US Goncourt Prize Selection: Behind the Scenes with Juror Gwyneth Bernier

Gwyneth Bernier, a student at Duke University and one of the members of the jury for the inaugural US Goncourt Prize Selection, shared with us her experience as a juror—why she decided to participate and what drew her to this year’s book selection. Read on to learn more!

A self-professed francophile, I decided to pursue a French Studies minor in addition to my declared major in International Relations and Political Science. When searching through the course catalog, one piqued my interest: Dr. Anne-Gaëlle Saliot’s inaugural course in which the students enrolled would serve on the US Goncourt Prize Selection literary committee. But I wondered how contemporary French literature could be relevant to my academic focus. Would any of what I learned be pragmatic?

I set out to research this question and discovered that French authors have been awarded more Nobel Prizes in Literature than the novelists, essayists, and poets from any other country. The explanation for this phenomenon was best elucidated in 1948 by French novelist and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (English: What Is Literature?). In this piece, Sartre establishes that literature matters deeply to the people of France and plays an important role in the country’s sense of national culture and identity. He further explains that, in France, the art of writing is deeply linked to freedom. Ergo, literature ventures into the fields of politics and democracy, and writers have a moral duty to use their masterpieces to inspire and provide the blueprint for a freer society.

For this reason, the people of France developed a profound cultural attachment to their literary heritage. Today, French public schools emphasize the study of novels, poetry, and theater, which students often memorize by heart. Furthermore, the literary arts are heavily sponsored by the French government; the Institut français and Académie française are linguistic/artistic national institutions that have retained their cultural importance four nearly four hundred years. Literary prizes—such as the Prix Femina—are major news (if you don’t gift your mother the winner of the Prix Goncourt for Christmas, do you even love her?); and even French television features shows on poets and writers—one of the most popular French television shows in the ’80s and ’90s was Apostrophes, a literary talk show.

The mass public educational initiatives of the Third Republic and modern France have somewhat sustained the place of French literature on the international stage. However, French literary culture has forgotten Sartre’s call for authors to be politically engaged through their writing; French literature written in the past few decades has been disengaged from explicit political discussion—very much unlike the authors of the 1930s, 1940s, and the May 68 generation. Current French literary critics accuse the works of contemporary French authors of embodying and perpetuating a new form of detached nihilism within the national culture.

I decided to serve on the US Goncourt Prize Selection jury this semester because I wanted to explore this intersection of French national politics and literature. I discovered that the shortlisted authors are part of a recent wave going against the grain: Senegalese writer Mohammed Mbougar-Sarr published La plus secrète mémoire des hommes to correct a wrong France’s colonial past by restoring the reputation of 20th century Malian author Yambo Ouologuem. Enfant de salaud is Sorj Chalandon’s public literary trial of both his Nazi father’s sins against his son and France’s history of collaboration; Christine Angot’s Le voyage dans l’Est is the written embodiment of her trauma with incest, meant to encourage the enactment French laws protecting young victims of sexual assault; and La fille qu’on appelle and Milwaukee Blues respectively tackle France’s place in the global #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.

What makes the nominated novels even more powerful is that many include “autofiction,” or fictionalized autobiography. The authors’ artful, captivating infusion of personal details, joys, and fears into the addressing prejudices and atrocities has made the American students who read them care about the overarching French sociopolitical landscape it criticizes. The other student members of the jury and I have had the opportunity to learn about the material impact these works have had on French culture and the broader Francophone world. Most importantly, we have become part of a great French literary tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. As best written by 17th century French philosopher René Descartes, “La lecture de tous les bons livres est comme une conversation avec les plus honnêtes gens des siècles passes” (English: “Reading all the good books is like a conversation with the most honest people from centuries past”).

This essay has been edited for length and clarity.