The new literary season in France – Part II: the Awards

In a previous article, Intofrench introduced you to the French custom of the “new literary season”, where hundreds of new books flood the book-stores' shelves during summer's last days and take position for the October and November literary awards. These precious prizes having now been awarded, it seems to be the perfect time to examine them and reflect on the far-reaching influence they have on the French literary life. Goncourt, Renaudot, Fémina...: Intofrench offers you a survey of these most coveted prizes which often have a decisive impact on a book's fate.

National pride

Literary awards are a cherished distinctive feature in France, in the same way as regional culinary specialities or Romanesque countryside churches. With about 2 000 identified distinctions – some bearing names as exotic as “the land forces literary prize” or “the December (previously November) award” – the country is arguably the world's most developed in this particular field. Except for the sometimes awkward aspect of the phenomenon, the huge quantity of literary prizes (and thus of books to be awarded) is also a sure sign of French literature's vigour. With thousands of novels, essays and poetry collections published every year, the French book market is one of the most lively on earth. In this permanent surge, the literary awards hold the essential function of helping the common reader to make relevant choices. Usually well followed by book customers, the literary juries' choices have tremendous consequences on the commercial success of a book – which can lead to controversy, some commentators even talking of the awards' “tyranny”.

A constant success

The awarding ritual of the most important French literary prizes – the “big 5”: Goncourt, Renaudot, Fémina, Interallié and Médicis – are a traditional landmark of the October and November news in France. The coverage was intense this year again with the prestigious Prix Goncourt being sensationally attributed to the barely known Alexis Jenni for his début novel “L'Art français de la Guerre” – read the author's blog in French here. If less surprising, other awards generally confirmed the talent of established authors with well-deserved reputations. Emmanuel Carrère won the Prix Renaudot for “Limonov”, a moving portrait of an hot-headed Russian artist and activist (the book is available in French at Dibuka) whereas Simon Liberati got the Prix Fémina for “Jayne Mansfield 1967”, a work on the rebellious actress and American sex-symbol Jayne Mansfield. Literary prizes might be a typical French feature, but the subjects of these two works tend to indicate a growing taste among French authors for different, more foreign and global sources of inspiration.


Hadrien Diez