With the collapse of price-fixing for books, British publishers need the Booker Prize more than ever. Paul Bilic and Robert Winder compare it to France's loftier Prix Goncourtby Robert Winder / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
The Booker prize dinner at London’s Guildhall is the flashiest night in town for the UK’s literati, a televised nosh-up which claims to identify the best novel of the year. Meanwhile it gives the nation the entirely false impression that writers are people who stand around in dinner jackets sipping champagne. The Booker is corporate entertainment writ large: even the after-dinner chocolates carry the Booker logo. Lucky novelists blink in the limelight. Back in the studio a ruthless gang of critics is assembled to trash the lot of them. By tradition, someone asks the winner what he or she will do with the money (?20,000), much as if they were a privatised utility boss. The occasion is typically British: a generous act of commercial sponsorship that ends up looking like a self-congratulatory freebie.
In contrast, the impression left by the French Prix Goncourt is of an altogether quieter, almost priestly, tribute. The prize money-FFr50 (?6.50)-hasn’t changed since the endowment was made by Edmond de Goncourt for the first award in 1903. Unlike the Booker prize, for which publishers enter novels, the Goncourt cannot be applied for: it is bestowed. The ceremony is not televised: no blushing winners stammer out their thanks, no stoic losers struggle to applaud. The day after the announcement, as if by magic, the sober-looking cover of the triumphant book is decorated by a red sash bearing the boast “Prix Goncourt.” In the stuffy world of French publishing the sash sits like a saucy red garter on a cleric’s knee. The Goncourt has its critics, but after so many years they cry in the wilderness. The prize’s own secretive acad?e issues its edicts from on high; the obedient French public goes into the bookshops and says: “Donnez-moi le Goncourt.”
We might think that the contrast says quite a lot about the way the UK and France differ. The French style is lofty, authoritative and exclusive; the British prefer a knockabout free-for-all. It is as if the French still believe that there is such a thing as an intellectual elite, and that it might be worth listening to. Your average Brit loves being reassured by the critics that he doesn’t actually need to read this stuff. And it isn’t just the men in black roll-necks who prop up the ICA bar, leafing through the works of Baudrillard and Derrida. Nor the holidaymakers who return from Provence swearing blind that the gardener was reading Camus (while they themselves read Peter Mayle). It goes deeper still, this sense of literary inferiority. We do not even have a word for belles lettres: there is only the droopy, publisher-inspired category “literary fiction.”
Booker prize novels are pilloried both as pretentious twaddle (the Daily Express launched a ?20,000 prize for a “good read” as an alternative to the Booker) and as the triumph of mid-range taste. It does not seem to matter: the prize shrugs off criticism by producing a provocative rumpus of some sort. Indeed, the genius of the Booker is that the drama is provided not by the books, but by the judging process and the sheer spectacle of the contest itself. The shortlist, with its accompanying tales of bad blood among the judges, is presented as a horse race. Bookmakers quote odds; newspapers print the lists of runners and riders (one pundit fell at the first hurdle a few years ago when he thoughtlessly referred to the Nigerian-born Ben Okri as “the dark horse”). On the night of nights the novelists are photographed going, as it were, into the stalls. Literature becomes, for a brief moment at least, a competitive sport.
There is also a reliable tradition of dissent among the judges. The novelist Nicholas Mosley once stomped off in a huff because the author he liked (Allan Massie) failed to make the shortlist. Last year, Rabbi Julia Neuberger hijacked the victory dinner by declaring that the winning novel (James Kelman’s How late it was, how late) was a disgraceful exercise in vulgarity. And this year, in what we might call a novel twist, the judges selected only five books instead of the usual six. This was the result of strict arithmetic imposed by the chairman, George Walden MP, who decreed that no book attracting two vetoes could make the shortlist. Intended to protect the consensus view, this formula overlooked the fact that great books always provoke heated disagreement. It is hard to imagine anything more pompous than the judges deciding that there was no sixth novel as plausible a winner as the five they chose. But this is the Booker method: the whims of the judges are what hit the headlines.
