Literary prizes and immortality – update!

We have previously written about whether winning a literary prize (even a major one) guarantees an author’s literary legacy. In that post we looked at two authors who won major prizes in France in 1913, and evaluated their legacy in terms of the University Library’s holdings.

We have since purchased two new books that tackle this same question, although the books don’t approach the subject from the point of view of a library’s collection development policy. These books ask about the importance of literary prizes as well as the importance of those who have won them: are they historically important? Is there cultural or literary value to studying those who won major prizes many years ago?

La littérature à quel(s) prix? : histoire des prix littéraires / Sylvie Ducas

La littérature, à quel(s) prix? / Sylvie Ducas

La littérature, à quel(s) prix? / Sylvie Ducas

This book covers what one reviewer calls the ‘long 20th century’, since the foundation of Prix Goncourt in 1903. Ducas considers the emergence of the ‘best-seller’ along with the development of new prizes for new forms of literature and modern culture: bandes dessinées, fantasy, crime fiction, juvenile fiction, translation, foreign literature and other genres. These prizes have an important impact not just on literature and bookselling, but also on larger culture. It is this reflection of culture that the University Library hopes to capture and preserve with our collecting of literary prize-winners.

In a review of this book, Pamela A. Genova succinctly summarises the importance that Ducas assigns to the Prix Goncourt, saying that it “…remains important in France because it is inextricably bound up in the nation’s cultural identity; it serves as a significant rite of passage for practitioners of literary art” (Rewarding the production of culture: Le Prix Goncourt, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 18:2, 150-157, 2014).

An interesting interview with the author is available here:

Francis de Miomandre : un Goncourt oublié : biographie / Remi Rousselot ; préface de Jean Chalon ; avant-propos de Philippe de Miomandre.

Francis de Miomandre (image courtesy of Service Littéraire)

Francis de Miomandre (image courtesy of Service Littéraire)

In our earlier blog post, we discussed the case of Camille Marbo, the winner of the Prix Femina in 1913. This biography of Francis de Miomandre (Prix Goncourt, 1908) discusses the life of the author, translator (he made the first French translations of some important Hispanic texts), and friend of great literary figures of the time (such as Breton, Gide and Larbaud). The author’s case is that while Francis de Miomandre is almost forgotten today, his life and writing can shed an important light on the social life and culture of the literary world in which he lived.

Although Rousselot considers Francis de Miomandre to be forgotten today, the UL has 24 works by him. We collected his books quite actively while he was alive. Even though he’d won the Prix Goncourt in 1908 for Écrit sur de l’eau (738:45.d.90.522), the UL has books that he published as late as 1954 (and one published in 1985), and we collected fairly consistently the books that he published in the inter- and post-war years. However, while the UL obviously collected his works fairly actively (and due to our policy not to discard books, the Library maintains this collection), a brief search on the LibrarySearch catalogue across all libraries of the University immediately indicates that these are the only books by him in the University. A similar result is revealed in a search on COPAC— across the UK, the British Library, Oxford and Cambridge have collections of his work, while only a few other libraries have anything. This is a clear demonstration of how completely an active and prolific author has entirely dropped off the academic radar—there is obviously little demand for any of his books in support of teaching or study throughout the University.

Taken together, these two books indicate one of the strengths of our collecting policy. In many cases, a literary figure will not just disappear from the collective consciousness and from teaching syllabi, but also from library shelves. However, In the case of the University Library, our collection of these works is maintained in perpetuity, which allows those who would be interested in these works for historical or cultural reasons to find them. Of course, from the point of view of a library, this can cause some problems (namely, the ever-increasing amount of space required for our collections), but providing access to this material makes it worthwhile.

Josh Hutchinson

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