Le Goncourt – The Most Coveted Literary Prize in France

Article publié dans FR2DAY en 2010 (article published in FR2DAY in 2010)


Like every year, it has been a pretty frantic fall in bookstores all over France but with the last literary prizes being handed out right now, the “rentrée littéraire” (the start of the new publishing season) is finally coming to an end. Nearly 2,000 literary prizes exist in France, but only a handful of them really provide for a boost in sales: The Goncourt, Renaudot, Femina, Interallié and Médicis. The others mainly bring recognition for the author, such as the Grand Prix awarded by the Académie Française, the almost four-century-old watchdog of the French language, or honor a particular genre: poetry, humor…

However, among all those prizes, the one all French writers really covet is the Goncourt, a prize that dates back to 1903 and counts among its recipients Marcel ProustAndré Malraux,Romain Gary and Marguerite Duras. Not for the check that goes with the award, a mere 10 Euros, but for the celebrity status and royalties it brings to the winner. Indeed, as soon as a novel wins the prize, it starts selling – the winner can expect to sell at least some 500,000 copies of his novel.

This year’s Goncourt was awarded last Monday to Michel Houellebecq, “l’enfant terrible” of French literature for “La Carte et le Territoire” (The Map and the Territory), probably one of the author’s less controversial books.

Set largely in Paris, the novel tells the story of a solitary, misanthropic artist, Jed Martin, who gains global fame first for his photographs of old Michelin maps of regions of France and then for his realistic paintings of business moguls.

The book has garnered enthusiastic reviews from critics and was already a best-seller before winning the Goncourt with more than 150,000 copies sold so far.

Many of Houellbeck’s previous works were fuelled with explicit sex scenes and disparaging and shocking comments about womenminorities and Islam, which explains why the author counts nearly as many detractors as fans. However, few people would disagree that the author, who is without contest France’s best-known living writer, was long over due for the honour. Twice before, he has seen the prize slip through his fingers, in 1998 and 2005, respectively for “Les Particules Elémentaires” (Atomised) and “La possibilité d’une île” (the Possibility of an Island).

Seven of the committee members voted for Houellebecq to receive the prize, with the remaining two supporting Viriginie Despentes and her book “Apocalypse Bébé”, a detective novel about the search for a missing teenage girl. She was awarded the Renaudot Prize, which traditionally goes to the runner-up for the Goncourt.



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