The first Choix Goncourt Britannique: When we talk about writing

Julia Moore is a third-year student at Christ Church reading French and English. Here are her personal reflections on being part of the first Choix Goncourt Britannique.

Writing a book is hard—you know, you get a publisher, or fail to, and you spend years grovelling at the feet of your work and perhaps a man behind a well-known desk. At least, that’s how the authors write it. In Anna Gavalda’s Je Voudrais Que Quelqu’un m’Attende Quelque part, she includes a postscript in the form of another short story. By using her form to embrace the technical realities of the (physical!) copy the reader holds, she shines a humorous light on the whole affair—the inspiration, rejection, ridiculous meticulous search for the right colour of paper binding. A light, certainly, but a spotlight as well: this is how it happens, she says, this is it.  Publication becomes a story: this sort of fictional concern with the more tedious aspects of writing can reinforce what we think about inspiration, construction, or even the political undertones of writing, especially to sell.

In Little Women, Jo’s plight of publication is just as mundane—and yet, it arrives as a crucial moment in the history of what it means to be a female commercial writer. By becoming a story, it demonstrates itself. Writing about writing makes us more aware of all the things that are happening in and around the book.  Jane Eyre was originally published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, after all. What is it that we feel about the first-person women, and their direct or indirect free speech? All four of the books we were to discuss were in the first person. We tended to take this for granted;  Dame Marina Warner, one of the senior judges and member of the Royal Society, made our group of student judges feel rather silly when she pointed out that none of us had  even mentioned, let alone questioned, the first person in the narratives we were presented with.

Judging fiction is a strange mix—sometimes, it can seem just as mundane and unromantic as publishing it. Unpicking and debating- all that de-storifying can seem slightly unfair at times—to the book, to the author—the French Goncourt jury has often been accused of publishing bribes and stakes in great shares. Judging a book isn’t just about that though, not really, especially if the people doing it sit behind food and wine, or on a bed or in a bus. People like you and me—and there were a few of us in Oxford, and a few in 6 other universities[1] who did just that.

The French Goncourt Prize is more or less equivalent to the Man Booker prize in the UK. It is a big cultural institution in France, and is judged rather unconventionally by 10 novelists (sometimes referred to as “Les Dix”) who are members of the “Académie Goncourt”, in the Restaurant Drouant, Paris. The prize is a symbolic cheque for ten euros, and the well-recognised accolade: Prix Goncourt. Proust won it in 1919, exactly 100 years from the Choix Goncourt Britannique last year. A Choix Goncourt is a choice made from the same shortlist by a different group of people: there is a Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for a secondary school jury in France, for example. December 2019 was the first Choix Goncourt Britannique, but other countries like Belgium or Lebanon have student juries like ours pick their winner.

We had four books[2] to read, and we had to come up with a winner. Not alone—about 10 of us in Oxford, and similar numbers in Queen’s Belfast, Cardiff, Aberdeen, Cambridge, Warwick, and St Andrew’s. Two of each group met in London to discuss and award the first (perhaps not-yet-coveted) Choix Goncourt Britannique. The word choice is what sets student juries apart from the French group of restaurant-going novelists that award the Prix Goncourt. The focus of choice is not just who gets chosen picked, but also who is choosing. We were very aware of ourselves and our very obviously personal choices. What do we know about picking and choosing the novel we think is best? Well, what should we know? And does anyone? We pinpointed things: style, narrative, underlying images, characterisation,… the list goes on. And it can—the thing was that we were never completely finished.

In Oxford, and, later, in London, we decided on Tous les Hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon by Jean-Paul Dubois. It was salient to so many of the individuals in our group that it quickly became the centrepiece of comparative discussions. It is about a man, his cell-mate, and the people that make up his past. We talked about way that the narrative works, crossed between the past, the present, and the succession of dog smiles and technical failures that exist in both. We liked reading it—we enjoyed looking everyday words up and wondering about whether or not the book was “About Capitalism”. There’s something very joyful about being able to read and think and think and read, completely essay-less, yet with a real discussion with real people who also have thoughts and readings about fiction. The fact that all the books are contemporary adds to the immediacy of looking forward to the translation of our book-elect, and to Jean-Paul Dubois’ tour of  UK universities; the gleeful possibilities of being alone with a book are sustained, rather than dampened, by the idea of an author to talk to.

