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…