By Dennis Abrams
At the New Statesman, Leo Robson examined the Goldsmiths and Folio Awards and how they are “changing the literary landscape.”
“The Booker Prize, first awarded in 1969 and sponsored by the Man Group since 2002, is under fire and eager to respond. Two new prizes for fiction in English have been established in recent years, with the aim not of stealing the Booker’s throne but of excelling where the Booker has failed. Or where the Booker excelled but the Man Booker has failed. The Folio Prize was launched with a view to setting a ‘standard of excellence’; the Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman, seeks to ‘reward fiction that breaks the mould’. The implication behind these rubrics is that the Man Booker would be unlikely to recognise a great but unfriendly book such as V S Naipaul’s In a Free State (the 1971 winner) or a modernist work such as John Berger’s G (1972).”
So in reaction, Robson says, the Booker administrators have “engineered a return to seriousness,” in part by selecting people such as Sir Peter Stothard (editor of the TLS), Robert Macfarlane (Cambridge academic) and A C Grayling (philosopher and former Book judge) as of judges instead of the previous politicians and broadcasters. They have also extended the reach of the war beyond the Commonwealth (although, as he points out, they still don’t allow short stories, “which gives the Folio the edge. Its first winner, George Saunder’s Tenth of December, might be seen as eclipsing the work of just about any English-writing novelist.”)
But at the same time though, they “distanced itself from the Goldsmiths Prize through a change to the submissions policy.” He writes:
“In the past, each publisher has been allowed two entries, not including writers who have previously made the shortlist; now publishers are accorded submissions based on their recent Man Booker record – the more longlist titles you’ve had over the past five years, the more submissions you are allowed. (The maximum is four, and the exceptions still apply.) So while things have now improved for Saunders, an American published by Bloomsbury, they would have been even harder for the first winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, Eimear McBride, and the runners-up Philip Terry and Lars Iyer, whose small publishers – Galley Beggar, Reality Street, Melville House – lost one of their submissions under the new system.”
Robson also noted that while Man Booker doesn’t specify exactly the kind of novel it does want to reward, “it’s allegiances are clearly different from those of the Goldsmiths.” Case in point: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which went through countless rejections before being published by Galley Beggar, was submitted for last year’s Man Booker but failed to make the long list. But, after winning the Goldsmiths last year, the book also won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction and went on to become a bestseller. Robson writes, “One of the virtues already displayed by the Goldsmiths Prize is that rather than hiving off “novel” fiction, it has potentially wide appeal (though Adam Mars-Jones’s long review in the London Review of Books, which ended with a forward glance to a time “when this little book is famous”, also played a part).
He concludes by looking at this year’s Man Booker shortlist:
“It is clear that of the two qualities emphasised by the new prizes, the Man Booker seems keener to be associated with excellence than mould-breaking. But then the troubles of 2011 related to judges liking books that were “readable”, not conventional, so the Man Booker response was not to encourage the unconventional, but to show a renewed dedication to the ‘literary’, a designation that, before the Folio and Goldsmiths came along, helpfully distinguished the Man Booker from the Costa, which rewards the ‘most enjoyable’ books of the year. A C Grayling, speaking at this year’s press conference, used the term ‘literary fiction’ repeatedly. It’s a tag that, for all its vagueness, one could confidently apply to all six of the shortlisted books, half of which – Jacobson’s J, Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – belong to a recognised ‘literary’ genre: dystopian fantasy, family saga, war-torn romance. Of the others, two are accomplished American novels that employ a familiar mode in approaching unusual subject matter – Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, about a dentist on a spiritual quest, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, in which a woman recalls her part in a bizarre scientific experiment.
“And then there is the strange case of Ali Smith, who would make as plausible a winner of the Man Booker – or the Folio – as of the Goldsmiths and the Costa – or the Baileys. But that’s more a reflection on Smith’s writing than on the validity of these prizes, which are doing an effective job of covering an ever larger, chaotic and fractured landscape.”
The Man Booker Award winner will be announced on Tuesday, October 14th.
Read all of Robson’s piece here.