Desperately Seeking the Next Prix Goncourt
French publishers — flourishing despite electronic challenges — are so determined not to miss the next prix Goncourt banker that editors heroically wade through 22,000 unsolicited MSS a year looking for gems buried in bulky envelopes that drop in daily.
Even so, as Denis Gombert of the Robert Laffont publishing house recently told the weekly magazine L’Express, only 15% to 20% of this laboriously and lovingly scripted paper pile gets a proper critical airing “because too many people confuse words on a page with writing”.
The dangers of missing a best seller are all too evident: in 2010 for instance Fayard publishing house declined “HHhH”, a manuscript by Laurent Binet … which was subsequently taken on by rival Grasset. There was much satisfaction at Grasset after the book won the Prix Goncourt prize for the best first novel and went on to sell 200,000 copies. Similarly in 1999 Olivier Cohen, of L’Olivier publishers missed Anna Gavalda’s Je voudrais que quelqu’un m’attende quelque par (I Wish Someone Waiting for Me Somewhere), a slip-up which benefited Le Dilettante, which included it in a collection of short stories that went on to win the RTL-Lire prize in 2000 and sell several million copies!
Publishing houses as yet appear unconcerned that authors are increasingly discussing electronic self publishing perhaps because proper French literature would never self-publish, after all any decent new work was for years virtually peer-reviewed by a distinguished panel before it got anywhere near a printing press. (see below).
The elite publishing houses such as Galllimard, Seuil, Robert Laffont, Fayard and Grasset receive something like 22,000 MSS a year according to L’Express, and proudly assert that their teams of readers , or in one case the boss himself, read each one …. after a bit of pre-selection by front office staff.
So what does happen to the thousands of manuscripts sent in each year by the prolific French public? L’Express describes it thus. Publishers have a manuscripts rating system. Gallimard allots points on a scale between 1 and 2. Those awarded a 1 are certain of publication. A 1.25 means the publisher has some reserves, and 1.5 points some concerns. Anything ranked 1.75 to 2 is declined. At Grasset a MSS is judged from 1 — the perfect script — to 3, “regretfully decline”. Nought is reserved for the ideal manuscript and has never been awarded.
“At Grasset (publishers), all the MSS are read”, Bruno Migdal told the magazine. This 53 year-old scientist by training spent a three-month internship in the publishing house’s Rue des Saints-Peres manuscript department in 2004. From Gallimard to Albin Michel, and JC Lattès all the big publishing houses have a similar service for processing unsolicited texts. “I open every package I receive,” Denis Gombert of Robert Laffont, insists. “I index them by title, name, address, date received, etc. and then do a quick evaluation of each one: assessing its value and suitability. If it passes that test I pass it on to one of our seven readers. Ultimately that amounts to about 15 to 20% of all the manuscripts we receive each year.”
On the other hand Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, owner of POL publishers, reportedly has his own very particular approach. Jean-Paul Hirsch, his right hand man says: “The only member of the reading team at POL is Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens”. Not only does M. Otchakovsky-Laurens open every package himself every morning, he personally reads each MSS. Such assiduity ensured that he identified Truismes (Pig Tales) , a first novel prize winner for Basque author Marie Darrieussecq in 1998, which went on to become a best-seller. (A critic writing for the magazine Les Inrockuptibles in September 1996 noted after reading this novel: “One laughs, in terror, over the metamorphosis when the narrator-as-pig reveals, in counterpoint, the aimless drifting of a society in which the pig doe not always turn into pork.”)
Jean-Paul Hirsch notes: “Paul alone decides what gets published, even if he does ask me for an opinion. His choices are very carefully made and he is perfectly willing to take responsibility for rejecting a text that will sometimes be successful elsewhere”.
Other publishers seek the views of different kinds of readers, disbursing varying fees for their opinions, from a poorly paid 30 euros per MSS at Fayard to between 50 and 90 euros from Grasset and Robert Laffont.
But it is Gallimard that appears to have established the most celebrated style and tradition around its selectors.
According to the Envie de Ecrire website: “The Gallimard reading committee is one of the landmarks of the French literary world. It was created in 1925 by Jean Paulhan, on the death of Jacques Rivière, one of the founders of La Nouvelle Revue française (The New French Review). The committee’s aim was to reduce the influence of André Gide and Jean Schlumberger, co-founders of the house. From the outset the committee was composed of writers assuring a certain literary peer review, as it were, of the manuscripts and tasked with providing opinions irrespective of commercial considerations i.e. publishing success or otherwise.
This committee comprising people like Camus, Malraux, Raymond Queneau, Caillois, Mohrt, Grenier, Quignard (until 1994), Le Clézio, to name but a few, all members of a tight and closed circle, has wielded an imprimatur decisive to the quality and direction of French literature for many, many decades.
Dominique Aury — for 29 years the only female writer on the committee — described the unchanging ritual in this way in her autobiography: “Every Tuesday at 5pm the committee would meet in Gaston Gallimard’s great Oval Office, where two semi-circles of chairs faced each other. On the one side would sit the four Gallimards, Gaston and his son Claude, Raymond and his son Michel , on the other, the ten writers and members of the committee. An initial screening of the 6000 manuscripts received by the publisher had been made in advance of the meeting by its secretariat. Each member had been required to read two MSS a week and come prepared with an opinion. The classification “1” meant the manuscript would be publishied, “a 2 ” meant it deserved a re-read, while “a 3” earned a rejection slip. It was thus that Faulkner, Sartre, Kerouac, Char, Eluard, Duras, Miller, Modiano, Yourcenar, Tournier, Saint-Exupéry,Gary, Cocteau and Kessel all entered the prestigious Gallimard “Blanche” or “White” collection.”
Today, the ceremony has changed somewhat. The committee meets in the office of Antoine Gallimard, who has revived the institution but in a somewhat different mould.
So with the elites leading the pack in the Gallimard tradition what price new technology? There are signs of some hesitant first steps.
Amazon recently launched its kindle reader in France offering access to more than 4,000 free classics in French.
While wannabe writers unlucky enough to be rejected by the big name publishers are increasingly turning to self-publishing sites such as these:
Listen here to a discussion in the article above — Ce qu’il advient des manuscrits — in a recent France Culture Podcast
Websites of interest:
Le Prix Goncourt is awarded annually in early November and is worth 10 euros. Its true value lies in the enormous sales the prestigious Goncourt award virtually guarantees .
Ebook : Flammarion, first French publisher to sign a deal with Amazon
Story: Ken Pottinger
- Felicien Marceau: Celebrated writer (independent.co.uk)
- Bubble-wrap novel far from bubble gum (japantimes.co.jp)