The Goncourt Prize, a standard-bearer of a French novel known for its honesty, has come under criticism over allegations of conflict of interest after a juror voted to include his partner’s novel on a list of contenders Is.
PARIS – By the time the first scandal of the literary season finally broke, the sidewalks of Paris were already strewn with fallen chestnuts.
Most of September, when French publishers release their most promising books and start jockeying for prizes, the world of letters is engulfed in the Left Bank’s edition of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
This season was unfolding smoothly—unsurprisingly, impossibly, some literary supervisor quipped—until trouble struck a major French literary prize known for its honesty: the goncourt, the 118-year-old standard-bearer of the French novel, whose award winners include Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Dures.
Things started when Goncourt’s 10 jurors gathered this month, a lunch of roast duck with cherries and bottlings from Chateau Moucalou 2015, to come up with their long list of contenders. The author of a book for consideration happened to be the romantic partner of one of the jury members, Camille Lawrence, a novelist and book critic at Le Monde. In fact, the book was dedicated to a certain “CL”.
Nevertheless, the jury decided, by a vote of 7 to 3, to include the book on its list. Ms. Lawrence was in the majority.
Similar votes by the jury deciding France’s other big book prizes – which have vehemently rejected the overhaul to make themselves fairer and more transparent – may not have raised any eyebrows. But Goncourt was different: changes made since 2008 made it more honest and reliable.
But the man who spearheaded the overhaul – Bernard Pivot, a great figure in the French book world known for his integrity – retired as Goncourt’s chairman at the end of 2019. At the cafe in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Left Bank doubts again. In the French literary class, an ongoing topic of conversation has been whether changes will survive the departure of Mr. Pivot.
Speaking for the first time about the scandal, Mr Pivot said he was “surprised” and “shocked” by Goncourt’s decision to include the book on his list.
“It is clear that as president of Goncourt Academy, I would not have agreed to include a spouse or lover’s book on a list,” Mr Pivot said in an interview, his voice rising in anger.
He went on to say that “what you refuse to list a book whose author is close to a member of Goncourt is common sense.”
the stakes are high. Announced every November, the Goncourt-winning novel automatically becomes a default Christmas gift. Last year’s winner, “The Anomaly”, sold over one million copies, an astronomical figure in France.
Collusion between France’s major literary juries came to limelight last year when some jurors of the second most prestigious award, Renadot, crowned a pedophile writer, Gabriel Matznef, in 2013, because they were friends with him and wanted to please him. because he was. went through a bad phase.
In the Renadot and other large awards, jurors openly advocate for books in which they have a personal or commercial interest. Some judges are also editors at large publishing houses and advocate titles by their employers – or books they have edited themselves.
Prior to the change in Goncourt, it, too, was referred to by some critics as the “Goncourt Mafia”, recalled the current chairman of the jury, didier decoin, who has been a jury member since 1995.
But under Mr Pivot, Goncourt made far-reaching changes: jurors could no longer be employed in publishing houses, and they would no longer be appointed for life. He has to retire now at the age of 80, and he has to actually read the books that are being considered.
The effect was immediate. An analysis by the U.S. showed that, in the decade before the overhaul in 2008, nearly two out of 10 Goncourt judges in a given year were related to the publisher of the winner. But since 2008, the number of judges with these ties has come down to one.
Thanks to the changes, once smaller publishers such as Acts Sud – which was nearly spun off from Goncourt because it refused to lobby for awards – were awarded more frequently. Since 2008, Acts Sud has won four Goncourt Awards.
“I think I was lucky because I came at the time of the change in practice,” Jerome Ferrari, who won Goncourt in 2012 for his novel “The Sermon on the Fall of Rome”, said in an interview last year. .
Earlier this month, when Goncourt’s jury members gathered for lunch at Dront, a Parisian restaurant where jury meetings have been held since the last century, they put together a list of 16 novels. But one title required a special vote: “children of cadillac,” whose author, François Naudelmann, is Ms. Lawrence’s partner. By a show of hands, the jury decided that there was no conflict of interest, partly because Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Knudelmann were not married or in a civil union. .
In an email interview, Ms Lawrence, who became a jury member last year, said she was open about their relationship and that she “never encouraged other jurors” to read the book.
Still, some members, including the chairman, Mr. DeCoin, were surprised that they voted.
“I thought she was not going to vote,” said Mr. DeCoin, who was in a minority of three. “So he voted. It’s bizarre, but it’s his business.”
Philippe Claude, who is the secretary general of the jury and was in a majority of seven, said no internal rules prevent Ms. Lawrence from voting.
“In my opinion, you can’t blame Camille Lawrence for breaking a rule that doesn’t exist,” said Mr. Claudel.
Neither were there any rules, preventing him from doing what he did next, he added.
Nine days after Goncourt released her list, Ms. Lawrence, in pillar In Le Monde, another book on this by Anne Berest banned: “The Postcard”.
Alarms went off in literary circles as “The Postcard” was considered a direct competitor to its fellow “The Children of Cadillac”. Both novels dealt with similar themes – Jewish exile in France and the Holocaust – but “The Postcard” won widespread critical acclaim and sales, while “The Children of Cadillac” attracted little attention.
Ms Lawrence’s review also attracted attention due to its “unheard of cruelty”. France Inter, a public radio station that first highlighted the conflict of interest. l’obso, a news weekly said review Ms Berest, described her as an “expert of Parisian chic” and entered a gas chamber with “her big red sole clogs”. The book that Ms. Lawrence wrote was “Shoah for Idiots.”
In her email, Ms Lawrence said she wrote the review before Goncourt had decided on her long list. She was an “independent critic” and was being singled out for being a woman, she said.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve written a sparse review of a book,” she said. “And once again, I noticed that my arguments are never discussed and people like to say that I am ‘brutal’ and ‘vicious.
But Jean-Yves Molire, an expert in the publication of French history, said the review was part of a time-honored jockeying for literary prizes.
“He simply killed a candidate,” said Mr. Molire.
Mr DeCoin said he would push for a new rule that would require a jury member with a conflict of interest to abstain from voting. Mr Claudell said he agreed, but insisted the current jury members are as committed to ethics as Mr Pivot.
“Bernard Pivot is a good moral person, and I think everyone around the table is too,” he said. “It would be highly unfair to say that morality rests on any one person.”