The Prix Goncourt, with so much history behind it, has no need for mere histrionics. Past winners include Proust in 1919 and Andr?alraux in 1933. Its declared aim is “to encourage literature, assure the material well-being of a number of literary figures and strengthen the bonds of fraternity between them.” Fifty francs won’t buy you much more than a caf?r?e and a croque monsieur these days (and many laureates prefer not to cash the cheque), but the real profits come from sales, which are consistently above 30,000 copies and, for Jean Carriere’s book in 1972, nearly two million. Booker winners may also expect a sales leap (up to about 40,000 copies in hardback, with a big follow-through in paperback), but it is not guaranteed. Roddy Doyle’s novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha had already sold 70,000 hardback copies before it won the Booker in 1993. It broke all records by selling a further 180,000 copies. But James Kelman’s 1994 winner was widely regarded as a dud (one bookseller called it “the mogadon Booker”) and it has sold a mere 23,000 copies.
To French litt?teurs, the Booker’s great virtue is that it has different judges each year. In the 26 years of the prize more than 100 writers, critics, historians, politicians and television personalities have been enlisted. Goncourt laid down that the acad?e be made up of ten life members-a serious bone of contention among critics of the prize. Judges tend to be writers with links to one of the three big Parisian publishing houses, Grasset, Gallimard and Le Seuil, known collectively as Galligrasseuil. In recent years, more than two thirds of the prizes have been gobbled up by this ravenous monster, and there are frequent accusations of bias. The Goncourt judges meet in the Drouant restaurant in Paris, and the secrecy of the inner sanctum is closely guarded. In 1958 a microphone was planted in the chandeliers, and in 1983 the tables were bugged, but both intrusions were discovered in time.
This year 11 out of 17 books on the September “selection” were from Galligrasseuil. In 1993 the big three published nine out of 13. The eventual winner, Le Rocher de Tannois by Amin Maalouf, was a Grasset book. In the 12 months since its triumph, it sold 350,000 copies (“un bon Goncourt”)-more than the year’s bestselling bodice ripper. Last year, out of 18 novels tipped for the prize, three were published by Grasset, four by Gallimard, and three by Le Seuil. But the winner-Un aller simple by Didier van Cauwaelert-was published by Albin Michel, an outsider. According to Bertrand Py, of Actes Sud in Arles, this was only an exception to the rule.
Py calls the system laughable. “When the judges are fixed year in year out, the whole thing is necessarily open to all kinds of risks. A publishing house such as ours is quite simply excluded. There’s no system of proposing books by publishers, so everything depends on the caprices of the jury. The Goncourt has become a matter of life and death for the three big houses, which spend half the year on what you might call ‘prize-perspective management.'”
Ironically, it is that cosy, closeted feel about the Goncourt that tempts British commentators to regard it as preferable to the rowdier, more public debate which surrounds the Booker. Goncourt judges are unpaid (each receives a nominal fee of ?150), unlike Booker judges (who receive ?2,500-and wine too). But for every Briton who envies the unabashed elitism of the Goncourt, there’s a Frenchman who covets the let-it-all-hang-out accessibility of Booker. If the London literary establishment enjoys depicting the Goncourt as the soul of high-minded integrity, in Paris the reverse is true: those “bonds of fraternity” can seem little more than the posturings of a literary mafia.
Nevertheless, the two prizes have their similarities. In the UK, too, three publishers dominate the prize-Cape, Faber and Secker novels have won nearly half the Bookers so far. In both countries, writers from former colonies feature strongly-evidence that vitality in the language has migrated from the imperial centre to the margins. In the UK: Ben Okri, VS Naipaul, Michael Ondaatje and Salman Rushdie. In France: Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amin Maalouf, and Patrick Chamoiseau (from Morocco, Lebanon and Martinique respectively).
Booker winners usually sell strongly in France, whereas few Goncourt laureates make a splash in Britain. Roddy Doyle, Iris Murdoch, Anita Brookner and AS Byatt are auteurs connus in France-Goncourt luminaries such as Michel Host, Pierre Combesco and Jean Vautrin are inconnus here. But this is just one aspect of the sad fact that the UK, buttressed by the sheer size of the English-language market, has less enthusiasm for translations than any other country in Europe.
Not that France is entirely free from the vagaries of translation. The blurb on Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (shrewdly rendered in French as “Hotel du Lac”) proclaims it as the winner of “The Booker Price.” We may assume that this is a mistake-but it might not be. Maybe it’s an authentic comment on what literary awards are really about. While France’s version of the Net Book Agreement has been reinstated after a brief experiment with laisser-faire, the UK’s price-fixing arrangement for books has just collapsed in a fever of cost-cutting. This is, indeed, the age of the knockdown prize.