To read more about the Choix Goncourt Britannique, see a piece by another Oxford member of the panel, James Hughes, in The Oxford Polyglot and read Professor Dame Marina Warner’s speech at the award

[1] Oxford, Cambridge, and Warwick from England, Cardiff from Wales, Aberdeen and St Andrew’s from Scotland, and Queen’s Belfast from Northern Ireland

[2] Soif, by Amélie Nothomb, Tous les Hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon, by Jean-Paul Dubois, Extérieur Monde by Olivier Rolin, and La Part du Fils, by Jean-Luc Coatelem.

Spanish Literature Podcast: Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre

Episode 5 of the Oxford Spanish Literature Podcast, the first episode of the second series, is now available to listen to. This episode features Laura Lonsdale (Associate Professor in Modern Spanish Literature) speaking about Bodas de sangre, by Federico García Lorca. As in previous episodes, the first part of the discussion covers the historical and literary context of the work, as well as some more detailed questions about the text itself. The second part of the episode focuses in on a close reading of an extract from Lorca’s play. Listen to other episodes in the podcast series here

Skills and employability in the arts and humanities

The British Academy has commissioned a major piece of research into the employment prospects for graduates with degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences. One of the things they wanted to look into was what seems to be a pervasive idea, sometimes repeated to students seeking advice on A-level choices and university courses, that studying STEM subjects will give you significantly better career prospects than studying a humanities subject like English, history or modern languages.

So is that true? Are you really better off studying engineering rather than German? Maths rather than geography?

Well, short answer: no you aren’t. Humanities subjects were found to be level-pegging with STEM subjects in terms of their general employment prospects, and to have distinct advantages over STEM in certain aspects of your career.

I’d encourage you to have a look at the report itself, which you can find here. (You can also see it discussed by the UK press here.)

Some of the most important findings of the research are these:

  1. Graduates from arts, humanities and social science subjects appear to have more flexibility and choice in their career than STEM graduates. They’re more likely than STEM graduates to voluntarily move to different sectors of employment, or to change role in their job, and to do so without wage penalty.
  2. In the most recent statistics, 88% of UK humanities graduates were in employment, and 89% of STEM graduates. This suggests there isn’t a significant difference in employment prospects between the two fields.
  3. Of the ten fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, eight of them employ more graduates from the arts, humanities and social sciences than from other disciplines.
  4. There’s a strong link between the skills developed in university by humanities students and the top skills needed to thrive in 21st century work. The top five skills developed by humanities students are: becoming an independent learner, thinking critically and analytically, being innovative and creative, working effectively with others, and writing clearly and effectively. These match up closely to the seven skills found to be most important for 21st century work, which are: initiative and entrepreneuralism (independent learner), accessing and analysing information, and critical thinking and problem solving (thinking critically and analytically), agility and adaptability, and curiosity and imagination (being innovative and creative), collaboration and leadership (working effectively with others), and effective oral and written communication (writing clearly and effectively).

The British Academy sum up the findings of their report as follows:

Graduates who study arts, humanities and social science disciplines are highly employable across a range of sectors and roles. They have skills employers value – communication, collaboration, research and analysis, independence, creativity and adaptability – and are able to build flexible careers which may move across a number of areas of employment while remaining resilient to economic downturns. They are employed in sectors which underpin the UK economy and are among the fastest growing – financial, legal and professional services, information and communication, and the creative industries – as well as in socially valuable roles in public administration and education.

Young people chose to enter higher education for many reasons of which salary is only one, but it is a legitimate question to consider what the economic return is on the substantial investment which is a degree course, both in time and money. Overall, salary levels for arts, humanities and social science graduates are a little lower on average than for graduates in science, engineering, technology and medicine, but this top-level picture conceals complexity underneath. Consistently high salaries in medicine and dentistry drive much of the difference, while the other discipline areas which make up the two broad groups show far more variance in earnings within subjects. As individuals progress through the first ten years of their career, arts, humanities and social science graduates are able make strong progress up the career ladder into roles attracting higher salaries.

Whatever the future holds for the UK, it is our people, their skills, knowledge and attributes, that will ensure prosperity and wellbeing. We need to build an evidence-led, broad and balanced education and skills system to create the society we want to live in. The challenges the world is facing – climate change, global pandemics, the growth of populism – need the insights of the arts, humanities and social sciences as much as those from science, technology and engineering. The importance of a highly qualified and versatile labour force for productivity and economic growth cannot be underestimated. Our evidence shows that arts, humanities and social science graduates are central to this ongoing and long-term requirement. They are well equipped to profit from, and more importantly shape, the new opportunities of the future.

