Between the end of August and the beginning of October, about 600 novels are released in France. There’s a flurry of excitement in bookshops around the country as readers rush out to buy the most popular new novels–some of which will go on to win prestigious French literary prizes like the Prix Goncourt. This period of the year, known as la rentrée littéraire is the Cannes Film Festival of literature, but many Americans have never heard of it. What makes this literary phenomenon so important and unique? Find out below!
By Sophia Millman
What are the origins of la rentrée littéraire?
You might be familiar with the common French phrase la rentrée (the return, or the equivalent of “back to school”), which refers to the end of summer vacation and the start of the school year. But, interestingly, no one knows exactly where the phrase la rentrée littéraire originated. In 1874, the French author Mallarmé called the fall theater season la rentrée théâtrale, and many French scholars credit Mallarmé for inventing la rentrée littéraire as well. But the term didn’t become popular until the 19th century, thanks in part to the famous frères Goncourt.
In 1903, John Antoine Nau won the first Prix Goncourt (created by the brothers Goncourt featured in the unflattering photo above… Unfortunately, it’s the only picture that exists of them!). From then on, the prize became increasingly prestigious, and other literary academies created similar awards that you can read about below.
In the 1950s, publishers began releasing all of their best new books in the fall, right before the literary prizes were announced. They called this autumnal publishing phenomenon la rentrée littéraire. Today, just as most films that will be nominated for “Best Picture” at the Oscars come out in the fall, most award-winning French novels first appear in bookshops in the fall as well.
Why is la rentrée littéraire a distinctly French tradition?
The French are notorious bibliophiles. Victor Hugo perfectly summed up their passion for reading when he declared: “Lire, c’est boire et manger; l’esprit qui ne lit pas maigrit comme le corps qui ne mange pas.” (Reading is drinking and eating. The mind that does not read is as thin as the body that does not eat.) In the US, nonfiction sells much better than fiction, and American publishers worry that the novel has no future. But in France, “la nation littéraire,” the novel is still extremely popular. This explains why France is the only country (apart from Belgium) that celebrates the release of new novels during a special part of the year.
If you’d like to learn more about France’s love affair with literature while practicing your French, check out some of these classic literary French TV shows:
- Lectures pour tous: This is the first literary French TV show that ran from 1953 to 1968. Watch the show’s presenter Pierre Dumayet interview the famous American novelist James Baldwin here.
- Apostrophes: This literary show ran for fifteen years and, believe it or not, was one of the most watched shows on French television. Each hour-long episode was devoted to one or several authors. Famous writers who appeared on the show include: Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, Georges Simenon, John Le Carré, Umberto Eco, and Marguerite Duras. Browse a compilation of the show’s most famous moments here.
- Bouillon de culture. Bernard Pivot, the famous host of Apostrophes, created this show in 1991 and it ran for ten years. Many famous writers and actors appeared on it, and Pivot asked all of them questions from the Proust Questionnaire. Watch highlights (some in English, some in French) here.
What are the most important French literary prizes?
The five “grands prix” in France are the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Femina, the Prix Interallié, and the Prix Médicis. In 1904, a group of women established the Prix Femina to counteract the sexism of the Prix Goncourt, whose jury at the time was made up exclusively of men. Ten literary journalists founded the Prix Renaudot in 1926, and it remains the most prestigious prize after the Goncourt. The Prix Médicis was founded later, in 1958, and it’s awarded to a young author or an author who is relatively unknown.
Another important literary prize is the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, known as the younger sibling of the Prix Goncourt. Every year, ten judges of the Académie Goncourt nominate twelve works of literature for the prize. Then, about two thousand high school students read the twelve novels, discuss them, and vote on a winner.
Curious to see the full list of Goncourt nominees? You can find it in this article.
Which 2019 French novels should I read?
Civilizations by Laurent Binet: If you like experimental historical fiction, you’ll want to try Binet’s new book. He won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman for his first novel HHhH that tells the story of the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich. In his latest book, he imaginatively rewrites history, starting with the questions: What if Columbus never discovered the Americas? And what if, instead, the Incas invaded Europe?
Le Ghetto intérieur by Santiago Amigorena: This novel is getting rave reviews in France and is on the short list for both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Renaudot. The Inner Ghetto tells the story of the author’s grandfather, Vincente, a Polish Jew. Vincente goes into exile in Argentina in 1928, leaving his mother and brother behind. As he builds himself a new life, his Polish family becomes stranded in the Warsaw ghetto.
Soif by Amélie Nothomb: This is one of the most anticipated French-language novels of 2019. Belgian author Nothomb’s novels Stupeur et tremblements (1999) and Métaphysique des tubes (2000) were both nominated for the Goncourt, but since then the jury has repeatedly snubbed her. Many critics are predicting that her new novel Soif (Thirst) will win the grand prize. Soif is semi-autobiographical and explores the author’s relationship with Jesus.
These three novels will shortly be translated into English, but if you feel confident reading in French, you might also be interested in these popular 2019 releases: Le ciel par-dessus le toit by Nathacha Appanah, Une partie de badminton by Olivier Adam, La part du fils by Jean-Luc Coatalem, Le Bal des folles by Victoria Mas, Avant que j’oublie by Anne Pauly, and La clé USB by Jean-Philippe Toussaint.
You can buy all these novels at the French book store Albertine in NYC!
Will la rentrée littéraire change in the future?
A total of 524 novels (336 French, 188 foreign) will appear in French bookstores between mid-August and the end of October this year. According to Livres Hebdo, this rentrée littéraire is the smallest France has seen in 20 years. Last year, book sales during the rentrée littéraire brought in only 48 million euros–a figure 32% smaller than that of 2012. While these numbers are disheartening, French publishers argue that releasing fewer novels of higher quality will encourage readers to buy more books. And many hope that the release of Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano’s new novel Encre sympathique this October will significantly increase book sales. While la rentrée littéraire may be slightly smaller in the future, it’s clear that the tradition will continue.