2021-09-29 17:11:07 In Paris, It’s Literary Scandal Season Again

In Paris, It’s Literary Scandal Season Again

FRANCE — By the time the first scandal of the literary season broke, the sidewalks of Paris were littered with fallen chestnuts.

The world of letters is engulfed in the Left Bank’s version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship every September, when French publishers release their most promising books and begin jockeying for prizes.

This season had been going swimmingly — unnaturally, impossibly so, some literary observers remarked — until trouble struck the Goncourt, the 118-year-old standard-bearer of the French novel, whose laureates have included Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir, and Marguerite Duras.

The Goncourt’s ten jurors met this month over a lunch of roast duckling with cherries and bottles of Château Maucaillou 2015 to compile their long list of contenders. Camille Laurens, a novelist and book reviewer at Le Monde, happened to be the romantic partner of one of the jurors, the author of one of the books up for consideration. In fact, the book was dedicated to someone named “C.L.”

Nonetheless, the jury decided to include the book on its list by a vote of 7 to 3. Ms. Laurens belonged to the majority.

Similar votes by juries deciding France’s other major book prizes, which have consistently rejected changes to make them more fair and transparent, may not have raised any eyebrows. But the Goncourt was different: changes implemented since 2008 had unquestionably improved its honesty and credibility.

However, the person who spearheaded the revamp, Bernard Pivot, a legendary figure in France’s book world known for his integrity, retired as the Goncourt’s president in late 2019. A running topic of conversation in cafes in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Left Bank bastion of the French literary class, has been whether the changes would survive Mr. Pivot’s departure.

Mr. Pivot, speaking for the first time about the scandal, said he was “astonished” and “shocked” by the Goncourt’s decision to include the book in question on its list.

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

He went on to say, “What makes you refuse to include on a list a book whose author is close to a Goncourt member, it’s common sense.”

The stakes are extremely high. The Goncourt-winning novel, which is announced every November, automatically becomes a default Christmas present. Last year’s winner, “The Anomaly,” sold over a million copies, which is astronomical in France.

Collusion among France’s major literary juries was brought to light last year when some jurors at the Renaudot, the country’s second most prestigious prize, admitted to crowning a pedophile writer, Gabriel Matzneff, in 2013 because they were friends with him and wanted to cheer him up during a difficult period.

Jurors openly lobby for books in which they have a personal or professional stake at the Renaudot and other major prizes. Some judges are also editors at large publishing houses, and they promote titles edited by their employers — or books they have edited themselves.

Before the changes, some critics referred to the Goncourt as “the Goncourt mafia,” recalled the jury’s current president, Didier Decoin, who has been a juror since 1995.

However, under Mr. Pivot’s leadership, the Goncourt instituted far-reaching changes: jurors could no longer be employed at publishing houses, and they could no longer be appointed for life. They must now retire at the age of 80, and they must read the books under consideration.

The outcome was immediate. According to a New York Times investigation, nearly two of the Goncourt’s ten judges in a given year had ties to the winner’s publisher in the decade preceding the 2008 changes. However, since 2008, the number of judges with those ties has been reduced to one.

Small publishers like Actes Sud, which had been almost barred from the Goncourt because it refused to lobby for prizes, were now awarded much more frequently as a result of the changes. Actes Sud has won four Goncourt Prizes since 2008.

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

Early this month, as the Goncourt’s jurors gathered for lunch at Drouant, a Paris restaurant where jury meetings have been held for the past century, they put together a list of 16 novels. But one title required a special vote: “The Children of Cadillac,” whose author, François Noudelmann, is Ms. Laurens’s partner. By a show of hands, the jury decided there was no conflict of interest, partly because Ms. Laurens and Mr. Noudelmann were not married or in a civil union.

In an email interview, Ms. Laurens, who became a juror last year, said she had been open about her relationship and had “never encouraged the other jurors” to read the book.

Still, some members, including the president, Mr. Decoin, were surprised she voted.

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

Philippe Claudel, who is the jury’s secretary general and was in the majority of seven, said that no internal rules barred Ms. Laurens from voting.

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

Neither was there a rule, he added, preventing her from doing what she did next.

Nine days after the Goncourt released its list, Ms. Laurens, in her column in Le Monde, panned another book on it: “The Postcard,” by Anne Berest.

Alarms went off in literary circles because the “The Postcard” was considered a direct competitor of her companion’s “The Children of Cadillac.” Both novels dealt with similar themes — Jewish exiles in France and the Holocaust — but “The Postcard” had won widespread critical praise and sales, whereas “The Children of Cadillac” had attracted little notice.

Ms. Laurens’s review also drew attention because of its “unheard-of brutality,” according to France Inter, a public radio station, which first exposed the conflict of interest. L’Obs, a newsweekly, said that the review veered into personal attacks against Ms. Berest, describing her as an “expert on Parisian chic” and as entering a gas chamber with “her big red sole clogs.” The book, Ms. Laurens wrote, was “Shoah for idiots.”

In her email, Ms. Laurens said that she wrote the review before the Goncourt decided on its long list. She was an “independent critic” and was being singled out because she was a woman, she said.

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

But Jean-Yves Mollier, an expert on the French history of publishing, said that the review was part of a time-honored jockeying for literary prizes.

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

Mr. Decoin said he would push for a new rule that would require a juror with a conflict of interest to abstain from voting. Mr. Claudel said he agreed, but he stressed that the current jurors were as committed 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 said. “It would be extremely inappropriate to say that morality rests on a single person.”

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In Paris, It’s Literary Scandal Season Again