Edmond de Goncourt, a wealthy writer, critic, and publisher, bequeathed his entire estate to the creation of the Académie Goncourt. John Antoine Nau received its first prize on December 21st, 1903, for Force ennemie (Enemy Force). Its cash-value (which once enabled a young writer to complete their second book) has never changed, and is today worth approximately €10. However, winners now become instant millionaires thanks to book sales exceeding €3 million within eight weeks of the award.
The Drouant restaurant in Paris has been the academy’s residence since 1914, a year in which no award was made (Adrien Bertrand received that year’s prize for L’Appel du Sol – The Call of the Soil – in 1916). Since 1920, its ten members – Les Dix – have met in the oval dining room on the first floor on the first Tuesday in November to make their decision. Their names are engraved on their cutlery, with new members inheriting the knife and fork of their predecessor.
Marcel Proust was an early subject of controversy when he won for A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Within a Budding Grove) in 1919 at the age of 48 – hardly the ‘young’ writer for which the prize was intended. Two years later, René Maran won with Batoualai, which had been banned due to its open criticism of European colonialism in Africa. In 1932, Guy Mazeline’s Les Loups (The Wolves) won over Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), the perceived travesty of which inspired Eugène Saccomano’s 1992 book Goncourt 32. Romain Gary is the only person to have won twice (a violation of the rules), first in 1956 for Les racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven) and then in 1975 under the pseudonym Émile Ajar for La vie devant soi (The Life Before Us), a fact revealed only after his death
There are four additional categories for short stories, biography, a life’s work in poetry, and a first novel.