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France: Back to Books and Literary Prizes Week traditions

November 6, 2012 17 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?

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