In the first of a series of posts written by Oxford students who were involved in judging the Choix Goncourt UK, Sophie Benbelaid (French and Russian, New College) reflects on the process of judging a literary prize.
How does one judge a book for a literary prize? How does one get transported from the relative insignificance of a university student to the importance of a book critic, and even more so, one whose opinion directly contributes to a prestigious award? For us as language students, the Choix Goncourt UK 2021 gave us the chance to learn a new skillset: to assess examples of contemporary foreign literature without the guiding hand, or rather the dictating statement, of an essay.
The Prix Goncourt, an annual literary prize bestowed by the Académie Goncourt, is perhaps the most renowned of its sort in France. The French equivalent of the Man Booker Prize, the prestige of this accolade comes from the recognition the winner earns in the literary world, and the subsequent publicity. Although I am sure the 10€ award money does not go amiss either. This award’s popularity in France resulted in the founding of the The Prix Goncourt des Lycéens a few decades ago as a way of giving French high school students the occasion to read the shortlisted works and choose their own winner. In the same vein, the Choix Goncourt UK celebrated its inaugural proceedings last year, thereby providing modern languages university students across the United Kingdom with the same opportunity.
The final ceremony for this second annual Choix Goncourt was postponed from late 2020 to March 2021 as a way of showing solidarity with French bookshops which were sadly shut for the majority of the past year owing to the pandemic. And indeed, such postponing was not the only effect of COVID-19. Every and all aspect of planning and organising the proceedings were transferred to a virtual format. For example, on the final decision day when all participating universities came together to decide on the national winner, the majestic halls of the Institut Français in London were substituted for the equally glamorous halls of Zoom.
Nevertheless, coming to this final decision still seemed far off when we began to prepare Oxford’s choice of winner in early 2021. At university where so much of one’s literature consumption revolves around reading purely for the purpose of an exam or following a syllabus, each of us had to, to a certain extent, relearn how to read and appreciate a French work for fun. It certainly was a novel feeling for many of us to read for leisure a book that was not in our native language, especially in tandem with our respective courses. Therefore, when we came together to discuss the final four shortlisted works – Hervé Le Tellier’s L’Anomalie, Maël Renouard’s L’historiographe du royaume, Djaïli Amadou Amal’s Les Impatientes and Camille de Toledo’s Thésée, sa vie nouvelle – our reaction to each book was greatly influenced by our experiences of reading it as a foreign language.
During our book-club-style discussions, also held in the exalted halls of Zoom, we debated the various merits of each work in terms of plot, accessibility, writing style, intertextual references, and, essentially, enjoyment of reading. Each book was special and captivating in its own way. As a result, when it came to voting for Oxford University’s choice for the award, it was very close between three of the four shortlisted novels. I remember that I remained particularly undecided on my choice and voted on instinct. When viewing the final breakdown of votes, I was astounded to discover that had I opted for my second choice of book, we would have been faced with a three-way tie and the very dramatic prospect of a sudden death round. This is a testament not only to the very high standard of entrants for the Prix Goncourt this year, but also to how difficult it is for the judges to discern which book is more deserving of the final prize.
Of course, in the case of the Prix Goncourt, publishing houses and the reputation of the authors are considered as much as the writing and subject matter itself. For example, it is undeniable that Gallimard, one of France’s most formidable publishing houses, has the largest number of Prix Goncourt laureates. In fact, in 2020, Le Tellier earned them another mention.
In an attempt to be as unbiased as possible, we decided to vote for Oxford’s winner (L’Anomalie) prior to the online interviews with each author that were organised with the participation of the Maison Française d’Oxford, and Oxford’s own Professor Catriona Seth. In hearing about these books from the talented writers themselves, our understanding of what they wanted to achieve was furthered, and these talks (which can still be found on the Maison Française d’Oxford’s YouTube channel) were so engaging that it provoked in many of us, and unquestionably in me, the wish to reread the works in a new light.
In the end, despite the casting votes of all participating universities being as split between the same three books as in Oxford, it was ultimately Djaïli Amadou Amal’s Les Impatientes that stole first place, just like it had in the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens 2020 some months prior. The overall experience was very rewarding, not only because we had the chance to gain insight into the behind-the-scenes world of literary prize-giving, but also because despite all the drawbacks and restrictions of the pandemic, us literature lovers still managed to unite and discuss and debate contemporary French works almost as if we were living in a world so keenly affected by the pandemic. And if 2020’s Choix Goncourt UK is proof of anything, it is that not even something as potentially devastating as the times we find ourselves in is able to stop the power of literature and the excitement that it evokes, and will continue to evoke, in its admirers.
by Sophie Benbelaid