In France, we like nothing so much as to give ourselves a foreign institution as an avowed model, which in return makes it possible to indulge with unadulterated pleasure in a national sport: autoflagellation. The literary world is no exception to the rule. The start of the school year, which will also be that of the autumn grand prix, will see its share of innuendo, as is the tradition every year at the same time. There is one that does not weaken, the reference to an archetype: the Booker Prize, created in London in 1968 to distinguish the best novel of the year published in the English language. From back to school, our literary critics serve it as what there is most exemplary in the genre and from which the French juries should be inspired. What has become an obvious truth has apparently diverted them from going and checking for themselves what is going on. A member of the Goncourt Academy, I follow the English literary news around the Booker Prize closely to borrow the best of what it has to offer. It’s quickly done: nothing. All the more exciting as in its official history, it is said that it was created “in the hope that novelties will become as central in English-speaking culture as they are in fiction in France thanks to the Goncourt awards” …
The publishers themselves decide which book will compete
“Their jury is rotating, it changes every year which protects against the risks of intrigue and compromise”, we hear most often. However, for a century, the chronicle of literary prices in France has also been made up of deaths (jurors also die), exclusions for political reasons (the cleansing after the war), and resignations for health reasons. or for personal reasons. Thus, whether we like it or not, it is renewed, even if it is in no way a guarantee of discernment in literary judgment. If we look at the very operation of the Booker Prize, we can only come out bewildered. Thus, it is the publishers who decide which book (usually one or two) to submit to the jurors; this year, there were 158 in all, a rather degrading process for the author that his editor did not consider worthy of being selected; in France, the jurors receive everything from all the publishers and it is up to them afterwards to read what they see fit.
No one can win the Goncourt twice (Romain Gary had to cheat by advancing masked to be the only one to achieve it). While JM Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Hilary Mantel have had it twice and on the 2021 selection list we find Kazuo Ishiguro who has already obtained it, not to mention that he is also a winner of the award. Nobel Prize for Literature while the vocation of a grand prize is to reveal a work and an author even if there have been exceptions in the past (ah, Marguerite Duras at 70 …). It has been like that for years. Always the same selected besides the aforementioned: Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes and, all the same, some unknown beginners.
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A jury not always qualified to judge the quality of a novel
The worst thing is the very constitution of the famous “rotating jury” of the Booker Prize. In France, as we know, jurors must be writers (and it is unfortunate that some juries still tolerate the fact that there are among them editors employed by publishing houses finding themselves at the heart of a conflict of ‘interests where they are judge and party); it is only in the prizes awarded by the media that the members of the jury are listeners, readers or journalists. Not so with the Booker Prize: year after year, writers are in the minority compared to those responsible for literary supplements in major newspapers, artists, teachers, members of Parliament, etc. As evidenced by its 2021 jury: a historian specializing in empires, a journalist from the Financial Times, an academic novelist and an actress, all under the chairmanship of the former Archbishop of Canterbury (!).
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And yet, it is not the most baroque of the presidents of the jury that the Booker Prize has given itself; a few years ago, we were surprised to see the presence of Stella Rimington, who has spent her entire career in counter-espionage and counterterrorism until becoming director general of MI5. With her, at least, the jury was sure to be well informed about the winners. But with a few exceptions, how are all these people, who are not building workers unlike writers, qualified to judge the quality of a novel?
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Pierre Assouline: There is nothing exemplary about the English variant!