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.