Ironically, no one understood this better than the 1954 Prix Goncourt winner Simone de Beauvoir, who five years before her prize-winning novel The Mandarins had published The Second Sex, a comprehensive and distinctly uncomfortable critique of the modern female condition. The tendency to view the male as the default category, and the female as the “other,” she argued, has implications in society at large, in terms of how women are perceived, and also in women’s own minds, in terms of how they perceive themselves. “The advantage man enjoys,” she wrote, “which makes itself felt from his childhood, is that his vocation as a human being in no way runs counter to his destiny as a male. … He is not divided.” This is not true for women, de Beauvoir argued, who to fulfill the requirements of femininity must play the passive object, the prey, and whose gender realization is thus at odds with both professional realization and personal agency. Furthermore, with the constant burden of “prov[ing] herself” to a world that doubts her, a woman is never allowed the luxury of forgetting herself, which brings “ease, dash, [and] audacity” in self-expression.
As is probably evident by now, Simone de Beauvoir thought female writers were particularly weighed down by this social-psychological burden, and went into depressing detail about how she thought this might affect the quality of their creative work.
Why does this matter? In any discussion of literary achievement, it is impossible to escape the argument that, if women have received fewer literary prizes, it might actually reflect merit, not prejudice on the part of the jurors. As a character in Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing insists while defending the superiority of his writing to a pseudo-leftist drama written by his lover’s prisoner protégé, a certain string of words “isn’t better because someone says it’s better,” or because there’s a “conspiracy” to keep certain people out of literature. Rather, “It’s better because it’s better.” It’s more effective at getting the idea across. It carries more emotional weight.
The idea of good writing as an objective truth has instinctive appeal—and in Stoppard’s play, the character espousing this viewpoint comes out of the debate ahead, until his lover starts reading his embarrassing sci-fi screenplay aloud. Hints of this sort of view were present in V.S. Naipaul’s provocative—or laughable—declaration in 2011 that he considered no pen-wielding female, including Jane Austen, his equal.
But even if “it’s better because it’s better” is a compelling ideal and a valid explanation for choosing one novel over another, de Beauvoir’s writings show it’s a fundamentally uninteresting response to the question posed by the Prix Goncourt’s gender gap. Even if one assumes gender parity among jurors (which there isn’t: the 10-person Académie includes only three women), no subconscious prejudicial response to female author names (unlikely, according to recent social-science research), and gender-neutral dynamics in the publishing world (similarly doubtful), the conclusion that women have been writing qualitatively different works than men in French hardly lets francophone society off the hook. Why is that the case? And why is that less the case in the United Kingdom?
Simone de Beauvoir did believe in certain natural differences between the sexes, along with historical, artificial ones. But she didn’t believe in innate gender disparities in the capacity for genius. That the Prix Goncourt’s track record suggests a different view should probably trouble its custodians more than it currently seems to.