Just yesterday, Didier Decoin, the president of Goncourt, told us how proud he was of his first list. He will have had a few hours of respite ahead of him, before the first controversy of the start of the school year. At 4 p.m., the same day, Nicolas Mathieu, Goncourt 2018, published a post on his Instagram account reproaching the author Kevin Lambert, present in the first selection of the prestigious prize, for having boasted of having worked with a sensitivity reader.
First, let’s remember that a sensitivity reader or “editorial deminer” is responsible for “defusing any word or sentence, or even entire scenes, which could pose a problem for readers from minorities. Words or phrases conveying racist, homophobic, handiphobic, grossophobic stereotypes”. In a way, it is a question of censoring the word of an author.
It is very rare in the French editorial world for authors to say they have called on one of these indignation professionals. However, two days ago, Le Nouvel Attila, editor of Kevin Lambert, explained on his Instagram account that the said author "worked with a sensitive reader to once again stick to reality as closely as possible, to be as fair as possible ". The interested party then indicated: “Chloé Savoie-Bernard, an extraordinary poet and professor of literature, of Quebec and Haitian origin, contributed to the edition of the book. I wanted to have his point of view, particularly for the character of Pierre-Moïse, director of Ateliers C/W, also of Haitian origin. Even if I also do research on stereotypes linked to minoritized characters in fiction, I don't have the compass in my eye and I can always be wrong. Chloe made sure that I didn't say too much nonsense, that I didn't fall into certain traps of the representation of black people by white authors. She also helped me to support this character, to deepen it, to make it more complex. Sensitive reading, contrary to what reactionaries say, is not censorship. It amplifies the freedom of writing and the richness of the text. There is no doubt about this for me and I intend to work in this way for all my next novels.
Across the Atlantic, as we know, we are now afraid of "fat", "ugly", "Jews" and "beautiful white teeth" (see our articles on the censorship of works by Roald Dahl, Ian Flaming, Agatha Christie) and the practice has become common, if not banal. But in France, if it is not accepted, it is above all taboo. But now a door has opened. And Nicolas Mathieu stepped in.
The writer, winner of the 2018 Goncourt Prize, is known for his outspokenness on Instagram. It is in this sense that he published a corrosive message yesterday. Let us read instead: “The space of expression that we enjoy today is not a given, a state of affairs, a permanence. It is a conquest and an immense progress, our legacy and the result of at least two centuries of aesthetic and political battle. It goes without saying that it is necessary, when treating a suet, with caution and vigilance. The power to say everything (or almost everything) requires not doing it willy-nilly. An author, an author, has moral responsibilities, regarding his or her point of view, in relation to the way in which he or she treats the characters of the situations, the story, his protagonists, especially when the latter have been eclipsed, ignored , mistreated by an entire civilization. Indeed, we do not write lightly. And you can, despite your scruples, editors who follow one another on a manuscript, friends who reread you, make a mistake. Readers then do not hesitate to say it, and others, above all, can then write other texts, other books, which by their truth, their clairvoyance, will put yours to shame. It’s the game, that of the balance of power in the artistic field. But making professionals in sensitivities, experts in stereotypes, specialists in what is accepted and dared at a given moment the compass of our work, that leaves us circumspect, to say the least. Brag about it, that's amusing at best, pitiful indeed. Let us discredit with one word those who think that literature has nothing to do with these customs of a new genre, and to imply that they are playing into the hands of current oppressions, that is quite simply rubbish. . This type of outing is heartbreaking as much for its self-satisfaction as for its intellectual dishonesty. And what about authors who gloat about being so in tune with the spirit of their time? Writers, writers, we have to work, and take our risk, without guardianship or police. That's the least we can do."
It has become almost a ritual, from the first Goncourt list, to see controversies break out. Let us remember last year the unkind declarations of Tahar Ben Jelloun about Brigitte Giraud who had just won the Goncourt prize and of Camille Laurens, the year before, who had in an article blunted one of the authors of the Goncourt selection. We know how much the Goncourt jury hates controversies, will this cost Kevin Lambert his place? Response on October 3, the day of the second selection for the Goncourt Prize.