By Margot Irvine, Guest Contributor
Red carpets, sealed envelopes, statuettes, gowns and tuxedos… it’s the time of year when we tune in to the Grammys and Oscars to take in the spectacle surrounding these sought-after cultural awards. Prizes have been given out for the best plays and poems since antiquity but they began to proliferate and take the form we recognize today in the early years of the twentieth century. The Nobel Prize for Literature was established by Alfred Nobel’s will in 1895 and was awarded for the first time in 1901. In 1896, French writer Edmond Goncourt’s final testament envisaged a prize of a slightly different sort which would recognize the best book published within the year rather than a body of work. The prix Goncourt was to be selected by a jury of ten “men of letters”, “only men of letters, we will not have any great lords or politicians”. Not only was the jury made up exclusively of men, it quickly became clear that this prize would only ever go to men. Somewhat like the #OscarsSoWhite campaign today, other groups quickly realized that this meant that many potential winners were being overlooked; especially women who were publishing in greater numbers at this time and had begun to form their own literary communities and networks.
New prizes are often created because of rivalries and exclusions and, in 1904, the prix Vie heureuse, a rival prize to the Goncourt, was awarded for the first time by a jury made up of only of women of letters.
Both prizes still exist, though the prix Vie heureuse was renamed the prix Femina in 1922. Like the red carpets, crisp envelopes and statuettes of the Oscars, particular rituals have developed around them. Since 1914, the prix Goncourt has been awarded at the Drouant restaurant. A history of the prize is given on the restaurant’s web site, the lunch offered to the jury is complimentary and the exterior of the building is decorated with the signatures of former members of the jury. The jury meets at the restaurant on the first Tuesday of every month and enjoys a meal that likely consists of the house specialties: foie gras with port, mullet in shallot and white wine sauce, or scallops in butter. The winners are given a symbolic check for 10 euros: the prestige of the award and the greatly increased sales that accompany it are the real prizes. Literary awards are traditionally announced in November in France and the Goncourt and Femina prizes have an agreement whereby the privilege of awarding the prize first alternates between them each year.
By examining the correspondence exchanged between the members of the prix Femina jury, we can tell that, until the Second World War, most if not all of their regular meetings occurred in the private homes of jury members over lunches, dinners and teas. Unlike male authors, women writers had no tradition of meeting in the public spaces of cafés, restaurants and artists’ studios in the early years of the twentieth century. The spaces of women’s literary sociability in these years reflect their still marginal status and continuing association with the private sphere. Femina jury member Camille Marbo’s memoirs, À travers deux siècles, souvenirs et rencontres (1883-1967), are instructive about the gradual professionalization of this women’s literary community in the post-war years, symbolized by a change in the places they favoured for their meetings. Marbo writes that, after she became a member of the jury in 1944, the jurors gradually went from meeting in private homes to gathering for teas and lunches at the Ritz until, eventually, they held their deliberations in a neutral boardroom. In recent years, the jury has announced their winner after lunches at the posh Hotel Crillon or the Cercle Interallié.
In a letter from 1956, jury member Madeleine Saint-René Taillandier jokingly complains that she and fellow jury members don’t get much in exchange for their tireless hours of reading in order to determine which book is the best, besides tired eyes and lobster for lunch. What they did get, though, was an opportunity to meet, form networks, have lively discussions, and judge books, beginning at a time when women didn’t yet have the right to vote.
So, when you are discussing the Oscars around the water cooler at work, remember that cultural prizes have been occasions to celebrate, gossip, disagree, exclude and include for a long time.
Margot Irvine is Associate Professor of French and European Studies at the University of Guelph. Author of Pour suivre un époux: Les récits de voyages des couples au XIXème siècle français (Nota Bene, 2008), she is currently preparing an edition of correspondence exchanged by the members of the jury of the prix Femina (1904-1964).
For more on the history of French literary prizes, see Sylvie Ducas, La Littérature à quel(s) prix? Histoire des prix littéraires, Paris, La Découverte, 2013.
For analysis of the place of prizes in the cultural industry today, see James F. English, The Economy of Prestige : Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard UP, 2005.
For more on the history of the prix Femina, see Margot Irvine. “« Des liens de confraternité? »: Friendships and Factions on the Jury of the Prix Femina (1904-1964)” in Solidaires, Solitaires, eds. Elise Hugueney-Leger and Caroline Verdier, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. 137-150.
 “[…] rien qu’hommes de lettres, on n’y recevra ni grands seigneurs, ni hommes politiques”, Edmond de Goncourt`s will, reproduced in Jacques Robichon, Le Défi des Goncourt, Paris, Denoël, 1975, 333.
 Camille Marbo, À travers deux siècles, souvenirs et rencontres (1883-1967), Paris, Grasset, 1967, 315-316.
 « Heureusement que nous avons fait deux heureux au Femina — l’éditeur et l’auteur — car pour ce que nous récoltons nous-même du Prix Femina ce n’est pas lourd… sauf le homard et les yeux fatigués! » (letter from Madeleine Saint-René Taillandier to Judith Cladel, 13 january 1956, fonds Cladel, Courtesy Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington).