Background - 21.11.2023 - 13:30 

Choix Goncourt de la Suisse: HSG students take part in France's most important literary competition

Few countries are as successful in promoting contemporary literature as France. Using the case study of the Swiss version of the renowned book prize "Choix Goncourt de la Suisse", HSG students learned how the strings are pulled in the literary business.
[Translate to English:] HSG-Studierende lernten am Fallbeispiel der Schweizer Version des renommierten Buchpreises, «Choix Goncourt de la Suisse», wie im Literaturbetrieb die Fäden gezogen werden.

"I want our students to be curious and passionate about reading contemporary literature. It was therefore very important to me that HSG students should participate in the Choix Goncourt de la Suisse and that I should develop a course that would enable participants to immerse themselves in a book and grow personally from reading it," says Prof. Dr. Anna Elsner, HSG Professor of French Literature with a specialisation in Medical Humanities. In the spirit of one of her favourite writers, Marcel Proust, who won the Prix Goncourt in 1919, students in the newly designed course at HSG experience literature as a "mirror of the soul". They learn a lot about contemporary works in French. They also learn a great deal about themselves through the evaluation criteria, and they engage with a selection of students from 35 other countries and cultures.

The idea behind the prize: History of the Prix Goncourt

A brief history: The Prix Goncourt has been awarded every November since 1903 by the Académie Goncourt, founded in 1900, to the best work of fiction published in French during the current year. It is the most important event in the "rentrée littéraire", the publication of new works from mid-August. Although only worth a symbolic 10 euros, the Prix Goncourt is highly coveted by authors because it has a strong influence on the sales of a work. The prize, which is awarded in Paris, is named after the writers and brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. The jury is made up of ten writers. As well as novels, there are also Goncourt Prizes for poetry, first novels, short stories and biographies. In 1998, students from Poland launched the idea of reading the "Goncourt list" at universities and forming a jury themselves. Since then, students from more and more countries have submitted their selections to the Académie Goncourt. 

The student jury with the French Ambassador Marion Paradas and the President of the Académie Goncourt, Didier Decoin.

Space for self-reflection and insight into the literary business

Students from seven universities are taking part in the "Choix Goncourt de la Suisse 2023" – including, for the first time, HSG. In a course specially designed for the literary competition, nine students read all 16 books on the first Goncourt 2023 list together, analysed the works and learned how to defend their favourites convincingly. Two délibérations gave them the opportunity to discuss their choices with other students. Anna Elsner is delighted to be able to share her enthusiasm for reading with students at the University of St.Gallen, the city of books. "Contemporary literature in particular can open up completely new perspectives for young people and creates space for self-reflection. Who am I, what path do I want to take, how can I be of service to society? Novels ask all these questions. It's important to give the opportunity to systematically engage with literature and cultural promotion in a course". 

Flipped classroom: standing up for personal values and beliefs

Anna Elsner's colleague Dr Reto Zöllner teaches the course. The small group of nine students was ideal for immersing themselves in the subject of Romanticism and focusing on the personalities of the course participants. "We were guided by the idea of the flipped classroom: The focus was on the students themselves and their development." The HSG lecturer quickly taught the business students how to use the tools of solid literary analysis, familiarised them with the trends on the French book market and honed their jury skills par excellence: rhetoric and argumentation. "The more personal a plea for a work, the more convincing it is." 

“It was great to see the students defend a literary work and stand up for their personal values and convictions.”
Anna Elsner, Professor of French Literature at HSG

Reto Zöllner liked how quickly the students familiarised themselves with the tasks of a literary jury in the four-hour block seminars. "It is not easy to define the decisive criteria for selecting a work, as so many factors come into play: The originality of the work; the theme that a work can use to start a discussion; the role of the publisher in the book market – all these need to be examined closely in order to make a solid selection," says the teacher. 

“I found it exciting that HSG students brought completely new perspectives to the selection of criteria, thus enriching the argumentation and critical examination of the novels listed in Switzerland.”
Reto Zöllner, lecturer at HSG

Curiosity aroused for the literary world

One of the course participants is Léo Ferrand. He took part in the first Délibération. The selection of five books from the entire 16, in Zurich. The course enabled him to deepen his knowledge of the book industry and exchange ideas with other literature-loving students. "What I found great about the jury's work was that a book prize is able to set topics and encourage people to read more literary works." Léo Ferrand was impressed by the variety of viewpoints that were discussed at the meetings with other students from all over Switzerland – a reflection of the pluralistic academic landscape. He also liked the collaboration with the French embassy in Bern: "We felt supported, but at the same time very free in shaping the decision-making process within the jury." His conclusion: "The jury work made me want to work in the literary world later on. I like the idea that a publisher can create encounters between a book and a readership; that it is able to disregard the constraints of the market in order to disseminate sophisticated or highly original texts."

Vision: Bringing the Choix Goncourt de la Suisse to the book city of St.Gallen

France is strongly committed to contemporary literature. "The Prix Goncourt is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Europe. Anyone who is allowed to look behind the scenes here also learns a lot about new business models in the literary industry and the promotion of culture," says Reto Zöllner. His favourite work in this year's selection is Antoine Sénanque's "Croix de cendre". Anna Elsner is enthusiastic about "Proust, Roman familial" by Laure Murat. And Léo Ferrand's favourite is "L'Échi-quier" by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. What they all have in common is a vision for the Choix Goncourt de la Suisse: "It would be great if we could bring the award ceremony to the heart of the book city of St.Gallen and to the St.Gallen Abbey Library. I would also like to give reading enthusiasts the opportunity to discuss the award-winning works with students and lecturers. The Choix Goncourt de la Suisse project at HSG still has a lot of potential for development," says Anna Elsner.

Award ceremony in Berne

At 6.50 p.m. on 21 November, the Choix Goncour de la Suisse was announced at the French Embassy in Berne: the first prize went to "Triste tigre" by Neige Sinno, winner of the Prix Femina and the favourite of the HSG delegation. Ambassador Marion Paradas and the President of the Académie Goncourt, Didier Decoin, attended the traditional award ceremony in Bern. In her third novel, "Triste tigre", author Neige Sinno tackles a universal and painful subject with rare sensitivity and power: Incest. With her autobiographical narrative, Sinno not only tells her own story, but also widens the dialogue on sexual assault, an issue that transcends gender and borders. The student jury praised the author's courage in tackling this difficult subject. One of Reto Zöllner's students, Henry Plitt, explained the selection by saying: "We think Sinno's work stands out. Her text struck us as fundamentally innovative in that it manages to accurately describe contradiction and fear, while at the same time overcoming the horror".

List of the Choix Goncourt de la Suisse 2023: 
Choix Goncourt de la Suisse 2023 – Chaire de littérature et culture française | ETH Zurich