On the repercussions of turning down prizes

The French lost their minds when this debut novelist refused the Prix Goncourt. But his reasoning was pretty sound, and frankly, brave for the time we live in. For me, any prize would be hard to turn down just based on the money. (Should any of us be so lucky to survive the horse trading jury process). But still. Dangle $50k in front of my face and politics move down my fillets to the tail — I am going full rainbow trout on that worm and hook.

Not since Julien Gracq in 1951 had an author turned down a Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, when the writer published under the pseudonym Joseph Andras refused it in May 2016. And while the award in question was “only” that reserved for debut novelists, the ire his decision provoked among the Parisian literary scene’s most venerable circles did not betray its diminished importance. Speculative theories concerning his identity and “true” motivations graced the literary pages of just about every major newspaper. In a review, Pierre Assouline, honored member of the Académie Goncourt, labeled it the “Andras Affair,” and described both the author’s refusal and the more poetic parts of the book as pretentious (confirmation, if need be, that the use of “pretentious” in a review is usually more of a tell on the critic than on their subject).

Andras, for his part, explained in a letter to the judges that his decision was political: against the spirit of competition, which for him doesn’t belong in the creative arts, and in keeping with a novel largely concerned with the struggle and ideals of “a militant for social and political equality.” Subsequent interviews would also mention his desire to keep his anonymity, along with a certain disdain for Parisian littérateurs, whose world, likely to mistake writers for media personalities, is one he prefers to stay away from. But his main concerns were for the book itself: for a narrative he didn’t want to see associated with, not to say recuperated by, the establishment (literary or otherwise).

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