This year a breath of fresh air circulated around the award of literature prizes in France. The good news: the accolades went to a high number of young female writers. The bad news: small publishers again missed out on the winners.
France’s literature prizes are surrounded by plenty of clichés. For example, the one about the old white man who writes about war for which – one-hundred per cent – he is awarded a prize. All the same, this year the jury critics contradicted this by giving the accolades to Yasmina Reza (Prix Renaudot for Babylone), Nina Yargekov (Prix de Flore for Double nationalité) and Leïla Slimani who received the top literary award in France, the Prix Goncourt, for her second novel, Chanson douce (Sweet Song). As the twelfth woman in the 113-year history of the Goncourt we certainly take our hats off to her!
The 35-year-old French Moroccan woman, born in 1981 in Rabat, arrived in Paris age seventeen. “In my homeland women live in a permanent state of insecurity. I’d like not to have to be afraid because I wear a skirt on the street or get into a taxi alone”, she explains. At first, she worked in Paris as a journalist and wrote the essay Sex and Lies, shedding light on the “sexual misery in the Maghreb”. In 2014, her first novel Dans le jardin de l’Ogre (In the Ogre’s Garden) was published by Gallimard where several years earlier she had participated in the writers’ workshop “Ateliers d’écriture de la NRF”. While her debut novel focused on a frustrated female journalist who tries to assuage her hunger for attention by sexual escapades, in Chanson douce Slimani devotes herself to the true story of a Puerto Rican nanny in the U.S. who kills the children in her care. Slimani read about this in the newspaper; her childhood memories of Morocco were rekindled where plenty of domestic staff still live with families. The plot for her second novel emerged. “I had already been fascinated for some time by this contradiction, on the one hand, of belonging to a family, and on the other of living on the margin. I wanted to take a closer look at this breeding ground for humiliation, yet without looking for an excuse here for the crime.” However, Slimani shifted the story to Paris, so turning her novel into a reflection on love, education and social dependencies in France today.
However, even if this season is about women in literature – according to Figaro they “have taken over power” – the media circus about the prizes could not escape another cliché: France’s most popular literary critic and Goncourt Jury President, Bernard Pivot, coined the idea of “galligrasseuil”. The suggestion is that in France literary awards always go to the major publishing houses – Gallimard, Grasset and Le Seuil. This system is confirmed with cosy regularity – 2016 was no different, as Pivot was the first to voice on Twitter. The Goncourt rightly went, as mentioned, to Gallimard. The Prix Médicis went to Seuil writer Ivan Jablonka for his novel Laëtitia ou la Fin des hommes, while this year Grasset can celebrate three awards: the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française for Adélaïde de Clermont-Tonnerres’ novel Le dernier des nôtres (The Last of Our Kind) and the Prix Fémina for Ghislaine Dunond’s essay Charlotte Delbo, La vie retrouvée. The Prix Goncourt des lycéens, which concluded the season of French literary awards on 22 November, went to Grasset writer Gaël Faye for Petit pays. However, as stipulated by the rules, this award was decided by the prize-winner’s young peers.
Le Monde critic Eric Loret tried the counterargument with the “galligrasseuil” label suggesting that Gallimard may have won the prize in 2006, 2009 and 2011, but recently Actes Sud was a more frequent recipient. However, with its millennium success, Actes Sud could easily be ranked among the grand prize winners, so I propose “actesgalligrasseuilsud” – even if Actes Sud still defines itself as a small, independent publisher from Southern France.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright