Row over 'corrupt' French book prizes: Novelist accuses judges of voting irregularities

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The Independent Online
AN ANONYMOUS late-night caller told a novelist how his book had fared in voting for this year's Prix Femina, a French literary prize awarded earlier that day.

There were just five books on the shortlist, but the 12 judges needed 15 rounds of voting. The female caller said there were rarely the same number of votes as judges. 'Once there were 17, on another occasion only nine,' the novelist said. 'At one point, she said I had six votes. Then there had to be a new round because there were 13 votes altogether.' The three main French daily papers all gave different tallies for the final round.

The writer, with 20 published novels, asked not to be named. His publisher had asked him 'with tears in his voice' not to go public with new allegations of an open secret - that the French literary prize establishment is a corrupt institution - 'or else he could no longer publish me. It's l'omerta, the Sicilian law of silence,' he said.

The Prix Femina, awarded by an all-female jury, went this year to L'Oeil du Silence (The Eye of Silence) by Marc Lambron, literary critic of the weekly news magazine Le Point. It was published by Flammarion.

The Prix Femina was established in 1904 in competition to the Prix Goncourt, then a year old and now the most important literary prize. The Femina has a female jury because the intellectual establishment believed that the Goncourt had overlooked the best book of the season because it was written by a woman.

This year, the Prix Femina was awarded before the Goncourt, on 5 November, a step which the jury feistily broadcast as a snub to the establishment. It automatically meant that Lambron's book, tipped as a worthy Goncourt winner, was withdrawn from the more prestigious contest.

The Prix Femina judges 'are only now beginning to realise that the publishers encouraged them to announce before the Goncourt to get Lambron out of the way', the anonymous novelist said. The Goncourt went to Le Rocher de Tanios by Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese-born writer published by Grasset. The Goncourt is chosen by judges elected to the Academie Goncourt.

The prizes are worth only token amounts, 50 francs ( pounds 5) for the Goncourt, but they push novels on to the bestseller lists. For years, writers have alleged that the system was fixed, that the big publishers have their own judges on each jury and trade votes from one prize to another to reach a consensus for each award. Le Point last week described France's three biggest publishers, Gallimard, Grasset and Le Seuil as 'the sacred triangle'.

The system's critics praise two other big publishers, Albin Michel and Flammarion, for staying out of the fray. Last year, according to one household name in French literary circles, at least two Goncourt judges had not read the prize-winning book to the final page.

The anonymous novelist and his publisher said French literary prize judges were simply beholden to the main publishing houses. 'They are overpaid for writing prefaces, for reading manuscripts or paid advances for books that are never written,' the novelist said. Britain's Booker Prize, where judges are new every year, bore no comparison, the publisher said. 'That is a democracy. We have a monarchy which elects members to an academy. At 95, long after they've stopped reading, they are still voting for the best book of the year.'

The novelist added that he had wanted to win a prize 'so that I could refuse it and denounce the system. For that you must first win the prize.'