France s annual book prize season was launched Thursday, a two-week whirl of media buzz and wining-and-dining for the literary elite of the country that first came up with the idea of a best novel.
The first of the half-dozen prizes religiously awaited each year by publishers looking for a sales boost, is a Grand Prix awarded by the Academie Francaise, the almost four-century-old watchdog of the French language.
It went to a novel titled Les onze (The Eleven) about an oil at the Louvre museum featuring French Revolution leaders that was written by Pierre Michon.
The most prestigious award however will be Monday s Goncourt, a prize dating back to 1903 which comes with a pittance of only ?10 but is a literary feather in the cap for France s distinguished company of authors and publishing houses.
Last year it went to Afghan writer and refugee Atiq Rahimi s The Patience Stone , and in 2006 to Jonathan Littell, an American who writes in French, for The Kindly Ones , an epic tale of wartime Europe seen through the eyes of an unrepentant Nazi officer.
This year s hot tip to take home the Goncourt is French-Senegalese writer Marie NDiaye for a three-part stream of consciousness tale weaving the stories of three women whose lives straddle Africa and its former colonial rulers.
If her Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Powerful Women) wins, the 42-year-old will be the first Goncourt woman laureate of the last decade.
In these cost-cutting times, the publishing business like most industries is cautious, and writers favored for this year s awards are all seasoned authors with prizes and best-sellers already under their belts.
NDiaye for one has already won the Femina, among other awards to be announced early November.
In food-loving France, the results of the Goncourt and Renaudot prizes will be thrashed out over lunch at the Drouant restaurant by a panel of literary types and announced in the establishment s media-packed lobby.
Though the Goncourt was the world s first such book prize and continues to curry favor at home, it is probably one of the globe s tiniest in cash terms.
Followed up by Columbia University s Pulitzers in 1917, which carry a prize of $5,000 dollars (?3,300), the French prize is dwarfed by Spain s Planeta, the globe s biggest award that was created in 1952 worth ?601,000.
But it lacks the prestige of Spain s other book award, the Cervantes, viewed as the Spanish language s Nobel award and worth ?125,000. Cervantes laureates include Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Luis Borges.;
Most sought after on the English front is undoubtedly the Man Booker Prize, created in 1969 and worth £50,000 ($80,000 dollars, ?54,000).
This year s winner was Britain s Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall, a historical novel about King Henry VIII s advisor Thomas Cromwell.
The 2008 winner was India s Aravind Adiga for his debut novel The White Tiger , which has sold more than half a million copies and been translated into 30 languages.