It would not be fall in France without une polémique in its publishing industry. As the nominees for the country’s top literary prizes are unveiled, the pages of the French newspapers inevitably give way to heated debates about the worthiness (or not) of the latest crop of contenders for the Goncourt, Médicis, or Femina, and the politics surrounding the selection of the winners.
This season’s big debate comes courtesy of hotshot Quebec writer Kevin Lambert, who revealed in a Sept. 4 post on his French publisher’s Instagram page that he had submitted his latest novel to a “sensitivity reader” prior to publication to avoid “falling into certain traps in the depiction of Black characters by white authors.” The feedback from Queen’s University French Studies professor Chloé Savoie-Bernard, he explained, helped him flesh out a character of Haitian descent who is a secondary figure in his novel, Que notre joie demeure (May Our Joy Remain).
“Chloé made sure I didn’t say too many stupidities,” Mr. Lambert added. “Sensitivity reading, contrary to what the reactionaries say, is not censorship.”
As you would expect, Mr. Lambert’s post unleashed a flurry of reactions that only snowballed after Que notre joie demeure was included, the following day, on the list of 16 novels in line for this year’s Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious of French literary prizes that has only once in its 120-year history been awarded to a Canadian writer – Acadian Antonine Maillet won the prize in 1979 for Pélagie-la-Charrette. Last week, Mr. Lambert’s novel also made the long list for the Prix Médicis, confirming his sensation status in French literary circles. (Another Montreal writer, Éric Chacour, is nominated for the Prix Femina for his novel Ce que je sais de toi.)
“Making sensitivity professionals, stereotype experts and specialists of what is acceptable and what can be dared the compass of our work leaves us to say the least circumspect,” the winner of the 2018 Goncourt, Nicolas Mathieu, wrote in a scathing critique of Mr. Lambert’s post. “That one brags about it is at best amusing, in truth pitiable.”
Whether you agree or not, Mr. Lambert’s post shone a spotlight on a French publishing industry that has become increasingly risk-averse and fearful of offending the prevailing woke canons that many younger French readers live by. Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération and other leading newspapers have devoted articles to the édulcoration (sweetening or watering down) practice. “Thought police” is how one editor described sensitivity readers in Le Figaro. “They pass their texts through the sieve of an ideology to ensure it adheres to their worldview,” said another.
Mr. Lambert is representative of his generation’s preoccupation with identity politics and power imbalances in capitalist economies, and those subjects are dominant themes in his work. But his writing is anything but complacent or risk-averse. Que notre joie demeure is a scorching indictment of Montreal’s elite society that should make any reader gasp and squirm.
Perhaps not as much as his previous novel, Querelle de Roberval. That 2018 book is a raunchy look at the underbelly of a working-class town in Mr. Lambert’s native Saguenay region, beset by a bitter strike at the local sawmill and filled with wink-wink nods to gay literary icon Jean Genet. But in style and substance, his latest novel shows Mr. Lambert’s growth as a writer and political pot stirrer.
“A nuanced critique of the Quebec bourgeoisie,” is how Quebec Premier François Legault described Mr. Lambert’s novel in a July Facebook post. “Interest groups and journalists look for scapegoats in Montreal’s housing crisis. The difficulty of debates in our society.”
Mr. Lambert did not take the Premier’s review sitting down. “Mr. Legault, in the middle of a housing crisis, as your government works to sap the last ramparts that protect us from extreme gentrification in Montreal, highlighting my novel is pathetic of you,” he wrote. “You would have to read with your eyes closed not to see that the portrait of the city in my novel goes against the destructive anti-poor people, anti-immigrant, pro-owner, pro-rich policies of your government.”
Still, in a scene fitting of his novel, sales of Que notre joie demeure took off after Mr. Lambert’s exchange with Mr. Legault, proving that he is as much a product of the capitalist system that he thrashes in his work. His nomination for the Goncourt and Médicis should yield even bigger dividends, as his novel is placed on the front shelves of French bookstores in the weeks leading up to the ceremonies.
The shortlists for both prizes will be revealed next month, and the winners announced in early November. Should Mr. Lambert make the final cut, or even win, he could become (somewhat) rich overnight. So much fodder for a future novel.