16 Aug 2012

57 The Paris Literary Prize

This week Terry Craven of the Paris Literary Prize tells us about the inception of this distinctive award for unpublished fiction

The Paris Literary Prize was born when our friends Charles and Clydette de Groot from The de Groot Foundation – a grant-making foundation and supporter of both the International Fine Art Photography Award and Festivalandco (our bi-annual literary festival in front of Notre-Dame) – came to us at Shakespeare and Company with a proposal for a literary prize, eligible to unpublished writers only, recognizing that ill-heralded form, the novella. The idea being so in tune with the bookstore's philosophy, we immediately leapt at the opportunity.

Shakespeare and Company began when George Whitman (1913–2011) took the recommendation of his friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti that he stop selling books from ill-suited locations – by the late 1940s, his pokey windowless hotel room on boulevard Saint-Michel – and found an actual bookshop.  Given George's nature, however, this was never destined to be a straightforward affair.  As a self-proclaimed “tumbleweed” – ex-hobo and traveller, blowing from place to place and sheltered by the grace of the strangers he met – he founded his store upon the principle of opening up one's doors to strangers, of not simply selling fiction but engendering it also: “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel,” George once stated.  Shakespeare and Company’s founder was known as the “Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter” and his dreams, whilst sometimes reaching beyond the credible – the apotheosis was perhaps the request he put to Mikhail Gorbachev for a USSR ship to be used as a “floating university” – found very concrete expression at 37 rue de la Bûcherie.

Today, the shop continues to house almost a hundred young writers a year; they are given board in exchange for a little help in the store, and all attempt to fulfill George's old imperative: READ A BOOK A DAY.  (The task becomes easier, of course, should that book be a novella!)  All in all, the idea of launching a prize for unpublished writers seemed perfectly natural, offering the opportunity for new voices to emerge. The texts are read “blinded”, with the names of authors revealed to readers only after the three winners, first place and two runners-up, are decided. The outright winner receives, aside from the helpful sum of €10,000 prize, the opportunity to meet ex-Harvill Secker editor and member of this year's jury, Rebecca Carter. But we're not simply interested in finding new authors and sending them off into the world – slap the back, tickle the chin: the Paris Literary Prize, just like Shakespeare and Company and the de Groot Foundation, is about building a community of writers. Last year's winner, Rosa Rankin-Gee, recently founded an instantly successful literary magazine, A Tale of Three Cities, and runner-up Adam Biles is soon to have Grey Cats, his prize-winning 2011 entry, published by 3:AM Press. In 2011, we worked with the industry's greatest proponent of the genre, Melville House, who brought their decade of experience to bear in helping us launch the prize.

Turning to the novella, then, it also seems fitting that this particular genre should be the focus of our prize.  For too long the ugly duckling of publishing, the novella has been marginalized for being, as the luminary Stephen King puts it, “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic” without the pulling power of its Titan-esque brother, the novel.  It seems odd that this should be the case in an era when time so easily slips between one's fingers.  That one hundred or so perfectly formed pages of narrative, including such gems as Heart of DarknessThe Turn of the Screw, The Outsider and Animal Farm, should be reputed unsaleable is absurd to us at the Paris Literary Prize. Given the excellent feedback we've received, it seems many readers and writers agree.

The deadline for submissions is 1 September 2012, with an extended deadline of 15 September. For more information, visit the Paris Literary Prize website.