PARIS – The sidewalks of Paris were already littered with fallen chestnuts by the time the first scandal of the literary season finally erupted.
Most of September, as French publishers release their most promising books and start fighting for prizes, the literary world is engulfed in the Left Bank version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
This season had gone smoothly – abnormally, impossible, some literary observers joked – until problems hit the only French literary grand prix known for its probity: the Goncourt, the standard bearer of the French novel. 118-year-old, whose winners include Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras.
Things started when the 10 jurors of Goncourt gathered this month, over a roast duckling lunch with cherries and bottles of Chateau Maucaillou 2015, to put together their long list of suitors. The author of a book in the running happens to be the loving partner of one of the jurors, Camille Laurens, novelist and literary critic at Le Monde. In fact, the book was dedicated to a certain “CL”
Still, the jury decided, by a vote of 7 to 3, to include the book on its list. Ms. Laurens was in the majority.
Similar votes by juries deciding other book grand prix in France – who have firmly rejected redesigns to make themselves fairer and more transparent – may not have raised eyebrows. But the Goncourt was different: the changes made since 2008 had undoubtedly made it more honest and credible.
But the spearhead of the overhaul – Bernard Pivot, legendary figure of the French book, known for his uprightness – retired as president of Goncourt at the end of 2019. In the cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the redoubt From the Left Bank to the French literary class, a common topic of conversation was whether the changes would survive Mr. Pivot’s departure.
Speaking for the first time on the scandal, Mr. Pivot said he was “surprised” and “shocked” by Goncourt’s decision to include the book in question on his list.
“It is obvious that as president of the Académie Goncourt, I would not have agreed to put the book of a husband or a wife or a lover on a list,” said Mr. Pivot 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 Goncourt, it is common sense”.
The stakes are high. Announced each year in November, the award-winning novel at Goncourt automatically becomes a Christmas present by default. Last year’s winner, “L’Anomalie”, sold over a million copies, an astronomical number in France.
The collusion between the great French literary juries was put in the spotlight last year when some jurors of Renaudot, the second most prestigious prize, admitted having crowned a pedophile writer, Gabriel Matzneff, in 2013 because they were friends with him and wanted to cheer him up as he went through a rough patch.
At Renaudot and other grand prix, jurors openly campaign for books in which they have a personal or professional interest. Some judges are also editors at large publishing houses and defend the titles of their employers – or books they have edited themselves.
Before the changes at Goncourt, it too was qualified by some critics as “the Goncourt mafia”, recalled the current president of the jury, Didier Decoin, juror since 1995.
But under Mr. Pivot, the Goncourts implemented far-reaching changes: jurors could no longer be employed in publishing houses, and they would no longer be appointed for life. They now have to retire at age 80 and they actually have to read the proposed books.
The effect was immediate. A New York Times analysis showed that in the decade leading up to the 2008 reviews, nearly two of Goncourt’s 10 judges in any given year had ties to the winner’s publisher. But since 2008, the number of judges with these links has dropped to one.
Thanks to the changes, once small publishers like Actes Sud – which had been almost excluded from Goncourt because it refused to lobby for awards – were rewarded much more often. Since 2008, Actes Sud has won four Prix Goncourt.
“I think I was lucky because I have come to a time of change in practice,” said Jérôme Ferrari, who won the Goncourt in 2012 for his novel “The Sermon on the Fall of Rome” , said in an interview last year.
Earlier this month, as the jurors of Goncourt gathered for lunch at Drouant, a Parisian restaurant where jury meetings have been held for a century, they drew up a list of 16 novels. But one title required a special vote: “The Children of Cadillac”, whose author, François Noudelmann, is Ms. Laurens’ partner. By show of hands, the jury decided that there was no conflict of interest, in part 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 was open about her relationship and “never encouraged other jurors” to read the book.
Yet some members, including the chairman, Mr. Decoin, were surprised that she voted.
“I thought she was not going to vote,” said Mr Decoin, who was in the minority of the three. “So she voted. It’s weird, but it’s his business.
Philippe Claudel, who is the secretary general of the jury and was in the majority of the seven votes, said that there were no internal rules preventing Ms. Laurens from voting.
“In my opinion, we cannot blame Camille Laurens for having broken a rule that does not exist,” said Mr. Claudel.
There was also no rule, he added, preventing her from doing what she did next.
Nine days after the Goncourt published its list, Ms. Laurens, in her chronicle of Le Monde, pinned another book on this subject: “The postcard”, by Anne Berest.
The alarm was raised in literary circles because the “Postcard” was considered as a direct competitor of “The children of Cadillac” of his companion. Both novels dealt with similar themes – Jewish exiles in France and the Holocaust – but “The Postcard” had won much praise and sales, while “The Children of Cadillac” had received little attention.
Ms Laurens’ 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. The Obs, a news weekly, said the review turned to personal attacks on Ms Berest, describing her as an “expert on Parisian chic” and entering a gas chamber with “her big red-soled clogs”. The book, Ms. Laurens wrote, was “Shoah for idiots.”
In her email, Ms Laurens said she wrote the review before Le Goncourt decided on her long list. She was an “independent critic” and was singled out for being a woman, she said.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve written a scathing book review,” she said. “And again, I find that my arguments are never argued and people prefer to say that I am ‘brutal’ and ‘vicious’.”
But Jean-Yves Mollier, specialist in the history of French publishing, said the review was part of an ancestral jockey for literary prizes.
“She outright murdered one of the candidates,” 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 pointed out that the current jurors were as committed to ethics as Mr. Pivot was.
“Bernard Pivot is a fine moral figure, and I think everyone around the table is too,” he said. “It would be extremely inappropriate to say that morality rests on one person. “