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France: Back to Books and Literary Prizes Week traditions

November 6, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

In French, Back to School is la Rentrée Scolaire. Journalistic creativity coined the Rentrée Littéraire, ie Back to Books. What is it exactly? Every year, at the beginning of September, we’re having a huge release of books from publishers. All their best novelties come out at that time. Papers, magazines are full of articles about the Rentrée littéraire and the year’s indisputable gems, like here in Télérama, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération or L’Express.  They come with stationary, school bags and all back-to-school related events.

646 novels were published between mid-August and mid-October for the rentrée littéraire and I wonder: how do the critics do to read them all? And the booksellers? And the librarians? How can we discover a new writer in this forest of new books? And all this at a terribly busy time of the year: after the holidays, when work picks up, children go back to school (obviously, cf my first paragraph) and millions of things need to be done.  All this literary frenzy slowly builds suspense until the first week of November when the major literary prizes are granted. So this week in France, it’s not Fashion Week but Literary Prizes Week.

The Prix Goncourt is the oldest prize, I think, created by the brothers Goncourt in their will. The first one was given to John-Antoine Nau (Who?) in 1903. The winner is always announced from the same restaurant in Paris. When the rules were established, the winner earned 5000 francs, converted in today’s money, it means a check of…10€. Hmm, let’s hope the sales are good afterwards. A teacher of French literature in Basel, Robert Kopp just wrote a book about the history of the Prix Goncourt (Un siècle de Goncourt), so, if you want to know more…

Other prizes were created in the wake of and in reaction to the Goncourt. The Prix Femina started in 1904, granted by a jury of women as opposed to the only-male jury of the Goncourt. In 1926, ten critics created the Prix Renaudot, which is announced from the same restaurant as the Goncourt, and only a few minutes after. (Personally, I find this pathetic.). In 1958, the Prix Medicis was born.

So Literary Prizes Week started today with Patrick Deville, who won the Prix Femina for his novel Peste et choléra. (Plague and Cholera). Nothing metaphoric in this title: the book is about Alexandre Yersin who worked with Pasteur, discovered the bacillus of the plague and lived an adventurous life.

Tomorrow, we’ll know who won the Prix Medicis and the winner of Prix Goncourt will be announced on November 7th.

I’m not interested in this but it’s hard to avoid hearing about it or reading articles or seeing the books in book stores. I just wanted to share about this French phenomenon, I’m under the impression it doesn’t work that way in other countries. Does it?

  1. November 6, 2012 at 1:22 am

    No, I think it’s a little more scattered (or better organised!) in other countries. The whole point of literary prizes is to give oxygen to the literary scene. It’s all very well to have a big oxygen tank in the (northern) Autumn – but what about the rest of the year…

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    • November 6, 2012 at 10:49 pm

      That’s what I thought: it’s French.
      For me, it comes at a wrong moment and I find it a bit nauseating to hear about the same books everywhere. Among the 646 new releases, it’s astonishing how you always hear about the same ones.
      Anyway, I’m not interested in literary prizes, I’ve never bought a book because it won the Goncourt.

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  2. November 6, 2012 at 2:16 am

    Since I’m in australia I’ve tried to follow more or less closely the literary prizes as a guide for reading. They seem to be awarded to good quality books not elitist ones like in france…

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    • November 6, 2012 at 10:51 pm

      I don’t think they’re always given to elitist books. Autofiction is a no-go for me and I call this elitist. I’m not sure that awarding a prize to a book on the criteria of its “readability” is better.

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  3. November 6, 2012 at 4:36 am

    There’s always the prize thing which are very specific events, but my impression is that books come out all the time–although some periods of the year seem to be more loaded than others. Publishers come out with their season catalogues of new releases fall/winter spring/summer etc.

    Your post makes me think of The Novel Bookstore and how the people on the book selection committee felt about all the new releases–many of which were a waste of paper.

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    • November 6, 2012 at 10:55 pm

      I read that there are 2000 literary prizes in France but the most prestigious ones are awarded in November.
      How apt to remind me of Au Bon Roman. Despite its flaws, this book describes well the atmosphere of the French literary scene. Not my cup of tea.

