. Regardless, as we agree, the gems are often in the longlist and that propensity for prizes to increase awareness of books we may not have heard of otherwise and to stimulate literary discussion.

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  5. It’s certainly an innovative way of addressing the gender bias. I’ve seen comments that we in the UK no longer need a prize for women novelists as Hilary Mantel has been such a rip-roaring success with the Booker but it’s unlikely that would have happened with out the Orange, I feel. Well, that dates me – Man Booker and Baileys, respectively!

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  6. I’m so glad we have the publisher Gallic Books here in the UK – specialising in contemporary French fiction – I’m a big fan. Best discovery so far – Jean Teule – The Suicide Shop. I also read and adored Alex, and Fred Vargas’ fist novel this year. Vivent les livres Francais, en Anglais! (Is that right?!)

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    • I agree, Gallic Books and others who specialise in niche contemporary reads, particularly of translated fiction are such a bonus for readers and I am sure they will help this literature become much more widely known and popular.

      I have a Jean Teule book in French that I must get to, Le Montespan – I’ve just looked up it’s English title The Hurlyburly’s Husband, well I wouldn’t have guessed that one! I’ve yet to read a Fred Vargas novel, but I will do!

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  7. Great insight! Took me forever to read this one, but I set it aside in my reader to read when I got a chance. I’m with you on the long lists in that they provide a much better chance of being introduced to new authors.

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  8. My inclination is to answer the question by saying ‘neither’. I have certain elements of cynicism. Sure, Eleanor Catton’s novel hit best-seller status here in NZ (and catapulted Catton to literary stardom) thanks to the Booker Prize. But for the most part I get the impression that literary prizes are designed to validate the pretensions of what, against the wider span of readers, amounts to in-crowds. I guess what I’m arguing is that such prizes seem a bit snooty and if you take a population as a whole, its reading would likely veer more towards Mills and Boon or Dan Brown, by numbers, than what gets classified as ‘literary’ fiction. Such material, by virtue of its scale, also reflects – quite legitimately – the writing heritage of their originating nation, albeit not its literary one.

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    • I agree it is neither of those things, certainly int he case of the Booker, it is the publishers response to a very real threat, from forms of entertainment that don’t require turning any pages, even more of a threat today than it was in the 60’s when they launched it to try and save the literary novel, by creating a song and dance and hoping that those who weren’t avid readers would be taken in by the hype and purchase something they wouldn’t normally go for. As Will Self said recently, using far too many words that increased the risk that no one would even read the article (speech) the ‘serious’ novel is dead (again). But there will always be competitions,which if nothing else, spark interesting debate for the minority who continued to be obsessed by the carefully crafted written word.

      I don’t mind snooty when it starts to unveil longlists of books we would otherwise never hear of, the books for the masses are on bestseller lists and in shop windows and can hardly be missed, but translated books, nature writing, essays, I like the literary prize season for the lists that dig deep and uncover potential gems, but I don’t like it when they limit their lists to a country or even one language.

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