Responding to Literature through the Arts II

Oxford first-year Spanish students have taken the opportunity to respond creatively through the visual arts and creative writing to some of the literary works they had studied earlier in the year, or works they plan to study next year. We saw one project last week. Here are samples from three more.

 Josh Aruliah (Spanish and Linguistics, Keble College)

“This drawing depicts my interpretation of Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’, which is a hypothetical library that consists of an indefinite number of identical hexagonal galleries and contains every possible book that could be written (up to a certain length). I featured illusions, drawing inspiration from the work of Dutch artist M. C. Escher, to convey the impossible and bewildering nature of the library; the staircase and the railings are inconsistent and demonstrate the lack of a fixed direction of gravity. It is not a literal depiction of the library as I aimed instead to portray the perplexing experience of trying to visualise Borges’s fascinating creation. The short story reveals that almost all of the books contain complete gibberish and, therefore, the librarians seem to be condemned to an eternal and vain search for meaning. There is little distinction between the books and galleries in the drawing, with the upper gallery perhaps giving the impression of a reflection, which demonstrates this idea of endless futility.”

Darcie Dorkins (History and Spanish, Exeter College)

“I chose to paint Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the most important figures of Spanish colonial literature, whose works were widely acclaimed during her lifetime and continue to be celebrated today. I was inspired to visually explore the conflicting notions of restriction and freedom in Sor Juana’s life which stemmed from her overlapping roles as a nun, woman, and outstanding writer, with a particular focus on one of her most widely read poems, ‘Hombres necios’. Thought to have been written in around 1680, I felt that the poem was a valuable representation of the precarious space she occupied between contemporary religious, intellectual and literary spheres in both her native Mexico and in Spain, where her works were also popular. To this end, I aimed to incorporate various symbolic elements within the piece: Sor Juana herself, as the subject of many striking portraits; the visual prominence of religion, a defining feature of her life with considerable implications for her literary career; and a book, to represent her extensive learning. I also included a mirror, as in ‘Hombres necios’ Sor Juana symbolically confronts men with the realities of their irrational and impossible standards for women, along with birds and an open cage to reflect the issues of restriction and liberation in her life.”

Darcie also translated the closing lines of Sor Juana’s Primero sueño (First Dream), a notoriously complex and linguistically rich poem:

Llegó, en efecto, el sol cerrando el giro                                    

que esculpió de oro sobre azul zafiro.

De mil multiplicados                                                            

mil veces puntos, flujos mil dorados,

líneas, digo, de luz clara, salían

de su circunferencia luminosa,

pautando al cielo la cerúlea plana;

y a la que antes funesta fue tirana                                       

de su imperio, atropadas embestían:

que sin concierto huyendo presurosa,

en sus mismos horrores tropezando

su sombra iba pisando,

y llegar al ocaso pretendía                                                  

con el sin orden ya, desbaratado

ejército de sombras, acosado

de la luz que el alcance le seguía.

Consiguió, al fin, la vista del ocaso

el fugitivo paso,                                                                   

y en su mismo despeño recobrada,

esforzando el aliento en la ruïna,

en la mitad del globo que ha dejado

el sol desamparada,

segunda vez rebelde, determina                                         

mirarse coronada,

mientras nuestro hemisferio la dorada

ilustraba del sol madeja hermosa,

que con luz judiciosa

de orden distributivo, repartiendo                                        

a las cosas visibles sus colores

iba, y restituyendo

entera a los sentidos exteriores

su operación, quedando a luz más cierta

el mundo iluminado, y yo despierta.                                 

And sure enough, the Sun arrived, sealing the orbit

it etched in gold upon the sapphire blue sky.

Born of a thousand

times thousand points, a thousand golden streams,

and lines, I say, of pure light, which radiated

from its luminous circumference,

marking the sky-blue page;

and, converging, they charged towards

that former sepulchral tyrant of their empire,

who, stumbling over her own horrors,

treading on her own shadow,

erratically with haste, trying to reach the West

with her now confused, disorderly

army of shadows, pursued

by the light following closely behind.

At last, that fugitive retreat

gained sight of the West,

and, recovering from her downfall,

steeling her crushed spirit,

rebellious for a second time,

she resolves to see herself crowned

in that half of the globe that

the Sun has left unprotected;

meanwhile, the golden tresses of the Sun

beautified our hemisphere,

and with judicious light

and ordered generosity reimbursed

all visible things with their colours,

and restored the external senses their full

operation, leaving the world illuminated

by a more certain light, and I awake.