By Dennis Abrams
It’s been almost a year since we covered the announcement of The Folio Prize; a £40,000 prize created to both recognize and celebrate the best English-language fiction from anywhere in the world, published in the United Kingdom in any given year regardless of form, genre, or the author’s country of origin. And this week, the inaugural shortlist was announced.
The eight books vying for this year’s prize are:
- Red Doc by Anne Carson (Random House/Jonathan Cape)
- Schroder by Amity Gaige (Faber & Faber)
- Last Friends by Jane Gardam (Little, Brown)
- Benediction by Kent Haruf (Picador)
- The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (Random House/Harvill Secker)
- A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press)
- A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (Maclehose Editions)
- Tenth of December by George Saunders (Bloomsbury)
Announcing the short list, Lavinia Greenlaw, Chair of the judges said:
“From its inception, the emphasis of the Folio Prize has been on the relationship between good writing and good reading. The Prize makes an unapologetic assertion about the value of experience and expertise, and the high expectations that come from spending much of your live investigating and testing language and form.
I was delighted, and also daunted, to be asked to chair the Inaugural Prize. I knew none of my fellow judges [Michael Chabon, Sarah Hall, Nam Le and Pankaj Mishra] before we started and yet as soon as we started it became clear that we could proceed with the confidence and understanding of those who have worked together for years.
Our experience of reading 80 books over five months was full of surprises, challenges, frustrations, provocations, regrets and delights. The short list we’ve arrived at is one of which we’re proud. Our deliberations were long and intense. We forgot about the authors and focused on the books. Only when we surfaced with our chosen eight in hand did we reflect on what they collectively represent: the art of fiction at full stretch and in all its forms, and the ingenious and dazzling result of form under exquisite pressure.
Our final choice will be extremely difficult. Each one of these eight titles would be a worthy winner of a prize dedicated to celebrating the best of fiction as it is now being written.”
At The Telegraph, Gaby Wood reflected on what the inaugural list means:
“Much will be made of the fact that five of the eight authors shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize are American. The others — Jane Gardam, Eimear McBride and Anne Carson — are British, British and Canadian respectively. The reason for the attention to nationality is that the Folio Prize is open to all authors writing fiction in English and publishing in the UK, and has thus paved the way for this year’s Man Booker, which has changed its remit to reflect something similar. Are British authors being squeezed out, people will wonder? In response, the prize’s founder Andrew Kidd said on Monday morning that it would have been ‘perverse to launch a prize that was anything other than borderless.’”
But, as she points out, making conclusions based just on nationality is misleading.
“The far more striking aspect of the list is the staggering variety of forms it celebrates. That Anne Carson, a poet, should be shortlisted for Red Doc, a novel in verse, or that George Saunders should be included for his virtuosic and unsettling book of stores, Tenth of December, automatically makes this list different from that of any other prize we have in this country. Last year, the Goldsmiths Prize was founded to reward ‘creative daring’ in fiction. When Eimear McBride won it for her novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, recently described as ‘Joyce for the 21st century,’ this was taken to be proof that the Goldsmiths Prize was needed — in other words, that it was the sort of book that wouldn’t ordinarily win prizes. Yet here it is again, on the Folio Prize shortlist.
That form over origin is the message of this list is proven by a very particular irony. When people began to fear that, once the literary gates were opened, Americans would come and trample all over us, these were definitely not the Americans we were expecting. Where is Donna Tartt, with her vast canvas in the long-awaited The Goldfinch? Where is Dave Eggers, with his Orwellian evocation of the internet age, The Circle? The US is thought to be full of heavyweight novelists. Where is our Jonathan Franzen? Brits wail, How can we compete? But Anne Carson is not Franzen.
And frankly, they’re not the Brits that we were expecting either. If you were to choose one novel to pit against The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner’s much-hyped portrait of the Seventies art world, would it be the last novel in Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, Last Friends — about the consolations of old age, written by an 85-year old? Probably not. But then, to hear the Chair of the judges, Lavinia Greenlaw tell it, that unexpectedness was part of the pleasure: ‘These books are utterly unlike each other.’”
The award will be presented on March 10, at the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. The two days prior to the ward will see The Folio Prize Fiction Festival, done in partnership with the British Library. The Festival, which will take place at the British Library, will feature The Folio Prize judges, shortlisted authors, and members of the Academy. The program is organized around the five elements that lie at the heart of great fiction and our appreciation of it: Form, Voice, Structure, Place and Context. The judges and their fellow academicians, including A.S. Byatt, Sebastian Faulks, Mark Haddon, Andrew O’Hagan and Ali Smith, will explore how each element is an essential part of any book that stimulates and stays with us.