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  4. November 6, 2012 at 10:37 am

    The number really makes you wonder who reads what. Still, I like seeing who wins.
    I studied briefly with Kopp. He is a Balzac specialist and one of those oldfashioned condescending professors…

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    • November 6, 2012 at 10:58 pm

      The number is incredible, isn’t it? Difficult to imagine the TBR it represents. How high do you think it would be?
      I imagined you would know that teacher, that’s why I mentioned him.

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  5. November 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    I always thought the rentree was a bizarre but amazing sort of event – why on earth publish everything at once, thus guaranteeing the minimum amount of attention for each book? But then there are the prizes, which I used to like hearing about. When you’re overseas without access to much in the way of reviews, it did at least steer me towards the more talked-about novels (even if not necessarily the best ones). Apart from the Booker, I couldn’t tell you when the other prizes come out in the UK, but I know they are spread out a bit.

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    • November 6, 2012 at 11:01 pm

      I know, it’s a strange idea.
      I suppose that the books which had a prize have better chances to be translated into English.
      For reviews, now you have blogs. You don’t need prizes to hear about books.

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  6. Brian Joseph
    November 9, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    I love when literary prizes are announced as I love to look at lists and hear about new books. Oh how I wish I had time to read even a fair percentage of these books!

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    • November 10, 2012 at 10:24 am

      Well, Jérome Ferrari won the Prix Goncourt for his novel Le sermon sur la chute de Rome.

      I heard him on the radio after he received the prize and he was surprised as he wasn’t sure about “le potentiel de réception critique de ce livre”, which I can barely translate into “this book’s potential for critic acceptance”. (I don’t even know how to say that properly in English.)

      This single sentence that sounds like marketing babble kind of put me off the book. I’ll come around when I read glowing reviews from other bloggers. And since I mostly read foreign blogs, it’s not going to be any time soon. (Unless of course somebody chooses this for me as a Christmas present.)

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  7. November 9, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    Late to your post on la Rentrée, which I’d been anticipating since you indicated you might write one. I remember my astonishment the first time I became aware of this phenomenon while visiting France at this time of year. I’m not so much interested in the prizes, but I’m always interested in the intense flurry of articles and reviews that come out, and at seeing what seems to stick and why. It’s a bit like a burst piñata – one scrambles at this éclaboussure of stuff to see what glitters most brightly. It’s not exactly a rational approach to finding good books, more an experiment with chance, but I do wish the U.S. had something like this, if for no other reason than it turns a spotlight onto literature for a period, and invariably, something interesting catches one’s attention.

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    • November 10, 2012 at 10:34 am

      I didn’t provide you with any thoughtful comments about the phenomenon.
      The French bloggers I follow wrote articles about the Rentrée Littéraire, the books…I’ve read about it in the papers and heard reviews on the radio but I’m not that interested. I’m not really good at following literary life and today’s French literature.

      No new writer caught my attention: excellent critics for Djian’s last novel, which I would have read anyway. Glowing reviews of Les Lisières by Olivier Adam, a novel about life in the suburbs (American meaning, not banlieues) I’m tempted by this one even if I thought he lacked of literary style in Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas.
      A new Christine Angot but that’s not for me.
      Foreign books that I knew of because I follow English-speaking book blogs.

      The Telerama article is good: I like that they got interested in all genres.

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  8. November 14, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    Rentrée Littéraire for the KindleEven Amazon plays along and markets the Rentrée Littéraire.

    Oh! by Philippe Djian

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  9. February 27, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Beautiful post, Emma! It is interesting that mid-August to early-November is literary season in France. It must be difficult for those 640+ books because they are all vying for attention at the same time. But it must also be an exciting time for readers and literary enthusiasts because most of the news during this time will be literary. It is interesting that the Prix Goncourt is announced in a restaurant! That is really cool! The Prix Renaudot too. It is sad that the Prix Goncourt used to have only male judges. I hope they have changed that policy now. Caroline’s comment that Kopp is ‘one of those oldfashioned condescending professors’ made me smile 🙂 I love the meaning of the phrase ‘Rentrée Littéraire’. Thanks for telling me about this event. I will look forward to reading your post on this year’s ‘Rentrée Littéraire’, later this year.

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    • February 27, 2013 at 9:18 am

      That’s quite unique, isn’t it? Sure, it does make a lot of buzz around literature but I’m not sure it really encourages reading.
      I don’t think I’ll write an entry about the next Rentrée Littéraire, I’m not interested enough.

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