In Paris, It’s Literary Scandal Season Once more

PARIS — The sidewalks of Paris had been already strewn with fallen chestnuts by the point the literary season’s first scandal lastly broke.

Most Septembers, as French publishers launch their most promising books and begin jockeying for prizes, the world of letters is engulfed within the Left Financial institution’s model of the Final Preventing Championship.

This season had been unfolding easily — unnaturally, impossibly so, some literary observers quipped — till bother hit the one large French literary prize recognized for its probity: the Goncourt, the 118-year-old standard-bearer of the French novel, whose laureates embrace Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras.

Issues began when the Goncourt’s 10 jurors gathered this month, over a lunch of roast duckling with cherries and bottles of Château Maucaillou 2015, to provide you with their lengthy checklist of contenders. The creator of 1 ebook up for consideration occurred to be the romantic companion of one of many jurors, Camille Laurens, a novelist and ebook reviewer at Le Monde. In truth, the ebook was devoted to a sure “C.L.”

Nonetheless, the jury determined, by a vote of seven to three, to incorporate the ebook on its checklist. Ms. Laurens was among the many majority.

Comparable votes by juries deciding France’s different large ebook prizes — which have steadfastly rejected overhauls to make themselves fairer and extra clear — won’t have raised any eyebrows. However the Goncourt was completely different: Adjustments carried out since 2008 had incontrovertibly made it extra sincere and credible.

However the one who spearheaded the overhaul — Bernard Pivot, a legendary determine in France’s world of books, recognized for his uprightness — retired because the Goncourt’s president in late 2019. In cafes in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Left Financial institution redoubt of the French literary class, a operating matter of dialog has been whether or not the modifications would survive Mr. Pivot’s departure.

Talking for the primary time concerning the scandal, Mr. Pivot stated he was “astonished” and “shocked” by the Goncourt’s determination to incorporate the ebook in query on its checklist.

“It’s obvious that as president of the Goncourt Academy, I would not have agreed to include the book of a husband or a wife or a lover on a list,” Mr. Pivot stated in an interview, his voice rising in anger.

He added that “what makes you refuse to include on a list a book whose author is close to a member of the Goncourt, it’s common sense.”

The stakes are excessive. Introduced each November, the Goncourt-winning novel mechanically turns into a default Christmas current. Last year’s winner, “The Anomaly,” bought greater than 1,000,000 copies, an astronomical determine in France.

Collusion amongst France’s large literary juries got here underneath the highlight final yr when some jurors on the Renaudot, the second most prestigious prize, acknowledged crowning a pedophile author, Gabriel Matzneff, in 2013 as a result of they had been associates with him and needed to cheer him up as he went by way of a nasty stretch.

On the Renaudot and other big prizes, jurors brazenly foyer for books through which they’ve a private or skilled stake. Some judges are additionally editors at large publishing homes and advocate titles by their employers — or books they’ve themselves edited.

Earlier than the modifications on the Goncourt, it, too, was referred to by some critics as “the Goncourt mafia,” recalled the jury’s present president, Didier Decoin, who has been a juror since 1995.

However underneath Mr. Pivot, the Goncourt put far-reaching modifications in place: Jurors might now not be employed at publishing homes, and they might now not be appointed for all times. They now should retire at 80, they usually truly should learn the books being thought-about.

The impact was speedy. An evaluation by The New York Occasions confirmed that, within the decade earlier than the overhauls in 2008, almost two of the Goncourt’s 10 judges in a given yr had ties to the winner’s writer. However since 2008, the variety of judges with these ties dropped to at least one.

Due to the modifications, as soon as small publishers like Actes Sud — which had been virtually locked out of the Goncourt as a result of it had refused to foyer for prizes — had been awarded way more typically. Since 2008, Actes Sud has gained 4 Goncourt Prizes.

“I think I was lucky because I arrived at a time of change in practice,” Jérôme Ferrari, who gained the Goncourt in 2012 for his novel “The Sermon on the Fall of Rome,” stated in an interview final yr.

Early this month, because the Goncourt’s jurors gathered for lunch at Drouant, a Paris restaurant the place jury conferences have been held for the previous century, they put collectively an inventory of 16 novels. However one title required a particular vote: “The Children of Cadillac,” whose creator, François Noudelmann, is Ms. Laurens’s companion. By a present of fingers, the jury determined there was no battle of curiosity, partly as a result of Ms. Laurens and Mr. Noudelmann weren’t married or in a civil union.

In an e-mail interview, Ms. Laurens, who turned a juror final yr, stated she had been open about her relationship and had “never encouraged the other jurors” to learn the ebook.

Nonetheless, some members, together with the president, Mr. Decoin, had been shocked she voted.

“I thought she wasn’t going to vote,” stated Mr. Decoin, who was within the minority of three. “So she voted. It’s bizarre, but it’s her business.”

Philippe Claudel, who’s the jury’s secretary basic and was within the majority of seven, stated that no inner guidelines barred Ms. Laurens from voting.

“In my opinion, you can’t blame Camille Laurens for breaking a rule that doesn’t exist,” Mr. Claudel stated.

Neither was there a rule, he added, stopping her from doing what she did subsequent.

9 days after the Goncourt launched its checklist, Ms. Laurens, in her column in Le Monde, panned one other ebook on it: “The Postcard,” by Anne Berest.

Alarms went off in literary circles as a result of the “The Postcard” was thought-about a direct competitor of her companion’s “The Children of Cadillac.” Each novels handled related themes — Jewish exiles in France and the Holocaust — however “The Postcard” had gained widespread important reward and gross sales, whereas “The Children of Cadillac” had attracted little discover.

Ms. Laurens’s assessment additionally drew consideration due to its “unheard-of brutality,” based on France Inter, a public radio station, which first uncovered the battle of curiosity. L’Obs, a newsweekly, stated that the assessment veered into private assaults in opposition to Ms. Berest, describing her as an “expert on Parisian chic” and as coming into a gasoline chamber with “her big red sole clogs.” The ebook, Ms. Laurens wrote, was “Shoah for idiots.”

In her e-mail, Ms. Laurens stated that she wrote the assessment earlier than the Goncourt selected its lengthy checklist. She was an “independent critic” and was being singled out as a result of she was a lady, she stated.

“It’s not the first time that I’ve written a virulent review of a book,” she stated. “And once again, I notice that my arguments are never discussed and that people prefer saying that I’m ‘brutal’ and ‘vicious.’”

However Jean-Yves Mollier, an knowledgeable on the French historical past of publishing, stated that the assessment was a part of a time-honored jockeying for literary prizes.

“She straight-out assassinated one of the candidates,” Mr. Mollier stated.


Mr. Decoin stated he would push for a brand new rule that might require a juror with a battle of curiosity to abstain from voting. Mr. Claudel stated he agreed, however he burdened that the present jurors had been as dedicated to ethics as Mr. Pivot was.

“Bernard Pivot is a fine moral figure, and I think that everyone around the table is as well,” he stated. “It would be extremely inappropriate to say that morality rests on a single person.”

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