Should we read the Goncourt price?

Thibaut takes us into the jungle of literary awards, with a question: is it worth reading the Prix Goncourt?

Should we read the Goncourt price? © Getty / Martial Colomb

So rest assured, I didn’t turn into a literary critic all of a sudden. Besides, I have not yet read Mohammed Mbougar Sarr’s book The most secret memory of men. My problem is quite simply to know if this book, since it has had the price, is better than the others… Is it worth it? When you win a medal at the Olympic Games, it’s because you were the strongest, the fastest or the best. But is it the same when you win a Goncourt Prize or a Palme d’Or?

The question was already asked 50 years ago, the Goncourt Prize certainly rewards good writers, but it is also sometimes wrong … Or at least its choices seem questionable, controversial or even scandalous …

What is this price and all the others for?

Well that’s the whole point. Because these books that we reward are not objects like the others. These are literary creations which therefore look more like artistic objects than technical or technological objects. You can compare two cars or two computers on objectively measurable characteristics. But how do you compare the aesthetic qualities of two books? How can you say that a book is better written than another? That he is more important than another? That he is more valuable than another?

By rendering their verdict, the jurors of the Prix Goncourt are issuing what the philosopher Kant calls an aesthetic judgment. And this aesthetic judgment has a very particular status, so particular that Kant devotes a very large book to it, the 3rd of his famous “Critics”: the Critique of the faculty of judging, after its Critique of pure reason and after his Critique of practical reason. For Kant aesthetic judgment expresses taste and it is necessarily subjective since it arises from the way a person is touched by an object or a representation. Apparently, therefore, the value of an award-winning book is therefore always relative, because it depends on of the subjectivity of jurors.

But at the same time it’s not that simple. And that’s why Kant needs to write a big book. An aesthetic judgment is a subjective judgment but which at the same time claims a certain objectivity or a certain universality. To say that such and such a book deserves such and such a prize because it is the best is to assume, as Kant would say, that everyone should agree on the qualities of this book. To have taste is to affirm a particular sensitivity, but assuming that it is valid for everyone. This is what we do when we are seized by the beauty of a landscape or a music and we want at all costs to share it with others, being sincerely convinced that they will love them too …

The paradox of the Prix Goncourt is therefore that it expresses a good literary taste: at the same time completely linked to particular jurors and to a particular year and at the same time which has a value for all of us. It is not proof that one book is better than another, but it is an invitation to discuss its value. And through the discussions that we can have about him, he creates links, refines everyone’s taste and ultimately helps to create a common culture …

► Next week, from November 12 to 14, the first Michel Serres philosophical meetings will take place in Agen, in partnership with our friends from Philosophie Magazine. Meetings, debates, workshops around a beautiful affirmation “knowledge makes free!” “

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Should we read the Goncourt price?