November 8, 2011

The Goncourt Prize: Should fiction and politics mix?


Congratulations to Alexis Jenni, winner last week of the Prix Goncourt for his debut novel L’Art francais de la guerre (The French Art of War), a 600-page novel about France’s military history in Indochina, Algeria and at home. There’s been some really interesting commentary in France in the wake of the prize announcement, about history and politics and their place in fiction. That’s something that’s close to our hearts at Melville House — our first ever title, after all, was a response in poetry to the 9/11 attacks, and since then we’ve published everything from leftist political pamphlets and reportage to new fiction and, perhaps most famously, rediscovered classics of anti-war fiction. Naturally, then, Goncourt judge Tahar Ben Jelloun‘s comments in Le Figaro struck a chord:

It’s important to exorcise the unpleasant parts of history through literature, and not through political discourse, which doesn’t help at all. Thanks to fiction, we can probe deep into these problems and touch people’s consciences and hearts.

Jean Birnbaum in Le Monde echoed that sentiment, praising the book for verbalising the subconscious feelings of a generation. If his parents’ generation, he says, were the children of the Algerian war, he and his peers are its grandchildren, and, unlike their parents, until Jenni’s novel was published they had no literature to help them to process their country’s recent military past on their own terms. L’Art francais de la guerre, Birnbaum says, has confronted that ambivalence and made honest debate possible. That’s a powerful claim and a wonderful recommendation.

It’s often said that literature has no place treating politics; that writers compromise fiction’s true potential as art when they turn their attentions to the big affairs of the day. Isn’t it more likely, though, that a bad book is a bad book, whether it’s an anti-war novel, a political thriller or chick-lit? Done right, politicised fiction soars, as Jenni’s achievement shows. You might say that confronting ambivalence and making honest debate possible have been among our guiding principles over the last decade of publishing at Melville House, so we were particularly pleased to see this one win.

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.