They'll beg, buy, or bomb for those French book prizes
Paris — Dozens of reporters, photographers, and camera crews jostled for position last month in the lobby of a fancy Right Bank restaurant. Are they waiting to spot reclusive Brigitte Bardot? Or tennis idol Yannick Noah?
Not at all. Balding intellectual Franccois Nourissier appears in his staid gray suit to announce the 1984 winner of the Goncourt Prize.
''And the winner is . . . Marguerite Duras, for 'L'amant,' published by Minuit.'' With these words, aficionados gathered outside, applauding and waving banners beaming ''Vive Marguerite.''
France's annual scramble for book prizes had reached its climax. The long season of dining and behind-the-scenes arm-twisting had come to an end.
Literary prizes are as much a part of the national character as the crisp baguette. A recent article in the respected daily Le Monde called them ''one of our national manias.'' Besides the Goncourt, there is the Renoudot for the best first book by an author; the Femina, which crowns the best book by a woman; the Interallie for the best work by a journalist; and the Medicis for the season's most innovative work.
In all, there are some 1,500 prizes, including ones given by truck drivers, accountants, hotel managers, and reserve military officers.
''With so many prizes, it's a wonder any writer gets left out,'' sniffed Le Monde.
Why the obsession? Some see literary awards as the adult version of the cherished French childhood tradition of prize-giving on the last day of school. More likely, they illustrate France's age-old commitment to letters. French metro-riders read books, not screaming tabloids. A television literary talk show rivals ''Dallas'' in popularity.
The prizes also satisfy the legion of unpublished writers who have manuscripts stashed in drawers. Literary critic Vassilis Alexakis, writing in Le Monde, estimated that more than a million French citizens nurture literary ambitions.
''In the 19th century, poets such as Victor Hugo were in the limelight,'' explains Jerome Lindon, president of Minuit, this year's winning publisher. ''In the early 1900s, it was theater making front-page news. Nowadays, the prizes, especially for the novel, represent what's left of France's literary and artistic traditions.''
Prize-giving has long been controversial. Some of the award ceremonies have been anything but genteel. In 1975 a disgruntled observer barged into the restaurant and threw a pie at author and jury member Michel Tournier. The same year, a writer was jailed for throwing a Molotov cocktail into the home of a jury member.
Lobbying is usually more mundane but, in the case of the Goncourt, usually done with just as much seriousness. Besides the usual gourmet dinners, jury members are often promised writing commissions worth up to 30,000 francs (about works, and lucrative royalty clauses - up to 10 percent more than nonjury member writers.
''Some jury members can definitely be bought,'' rails author Genvieve Dormann. ''It's time to bring it out in the open.''
Others complain that the prize system crowns publishing houses, not authors, and to such an extent that some authors refuse to publish their new book with the previous year's winning house. In 1974 Rene Mauries was ready to sign with Grasset when a friend advised him, ''Don't be a fool. They won the Interallie three years in a row. Pick another house, and you're a sure winner.''
He did - and he won.
Why all the fuss? A Goncourt may only be worth a meager 50 francs ($10.50) in prize money, the same amount given to the first recipient in 1903, but it brings up to $300,000 in additional sales. An author can expect to earn about 10 percent of this sum. At first the Goncourt was meant to launch a young writer's career. But this year's winner, Marguerite Duras, is the oldest ever at 70 and a long-established cult figure in elite Left Bank literary circles.
Still, the Goncourt should help solidify her public reputation. ''L'amant,'' her first major commercial success, has sold more than 400,000 copies since its September release, making it the best-selling Goncourt ever.
''The Goncourt will help ''L'amant'' attract readers of all social and economic categories,'' says Mr. Lindon. ''Bookstore owners tell us that it's being bought by people who have never read a work of literature before.''
For Lindon, that's the point of prizes.
''If they incite people to give books as Christmas presents, instead of the traditional box of chocolates, then they have done their job,'' he continues.
Despite this positive result, the prize system has come under heavy criticism in recent years. ''Les Intellocrats,'' an irreverent foray into France's intellectual scene by Herve Hamon and Patrick Rotman, argued convincingly that the prize system has long thrived on conflict of interest.
The juries, they wrote, are fundamentally corrupt, for they are made up of established writers who are connected with one or more publishing houses, either as editors or authors, and often both. The book was published three years ago, and to date, no one has disproved its findings.
Needless to say, the best-selling ''Intellocrats'' has won no awards.